Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon (Henry Holt and Co., 1997)
To settle an eighty year-old land dispute between the Penns and the Calverts, the Royal Society sent two men armed with the latest surveyors equipment to plot out a physical boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Arriving mid-November, 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon found themselves spending the next five years seeking to fulfill their royal obligations. Once they'd established the actual location of Philadelphia, and fixed the boundary between Delaware and Pennsylvania, they headed due west with a team of wagons, axemen, guides, cooks, and supplies, including huge limestone markers. Decorated with vertical fluting, a "P" on the north face, and an "M" on the south, these 300-600 pound limestone blocks were shipped from Great Britain and buried at one mile intervals marking a boundary line across most of the 233 miles surveyed by Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason.
As the book begins, we find the primary narrator, one Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, speaking to a young audience eager to hear the tale of Charles and Jeremiah's friendship, and just how they accomplished this incredible feat. Ample servings of high seas adventure, meditations on slavery, ghosts, ripped bodices, and plenty of dichotomies, oppositions and polarities follow.
Something of an embellisher, the Rev. Cherycoke plays with truth and fable in his story, building myth and moral lessons from the details of these two men's friendship. His tale of Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason comes from the time the Rev. spent with the team the two men took with them as they clear-cut their way due west through unforgiving terrain. As his youthful audience's attention wanes, the Rev. adds embellishments, changes his focus, adapting the tale to their attention span.
Through this fluctuating narrative voice, and the meta-story that it evokes, we see this tale as a story told, rather than a historical recreation, leaving Pynchon free to fill in with cunning detail the fiction of these two men and their eventual psychic influence on American social consciousness. Jeremiah Dixon, surveyor, observer, living in the now, and Charles Mason, astronomer, widower, a contemplative, introspective chronicler of the passing of events, become one facet of a subtext of polarization that explores the dichotomies of slave versus free, religious tolerance and moral superiority, between mania and melancholy, eastern and western philosophy, even lumberjack versus werebeaver. This book evokes the insanity of the early American colonies and the madness of kings, peers through the dense smoke of the coffeehouses and taverns to the cabals and oddities of modern science, from Ben Franklin's party tricks with electricity and unconventional musical solos, to the amorous, invisible robotic duck that haunts a neurotic French chef.
It is only rarely that we find a novel on the shelves in which the language itself has been painstakingly measured, line by line, to an exacting standard, as is the case with Mason & Dixon. The density of the language can at times become an almost incomprehensible barrier to the modern reader, as if this book were written some two hundred years ago. Yet the book has modern sensibilities, a knowing and nudging humor that leads the modern reader carefully through the first few chapters into the heart of the novel.
I found a number of similarities between Mason & Dixon and Pynchon's award-winning novel Gravity's Rainbow on the surface (there's a talking dog and a trip through the sewers in both works, for example), but those who've read Gravity's Rainbow will find Mason & Dixon to be a much more linear, more focused, and ultimately easier work to digest. Underscoring historical detail with cultural metaphor, even to the point of absurdism, is a hallmark of Pynchon's style, yet even at his most obtuse, Pynchon continues to amuse.
Mason & Dixon was a hard book to pick up, but an even harder one to put down, a book that lets you in, shows you around a world that once existed. To be honest, the thought of clear-cutting a straight line across over two hundred miles of unforgiving terrain in today's world sounds like an incredible amount of work. The fact that these two men traveled across the ocean, accomplished this task, and returned home to England well over two hundred years ago simply stupifies me, and were this book written solely on this task, I would have found it fascinating. Everything else, their tour of duty during the transit of Venus, the explorations of each men's psyche, the interruptions and moral lessons extracted by the Rev. Cherrycoke for his listener's edification, all add to the depth and realism.
If you are looking for a blow-by-blow historical account of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, this isn't quite the right book. On the other hand, if the archetypal influence on American culture of these two men and their entourage intrigues you, then by all means cut a straight line to the nearest bookstore and snatch up this tome. It is a long, challenging book, and I found myself turning to the Internet more than once in search of some arcane reference in the text. Happily, I found a a very extensive index lovingly organized by some Thomas Pynchon fans here, and an in-depth examination of some of the more esoteric aspects of the novel here.