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All Down the Line

MASON & DIXON.\o7 By Thomas Pynchon\f7 .\o7 Henry Holt: 773 pp., $27.50\f7

May 11, 1997|TED MOONEY | Ted Mooney is the author of "Easy Travel to Other Planets," "Traffic and Laughter" and the forthcoming "Singing Into the Piano," which will be published next year

What is history, what is civilization, what are the limits of our ability to know? It is Thomas Pynchon's great distinction in his four previous novels and now in the dizzying and encyclopedic "Mason & Dixon" to have repeatedly brought extra-literary rhetorics to bear on these, the most pressing questions literature can address. At different times, he has kidnapped to his cause the languages of tourism and prosthesis ("V.," 1963); Jacobean drama, philately and thermodynamics ("The Crying of Lot 49," 1966); rocketry, information theory, behavioral psychology, anthropology and chemical engineering ("Gravity's Rainbow," 1973); 1960s American counterculture ("Vineland," 1990); and cinema lore, psychopharmacology and popular song lyrics of all kinds.

This semantic acquisitiveness has not made for smooth development from book to book. The deliberately digressive sprawl of "V." can, at times, appear to be called into question by the near-mineral concision of "The Crying of Lot 49," which immediately followed it. Conversely, "Gravity's Rainbow" is so grandly architectural in structure that the comparatively artless "Vineland" almost seems to have been written by a different hand (as indeed some of Pynchon's more adamant fans insist it was). The cumulative effect, though, has been nothing if not enlivening. No one else now writing has done more to refresh the novel's means or, in so doing, put them to better purpose.

"Mason & Dixon," said to have been more than 20 years in the making, is a vast, indeed encompassing, meditation on the Enlightenment and its consequences, with Pynchon this time appropriating the syntax of 18th century astronomy and geodesy to structure and advance his tale. Like "Gravity's Rainbow," the book is quietly keyed to the Christian liturgical calendar, unfolding in a succession of afternoons from Advent to Epiphany, as the witty and avowedly unreliable Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke entertains his sister's children with reminiscences of his far-flung travels. It is through Cherrycoke, then, that we learn the story of British astronomer Charles Mason and his partner, surveyor Jeremiah Dixon, from their first meeting in 1761 to Mason's death 25 years later.

Structurally, as one character points out, this chronicle has the A-B-A form of that 18th century invention, the sandwich: a pair of astronomical observations with an extended survey expedition in between. Mason and Dixon meet in 1761 when the Royal Society appoints them to observe the much-anticipated Transit of Venus, a rare alignment of the Earth, sun and Venus that will for the first time make it possible to calculate the solar parallax and so, in turn, the exact distance from Earth to sun.

Although meant to make their "Obs" from Bencoolen, on the western coast of Sumatra, the pair have a run-in with a French frigate and are forced instead to settle for the Dutch colony at Cape Town. From there, Mason and Dixon make their way first to St. Helena, where Mason works with British astronomer Nevil Maskelyne collecting tidal data, then on to Philadelphia, Mount Vernon and, finally, the virgin forests of the Allegheny Mountains. There, they undertake the work for which they are now best known: laying out the Mason-Dixon Line that would separate Maryland and the rest of the slave-holding states from Pennsylvania and the abolitionist North. It is a complex project, made all the more difficult by the harshness of the American wilderness, and the two men spend four years in its service. Finally, they return to Britain, where the Second Transit to Venus (transits come in pairs) brings the cycle of their labors to a close in 1769.

Thus the rationalist bones of the tale, with Mason and Dixon methodically working to subdue nature in a grid of orthogonals and finely reckoned figures, the very picture of Enlightenment Europe's faith in reason, natural law and the moral perfectibility of man. As they triangulate their way across the heavens and Earth, however, reason quickly proves to be the least of it. Bursting from the interstices of the expedition's "official" account are alternative histories, parageographies, marginal sciences, cryptic systems and arcana so profuse that any talk of "the rule of right reason" soon seems hubris, pure and simple.

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