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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pynchon Surveys Old, New Territory

The Great Big Question in Thomas Pynchon's novels, from "V." (1963), through "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973) and "Vineland" (1990), has been: Is the world dominated by conspiracies or chaos? Are there patterns, secret agendas, mysterious codes -- in short, a hidden design -- to the turmoil of human existence, or is it all a product of chance? Are the paranoiacs onto something, or do the nihilists have the key to it all?

In Mason & Dixon, his long-awaited new novel and his most emotional and affecting work to date, Pynchon offers a variation on this favorite theme. This time, the overarching tension is between Enlightenment, rationalism and absurdist despair; between the orderly processes of science and the inexplicable marvels of nature, between our modern faith in progress and the violent, primeval realities of history.

The frame on which these ideas are threaded is the true story of Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779), the British surveyors who mapped out the boundary line between Pennsylvania and Maryland in pre-Revolutionary America, which would come to be known as the Mason-Dixon line dividing the North from the South. Needless to say, Pynchon does not adhere strictly to the historical facts, but uses them as a starting point for a rollicking, picaresque tale filled with songs, jokes, aphorisms and bad puns, a story populated by talking clocks, petulant automatons, oracles, ghosts, golems and a giant cheese, as well as a populous cast of humans with odd, Pynchonesque names.

Alternately dazzling and vexing, the novel tries to do many things simultaneously. Like "Gravity's Rainbow," it is an encyclopedic work, at once plotted and pilotless, which is calculated in its prolixity to immerse the reader in the confusions of the world. It is also a postmodern fiction that takes the form of an 18th-century novel, using Shandyesque digressions and tales within tales both to amplify the central story and to comment upon the art of storytelling itself. And like more conventional historical novels, it mixes fact and fiction to conjure up a vanished time and place.

In Pynchon's capable hands, Mason and Dixon become a great buddy act, reminiscent, by turns, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Tom and Huck, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Mason, an astronomer, is the melancholy one: dour, meditative and given to bad dreams, he is haunted by the death of his wife, Rebekah, and shy about talking to his sons. Dixon is the outgoing one: fond of women, drink and song, he has a "general Desire for anything, and on lucky Days everything."

Pynchon takes 200 pages to describe the pair's first assignment together -- a commission to measure celestial phenomena in Africa -- but it is not until Mason and Dixon actually set foot in the New World that the novel's central narrative picks up steam. Playful, erudite and funny, Pynchon depicts colonial America with the same sort of darkly comic energy that animated his portrait of pre-apocalyptic America in "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966). He shows us the noisy, roistering crowds that fill the streets of Philadelphia and New York as well as the awesome wilderness of the west. The America he has created in these pages is a sprawling frontier, but it is also an oddly intimate world in which everyone seems to know everyone else.

In the course of their peregrinations, Mason and Dixon meet George Washington (who, for some reason, is fond of talking in Yiddish); Thomas Jefferson (who supposedly lifts from Dixon the phrase "the pursuit of Happiness") and Benjamin Franklin (who comes across as a madcap skirt chaser). The other people the pair meet are decidedly more bizarre. They are, at once, tests of Mason and Dixon's faith in Reason and emblems of America's magnetic appeal to fugitives and dreamers, the lost and disenfranchised.

For Mason and Dixon, the completion of the Line is a quest similar to those embraced so obsessively by such earlier Pynchon characters as Oedipa Maas and Herbert Stencil. In mapping the uncharted continent, in measuring this "Realm of Doubt," they are, in effect, creating order out of disorder, narrative (or a narrative line, as it were) out of chaos.

In this novel, however, the Line also becomes a metaphor for the bloody settling of the frontier and all its attendant violence: the massacre of Indians, the buying and selling of slaves, the domestication of a wilderness of possibilities and its transformation into a numbing landscape of "Inns and Shops, Stables, Games of Skill, Theatrickals, Pleasure-Gardens ... a Promenade -- nay, Mall" -- in short, the sort of nightmarish modern America, menacing and malignant in its ordinariness and moral sloth, that appears in Pynchon's other novels.

Perhaps because "Mason & Dixon" is loosely based on historical figures, Pynchon's penchant for willful allegorizing is less noticeable in this volume, and his central characters possess an emotional amplitude missing in his earlier books. In the course of the novel Dixon, and Mason especially, become fully fleshed-out people, their feelings, hopes and yearnings made as palpably real as their outrageously comic high jinks. Certainly "Mason & Dixon" could have used some judicious editing; as it stands, its enormous bulk will prove daunting to many readers. Still, its flaws are exuberant flaws of excess, and the reader who perseveres will be amply rewarded. In fact, as the novel rumbles along, it gathers a cumulative momentum, its density and garrulity impressing upon the reader a sense of the arduousness of Mason and Dixon's journey and the long, aching curve of their lives.

"Mason & Dixon" is not simply the story of these two men's intertwined lives and their personal search for knowledge, it is also a hugely ambitious epic about America and the Age of Reason and the origins of modernity. The book testifies to Pynchon's remarkable powers of invention and his ability as a storyteller, a storyteller who this time demonstrates that he can write a novel that is as moving as it is cerebral, and as poignant as it is daring.

"Mason & Dixon" by Thomas Pynchon. Henry Holt & Company. 773 pages, $27.50.