If it takes all kinds to make a world, then American Thomas Pynchon has indeed created several magnificently realised fictional faites accomplis comprising all such sorts and sundry kinds (from Vineland, V, and The Crying of Lot 49 to the novel generally considered his masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow).
With the 30 April publication of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, every sundry sort of Pynchonesque academic and all preacheriferous zealots of various Pynchonian persuasions will, no doubt, find material enough to declaim, discourse, and debate — until the cows keel over — the maestro-work merits of the OneOf's current achievement.
Acuitive, sedulicant, and utterly ballicious, Mason & Dixon begins with a whimper and concludes with a bang.
. . . [W]hat we were doing out in that Country was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless, – we were putting a line straight through the heart of the Wilderness, eight yards wide and due west, in order to separate two Proprietorships, granted when the World was yet feudal and but eight years later to be nullifed by the War of Independence.
Of an Advent afternoon in 1786, narrator Revd Wicks Cherrycoke, a world-wise wanderer in exile, regrettably arriving too late for the funeral of his co-countryist and friend — English astronomer Charles Mason — nevertheless discovers a way to prolong his stay and avoid Philadelphia's wintiferous ravages by singing for his supper à la Scheherazade; thus, the semi-permanent guest of Wade LeSpark and his wife (née Cherrycoke), commences yet another saga of global range and epic scope in order to amuse the assembled brood (consisting of the LeSpark twins, Pitt and Pliny, and their sister, Tenebrae, alongside a transient parade of in-droppers on hand to celebrate Christ's birthdate).
An obliging and gabacious yarn spinner, the good Rev weaves an unimaginably gorgeous tapestry of a tale set in the latter half of the eighteenth century concerned primarily with "small numbers of people [who] go on telling much larger numbers what to do with their precious Lives" and, secondarily, with the individual trials, terrors, and triumphs of the aforementioned Mason and his boon Surveying companion, Jeremiah Dixon, between 1751 and 1779.
With a doff of its cap to such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Lowry's Under the Volcano, The Iliad and The Vanity of Human Wishes (Dr. Johnson), Pynchon's doughty duo first hits South Africa's Capetown and St. Helena in order to observe and calibrate the 1751 Transit of Venus before landing in America and turning its astronomical skills to terrestrial cartography, namely the painstaking task of determining the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland (which, by the stars, puts the house of one unhappily married couple in two states, a serendipitous blessing in the opinion of all concerned).
Automata (especially a defecating duck incapable of love and affection), Enigmata (Learnèd English Dogs, Listening Ears in formaldehyde, Golems, etc.), Stigmata, and Dogmata (of Quakers, Deists, Jesuits, Jacobites, Jews, Papists, Scientists, Slaves, and Savages, e.g.) dominate the three books consisting of 78 chapters neatly constituting the narrative of Mssrs. Mason and Dixon working The Line.
Of course, the chapters correlate with the major and minor arcana of the Tarot and, readers will discover, provide a splendiferous array of allusions, digressions, bloserocrities, diversions, lampoons, ditties, ridottoes, flights of fancy, amorous adventures, penitent prayers, jocularities, anachronisms, parodies, puns, tracts, political indictments, maniacal meanderments, "et soforthia."
Mason & Dixon's an inexpressibly moving work urgently addressing perhaps the only important issue confronting civilisation's mad dash towards the finishing line of closing time (which, as Pynchon suggests, does not exist except in artificially imposed human terms and measures).
Critical of the pragmatic economics espoused by the likes of Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Smith, Pynchon clearly favours the humanism of such as Carlyle, Voltaire, Emerson, et. al.
In this respect, the following snippet encapsulates Mason & Dixon's unswerving message:
The owners around the Golden Valley didn't think much of one another, — as if combin'd in a League, not for Trade, but for purposes of Envy, Spite, and Vendetta. Living in a Paradise, they chose to enact a Purgatory, where the new Mill-Money flowing in seem'd not to preserve the Equilibrium of Meanness and Stultification they all thought they'd reach'd, so much as to knock all lop-sided again.
Further, the writer's writer's use of a narrator's narrator includes a literary conundrum and a tentatively hopeful conclusion that admirers of the work of Sterne, Nabokov, Stevens, Richardson, cummings, Austen, Dickinson, Eliot, Blake, Swift, Smart, and Fielding (among myriad trailblazing others) will infinitely appreciate, one that pivots upon Voltaire's dictum, Écrasez l'infâme! or, as Pynchon so high-modernistically puts it, Carpe carpus! (Seize the carp!)
"Judith Fitzgerald on Writers' Writer Thomas Pynchon"
was originally featured in The Toronto Star's 4 May 1997 edition.
© 1997-2008 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.