“Snow-Balls have… their Arcs,” Thomas Pynchon’s fifth novel begins. Trying to calculate the arc of the narrative of Mason & Dixon is as difficult as the calculus involved in calculating the arc of a thrown snowball. It’s a huge book, not just in number of pages, but in ideas, both comic and profound, and in erudition.
The story involves the lives, travels and adventures of two globe-trotting Brits, an astronomer and a surveyor, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, as they travel south to the Cape of Good Hope and then west, into North America. Mason and Dixon survive, of course, into the present as the name of the line that separates North from South (the southern boudary of Pennsylvania). But Pynchon, as ever, is never only writing biography or history; indeed, he writes that “Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir'd, or coerc'd, only in Interests that must ever prove base.”
This story is related to an unruly bunch of kids on a series of winter’s nights in 1786 (“the War settl'd and the Nation bickering itself into Fragments”) by one Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. As long as the Reverend can keep the children entertained and out of the hair of adults, he’s welcome to the room and board of the house.
As such, the story Cherrycoke tells is only marignally about measurement, precision and mapping. As with Gravity’s Rainbow, the density of vocabulary and scientific data, once a reader manages to scale the intimidating walls they present, function as metaphors of human emotion and motivation. To redeploy the words of one young character, this language-rich novel acts as “A Vector of Desire.”
Pynchon, despite his (well-earned) reputation for difficulty and his refusal to help us poor readers out with the occassional interview (indeed, the most recent photograph of him is some 45 years old), is a joker and a prankster. Mason & Dixon is like the carriage in which the eponymous heroes ride in one scene: “Our Coach is a late invention of the Jesuits, being, to speak bluntly, a Conveyance, wherein the inside is quite noticeably larger than the outside, though the fact cannot be appreciated until one is inside.” The novel looks quite large enough from the outside; inside are universes entire, parallel, tangent and quite divergent.