We gave it an A-
Pynchonites — Thomas Pynchon’s numerous cult followers — will swarm over Mason & Dixon, a great beached whale of a new novel, examining its entrails for signs and portents. They may be disappointed. Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, you may recall, were the 18th-century Englishmen who surveyed the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland that became the eponymous line that divided the North and the South. While telling their story, Pynchon has some fun with their characters (Mason, a melancholic Londoner, likes tea; Dixon, a frolicsome lapsed Quaker, prefers coffee). He also provides a talking dog, talking clocks, a mechanical duck, a runaway giant cheese, a canny Ben Franklin in sunglasses, George Washington smoking hemp and trading quips with a black slave who’s also a Jewish stand-up comic, and the secret history of the 11 days missing from the year 1752.
Some of these comic and metaphysical excursions rise into ethereal brilliance; some sink like lead. We get a slice of raw, real history — Philadelphia’s clamorous streets and docks — conjured up as they might be if historians were conjurers. The main problem is reading the thing. It’s written in imitation 18th-century prose that’s really just another dialect of Pynchonese — impenetrable, jokey, and seductive by turns. You don’t so much read it as tunnel through it, looking for the signs of literary genius that are certainly there — or, if you’re a Pynchonite, looking for deep, esoteric illuminations that certainly aren’t. A-