Ever since Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which shared a National Book Award and was given, then denied a Pulitzer Prize (on account of its “obscenity”), it’s been obvious, even to much of the so-called literary establishment, that Thomas Pynchon is one of our contemporary classics: a true polymath, formidably learned and technically unparalleled, who understands as few of his readers can the essential symbiosis between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” of science and technology. Pynchon’s long-awaited new novel (reportedly 20 years in the making) is a huge and almost uniformly entertaining tale set in the late-18th century and tracing the fortunes and follies of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the British astronomers and surveyors who established the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that would divide young America between South and North, slaveholding and free—and unite the two scientists, despite their contrasting histories and temperaments, in a continuing quest for knowledge expressed as their “transits” from Old World to New, past to future, ignorance to transcendence. Their story is a contentious chronicle of tasks undertaken and both intellectual and bodily hungers satisfied to varying degrees, on several continents, and in the company of such historical worthies as Franklin and Washington and such scarcely less imposing counterparts as an erudite canine and a mechanical talking duck. Readers who are willing, therefore, to let Pynchon be Pynchon should tune in gratefully to this ambitious novel’s dizzy anachronisms and period fustian (its language closely recalls that of the book it otherwise resembles as well: John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor). Not all will cotton to Pynchon’s unregenerate wordplay (“Sirius business” may be his worst pun, though “Dutch Ado about nothing” runs it close), even if he does find a passable rhyme for “Philadelphia.” But the gags are strictly incidental, in a powerfully imagined vision of worlds in embryo and in collision that weds, as no fiction before, the romance of science with the romance of America.
Reading Pynchon may be likened to what one of his characters says here about deciphering the “equation” presented by the stars in their courses: “A lonely, uncompensated, perhaps even impossible Task,—yet some of us must be ever seeking it, I suppose.”