essays‎ > ‎

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

The day before publication, if you entered "Thomas Pynchon" and "Against the Day" in Google, you got 53,200 hits. There are a lot of old Pynchon hands out there. This anticipation was on the basis of next to no information beyond the temporary appearance of a description by the author, on Amazon.com. To capitalize on the excitement, it seems, the publisher pulled the description (later denying any knowledge of its appearance) and required book review editors to sign non-disclosure agreements about the contents of the novel. Both this marketing strategy and Pynchon's description are highly Pynchonesque. The strategy is an act of corporate denial, secrecy, mystery. The description is written in a forthright, broadly ironic voice that you can practically hear, to whit: "With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, [the period of Against the Day] is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."

This is Pynchon's first novel in nearly ten years. It is highly ambitious in theme and setting, serious (for the most part) in its argument, and at 1085 pages longer than any of Pynchon's four previous big books, V (1963),  Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Vineland (1990), and Mason and Dixon (1997). We begin and end in the arch company of the Chums of Chance, dime-novel airship heroes of Tom Swift provenance, our first stop the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. From there we proceed through Anarchist activism in Colorado miners' unions, to New York at the beginning of the last century, London, Göttingen, Venice, Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia, the Mexican Revolution, Paris, silent era Hollywood, and, as Pynchon put it on Amazon.com, "one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all." Against the Day is a tour of some of the darker peripheries of the world disaster that was World War I. But as Pynchon's description suggests, it's also about present-day America. There are veiled meditations on 9/11 and global warming. Late in the story, the Chums of Chance look on "in helplessness and a depression of spirit new to them" as the American Republic passes "irrevocably into the control of the evil and moronic."

As usual with Pynchon, the story is told in the form of an elaborate picaresque. That is to say, it details the episodic adventures of dozens of roguish characters as they cross and recross paths on the world stage. One such rogue is Webb Traverse, a mine engineer and Anarchist bomber, gunned down by the villainous Deuce Kindred, who is in the pay of a union-breaking, fine-art-buying mine boss, the operatically evil Scarsdale Vibe. After Webb's death, his sons Frank, Reef, and Kit set out on their complex wanderings. All carry the burden of their failure to avenge the death of their father, while their sister Lake knowingly marries his murderer and for a while is a willing participant in a sordid ménage à trois with Kindred and his odious sidekick Sloat Fresno. Other characters include Miles Blundell, the Chums' onboard psychic and dreadful cook; Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful Russian mathematician; and Cyprian Latewood, a masochistic gay Englishman, who with Yashmeen and Reef forms a more loving (and rambling) ménage à trois, until Yashmeen gives birth to a daughter and Cyprian stays behind to join a convent in the Balkans. 

This is not fiction about characters in their social relations in the usual way of the novel. It's closer to a form of satire that Northrop Frye has called the anatomy, after Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)—though with a strong infusion of Romantic yearning. Characters in an anatomy are distinguished by their professions or their intellectual obsessions, rather than by the emotional significances of their dramatic interactions. Compared to the characters in most realistic novels, Pynchon's are emotionally static: unable to act, or to reconnect with a lost lover or parent or child or sibling or place, or to know what exactly it is, in their private diaspora, they are looking for. Except for instinctive, or grudging, time-limited couplings and bondings, everybody is adrift, just out of reach. The author knows all about these characters and proceeds as if we already know about them too, far sooner than we do. The major events of the book have already happened or are underway at some remoteness offstage or are looming in the shadowlands ahead. It's a world of mystery and paranoia, of inchoate longing, of disillusionment and anticlimax. Like Pynchon's characters, we wander through a swarm of hints that both promises light and darkens what little day we have.

For the flavour of this, consider a few of the controlling themes and images. One is the destructive effect on people and the planet of capitalism, as in the following characteristic joke:

". . . I am as fond of the subjunctive mood as any, but as the only use to which you ever put it is for a two-word vulgarism better left unuttered—"

"Oh. Then how about ‘Long live capitalism'? same thing basically, ain't it."
Non-unionized American labour replaced the American slave. A more esoteric theme is bilocation, the capacity of light, people, places, and time to double and fork. The main image for this is "Iceland Spar," a clear calcite that doubly refracts. Many characters have doubles, or alters. Scarsdale Vibe has a fatal one in Foley Walker. The British mathematician Renfrew has a German rival named Werfner. Get it? Against the Day is riddled with tunnels, arches, thresholds, underground rivers, caves, weird buildings, and lateral world-sets. We are constantly on the verge of that other dimension. After travelling up, the Chums' airship (nicely called The Inconvenience) can keep on going by travelling sidewise, through Time. They keep running into Trespassers, who have come back from the future, escaping the world laid waste by capitalism. In one episode, they voyage under the Taklamakan Desert in China in search of the mystical Tibetan Buddhist city of Shambhala. This is a narrative that lingers for pages to discuss mineralogical and mathematical arcana. A mysterious occurrence late in the story is the historically factual Tunguska Event, a massive Siberian explosion, probably by an asteroid, in the summer of 1908: a doomsday event caused by an arrival from another realm. Speaking of which, Christian imagery is much in evidence, as are P.D. Ouspensky, Madame Blavatsky, Nikola Tesla, the Tarot pack, and the rest of the usual suspects in these matters.

Does it work? Well, first remember that nobody nowadays, not even Don DeLillo, can do what Pynchon is doing here at this level of craft, intelligence, and sheer range of knowledge. There are many wonders. Merle Basnight, a Psychical Detective, converses with some ball lightning. The Chums' future wives arrive as a "flying formation of girls, dressed like religious novices in tones of dusk . . . their metallic wings earnestly rhythmic . . . ." There are many fine and funny lines. A package arrives "which appeared to have undergone some wrathful treatment at the post office." Frank's face as he watches a woman is the one "men got in dancehalls sometimes, almost a smile." Pynchon's style at its best has a prolix, American swing to it that gives his more romantic and arcane flights the ballast they need.

Is he up to his own standards? Not to the ones set by Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) but certainly above the ones we've seen since, in Vineland and Mason and Dixon. Against the Day is not deliriously exuberant and funny the way Pynchon can be. His Full English Breakfast riff here doesn't hold a candle to the English Sweets Eating scene in Gravity's Rainbow. You can see the difference in the proper names. The Burgher King is a pretty funny name for a Viennese operetta, and The Slow and the Stupefied is a terrific one for a soap opera loved by communication-by-coal-gas advocates. But otherwise there's little here that is up to the standard of calling a British tabloid The Daily Shock (Gravity's Rainbow). Until p. 881, there's not much fun to the sex, which tends to be fast and coarse, as if age and the prevalence of porn have taken their toll. The mock-Victorian style of the Chums of Chance opening doesn't work, and then like an actor's accent it keeps slipping, before, to our relief, it pretty well fades out.

True to principles of forking and bilocation, the narrative keeps splitting. A new character appears, and we go with him, until another new character appears, and we go with her. It's like a serial, except it proceeds by division, eventually spiralling back. The effect is relentless. A new plot starts on p. 1042. It can be hard, over a thousand pages, to remember who's who and who has done what with whom. And so we read, "Though Vesna was deeply involved with a gangster from Smyrna named Dhimitris, she and Cyprian said good-bye as if each were a part of the other. He had no idea why." And neither do we.

There's an image in Gravity's Rainbow that I'll look for when they publish a Pynchon concordance. As I remember it after thirty years, a sound is compared to the one made by a teapot underwater, as it's being washed, knocking against the bottom of a porcelain sink. That's the kind of image that can make a reader want to be a writer. There's not much of that here. Pynchon is now deeper inside his head. The world he's created this time is not really very physical. Yashmeen and Reef move through a war zone with their infant daughter as if gun fire is nothing much to worry about. At one point, Miles reports of a Time traveller named Ryder Thorn, who has seen the Halls of Night, "I could have passed my hand through him . . . as if there'd been some failure of physical translation." Most of Pynchon's work since V seems to have gone into research. The development from Gravity's Rainbow to Against the Day has not been so much organic as a translation to another version, at another time. The result remains extraordinary, but it's at once darker and paler, and less substantial. You could pass your hand through it.  

The Gobe and Mail, December 2, 2006

Comments