Around the World in 1,085 Pages

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 2006). — J.R.

Against the Day | Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)

Thomas Pynchon’s 1,085-page Against the Day does a lot of things. Some it does well, some it does badly — and some are impossible to judge this early, though scores of people are trying, in the press and on the Internet. And it may still be beyond the capacity of most of us to judge a year from now. In some respects Pynchon remains as difficult to evaluate as globalization with all its facets and ambiguities.

This passionately anticapitalist book, which most likely took a decade or more to write, follows dozens of characters over more than two decades, starting at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and ending, more or less, in Paris in the early 1920s. Meanwhile it skips across the planet several times, stopping in, among other places, the Balkans, central Asia, Cambridge, Gottingen, London, New York, Paris, Telluride, Venice, and Vienna. Pynchon includes labor history, mathematical equations, ambiguously overlapping stories about alchemy and early photography, and the tale of an anarchist coal miner named Webb Traverse — who specializes in dynamiting railroads and who’s tortured to death by hired guns working for a robber baron — and the lives of his children. Floating above everything — literally, inside a dirigible — is a crew of young adventurers called the Chums of Chance, who gallivant across the globe doing surveillance work for bosses they don’t know. They’re pop icons whose dashing exploits the other characters read about in hokey novels: “Think of them as America,” writes John Leonard in the Nation, the most helpful review of the book I’ve read so far. Their mascot, a dog named Pugnax, appears to be reading The Princess Casamassima, Henry James’s novel about anarchists.

Against the Day‘s view of the late 19th century and early 20th evokes the vision of historian Eric Hobsbawm — an irreversible slide from civilization into barbarism as capitalists duke it out with anarchists, culminating though hardly ending in the apocalypse of World War I. “All history after that will belong properly to the history of hell,” one character predicts — or remembers. One reason this book is so difficult is that we can’t always distinguish between memory and prediction, between history and science fiction.

Pynchon depicts an era of technological advancement that encompasses light, air, water, sand, coal, dirt, electricity, photography, explosions, and even time travel — inhabitants of the future, including us readers, turn up in that earlier era, searching for refuge. The mix of science and pseudoscience can be bewildering, but it stopped seeming frivolous as soon as I conceded that all eras are stuck somewhere between these realms, even if it’s often hard to say exactly where. And though all the math and physics can be difficult, it’s edifying to track down Pynchon’s references — just as tracking down the sources of T.S. Eliot’s footnotes to The Waste Land once was. I’m happy, for example, that Pynchon led me to E.T. Bell’s classic Men of Mathematics.

Against the Day is also difficult because of the stray cultural information assumed on almost every page. Pynchon’s online blurb promises “cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.” Tesla turns up early, and his spirit — including his anarchist dream of free electricity for everyone — hovers over much of the action. But I completely missed Groucho until someone pointed out the 15-year-old Julius, a vaudevillian Frank Traverse briefly meets at a hotel in Cripple Creek, Colorado, rolling his eyes and “working his eyebrows.” And I’m still hunting for Lugosi. (I haven’t even managed to trace him in the more than 100 pages of entries on the book that have already accumulated on the anarchistic Wikipedia.)

Pynchon has lots of things to say about the world a century ago and a few things to say about the radical 30s, the countercultural 60s and 70s, and the present. There are plenty of references to drugs and the counterculture, but his strongest point about the 60s and 70s involves an extraordinary ménage à trois near the book’s end: terms such as gay, heterosexual, bisexual, sadomasochistic, and perverse are inadequate to describe the complex and tender dynamics between Cyprian Latewood, Yashmeen Halfcourt, and Reef Traverse. Like some of the impromptu alliances and makeshift families in the films of Jean Vigo (another anarchist), their miraculous bond becomes a declaration that people need to design their own relationships, not contort themselves to fit the conceptions of others.

Pynchon may be one of the few artists alive who knows and understands enough disparate data to make some sense of the past century and to connect dots all the way to the present. In his online blurb for Against the Day (curiously revised and unsigned on the jacket flap, suggesting capitalist intervention) he coyly notes, “With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it 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.”

Against the Day is easier to read as narrative than V., Gravity’s Rainbow, or Mason & Dixon, though the technical data are harder to process. It has less of a sense of urgency than The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, and it’s more given to generic conventions, especially those of late westerns and early SF novels. And it’s the first Pynchon novel without a central figure or figures — apart from the well-named Traverses, who seem to spill randomly across the globe. The plot sprawls with a 19th-century roominess, directing us toward such apparently disconnected events as the collapse of Saint Mark’s campanile in Venice (1902), the Tunguska Event (or great Siberian explosion, 1908), and World War I — even if the war functions mainly as a structuring absence.

A formal shape gives meaning to each of Pynchon’s five preceding novels — two plot strands converging in a V, an oedipal quest, a single plot strand rising and falling like a rocket, a vinelike entanglement of destinies, a sandwich with a tangled ampersand between its two slices. I can’t yet discern such a shape in this book, but it probably has something to do with the capacity to be in two places at once, mirrors, and opposite sides of the globe.

Some reviewers and bloggers are clearly looking for another Gravity’s Rainbow (which is a bit like asking Shakespeare for a second Hamlet), but isn’t one enough? If anything, I was somewhat let down by Pynchon’s replays of familiar themes and motifs. A brief appearance by Pig Bodine on an Austrian ship, for instance, might have been better if Pynchon had bothered to make it funny. Other echoes, however compelling, suggest fixations more than preoccupations. In Gravity’s Rainbow the hero’s destiny is controlled by a corporation, which funds his Harvard education; in Against the Day Scarsdale Vibe, the corporate villain who gets Webb Traverse bumped off, sends Webb’s son Kit to Yale. Similarly, the strong sense of political and familial betrayal in Vineland when the hippie Frenesi becomes an informer for the feds is more than echoed in Against the Day when Lake Traverse marries one of her father’s killers — Frenesi’s father is Webb’s grandson, which makes this look like some sort of perverse family tradition.

It is, however, refreshing that Pynchon has finally replaced kazoos with ukuleles as his whimsical musical instrument of choice; his appreciation of kazoos achieved an apogee in his 1994 liner notes to Spiked! The Music of Spike Jones, Pynchon’s second-best piece of prose in the 90s, after Vineland. He’s also allowed more women characters to hang out with other women than in all his other books combined, and he’s included some interesting feminist critiques of macho anarchists.

People who can’t abide Pynchon often complain of a lack of three-dimensional characters. Yet many of the experiences he describes are as rich as the characters having them are thin. Some of the best passages in Gravity’s Rainbow have nothing to do with the plot, such as the gorgeous nine-page stretch when two relatively minor characters stop off one evening at a church and someone — we don’t know who — speaks for them and for the crowd inside: “It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one — something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are.”

That sort of intensity is missing from most of Against the Day. Yet on my first trip through Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 I was also often stumped and frustrated. Many insights were slow in coming — I still don’t quite grasp the novel’s enigmatic references to the Kenosha Kid. Today I can compare notes with a community of fellow explicators, though sometimes the surfeit of information they offer threatens clarity.

There’s always been something disconcerting about the way quests in Pynchon’s novels dribble off into inconsequentiality, get diverted, or are simply forgotten. I think he uses these digressions to escape the tyranny of narrative and ideology — and to mirror and celebrate the way many people live their lives.

The momentary pleasures of reading Against the Day often come close to seeming random, and reconciling the book’s larger aims with all the jazzy improvs is no easy matter  — though that’s what Pynchon’s game is all about. In this novel one character can turn into a jelly doughnut — or at least he or somebody else can think he does. But it’s also true that an aside about European imperialism can suddenly turn into an arresting take on the lure of military life and that the novel’s preoccupation with light is used to describe two kinds of alienation, which can be seen as both American and contemporary: “At first glance, there might seem little to choose between the French Foreign Legion and the Belgian Force Publique. In both cases one ran away from one’s troubles to soldier in Africa. But where the one outfit envisaged desert penance in a surfeit of light, in radiant absolution, the other sought, in the gloom of the fetid forest, to embrace the opposite of atonement — to proclaim that the sum of one’s European sins, however disruptive, had been but facile apprenticeship to a brotherhood of the willfully lost. Whose faces, afterward, would prove as unrecallable as those of the natives.” Is Pynchon an expert on the differences between Foreign Legion and Force Publique fuckups? Probably not. More likely, this is the sort of wisdom that comes from having dropped out of college to serve in the navy, and the sadness of the concluding sentence fragment is emblematic of the sense of resignation that permeates this book.

For all his carefully guarded privacy, Pynchon’s introduction to his collection of early stories, Slow Learner (1984), imparts as much information about his quirks and working methods as any Paris Review interview. Crediting the 1899 Baedeker guidebook to Egypt as his main source for “Under the Rose,” he suggests that he’s relied on such crutches ever since, that reading spy fiction created in his young mind “a peculiar shadowy vision of the history preceding the two world wars,” and that “reading many Victorians” led to his sense of World War I as an “apocalyptic showdown.”

He also refers to his “perennial Bad Ear” when it comes to drafting dialogue, and in his own blurb for Against the Day he writes, “Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically.” That’s true even if you count English as obscure — or at least as obscure as Pynchon can make it. The dialogue shifts between the slang and idioms of two or three centuries, as if unable to make up its mind where it’s being spoken. But this confusion is partly the point: why else float a gag about an early-20th-century Viennese opera called The Burgher King?

It’s characteristic of some of our greatest as well as most obsessive writers, from Melville to Faulkner to Ginsberg, that the lines separating self-indulgence from generosity and eloquence from delirium aren’t always clear-cut. Excess is part of vision, and for better and for worse, Pynchon is given to it. But reading him slowly and carefully, thoughtfully and respectfully, has usually paid rich dividends, and a careful read of his longest and busiest novel will surely be worth the trouble.

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