Online Edition: Winter 2006/2007

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Against the Day

Against the Day

Thomas Pynchon

The Penguin Press ($35)

by Scott Esposito

Thomas Pynchon's modern picaresques are best when they dazzle. His masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, remains his most staggering and compelling work because it eschews plot and character in favor of, in the words of Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books, "a tortured cadenza of lurid imaginings and total recall that goes on longer than you can quite believe." Gravity's Rainbow is often called encyclopedic, but this term only works if one imagines the books as an encyclopedia written by one mind, and therefore bent toward all the special obsessions, paranoias, insights, and linkages that make that one mind unique. Pynchon's books compel because of their sheer virtuosity, but also because they bring to light Pynchon's horrible, amazing vision of the world.

The new Pynchon novel, Against the Day, contains much that dazzles. A loose count would include a sheep brothel; a man disguised as a jelly donut who's planning a breakout from an insane asylum; multitudes of drugs (from Absinthe frappés to small dosages of dynamite to hallucinogenic Mexican cactuses to the more traditional ganja); a frontier outlaw town "like a religious painting of hell used to scare kids"; a minor character who appears as Saint Mark in another character's prophetic vision; invisible chilies that are used in an impossibly hot hot sauce; doomsday odalisques pulled out from under fake polar glaciers; dog-sized, highly evolved ticks that discuss with you the matter of sucking your blood; suits that let you walk beneath sand; communication via gas injected into London's Underground; anarchist plots to make the world's supply of gold explode; a harmonica band; a coffee enema; bilocation; and of course sex—sex with whips and manacles and gloves and leather, regular sex in the middle of a storm in Trieste, tied-up lesbian sex, gay blackmail sex, threesomes at the Four Corners.

But for all the madcap energy, Against the Day also has its share of clunky scenes that do little more than add to its size. These are most concentrated in the book's first 250 pages where the foundations of plots are being poured in, backstories (many of which are unnecessary) are being dumped out, and characters are being defined. Once this book is revved up, however, there are few stalls; I read the last half of it at a sprint, and my feeling on finishing this 1,085-page monster—300 pages longer than anything Pynchon has ever written—was not exhaustion but exhilaration.

Although Against the Day may be Pynchon's last novel, its subject-matter has been on his mind since his first. At one point in V., a character reflects "suppose sometime between 1859 and 1919, the world contracted a disease which no one ever took the trouble to diagnose because the symptoms were too subtle—blending in with the events of history, no different one by one but altogether—fatal." Encompassing the years between 1887 and 1920, Against the Day can be taken as Pynchon's attempt to describe how the disease—modernity—was contracted.

The symptoms start early. Sixty pages into the book, Pynchon takes us alongside the Michelson-Morely experiment, which disproved the existence of aether and sent physics down the road that would lead to the theory of relativity and bring about a universe without fixed points. The book also travels through 1893 World's Fair, an epicenter of colonialism and progress. It's here that we meet the Chums of Chance, a globetrotting network of airship pilots that flit around performing mysterious duties. Throughout the book, Pynchon follows the adventures of one airship crew of five (six counting their Henry James–reading dog) as they travel through the hollow Earth via a hole in the south pole, swim under the deserts of Central Asia in search of the lost city of Shambhala, and hang around erupting volcanoes taking measurements for Nikolai Tesla. The reasons for their missions remain obscure to both them and us, and their plotline is further complicated by the fact that they are the stars of a series of dime-novels. Many of their adventures, even when they interact with other characters from Against the Day, occur within the context of the books, which are portrayed whimsically and bring the book a feeling of innocence.

Not long after seeing the Chums at the World's Fair, we enter the life of a miner-turned-anarchist named Webb Traverse. Within 100 pages Webb is dispatched by a couple of hired guns under the pay of Scarsdale Vibe, a sort of J.P. Morgan-cum-Goldfinger. Two of Webb's sons, Frank and Reef, go off seeking revenge. Frank ends up part of the Mexican revolution, and Reef ends up in Europe hunting down Vibe. Meanwhile, Webb's daughter Lake marries one of the outlaws, and his last son Kit, a math genius, accepts Vibe's offer of full paid tuition, eventually heading to Germany to study advanced math.

All this is complicated by a rare variant of calcite called Iceland spar. Calcite double-refracts light, producing a doubled image of anything viewed through it, but in Pynchon's book Iceland spar does even more—it lets people see into the fourth dimension, time, thereby showing them the shadow-world that surrounds us all like a colorless, odorless gas. When one character looks at a nugget of silver through this mysterious substance, he finds: "Not only had the entire scene doubled and, even more peculiarly, grown brighter, but as for the two overlapping images of the nugget itself, one was as gold as the other was silver."

This fourth dimension revealed by Iceland spar becomes a common symbol linking many parts of the novel. It is alternately referenced as a sort of heaven, a means of time travel, a hidden world that controls ours, and, significantly, a power that can be harnessed for a superweapon.

Into all this steps Yashmeen Halfcourt, an impossibly gorgeous young woman who seems to be at the center of the impending European war. When we meet her, she is the ward of a society of British neo-Pythagoreans bent on some obscure quest related to Europe's Great Powers rivalry. They are protecting her because her adoptive father is a colonel in Central Asia. "Perhaps because of some rogue psychic gift, perhaps only the secular gravity of whatever her father is up to out in Inner Asia, she's being bedeviled by two or three Powers at once . . . with of course Germany towering in the shadows backstage, whispering cues." Yashmeen is also a math genius, and soon meets Kit at school in Germany, dispatching him to Central Asia where he searches for the lost city of Shambhala. She's also the unrequited love of a low-grade British spy whom we follow through the Balkans in the run-up to World War I. Eventually she becomes the dominant in a perverse Anglo-American sadomasochistic triad and even develops into a symbol of the growing anti-Semitism that will fuel many of the 20th-cenutry's great conflicts.

We have been here before with Pynchon. Shadow societies that may be running our world. A proliferation of information that comprises nodes in a plot so complex that it can't be written down because language is too blunt an instrument. The entropy that obscures the forces of history. A choice between a mad world or one that follows paranoid logic. These themes that Pynchon has so expertly drawn on in previous books are once again brought into service, and quite well. But has Pynchon done something new with Against the Day?

I think so. Throughout his career, Pynchon has regarded the birth of modernity as an epochal moment (the chapter in V. surrounding the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring comes to mind), but he has never pursued the subject through an entire novel. Against the Day, his effort to address this gap, brings us new metaphors and ideas that have not been taken up in any other of his books.

The book does worst when it's in the old American West. The scenes of Webb Traverse's peregrinations as an anarchist fighting to save his union from corporate oppression are meant to convey the last gasps of a world soon to be extinguished, but they feel hollow. The battles between the die-hard Webb and his homemaking wife lack energy, and even the eventual demise of Webb, and with him his ideology of Socialism at any cost, is merely described. Further, the plotline of Webb's daughter Lake, who elopes with one of the bandits that killed Webb, feels grafted on and is eventually abandoned. It satisfies neither emotionally nor structurally. For instance, here is Pynchon's complete explanation for why Lake fell in love with the man who murdered her father:

And it might turn out, to Lake's own surprise as much as anybody's, that she was one of these passionate young women who believed as the Mexican señoritas like to say that without love one cannot live. That any entrance of it into her life would be like unexpected laughter or finding religion, a gift from the beyond that she must not allow to just exit again and pretend it was gone forever. Unfortunately, “it” had now arrived in the form of Deuce Kindred, for whom her loathing would come to be inseparable from her passion.

Such sloppy writing might be forgiven if Lake was only meant to be a Pynchonian cipher that eventually came to bear interesting symbolic weight, but alas no. After this paragraph we are asked to follow Lake's disintegrating marriage for the better part of 100 pages. Stuck with such sketchy descriptions of Lake and her motivation to marry Deuce, however, we have no reason to care much about her or her marriage, and so these pages read like so much empty plotting, filler we hurry through to get back to the good stuff.

But although the book is flawed, for the most part it's excellent. The characters (aside from the uninspired Lake) are manic Pynchonian creations, equal parts slapstick humor and revelation. Reconstructions of the White City in the throes of the 1893 World's Fair, a convention of aetherists surrounding the famed Michelson-Morely experiment, and the ritzy and scummy sides of New York City are all vintage Pynchon. The author also scores in Europe, especially when describing a math-hungry university in Göttingen and a moonlit Venice (soon to be eradicated by electricity) that is swarming with intrigue. These places, as well as many in Central Asia, are filled with Pynchon's trademark historical details—the kind that sound made-up until you research them and discover that they are actually real.

Certain themes pop up again and again. First among them is the railroads being feverishly built by Europe's powers. It is repeatedly implied that while they lay these train tracks, the Europeans are also laying the landscape of a new reality that will rush them to war as swiftly as trains rush to their destination. At one point a student of the European arms buildup remarks, "The railroads seem to be the key. . . . the rail system grows toward a certain shape, a destiny." More broadly speaking, the tracks also double as representatives of the contortions of time and space being ushered in by the technology of the new era.

There are also many doubles in this book, including a cruise liner with a battleship hidden within its bowels and a palindromous pair of battling professors named Renfrew and Werfner. The latter pair comes to symbolize a Europe that, while ostensibly a group of discrete countries about to erupt in war, is really an organic whole as inseparable as the currents of money that flow so effortlessly between borders. Pynchon seems to be using doubles to explore the hidden connections between superficially different things, and as the doubles pile up, two questions come with them: Which is the original? and Who has control?

Light itself is doubled by the Iceland spar, revealing the existence of another world (in effect a doubling of the Earth), but light also pops up in other guises: a handmaiden to destiny, a means of new communication (wireless transmissions), an impossible riddle for science, the substance that we are really made of. Throughout the book, light is captured by many cameras, again referencing a modern invention that would change our concepts of time and space. At one point a mysterious light illuminates night into dusk for a month, offering a moment of transcendence before Europe takes back up the business of descending into chaos. One of the book's signal events, the horrific explosion that occurred over Siberia's Tunguska region, is described solely thus: "A heavenwide blast of light." Humanity can't live without light, for as Thelonious Monk says in the book's epigraph, "It's always night," but Pynchon seems to be telling us that it is also a force that humans take into their bosom at their own peril.

And lastly, there are many hints of the present. Before bin Laden, the anarchism that is being extinguished in Against the Day was history's most notable use of terrorism against progress. Conjuring up references to today, the corporate scum that rule Pynchon's world are described as people "whose allegiance, loudly and often as they might invoke Jesus Christ and his kingdom, was to that real axis [i.e. materialism] and nothing beyond it." In a clear nod at yesterday's seeding of today's terrorists, Pynchon writes that the weapons the great powers used to colonize Central Asia

fell into the hands of goat-herders, falconers, shamans, to be taken out into the emptiness, disassembled, studied, converted to uses religious and practical, and eventually to change the history of the World-Island beyond even the most unsound projections of those Powers who imagined themselves somehow, at this late date, still competing for it.

Against the Day may contain a warning for the denizens of this day, but it is primarily an investigation into how the world, out of all the destinies it might have followed, settled down into the course that defined the 20th century. Thus it complements V. and Gravity's Rainbow, which sought to understand what this century had wrought, as well as Mason & Dixon, which investigated how the process toward modernity first got going. It is a loose and baggy book that is at times frustrating, but it is a frustration that is worth enduring for the chance to experience Pynchon's explanation of this disease that we all now share.

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