Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day is my new girlfriend.
True, she’s big and clunky, and you can’t take her out, but she’s sexy, self-absorbed and gregarious, which pretty much sums up what I look for in a partner. When I’m at work I itch with the urge to get back to her, lying open on the coffee table or tucked into the bedsheets. I hope she’s resting comfortably, that the cats aren’t chewing at her corners, and that she doesn’t mind me coming home and quietly sliding off her dust jacket before I run a finger down the seams of her pages and, um, is this getting creepy yet? Because I’m running with a conceit here but I’m starting to feel arrestworthy. But then, Pynchon’s books may be among the only ones that inspire a devotion verging on criminality.
Those who love Pynchon’s work love it like a plumb line loves the earth’s core – an unwavering affection, a fixed line from which to build a great mansion of loving Pynchon and all his goofy and arcane predilections. Those who don’t love Pynchon’s work will never venture into that mansion past the foyer, because they don’t have the time, no one will show them to the bathroom, and even in the foyer there’s some crazy shit going on with three dancing girls, an octopus, and a man dressed only in a tophat and spats, all of whom appear to be performing a sex act that’s also a lecture on non-Euclidean geometry.
At this point I expect someone to say, so what’s it all about, this book, hey? and I’m reluctant to say. Most reviewers go for the stuff that looks the most like plot, because it makes AtD resemble a regular novel, and at least it’s something to talk about. Set between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the eve of WWI, it’s the story (kinda) of Reef, Frank, Lake and Kit Traverse, the children of assassinated anarchist miner Webb Traverse.
After Webb is killed by the assassin duo of Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, the children pursue their revenges against the man who masterminded the murder, arch-plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. Then there’s Yashmeen Halfcourt, Cyprian Latewood, Heino Vanderjuice, and dozens more. And my favourite character, the accidental detective Lew Basnight, who is abandoned by his community and family for a crime whose commission he cannot recall and whose nature he is never told.
Mind you, that doesn’t take up a whole lot of the 1000+ pages of the book. Dropped in to the framework of a plot you’ll find an airship piloted by a group called the Chums of Chance, a submarine that sails through sand, a weapon that destroys everything, the 1908 Tunguska Blast, a whole lotta sex and violence, travelers from the future, and a shipload of other people and things and events. You can’t trust Pynchon to stay on tack; a brief mention may expand into a discourse, a detail becomes a subplot, and so on. If your attention lapses for half a page, you may suddenly realize find yourself in the midst of a completely different story with no recollection of how you got there or when the wheel spun around. Throw in a wash of styles, voices, alternate realities and registers and you start getting a litte seasick.
Nonetheless, this book is still my swingin’ new girlfriend. I didn’t expect to be enjoying Against the Day so much. I thought I would find it fascinating, then irritating, then screamingly boring, then fascinating again. Much of Mason & Dixon, with its vaudeville mockery of eighteenth century prose, left me churning around in that cycle, even as I got a kick out of its inventiveness. Great swaths of Gravity’s Rainbow annoyed the piss out of me. After a few hundred pages of GR I began to envision a little man with a shovel in my brain, hefting great spadesful of words into a black pit of oblivion as I read. I trusted the man with the shovel to rake through the pile (it was kind of a shovel with rake-like tines, like a spork) and leave the worthwhile stuff. Of course, you discard parts of Pynchon at your peril.
If I had to make a stand and say what Against the Day is about, I’d guess that it’s about the little guys who dream and the big guys who seek to control those dreams. The explosive force of dynamite can be used for anarchism or capitalism, to liberate or enslave, and it all depends on who gets their hands on the plunger. The book also offers good tips on what to do when a stick of lit dynamite lands on your head.
I haven’t gotten into the heavy mathematics that hit around page 600. I don’t expect to understand them. I don’t understand my RRSPs. But no one goes into Pychonland expecting a tidy and comprehensible tour (comprehensive, though).
Links to Pynchon things:
For a super-duper thorough going-over of Pynchon, visit Spermatikos Logos, a great online resource for all the things of Pynchon.
One day, artist Zak Smith, moved by the spirit of Bob or something, decided to illustrate every page of Gravity’s Rainbow. Obsoive and be amaz-ed.
Some critics have shit all over Against the Day. They’re joyless assholes with rusted-out imaginations. Luc Sante gives the book a thoughtful review in the New York Review of Books.