Thomas Pynchon
Against the Day.
The Penguin Press, 1120 pages, $35.

Thomas Pynchon’s many fans love him the way teenagers love pop idols. For this kind of attention to be accorded to a writer of long, hermetic novels goes against everything we think we know about what kind of books people like and buy. Pynchon’s anchoritism—no photographs, no interviews, no readings, no appearances—stokes the enthusiasm with which his work is received. There is something delicious in the thought that he could walk among us taking notes without us knowing it. Better yet that he might not even exist—perhaps it’s “Pynchon.” But of course someone knows a guy who knew a guy who smoked pot with him in California. Etc.

Mystery foments interest and Pynchon is in word and deed mysterious, if not perhaps unnatural. Properly manipulated, of course, this situation is a PR firm’s dream. When Pynchon reportedly glossed his own book on Amazon.com, it received the sort of attention typically reserved for … well, something less than a celebrity adopting a baby or not wearing underwear, but something more than anything bookish. Within days of the release of Against the Day, a wiki-driven world was online, and it included a rather extensive concordance to the book. For Pynchon is the last of the heroic author-idols of a few decades past. The kind of writers who were touchstones and passwords. It’s not just that people like to read him, but as with Kerouac or Heller, they believe he’s helping them figure out the world.

Our Lions of Literature, our Roths, Updikes, Mailers, might be deeply respected, but the copy I have of Gravity’s Rainbow, which I found on a stoop somewhere in Brooklyn, has lists of who the best authors of all time are, line drawings of muted post horns (in reference to The Crying of Lot 49), instructions for decoding messages in the text, underlines and highlights, and exclamations along the lines of “Jah Jah, The Movie is About to Begin!!!!!” One cannot imagine Portnoy’s Complaint thusly decorated.

I’m sure Pynchon’s units lag behind Catcher in the Rye, but here’s the thing: Pynchon is still putting out books that seem like the same sort of book, and that cannot be said of any other idolized author. But Against the Day isn’t, actually, the same sort of book.

Against the Day begins:

“Now single up all the lines!”

“Cheerly now … handsomely … very well!”

“Prepare to cast her off!”

“Windy City, here we come!”

“Hurrah! Up we go!”

It was amid such lively exclamation that the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, its gondola draped with patriotic bunting, carrying a five-lad crew belonging to that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance, ascended briskly into the morning, and soon caught the southerly wind.

Pynchon just gave you the who, the what, the where, and within a few lines he’ll tell you when. A hydrogen skyship is a quirky setting, but it lacks the poignant dislocation that Pynchon has before achieved, often with far less extreme set dressing.

If the opening scene of Gravity’s Rainbow had involved five guys taking off in a blimp, it would have gone something like this:

A heaving comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

It is too late. The Elevation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the gondola. No light anywhere. Above, the five lift steel ribs, and the gas bladder somewhere far above that would glow in the sunlight. But it’s night.

Against the Day is accessible, if not straightforward. The tricks of the novel are explained on its surface, and the symbols that were in other works obscure are here limpid. (In fact, one of the weirder moments in the annals of book reviewing has been the constant explaining of the book, as if its system were cloaked.) Not that this sprawling book of math and myth is simple. It’s complicated as hell, but more because it is a series of small, accessible books chopped up and chocked together as one roiling stew.

What would the public reception have been if it had been announced that Pynchon would release five 220-page novels, one of them a revenge Western about the family of Webb Travers, dynamiter and anarchist, another an H. G. Wellsian tale of derring-do in which the Chums of Chance pilot their blimp through the center of the earth and find the secret of traveling below the desert? Yet another concerns the mystical, mathematically obsessed society of T.W.I.T., a kind of Order of the Golden Dawn.

Would the headline be “Pynchon creates postmodern commentary on genre with series of ‘novels?’” Or would it be “Pynchon Gives Up?”

In 1963, George Plimpton stopped throwing a football into his living room furniture long enough to review Pynchon’s debut V. Plimpton wrote of a new “category of the American novel” which he dubbed “American picaresque.”

Such novels are invariably lengthy, heavily populated with eccentrics, deviates, grotesques with funny names (so they can be remembered), and are usually composed of a series of bizarre adventures or episodes in which the central character is involved, then removed and flung abruptly into another. Very often a Quest is incorporated, which keeps the central character on the move.

Pynchon has continued in this vein for over forty years. But in Against the Day he has removed the Quest (the revenge plot gets some people moving around, but neither they nor Pynchon seemed to have their goal steadily in mind), and for the most part he has removed the central character. Some characters get more ink than others, but I can’t peg any of them as “central.” The reader isn’t rooting for anyone, and there is no McGuffin, and that is bad news for a book that asks you to remember a lot. Deviates, grotesques, and funny names are not enough to hold our attention, even if the writing sparkles and the jokes are funny (the much-discussed mayonnaise factory being especially wonderful, like a Buster Keaton script inserted into the book). There are confluences and conflicts, but most of the book goes by in the same way the pages of a calendar flip past in an old black and white movie. Time is passing, but nothing notable is happening that affects the story. I have a newfound respect for that hackneyed cinematic technique. What if we’d had to actually watch the uneventful month? Readers of Against the Day will, at times, feel that they are getting a pretty good sense of what that must feel like, and they will begin to fantasize about an occasional close shot of a clock with its hands accelerated.

A discussion among some math students called Quaternions:

“Some have found in Heaviside a level of passion or maybe just energy, beyond the truculence already prevailing among the different camps in those days.”

“Well, if Heaviside is the Whitman,” remarked a British attendee nearby in a striking yellow ensemble, “who’s the Tennyson, you see?”

“Clerk Maxwell, wouldn’t you say?” suggested someone else, as others joined in.

“Making Hamilton I imagine the Swinburne.”

“Yes and who’d be the Wordsworth then?”

“Grassmann!”

“I say, what an amusing game. And Gibbs? The Longfellow?”

“Is there an Oscar Wilde, by any chance?”

Such discussions go on. Others, even less enthralling, go on at great length.

Pynchon’s books once progressed as though they were a discursive argument towards something—most true in Lot 49, but not untrue of the others—and that argument, even if it was just a comment on the state of man and missiles, was at times convincing. Now, Pynchon has replaced measured progress with intuition and digression. It’s no longer an argument, but rather a presentation.

The problem is that if your presentation is contrary to fact, you’ve got to argue its existence.

On June 30, 1908, hundreds of acres of forest in the Tunguska Basin, which is in Eastern Siberia, between the Yenisei and the Lena rivers, where the Tungus live, was flattened by an enormous explosion. Facts regarding the event are hazy and strange, dazzling columns of blue light, shockwaves, seismic tremors picked up in the British Isles. Most think it was an asteroid or a comet. My favorite theory is that it was caused by a tiny black hole under the surface of the earth. It should go without saying that websites upon which black helicopters loom large as a motif figure greatly in Tunguska Event research, and that one can have an evening of fantastic, knee-slapping fun, regardless of the veracity of the material. One of the cooler theories is that Nikolai Tesla was experimenting with an energy beam out on Long Island in his wondrous Wardenclyffe Tower, with its Stanford White base and its Ed Wood transmission tower. Some claim that Tesla had told Robert Peary to be on the lookout up there at the North Pole for a communication. The theory goes that Tesla’s super-voltage experiment went terrifically awry, and blew a crater the size of a city in Siberia. It’s a good story. But the Tunguska Event happened on June 30 and Peary didn’t even get out of New York until July 6.

The event, or non-event, figures as prominently as anything else in Against the Day. Tesla has a walk-on part, but much of the novel has to do with the things he studied: Light and aether and wireless communication. Pynchon presents the Tunguska Event as having been caused by Tesla, and like a hook-line-and-sinkered adventurer at Area 51, he does not depart from the script to give us contradictory information. It’s presented as fact.

There’s a wide-open world of possible invention in Against the Day, but Pynchon chose again and again to write the inventions (perhaps interesting because of their obscurity) which did not pan out. He chooses “aether” and the fourth dimension when he could have chosen the electromagnetic spectrum. He chose Tesla over Einstein. Perhaps there’s a denser population of drug abusers and philanderers among those who turned out to be wrong. I doubt it. Regardless, can we seriously say that they are more interesting than the folks who got it right?

I wrote earlier that Pynchon is the sort of author whose fans believe that he is helping them to figure out the world. But what world is this, and what fantasy is he helping them to know?

The constant hint of Pynchon’s ever-present secret architecture gives us the clue. “On this island,” says Yashmeen Halfcourt, “as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it’s Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers—all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted.”

And semblance utterly deserted. What key to the world could lie within the menus of Pugnax, the hyper-intelligent dog that lives on board the Inconvenience? “Consommé Imperial, Timbales de Suprêmes de Volailles, Gigot Grillé à la Sauce Piquante, and Aubergines à la Sauce Mousseline.”

Perhaps what’s at work is something comedians or “neuropathists would recognize” as the second half of the set-up to the old joke about how neurotics build castles in the air: “a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside.” Just like a joke (or a madness), Against the Day refers mostly to itself.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 6, on page 69
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/2007/2/pynchons-progress

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