Reviews

The World of Tomorrow, Today: An Attempt at a Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

By posted at 7:37 am on February 5, 2007 3

coverLet us for a moment, reader, move beyond the dreary cacophony of snap-judgments – the mindless hatchetwork of critics who abandoned the novel halfway through, the predictable enthusiasms of the Elect, the hedged bets of those who managed to finish just in time for deadline. Let us distance ourselves from the welter of conflicting reports, reviews, and rumors swirling in the cultural Aether. Let us imagine for ourselves a time-machine; let us step inside; let us hurtle 100 years into the future and look back on the unexplained event that was Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Let us, that is, undertake a project not unlike the project of the novel itself. Reader, let us try to make it mean something.

1.

The year is 2107. Thomas Pynchon is, not surprisingly, well-represented on bookshelves. Still in print, still read. Thanks in no small part to the late-period efflorescence of Mason & Dixon, (and of course the extraordinary seventh and eighth novels), the man is now recognized as one of the 20 or 30 Great American Voices: tough and tender, erudite and foolish, and oddly, it turns out, elegiac. Witness, for example, Against the Day’s aging matriarch Mayva Traverse, here in the employ of the Oust family:

Too fast almost to register, the years had taken Mayva from a high-strung girl with foreign-looking eyes to this calm dumpling of a housekeeper in a prosperous home that might as well be halfway back east, set upwind from the sparks and soot of the trains, where she kept portraits and knickknacks dusted, knew how much everything cost, what time to the minute each of the Oust kids would wake (all but the one maybe, the one with the destiny), and where each of the family was likely to’ve gone when they weren’t in the house…her once spellbinding eyes brought back, as field-creatures are re-enfolded at the end of day, into orbits grown pillow-soft, on watch within, guarding a thousand secrets of these old Territories never set down, and of how inevitable, right from the minute the first easterners showed up, would be the betrayal of everyday life out here, so hard-won, into the suburban penance the newcomers had long acceded to. The children in her care never saw past the kind and forever bustling old gal, never imagined her back in Leadville raising all species of hell…

Were B.R. Meyers still living, he would doubtless be able to pick this apart: there’s a mixed metaphor, the imprecision of “re-enfolded,” a dangling modifier or two… But what did B.R. Meyers make of Melville? Damn it, Pynchon’s is great American prose, its looseness and openness to error being what makes it American as well as great. And if Pynchon’s bardic breath remained as long as it was in Gravity’s Rainbow, his syntax, we now know, gradually grew clearer. Notice the ellipsis in the middle of that first sentence, giving the reader room to rest. Notice the way the eyes are then “brought back” syntactically as well as figuratively. Notice the range of the diction, from the sublime to the vernacular. Notice what Anthony Lane, way back in the year 1997, called “a resolute refusal to turn pretty.” In the late works, as in the early ones, Pynchon flirted with portentousness, but some inner gravity kept his language rooted.

From 2107, it is likewise easy to see that Pynchon’s accomplishment did not end with his sentences and paragraphs and novels, but extended to the aesthetic, cultural, and political possibilities they disclosed for several generations of artists. Here, on our adamantium coffee table, lies a moldering copy of Bookforum’s 2006 festchrift for Gravity’s Rainbow… and a dusty Tin House Books edition of Zak Smith’s illustrations. And across the room, on a glow-in-the-dark desk, are stacks of novels by the writers Pynchon transformed. Without Gravity’s Rainbow, no Infinite Jest. No White Teeth. No Mao II. (Or fill the time capsule with your own favorite “hysterical realists” (to excavate an old James Wood formulation.)) Not since Yoknapatawpha paved the way for Macondo did an author, for better or worse, open up so much territory for his peers.

In the context of these achievements, local and global – and in the context of Pynchon’s public invisibility (itself possibility-disclosing) – the appearance of each novel generated extraordinary expectations. Mason & Dixon, published exactly 110 years ago, raised the bar higher, proving that Pynchon was capable of equaling if not surpassing his own masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow. Then Against the Day arrived, a seeming aberration. No one could agree. It was either his best novel or his worst. It was neither. It was both, sometimes on the same page. In a career full of oddities, it was itself an oddity (which maybe made it, via the kind of Rube-Goldberg dialectic Pynchon always excelled in, his most representative novel.)

2.

The plot, such as it is, concerns three groups of characters entangled both by accidents of circumstance and by the common denominator of innocence lost. It is Hamlet by way of Jules Verne, B. Traven, and Graham Greene… a revenge delayed for no apparent reason, in this case for 900 pages.

First, we have the Traverses, a rough-and-tumble family in the mining country of Colorado, circa 1890. The murder of the patriarch, terrorist-cum-freedom fighter Webb Traverse, presents his offspring – hedonistic Reef, dutiful Frank, brainy Kit, and rebellious daughter Lake – with the motive for revenge, if not the means. Later, in Europe, Kit becomes mixed-up with a set of Oxbridge youth playing spy-games for the Great Powers. Meanwhile, above or slightly to the side of it all hover the Chums of Chance, a semi-fictitious gang of boy aeronauts, and their pals from other dime-novel genres: the detective Lew Basnight, the mad scientist Merle Rideout, and assorted hangers-on.

Having had 100 years to ruminate on it, this is about as concise as I can get. Like every Pynchon novel, this one is a chain of substitutions: a quest is undertaken, only to be abandoned when another, more interesting quest surfaces. (This series, receding toward a vanishing point, forms a V.). Their very insolubility is the great lesson enforced by these quests.

What is new in Against the Day is the way the insolubility of the quests points to questions of character, rather than to the philosophical impossibility of pinning down answers at a time of increasing entropy. That is, the Traverses’ failure to avenge their father’s death is their own damn fault. They have plenty of chances to kill Webb’s killers (Lake ends up married to one, and Kit ends up the protege of another). But they are bruised, they are weak, they are stupid, they are easily tempted. They are, in a word, feckless, and much of the drift of the novel as a whole is their drift, across continents and years…

The Chums of Chance, by contrast, are all duty. Bound by a naive but endearing code of honor, they zoom around in their airship seeking to set everything right. Somehow they, too, fail, but their failures seem more honorable than those of the earthbound characters they look down on. In the course of the book, both Chums and Traverses undergo an education that brings them closer to one another, philosophically.

But maybe this is too concise to do the book justice. In the course of its generous length, Against the Day also encompasses a World’s Fair, a World War, mathematical conferences, time travel, trips to the mythical city of Shambala and the anti-Earth, proto-psychedelic trips, labor unrest, and a truly bizarre interlude at a Harmonica Marching Band Academy. The list could go on (and would, if I were Pynchon). And because this is Pynchon, there is both high-minded theorizing and low humor: slapstick, puns, talking dogs, and Pig Bodine.

The jokes, in fact, are funnier than in Pynchon’s earlier novels… madcap Groucho-Marxist interludes often float gloriously free of their context:

“How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.
He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens…

And in dozens upon dozens of set-pieces totaling hundreds and hundreds of pages, the painful progress of the Traverse kids, the Chums, and even minor characters like Mayva (mentioned above) are rendered with bristling, autumnal clarity. Pynchon transports us to a time when the future seemed to promise dozens of possibilities for utopia – technological, political, mathematical – and then, just as we begin to forget that these promises are doomed, he makes us feel what it must have felt like when they failed, culminating in the killing fields of the First World War.

The numb evasions of the Traverses, at their most compelling, are allegories for our own.

3.

Having gestured, then, toward some of the wonders that await between the covers of Against the Day, I’d like to address the question of why it ultimately falls short of Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon… why it still feels, 100 years later, more like an arithmetic extension of the Pynchon oeuvre (by a whopping 50%, in terms of page-count) than like a geometric enlargement of it.

First, there are a couple of flaws in the writing. Pynchon does moments very well – his dialogue has never been better, his description rarely so. He likewise does the panoramic chronicle well, but for vast stretches of Against the Day, he seems to abandon everything in between. We get staccato bursts of scene with minimal set-up: two pages, page break, one page, page break, and then suddenly six months elapse in a single paragraph. What gets lost in the meantime? Well, character, for one thing. Though the Traverse kids and several of their lovers and friends gradually attain a fullness of personality, several key players, including a key dyad, never do. Both Webb Traverse and his plutocrat nemesis Scarsdale Vibe remain more abstractions than characters, and neither of their deaths affects the reader as it does the characters in the book. Thus the grief and helplessness of Webb’s children seem more artifacts of their status as Pynchon characters than outgrowths of the novel’s chain of events. We are never grounded in Webb, and we need to be. Or to put it another way, we find out too late that we should have been paying attention to him.

The absence of a mid-range lens on the action also, in the long fourth movement of the book, makes the reader wonder if the author is as adrift as his characters… waiting for something interesting to turn up. Too often that something interesting is another character. People cross paths in this novel with astounding frequency, by authorial fiat, and though there is certainly a knowingness to the way these encounters are set up – e.g. “when who should turn out to be in Transylvania but Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin!” – the stylistic tic has diminishing returns. Because we can’t fit them into any pattern, the encounters cease to be meaningful, and thus believable.

Finally, the thematic force of Against the Day is more dispersed than that of its predecessors. Though the title does in fact begin to resonate (at first I thought it sounded like a new James Bond movie), it never quite rises to the level of controlling metaphor. Instead, we are left to with a couple of large arcs that never quite intersect, and thus can’t bear the load of an entire novel.

One of these arcs is really interesting, and involves the possibility of existing in more than one position in space and time. Characters in Against the Day are constantly troubled by the sense that they are living more than one life in alternate worlds, or in the future, or in the past. It turns out that in 1900 this seemed scientifically quite possible… it wasn’t space that seemed conquerable then, but time. Pynchon has terrific fun with the idea of “bilocation,” and stirs up a whole hornet’s nest of metaphysical questions in the process.

Set against this is the idea that everything basically comes down to the same thing: the Manichean struggle of dark against light (against the day). Sometimes Pynchon codes darkness as a good thing (darkness as anarchy vs. light as order), and sometimes he codes it as bad (darkness as fear vs. light as love), but the dualism persists throughout the novel, and seems to undercut the rich sense of possibility “bilocation” introduces. Or maybe that’s the point. But it seems to me that Pynchon’s already said what there is to be said on the subject of good vs. evil, and that the creamy middles are what he does best these days.

4.

Ultimately, the inhabitants of the future will read Pynchon for the same reason people did back in 2007: because he does exactly what the hell it wants to. In this way, Against the Day is very much of a piece with his previous books. Though it may not be as structurally sound as Gravity’s Rainbow, it is certainly as imaginative. And if it lacks some of the depth of Mason & Dixon’s title characters, it builds on that book’s ethical maturity, laying out a vision of right and wrong for the post-utopian age it turns out we’re all living in. To tax Against the Day with plotlessness or bloat, as some reviewers apparently did once upon a time, is like berating an overstuffed couch for not being an Eames chair. To assess it as a failure is itself a failure. We may not reread Against the Day annually, or even read it twice, but no fan of Pynchon – and there are many of us, still – will regret a month spent in the company of this anarchic, capacious book.





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3 Responses to “The World of Tomorrow, Today: An Attempt at a Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day”

  1. martin
    at 9:41 am on February 5, 2007

    for those who departed to early is it not their loss. i am not quite half way through and it has been a long time since i enjoyed a book like this the only one it reminds me of is confederacy of dunces. maerty

  2. pk
    at 11:02 pm on February 5, 2007

    i think Menand read it all before writing his New Yorker review… i found this line very funny:

    "The preposterous length of the new book does include a vertiginous sensation, somewhat in the way of a “Where’s Waldo?” cartoon: the text exceeds our ability to keep everything in our heads, to take it all in at once."

  3. Publications « Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 6:03 pm on May 10, 2012

    […] – The Cantos / John Berryman – Dream Songs /  Ted Berrigan – The Sonnets *  Thomas Pynchon – Against the Day * Thomas Pynchon – Inherent Vice * Philip Roth – Sabbath’s Theater * Norman Rush […]

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