Against the Day Weblog

November 13, 2006

Pynchon vs the Toaster

Filed under: Reviews — basileios @ 10:47 am

Another Review, this one by Richard Lacayo in Time magazine. (WARNING. This review is full of spoilers so don’t read if you do not want to know anything about Against the Day before you read it).

Ordinary novelists have readers. Thomas Pynchon has decoders. Anyone who has ventured into the manic densities of Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon knows the drill. You comb through his superabundance of historical data and scientific arcana. You adjust your nerve endings to operate at his mad frequencies. Day after day you resume the steep ascent of his achievement and just hope to make camp before nightfall.

In the late 1960s I encountered Pynchon’s first novel, V. Duly enchanted, I swore that eventually I would decipher every one of his enigmas. That Pynchon himself was one of them, that he never gave interviews or permitted his photograph to be published, only made him more irresistible. To this day his only public “appearances” have been two guest spots on The Simpsons. Both times he was wearing a bag over his head.

Nearly four decades and many rereadings later, I know better than to suppose that anyone fully penetrates Pynchon’s intentions, not in V., not in his short masterpiece The Crying of Lot 49 and certainly not in his mammoth new book, Against the Day (Penguin; 1,085 pages). Of course this makes me not just a Pynchon reader but practically a Pynchon character, another of his comically put-upon quest figures who journey into mysteries that engulf them. Even that is part of Pynchon’s grand scheme, which is to make the experience of reading his work a demonstration of his most forceful intuition, or one of them: that history is a monstrously deceptive puzzle and the world is a shower of clues, most of them false.

At 3 lbs. 6 oz., Against the Day weighs just 3 oz. less than my toaster. But my toaster doesn’t offer the tantalizing music of Pynchon’s voice, with its shifts from comic shtick to heartbroken threnody, its mordant Faulkneresque interludes, its gusts of lyric melancholy blown in by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald, its ecstatic perorations from Jack Kerouac. And my toaster will never lay before me a vision of a world in which technology is stripping away all the ancient, vital magic while shepherding mankind to the brink of destruction. On the other hand, my toaster makes toast, and nothing quite so graspable ever pops out of this predictably bewitching, predictably bewildering book.

Characters? Oh, there are lots of characters. Easily more than 100 flit in and out of the madly proliferating plotlines. And those plots? In a novel that begins at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and concludes in the aftermath of World War I, one that passes through Colorado, Venice, London, Vienna, Mexico, central Asia, the upper atmosphere and the fourth dimension, there are frequent stretches where a new plot seems to start every paragraph or two. The book opens with the Chums of Chance, a quarrelsome brotherhood of operatives that pops up throughout the novel, circumnavigating the globe in a giant dirigible, on missions ordered by mysterious higher authorities. But soon enough, Pynchon pursues new story lines involving Webb Traverse, an anarchist bomber in Colorado; his three sons Reef, Frank and Kit; and the various women in their lives. When Webb dies at the hands of gunslingers in the pay of Scarsdale Vibe, a ruthless mogul, his sons pledge to avenge his murder, but the project gets complicated. For one thing, their sister Lake ends up married to one of the killers. For another, brother Kit becomes the beneficiary of Vibe’s calculating generosity, studying higher mathematics at the old man’s expense in Göttingen, Germany, a hotbed of mathematical theorizing–assuming hotbed and mathematical can be used in the same sentence.

This is a Pynchon novel, so of course they can. In Göttingen, Kit will be dazzled by Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematician with mystical leanings. Yashmeen, meanwhile, is caught up in the theoretical wars between vector analysts and the champions of Quaternions, each with their visions of which was more real–time or space. This last controversy is somehow central to Pynchon’s preoccupations with time travel, alternate realities and a whole spectrum of options for escaping a world headed into the calamities of World War I and beyond. Lacking a degree in advanced math, I’m still hard pressed to say just how.

More than in any of Pynchon’s previous books, just what it all means is a problem in Against the Day, where plots and ideas and fantastic developments pile up in exhausting profusion. You’ve been vouchsafed once again his vision of a bright, beleaguered world, this one with more than its share of resemblances to our realities post–Sept. 11. With another few decades of reading and decoding, you may even get the work’s largest intentions to snap into focus. Or maybe not. For all its brilliant passages, this is the book that makes you wonder whether even Pynchon knows what lies behind all those veils he’s always urging us to part. But wouldn’t you know it? Even when he jumps the shark, he does it with an agility that can take your breath away.


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