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Let’s say you’re at a party. A man (let’s call him Nitt Wittgenhaus) begins telling you a story. As in any good story there are twists and eddies, and while he’s talking you notice, across the room, a hermaphrodite wearing a low-cut shirt. You would like to meet this hermaphrodite, but Nitt is regaling you with his story, and as you listen to him, trying to pay attention, you think maybe he’s referring to you, and possibly even the hermaphrodite. You can see parallels to your life and your world, and yes, the story is inventive and allusive, but at a certain point it becomes, because of its length more than anything, if not quite a harangue, at least a little discourteous.
Thomas Pynchon has written a book, no doubt about it. Against the Day is a novel, spanning most of the physical world and bouncing around the temporal one as well. It begins with a cheerful, bickering band of boy balloonists, refugees from a boy’s adventure story who, along with a dog that reads lesser-known works by Henry James, are part of the troupe of young explorers, traveling on the airship Inconvenience. They arrive at the World’s Fair of 1893, and the story proceeds from there to places both real and imagined, chronologically traversing more than 20 years of history: through pizza parlors in New Haven, to assassinations in Bosnia, to the infamous, yet largely unknown Tunguska Event, a mysterious explosion in 1908 that, with the force of an atomic bomb, leveled about 900 square miles of Siberia.
The central narrative of Against the Day revolves around a pair of families, one of which is headed by Webb Traverse, a mine worker and anarchist bomb-maker living in Colorado. When Traverse is murdered by hired gunslingers, probably in the employ of Scarsdale Vibe, ruler of a devious Gilded Age monopoly, the four Traverse children embark on a quest to rectify or avenge or become complicit in their father’s death. Kit accepts a scholarship from Vibe to attend Yale University, Reef settles into the life of a gambler and gunfighter, Frank journeys to revolutionary Mexico to become a guerilla, and Lake, the lone daughter, marries the man who killed her father. As in the Indian epic the Mahabharata, one family (the flawed but still basically good Traverses) is pitted against another (the not so good Vibes), a dynastic family who understands that their wealth is dependent upon constant manipulation, the logical consequence of which is murder.
The cloud of foreboding that hangs over this book is a fear, a Pynchonian paranoia, that the martial instincts of capitalism, having already corrupted Tesla’s idea of free electricity, will come to control and limit the very act of thinking. Who, living in the world now, with wars erupting (or about to erupt) and plagues spreading (or about to spread) can’t feel the sense of impending catastrophe? We’ve all heard (from parents or grandparents or the cultural ether we live in) about the Great War and the Great Depression, and wasn’t the event of the twin towers a kind of catastrophe we were waiting for? Against the Day reminds us that the world is out of balance, that the famous center isn’t holding, and aren’t we all waiting for something big that “will change us forever?” And of course we don’t want that thing to happen, but we act as if to encourage it. So maybe we do want it. Maybe we want something big, because that something big might give us meaning.
Along the route of the book’s almost 1100 pages the reader encounters, and can easily get lost in, a tremendous assortment of strangely named characters and a bewildering array of scientific arcana. There’s the battle (between the Vectorists and the Quaternions) over the primacy of either Time or Space, and references to the Michelson-Morley experiment, in which the theory that light exists in a luminiferous ether was finally disproved. In one scene, because of some esoteric mind control, a man who says, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” actually is a jelly doughnut. This is neither “magic” nor “realism.” Against the Day seems, purposely, to eschew the conventions of novel writing, taking the side of anarchy, both historical and metaphysical. However, the narrative anarchy it luxuriates in serves, more than anything, to recreate the kind of conventionality it is, ostensibly, trying to avoid.
It’s no accident that Pynchon has set Against the Day about a hundred years ago. It’s instructive to look back on that time and witness what has happened since that time, to see what we were and see (in what we were) what we are. And yes, what we are is basically the same, but our understanding of the world, whether we knew it or not, has been in constant flux. Pynchon’s novel is trying to respond to that flux, and the difficulty, if there is one, is describing the world with a template that was established so long ago. The great sprawling novels of the past are great and sprawling and wonderful because that’s what we know. We’ve been taught to love them and validate them and hold them up for emulation. But I’m wondering if Milan Kundera is right. He has said that the novel has an elastic structure, that its possibilities are infinite. But I’m wondering if our new century might need a new kind of book, not to replace the novel, but to augment the arsenal of what is possible to say with words. I’m a slow reader, who likes to savor words. I don’t want to speed-read something that’s supposed to be… well, that’s just it, what is a book supposed to be, now, in our, perhaps, utopian age of the world wide web and all that goes with it? I’m not sure, but as I was reading this book I was, first of all wishing it would have been smaller, and secondly, thinking about what a new kind of book might be.
Let’s say you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You’ve gone to see a show of Steichen’s photographs say, or maybe the portraits Rembrandt painted of his wife. Let’s say at the entrance you’re given an audio tour, a set of headphones that lead you through the museum’s collection. Not parts of the collection, but the whole of the whole museum, from Greek vases to Impressionist paintings to early American furniture to religious icons, back and forth, on and on, across every floor and wing and gallery. And in a way, that’s what Pynchon is doing, showing us the entire museum. And although some of the detail, and some of the intimacy, gets lost or diminished, a sense of the whole is both worthwhile and inspiring. Against the Day creates an overstocked world, and it’s our world, and he reminds us that we’re creating that world. In its way, it advocates for the freedom to create the world we want, and although you may be satisfied with a more circumscribed and condensed version of the experience, Pynchon, with all his ambition intact, rails against the day that freedom might ever be curtailed.