Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

Pynchon-Against the DayThomas Pynchon has long been one of my favorite American authors, ever since the local librarian in our small town objected to allowing me, all of seventeen years old (and a very skinny, gawky, naïve seventeen, at that), to borrow V. Dad, to his lasting shame, voted with the librarian. (Being me, of course, I went down the street and bought a copy — they don’t check IDs at bookstores.) The librarian characterized V. as “nasty,” which is the reaction that many people have to Pynchon’s writing. It’s really no nastier than reading the papers, and a lot more edifying. Call it instead rich, potent, earthy, sometimes phantasmic, and tough, and you’re a lot closer.

Let’s get the basics out of the way right off the bat: this is a huge book, it is superbly written, it wanders, it sprawls, the cast of characters seems to keep growing and growing, bizarre things happen, and the explanations for them, when there are any, are as bizarre as the events themselves. That’s pretty much a capsule description of any novel by Thomas Pynchon.

But. . . .

It does sprawl. It sprawls all over the world, including places that don’t exist. (Imagine it’s about 1895 and you are on urgent mission to head off an expedition to the North polar regions before it retrieves an unfortunate artifact. Since you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you take the direct route with your semi-rigid airship: through the center of the Earth, which, ominously, seems to be closing up.) And yet the book, for all its size, its huge scale, remains intimate, an ongoing story that never quite gets lost in the mass of events.

Pynchon’s prose is magical. The writing is beautiful, and that’s not something I say about much writing. It is immensely flexible, which only makes sense when your subject is the world, and it is filled with quiet little moments (among the not-so-quiet), perhaps small bons mots or longer passages that you stop and reread just for sheer pleasure’s sake. It’s dense, too, intoxicatingly rich in allusions, references, borrowings, appropriations, but somehow doesn’t have the “look at me!” feeling that so often is the result of that kind of erudition. In that regard, it’s a fairly quiet book, a mature work that has put subtlety in the place of flash while losing none of the fire. You have to pace yourself, or drown in it.

Speaking of which, the erudition for which Pynchon is noted is here in its full glory, It’s hard to point out specific examples because it is put in the service of bolstering fantasy as well as reality — the text is detailed, specific, whether the subject is forms of calcium carbonate or time travel. One thing that few commentators point out, however, which I think is implicit here, is the way in which that erudition is enlisted in support of an amazing creative genius: people are blown away by what Pynchon knows, but don’t seem to say anything about what he does with it.

It’s a funny book, in just about every way you can think of, from laugh-out-loud passages to quieter, more reflective humor. And it’s a very lively novel — all that erudition, which includes pop music, movies, urban legends, high art, low art, math, science, history, psychology, you name it, all goes into the service of life.

But the mood is changeable. The beginning is sprightly, almost brainlessly cheerful — a perfect re-creation of a fin de siécle early twentieth-century boys’ adventure story. It gets darker, people become cynical, sometimes bitter, but it’s never quite desperate. “Balance,” I think is the word. There’s a fair amount of outrage here (see below, under “Themes”), but there’s also a lot of sympathy, even empathy. It’s a desperately human book.

Themes. Like any writer worth reading, Pynchon hits the big ones — racism, religion, man’s inhumanity to man. The one that strikes me as an ongoing concern, sort of a pedal note throughout the oeuvre, is loss of innocence. It’s there, in some form, always, whether it’s an individual facing the realities of life or a civilization having to recognize its failings (and not doing it, as often as not, although we the readers see it all too clearly). It’s here, too, in the hope of science running headlong into the self-interest of the plutocracy. (Pynchon specifically disclaimed any reference to contemporary events in this portrait of “unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places.” Well. It’s not the first time we’ve been faced with that combination of evils, nor will it be the last.) It’s not a tragedy, it’s just life.

I’ve mentioned (and I’m certainly not alone in this) that Pynchon tends to make his own reality — time travel in nineteenth-century America, for example. He blurs distinctions between the various elements of his arsenal — high art and low art, high culture and pop culture, have the same weight. (I can sympathize with that — art is art, after all.) He makes rational explanations for irrational things that partake of the irrationality of their models. The critic James Wood called Pynchon’s fiction “hysterical realism,” which takes it a step beyond the likes of Garcia Marquez or Samuel R. Delany. I tend to lump them all together, along with such illustrious forbears as Rabelais, Cervantes, Woolf, a few others. (I’ll grant that the unreality of Woolf’s later works doesn’t quite fit the mold, not being particularly hysterical, but there’s a genetic resemblance. One can hardly consider Orlando to be naturalistic, and it does have some of the sweep of the others.) A lot of bizarre people do weird things in a world that doesn’t quite fit what we see around us. Unless we squint a little bit.

Much is made of Pynchon’s opening sentences. They are important. Given the breadth of his work to date, his range of concerns and images, I think the beginning here is worth paying attention to: “Now single up all lines!”

And that’s just what he does.

(The Penguin Press, 2006)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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