AGAINST THE DAY
By Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press, $35, 1,085 pages
REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN
Thus far, both the Library of America and the Nobel prize givers have declined to honor him, despite impressive (if not oppressive) evidence that Thomas Pynchon is an American writer like none other before him. Behind the cloak of reclusiveness he has worn for more than 40 years lurks the possessor of a versatile intelligence that straddles almost casually what C.P. Snow called the two cultures of science and literature, and an analyst of historical, contemporary and future shock who observes the likely consequences of our global endgames with a grief-stricken stand-up comedian’s cadaverous grin.
Though few readers can command the range of knowledge and reference his burly books contain, we’ve known for some time more or less what Mr. Pynchon is up to. His first novel “V” (1963) brilliantly conjoins the pursuit of a mysteriously elusive woman with a quest bent on unmasking the forces that rule, and threaten the universe. Paranoia assumes simpler form in “The Crying of Lot 49” (1965), about a lone woman’s efforts to comprehend the machinations of an “underground” postal system.
The massive “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973) considers the consequences of applied science and super-sophisticated technology in the theater of world war (WWII), and the hearts and minds of those who would control, if not destroy us all. After “dropping out,” as it were, to portray California’s hippie culture imperiled by soulless bureaucrats in “Vineland” (1990), Mr. Pynchon rattled our brains again with “Mason and Dixon” (1997), an ebullient historical novel which pits its eponymous surveyors’ reductive mathematical calculations against a “wild” young country unprepared for such definition and regulation.
The planet is in trouble again in Mr. Pynchon’s huge, shaggy sixth novel. “Against the Day” returns to the inglorious days of yesteryear, and yes, Virginia, it was a simpler, more innocent time. However, its movers and shakers sowed seeds that would become the future. This, God help us all, will be the case with our present age.
This time around, Mr. Pynchon likewise returns to the encyclopedic multi-plotting of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” The novel’s trajectories are located in two diametrically opposed clusters of characters. We meet the first as the story begins, in the air, where a group of aeronautical adventurers, the Chums of Chance (whose feats of daring and good will are chronicled in a series of bestselling adventure books for boys), have pointed their “hydrogen skyship” the Inconvenience toward Chicago, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. (Attendees will also include Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand, but that’s another story.)
In a parallel plot that splits off into numerous other subplots, Colorado miner Webb Traverse, protesting unsafe working conditions where he and others labor beneath the earth, takes to planting bombs in places inconvenient to the diversified interests of ruthless plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe, who attends to this annoyance by directing his goons to murder the pesky freelance anarchist. (Mr. Pynchon may or may not forgive me for this, but every time Scarsdale drifted into the narrative, I found myself helplessly thinking of Scrooge McDuck.)
Webb Traverse’s four children then set out to avenge their martyred father and/or follow their own destinies — allowing Mr. Pynchon to careen, like Shakespeare’s Puck, around the planet, noting volatile social and political developments and natural and man-made disasters of all kinds.
Frank, a mining engineer, makes his way to Mexico and becomes involved in the revolution there. His brother Reef, a resourceful cardsharp, follows evidence of Vibe’s activities to Europe, where he gets enmeshed in the tangle of Balkan politics — not to mention cozying warily up to luscious mathematical prodigy Yashmeen Halfcourt and semi-closeted homosexual British secret agent Cyprian Lightwood. Meanwhile, as they say in the movie serials, the Traverse boys’ luckless sister Lake gets into bed (literally) with Webb’s killers, swooning passively into a sexual threesome with her creepy husband Deuce Kindred and his creepier pal Sloat Fresno.
Things get really complicated with the peregrinations of Webb’s youngest son Kit, the studious one, who grapples with the mysteries of mathematics at Yale, then in Germany (first, while en route to Gottingen, and a confusing relationship with Yashmeen — who’s bisexual, by the way — becoming both stirred and shaken by a mishap in a Belgian mayonnaise factory), thereafter embarking on a hopeful spiritual pilgrimage to “Shamanic Asia.”
Many, many other characters cross the paths of the intrepid Chums and the itinerant Traverses (that’s redundant, but so is the novel). Several of the more fetching include an airborne dog (Pugnax) glimpsed reading Henry James (The Princess Casamassima, yet); breathless seeker of “transcendence” Dahlia “Dolly” Rideout; “amiable death merchant” (arms dealer) Victor Mulciber; psychic detective Lew Basnight, who specializes in hunting anarchists; and the sinister True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetracyts (T.W.I.T.s), who, if I have this right, insist Time is a bona fide fourth dimension, contrary to the Vectorists, proponents of the theory that the universe contains a mere three.
What’s going on here? Something, or Someone appears to be breaking through. A dynamiting on July 4, 1899, presages the cataclysmic violence of the approaching century. Indeed, the sands of distant deserts are shifting in unprecedented ways.
Cyclones and tornadoes occur with alarming frequency, revolutions break out in Mexico and Russia, and Serbians and Turks dutifully slaughter one another. Jack the Ripper butchers London prostitutes. Nikolai Tesla’s dream of creating universally available inexpensive energy goes seriously awry. And in 1908 in Siberia, Kit is among those who observe the climatic phenomenon later known as the Tunguska Episode: a devastating and prolonged explosion apparently caused by a falling asteroid or comet.
Is the apocalypse on the way? That is perhaps the message brought by time travelers from the future, who (as the Chums, to whom they appear, gradually realize) are actually hoping to bypass 1893 and retreat to the comparative safety of the more distant past. Perhaps they aren’t the only ones — as readers may infer from this very novel’s willed resemblances to the matter and devices of juvenile fiction, spy and detective stories, westerns, science fiction and comic strips.
As scientists, military men and policy makers work on inventions and strategies designed to foil their enemies and ensure their survival (the lethal “Q Weapon,” the use of probability theory to predict terrorist violence, a biochemical “means to unloose upon the world energies hitherto unimagined”), a millenarian logic worthy of the Marx Brothers confirms the findings of the age’s self-appointed protectors: “The only way to address the problem of the State is with Counter-Death, also known as Chemistry.”
Still, there are those time travelers. There is the idealistic energy of the Chums, which contradicts the fatalism embodied by the Traverses, even if the flights of the Inconvenience appear to be describing directionless imperfect circles.
And there is the example of those who witnessed the strange events at Tunguska, which brought, along with bewilderment and dread, a “sense of overture and possibility,” and a stoical acceptance experienced as the power “to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day.”
Behind the usual scattering of stupid-jokes (“So, [an elephant] charges us. What do we do? Depends how much he’s charging”) and stomach-churning puns (an Icelandic eatery advertises its specialty “Meat Olaf”) lies something very like a threnody for a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Something out there (“What is coming to part the sky,” as we learn on the novel’s final page) knows that we may achieve our perverse goal, may think and invent and work our way out of trouble yet again.
Perhaps the answer lies in the mythical Asian paradise of Shambhala (the goal of Kit’s ultimate quest, which provides this unruly book’s best pages). More likely, it’s in ourselves. Readers who aim to decode all of the novel’s embedded and interwoven messages, like seekers after one nirvana or another, will probably have to settle for incomplete answers. And yet — wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles — a novel designed to demonstrate exhaustively that nothing ultimately coheres nevertheless manages to fuse its dozens of disparate, baffling, ragged elements into an imposing and satisfying whole. There’s mystery for you.
Bruce Allen lives in Kittery, Maine, and writes regularly for the Boston Globe, Raleigh News & Observer, Kirkus Reviews and other publications.