Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon

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The Independent Culture

Nearly a decade in the preparation, Thomas Pynchon's sixth novel is set in the years between the Chicago World Fair of 1893 and the period immediately post-Armistice in 1918, in an America for which the frontier is a vanishing memory and in a Europe that is sloping inexorably towards war. In the very loosest of loose senses, the action revolves around the family of Webb Traverse, a miner and Union man whose hatred of the capitalist-industrialist system - "the juggernaut that had rolled down on the country and flat stolen it" - leads him to start making and planting bombs for the emerging anarchist movement. When Traverse is gunned down by the hitmen Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred, agents of the malignant plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe (get used to these names), his sons Reef and Frank set out to avenge him. A third son, Kit, a mathematician, allows Vibe to sponsor his education, while Traverse's daughter Lake marries one of her father's killers.

Around the stories of Traverse's four children, pursued as and when it takes Pynchon's fancy, spin narrative strands involving, inter alia, a crew of dirigible-bound aeronauts known as the Chums of Chance; a talking dog called Pugnax; a ravishing Oxonian undergraduette of uncertain sexual preference named Yashmeen Harcourt; Merle Rideout, a photographer-alchemist, and his flame-haired daughter; as well as Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, the Reverend Lube Carnal, Root Tubsmith, Alonzo Meatman and the "noted Uyghur troublemaker" Al Mar-Fuad ("Gweetings, gentlemen!"), some of whom appear only for a page or two before sinking beneath the waves of new inspiration or Pynchonian boredom. There are episodes set at Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower; in Siberia at the time of the Tunguska Event; on the Pythagorean Antichthon, or counter-Earth, and in the mythical city of Shambhala. Topics under discussion include the Riemann zeta-function, multidimensional vector-space, quaternion theory, the physics of light and the intricacies of Kabbalistic Tarot, in none of which does the reader stand to be substantially edified if he or she doesn't know about them already.

Many will already be salivating in anticipation of such a large order of Pynchon soup, and this one is the biggest yet - at 1,085 pages substantially overtopping both Gravity's Rainbow (760pp) and Mason & Dixon (773pp). Yet, while most of the ingredients for a masterpiece are here, something is amiss with the preparation.

In the early days of Pynchon's fame there seemed a kind of logic in the author's well-publicised reticence from public life, largely since it was almost impossible to imagine the novels being written by a human being. The ferociously intelligent Gravity's Rainbow (1973) and its precursor V (1963), were haunting masterpieces of slapstick suffering, in which characters moved like chess pieces on a board of warfare, paranoia and oppression to the accompaniment of hysterical puns, pitiless theoretical conceits and bruisingly acute passages of warped lyricism. By the time of the splendid 18th-century pastiche Mason & Dixon (1997) there had arisen signs of a mature style that gave as much space to an attentive scrutiny of the relationships between people as it did to metaphor-making and mathematical pyrotechnics. Against the Day does not mark much of a progression: it's too big, too broad, too stuffed with competing storylines, whirligig digressions and the operations of authorial whim to permit of a continuous conception of character.

Yet, oddly, parts of the book appear designed for just the opposite effect. Pynchon does some arrestingly profound groundwork on the Traverse family in the early chapters, yet in short order even they come to appear as little more than ciphers annotated with brief notes about character and motivation. Occasionally he ups the signal-to-noise register and out of the chatter swims a luminously pathetic scene of human interaction: but it might be between anyone. The prevailing impression is of incremental chaos, of information piling up with no egress in narrative. It's worth noting, too, that the jokes have gone rather flat, with neither the death's-head mugging of the Gravity's Rainbow humorist nor the cheerful byplay of Mason & Dixon. Page after page is consumed in headlong gallops to a low-rate pun, and even the song-and-dance numbers that punctuate the text - previously a speciality - can seem like the work of a jaded pasticheur.

As a novel of ideas, this book is a further stage in the enactment of the classic Pynchonian concern: the forging of the modern world by an opposition between, as Pynchon once wrote, cultures valuing analysis and differentiation and cultures valuing unity and integration. In practice, this means the strong against the weak, the haves against the have-nots; but the theme is played out, as ever, in a semiotic echo chamber, with anarchism and syndicalism, Eros and Thanatos, Swords and Cups, black and white, sadists and masochists, light and darkness et al chiming harmonics. The game of intellectual mix-and-match this offers the reader (nearly every character in the book, for example, has a double) is still a pleasure, if a slightly sterile one.

Amid such confusion, the author's rare talents as a stylist could be easily forgotten. Fortunately, heartstopping felicities of description lurk around every corner. Here is Pynchon on an Italian town at the foot of the Dolomites, " artifact within miles of here younger than a thousand years, marble hands in flowing gestures conversing among themselves as if having only just emerged from their realm of calcium gravity into this trellised repose." It is hard to forget his evocation of a city seen from the air at sunset, in which "great disks of day-wearied birds tilted and careened above the squares big and small, brushed with penultimate light one moment, shed of it the next." Almost no one does this kind of thing better.

Against the Day is a startlingly discontinuous novel, a work of full-spectrum intelligence and erudition that is at times bafflingly tiresome and ungenerous to the reader. Reading it is not unlike that of swivelling the dial on a radio, or dropping a bundle of snapsnots, or watching light split through a prism. Something in it will mean something important to almost anybody. But the parts make a chaotic whole.