CAPE £20 £18 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon

Gweetings, gentlemen

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, "...no 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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick