Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon

Chaos theory put to the test

By David Goldblatt
Friday 15 December 2006 01:00

I looked in vain for the kitchen sink in this book. It really ought to have been there, for Thomas Pynchon has thrown everything else at this novel. Against the Day, at more than a thousand pages, is the text that puts the ram back into ramshackle and most assuredly the shag back into the shaggy dog story. This shambling ragbag of prose rattles with more than a hundred characters, multiple settings in this world and others and a multitude of narratives held together by gossamer skeins of plot.

The book offers, in unequal measures, parody, pastiche, allusion and illusion, cultural references and scientific theories, songs, gags, puns and practical jokes, innumerable metaphors, dead ends, one-way streets and highway intersections jammed with sleights of hand and literary tricks... and an awful lot of lists. If you like your characters rounded, sympathetic and plausible, you are in for a shock. If you like your narratives crisp and clean, you are in for a hard time. But then, you are in for a hard time whatever.

Consider this: Webb Traverse, a Colorado miner by day, is a dynamiting anarchist by night, wreaking havoc on the mining corporations of the Midwest. Scarsdale Vibe, our emblematic robber-baron capitalist, orders his assassination by two low-life hustlers, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno. Webb's sons Frank and Reef seek revenge, daughter Lake shacks up with Deuce and youngest son Kit is offered a Yale scholarship by Vibe.

Their stories entwine with, inter alia, the Chums of Chance, a bunch of do-gooding globe-trotting aeronauts; itinerant anarchists plotting in Belgium and fighting in Mexico; mathematicians, time-travellers and technologists from California to Göttingen. The great powers struggle to locate the mythic city of Shambhala in submarines that travel through the sand of central Asian deserts.

Maybe that résumé will help you, but frankly you're on your own. I was lost by page 100 when the book began to talk to me. No, seriously, to me. As TP himself knows, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that the author isn't trying to get you. Increasingly, from out of the great swathes of white noise and literary wallpaper a voice seemed to address me directly: "The connections lie there, hidden and perilous. Those of us who must creep among them must do so at our peril." The perils included exasperation, boredom, irritation, regular visits to the outer reaches of the dictionary and plain old confusion, but there were also moments of monumental prose, hysteria, wonder and laughter.

When one character finds himself, for no good reason I could discern, creeping around a Belgian mayonnaise factory in the dead of night and is then almost drowned by the sudden release of vats of the creamy dressing, the mere parallel between the dynamics of Pynchon's universe and the experience of reading about it was transformed into perfect mirror images. Halfway through the book, one half of a pair of bifurcated professors of international relations tried to soothe me: "Best procedure when considering the Balkans is not to look at components singly, one begins to run around the room screaming after a while - but altogether... the way master chess players are said to regard the board."

If one can manage to stop running around the room screaming, perhaps the only skein of sense that runs right through the belly of this book is the arc of global history from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to some indeterminate point in the influenza-ridden aftermath of the First World War. Pynchon casts the former as an emblematic moment, announcing the fearful emergence of America's own raging red-blooded take on modernity; its rapacious capitalism, its giddy technological development unhinged from moral bearings, its neurotic religiosity. The war to come weighs like an unseen and often unspoken fate.

Who knows, but what I think old TP is on about is something like this. The historical trends of Western modernity that gathered pace in the late 19th century and exploded in the early 20th were experienced by those who were present as fragmentary and unknowable. To recreate that moment, to capture its irrationality, demands the most centrifugal use of words and stories. The impossibility of directly perceiving the real forces at work in humanity's cataclysm requires a long, chaotic meditation on the theme of invisibility, engagement with the dilemmas of mathematics and physics and the exploration of the alternative directions our history could have taken.

I'm prepared to go so far with this. I'm prepared to engage with Pynchon's multiple universes, fragmentary stories, ellipses, absences and red herrings. But there are limits. I lasted 850 pages before I was reduced to skimming. First, if we're going to play this game, at this length, the jokes need to be funnier, the puns better, the prose tauter. And the songs? Maybe just lose them altogether.

Second, I like a drug-addled tale as much as the next old hippie, and Against the Day is drenched in alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, acid trips and flashbacks, smoking dens and opiates. But I like my editors really straight. In fact, this book could have done with one. Failing that, I wonder whether that inspirational afternoon spliff was one too many.

Third, call me an old rationalist if you will, but I just don't accept that the hellish course of human history is this incomprehensible. For all the tangible chaos of the world, I don't accept that mathematics and the occult are of any help in explaining it. The invisible forces at work that took the West over the top in 1914 were the economic, political and military structures created and unleashed by human societies; we need less reading of tarot cards and more reading of Max Weber, we need less cabalists and more nationalists.

Pynchon's scope is so mad, so grand, that he glides lightly across this terrain. I hoped early on in the book that he might stay the course, but the wild hinterlands of intoxication and irrationality called him away. I finished the book thinking that I, like Pynchon's characters, "had difficulty remembering the earlier rise of heart, the sense of overture and possibility and went back once again to seeking only orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day".

David Goldblatt is probably the author of 'The Ball is Round: a Global History of Football'; has recommended that its perfect partner is 'Against the Day'

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