Against the Day
Reviewed by James Renovitch, Fri., Dec. 15, 2006
Against the Day
by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 1,085 pp., $35"Then I saw that I was mistaking confusion for depth."
And now 731 pages in is when the notion that Thomas Pynchon is messing with you starts to jell, only to remain gelatinous for the duration of Against the Day. Big surprise, right? Pynchon splitting his time going over your head and keeping you on your toes.
Thankfully, a strong foundation of trusty tropes helps with the experience. Divergent sexual practices, paranoia (to wit: my horoscope this week name-drops Pynchon), entropy, conspiracy, and science as religion all figure into the equation.
This time around, Pynchon seems to be exploding his themes into three dimensions. Two-dimensional map-space blasts via airship/undersand vessel into the third D of the sky/underground; Hamlet is transposed onto three brothers traveling separate, long roads to revenge for their father's murder; and two-person relationships lack the luster of the love triangle. But it is the elusive yet inescapable fourth dimension time that makes some of the prose read like grad-level math textbooks and the plotlines less susceptible to the grounding influence of an irrefutable past.
While the future is full of possibility, the passing of time limits these possibilities until one option remains: the present. For symmetry's sake, Pynchon views the past in similar terms, as an "unloosening of fate." The further in the past an event lies, the greater the possibilities or interpretations "History is written by the victors," and all that. It's no coincidence that Pynchon sets his novel during a time out of memory's reach for the vast majority alive today (the turn of last century). What then, besides other books, is going to tell you he's wrong?
And it is Pynchon's deftness with the tools of historical fiction that drives his last few novels, punctuating impossibilities with note-perfect accuracies only to shade them both with tantalizing plausibilities. Events like the highly implausible and mysterious but factual Tunguska Event of 1908, which left the Russian countryside's nights nearly as bright as its days for a short time. More shocking but equally real is the theory that an experiment by Nikola Tesla caused the Event. The inclusion of such historical anomalies blurs reality and fantasy until they both seem equally arbitrary and equally real.
Using a similar tack, the juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical forces a recontextualization of what has become banal. One minute we are swimming in a sand sea on the hunt for the mythological land of Shambhala only to find that it's merely oil prospecting. Suddenly, the image of "great pillars of fire" shooting out of the ground seems more immediate and visceral in this context.
The novel is loosely bookended by Chicago's World Fair of 1893 and World War I. Both events serve Pynchon's ends with a smattering of historical fact and some authorial design. The fair which coincidently featured Tesla's newly harnessed electricity, the Congress of Mathematicians, and a Parliament of the World's Religions opens Against the Day, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing in America.
Though the characters travel all over North America, Europe, and Asia, much of the societal commentary seems directed at today's United States, as our post-9/11 culture finally catches up with the fear and paranoia described decades earlier in The Crying of Lot 49. Updating his ideas, Pynchon writes, "As if innocence were some sort of disease, transmitted, as in a stage farce, from one character to another, Lew soon found himself wondering if he had it, and if so who he'd caught it from." In as much as Pynchon distrusts society, he has faith in individuals. Suffering few fools, he populates Against the Day with risk-takers and revolutionaries striving for a future to call their own.
Vendettas, missions, boredom, war, and curiosity all prompt journeys of varying duration and direction. Destinations, on the other hand, rarely live up to expectations if they're even discovered. By the last paragraph there is respite as the airship, "Once a vehicle of sky pilgrimage, has transformed into its own destination."
"Is the book any good?" is the question being avoided here. Avoiding phrases like "Pynchon is Pynchon" only forces other statements of the obvious: Most people who engage the author's work know what they're undertaking. Against the Day leaves you holding your head laden with the possible futures of both society and the individual: the former, frightening; the latter, uplifting. Pynchon's writing style in turn blindingly precise and beautifully oblique, here bearing an emotional weight, as well demands that you not decide, but think.