Mark Sanderson (Daily Telegraph) reviews Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
It is no coincidence that this leviathan of a novel should begin with the image of an airship slowly rising into the sky. Both book and blimp have a rigid exterior that contains an awful lot of gas, if not hot air. The airship, the Inconvenience – which is almost as difficult to handle as a copy of Against the Day – is heading for the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago, the Windy City. Thomas Pynchon likes his little ironies.
The Inconvenience is crewed by five members of an aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance. Randolph St Cosmo, Darby Suckling, Lindsay Noseworth, Miles Blundell and Chick Counterfly – not to mention Pugnax their talking dog – are the good guys in a tale thronged by baddies. They are the heroes of such Boy’s Own Adventures as ‘The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit’ and they receive orders from a faceless ‘Hierarchy’ which require them to journey through the centre of the earth and in and out of the space-time continuum.
Pynchon, too, likes to travel back in time. His previous novel, Mason & Dixon (1997), followed the marking of the boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania during the 18th century. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), his masterpiece, zoomed in on the horrors of the Second World War. Against the Day, which is almost twice as long, bestrides the First World War, ‘the great Tragedy’, and is very much a companion volume. Once again capitalism – especially in the vile form of billionaire Scarsdale Vibe – is the enemy.
Anyone who stands in his money-making way is likely to be destroyed. Webb Traverse, for example, an anarchist miner in Colorado who teaches his family the joys of dynamite, dies horribly at the hands of Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno. The repercussions of his murder and his children’s desire for revenge ripple throughout the novel and provide it with what little plot there is. ‘Anarchism will pass,’ says Vibe in his address to the Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Industrial Defense Alliance (L.A.H.D.I.D.A). ‘Its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.’
He is, of course, not wrong. Pynchon parodies the birth of globalisation with Dr Tesla’s ‘World-System’ which promises to provide everybody with endless free energy ‘because it uses the planet as an element in a gigantic resonant circuit’. Vibe and his fellow industrialists endeavour to scupper it. Pynchon’s parallel universes each have their own parallel physics and there are times when the endless talk of vectors, co-ordinates, quaternions, equations and ‘Aether’ – not to mention such devices as the Ohmic Drift Compensator – threaten to make the reader’s head explode.
There are all manner of big bangs in Against the Day. Whether caused by meteorites or tampered-with cricket balls, the explosions are described with a terrible beauty and allow Pynchon to indulge his penchant for paragraphs of delirious, encyclopaedic detail.
‘It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light,’ says Thelonious Monk in the epigraph. Against the Day is about everything from philately to fellatio but above all it is about light in all its forms – lightning, alchemy, photography, magic, mirrors, ghosts, the spread of street-lamps, the coming of the movies, the use of phosgene (‘born of light’) – and how it is essential to life. However, as the narrative, like the war, goes on and on and on -the tone and content darken. The Chums of Chance may float over the trenches in Flanders but they are all too aware of what lies beneath. Forbidden to intervene, they can only seek ‘orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep, to fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day’.
Pynchon’s non-stop vaudeville spans the globe – Mexico, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Austria and Siberia – and features a huge cast of spies, drifters, deviants and mystics. Now aged 70 his astonishing sense of place is undiminished. Wherever they are the aeronauts long to enjoy ‘all there is in the given world to hold dear, the faces of your children, sunsets, rain, fragrances of earth, a good laugh, the touch of a lover, the blood of an enemy, your mother’s cooking, wine, music, athletic triumphs, desirable strangers, the body you feel at home in, a sea-breeze flowing over unclothed skin.’ Forget the plutocrats, forget the terrorists: these experiences represent ‘everything that matters’. That such a heavy book should bear such a light-hearted message is one final irony – yet another example of Pynchon’s wayward brilliance.
Michael Moorcock reviews Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
I have been familiar with Thomas Pynchon’s work since the 1960s, when I ran his story “Entropy” in New Worlds, the science fiction magazine I edited. The New Worlds authors shared Pynchon’s interest in urban mythology, entropy as a metaphor and mathematics. They celebrated his forays into earlier fictions via pastiche, but many argued that he lacked William Burroughs’s laconic virtues.
Though he can fairly be considered sui generis like Ronald Firbank or Boris Vian, Pynchon was co-opted by some critics into the steampunk movement. The opening of Against the Day reminded me of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong graphic novels which drew on late-19th-century “science hero” dime novels to examine Edwardian mechanical optimism exemplified by the real Nikola Tesla.
The first half of this romance recaptures the prevalent mood of pre-1914 America, when “wizards” such as Thomas Edison and Tesla were public legends, but, like Mark Twain before him, Pynchon introduces a questioning, deeply elegiac note into his story of Yankee “can-do” optimism, producing a tall tale entirely serious in intention, if only rarely in tone.
A massive engine, depending on its size for its aesthetic the way some rock bands depend on loudness, Against the Day takes a while to build momentum and requires patience while its inventor unrolls blueprints, explains the maths, polishes a bit of brass here, makes a modest joke there, showing off his machine cog by cog, then introducing his passengers and their histories.
Representing every 20th-century concern, most of his protagonists are connected to the aptly named Traverse family and its murdered anarchist patriarch, as well as the skyshipmen “Chums of Chance”, who drift across the world, in and out of relationships, meeting strange customers with Marx Bros names and resolving differences.
With eery echoes of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and similar pre-Second World War moral fables, Pynchon creates a visionary tapestry covering the years after the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Embracing the narrative methods of popular fiction, his tales are designed to deceive as well as to create expectations. As a parodist, he can slip smoothly from Nick Carter to Black Mask and then into 1950s movies.
Having in Mason and Dixon examined the American Enlightenment, Pynchon, perhaps the greatest intellectual showman of our time, turns his attention to post-Civil War idealism and the apparently unstoppable way it warped into the Crash.
There are more talking dogs, daft songs, and a whole slew of nutty professors, working on time machines, deathrays and beamable electromagnetic power, some opposing big business, others in its employ. Pinkertons, Wall Street grafters, Robber Barons, frontier whores, anarchist dynamiters, gun-fighters, angels, gamblers, mad prophets, time-travellers, Theosophists, spies, magicians, painters, beautiful adventuresses and secret societies are all involved in an increasingly metaphysical Great Game across the multiverse, from Kathmandu to Colorado to Cambridge, Contra-Earth to Contra-Earth.
Marvel by marvel, pathetic fallacy becomes art beyond Ruskin’s wildest dreams, and you wonder if you aren’t reading the smartest stoner in the universe.
By page 550, when he brings you to the novel’s melancholy heart, Pynchon has you firmly in the palm of his Barnum-like fist. It’s no accident that we are now in Belgium, narrowly missing being drowned in mayonnaise, or that a half-mad time-traveller warns a fellow ukelelist “Chum of Chance” of future trench war: “This world you take to be ‘the’ world will die, and descend into Hell, and all history after that will belong properly to the history of Hell.”
Soon string theory is used to rationalise time travel and we’re hurtling through a collection of slightly different realities, threatened by phantoms of past, present and future, power-mongers of every kind moving the worlds towards versions of the destructive events that have threatened our humanity since 1914.
Noting how memories fade into folklore before our eyes, Pynchon finds self-similarity contradicting the logic of entropy. He travels not imaginary universes but universes of the imagination. One alternative shifts into another, one reality makes space for the next. The best visionary fiction reflects shared realities. Once his barker-persona has lured us in, Pynchon holds before us a whole hall full of mirrors.
Some of those reflected images are comic, a few almost flattering. We’re laughing and crying. Yet what’s the point? Be assured. The great Ludlow strike looms. Resolutions are offered through Pynchon’s clever use of triplets and his brief finale in the future tense. We stagger out of this one man World’s Fair with our hearts and our sides splitting. Against the Day is a fine example of a successful marriage between the popular and the intellectual, between fiction and science. Many modern writers are rediscovering or taking over science fiction tropes, as P D James did in Children of Men, though its subject had already been treated rather more subtly in Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). Aldiss, Burroughs, J G Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut predicted long ago that the arts and sciences would be reunited in speculative fiction, that the novel would not die if it could rediscover vulgarity.
Gloriously, demandingly, daringly, Pynchon has rediscovered vulgarity and continues to prove that the novel has never been more vibrant, more various or better able to represent our complex world. Give this book your time – you’ll agree it’s worth it.