Sunday, May 13, 2007

Against the Day (2006)

James Thurber once said, "There are two kinds of light -- the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures." There is also a middle ground, a Twilight Zone between these two qualities: contre-jour, "against daylight," a photographic term for backlighting, that moment when the glare and the glow meet, and the outer edges of foreground subjects begin to disappear into the light beyond them.

It is in exactly just such an area that Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day takes place. As though assembled from those split seconds occurring between the flash of the bulb and the chemical alchemy of the silver nitrate that will eventually form a frozen image, Pynchon delivers a sprawling photomosaic of the World That Was in the decades prior to WWI -- itself heralded by a mysterious, supernatural "heavenwide blast of light" in the wastes of Siberia on June 30th, 1908 -- over a century distant from the present time, yet perhaps an event that still illuminates, if not irradiates, this familiar world.

The novel begins in pure innocence as the Chums of Chance (five young, bickering zeppelin pilots who, along with their literate dog Pugnax, happen to be the heroes of a series of adolescent adventure novels) descend upon the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. But it isn't long before the narrative focuses instead on a temporary passenger assigned to the Chums, the hapless Lew Basnight, a proto-noir private detective who has committed an unspeakable crime unknown to himself but that nevertheless has alienated him from society ... before switching to the power schemes of railroad tycoon Scarsdale Vibe, a kind of cross between John D. Rockefeller and Snidely Whiplash ... then on to photographer and amateur chemist Merle Rideout and his daughter Dally, as they cross the American heartland, into Colorado where they fall in with anarchist dynamiter Webb Traverse ... Wait! What happened to those Chums?

They'll be back in a few hundred pages. Pynchon wouldn't be Pynchon without a little sleight of hand, a few red herrings wiggling upstream. After all, the Chums exist in a kind of fictional universe, parallel to the universe where the rest of the characters exist ... just as that universe, in turn, is parallel to our own, a place of suburban trains never meant to arrive at any destination on the rail map -- as if, to be brought to any shelter, one would first have to step across into some region of grace hitherto undefined.

The yarn of Against the Day is spun mainly from the lifelines of the Traverse family, beginning with kooky anarchist/domestic terrorist Webb and continuing to his four children -- sons Reef, Frank, and Kit, and daughter Lake -- who scatter to the respective winds following their father's murder at the hands of a hired gun, Deuce Kindred. Reef tries marriage but is more at home as a swindler and dynamite handler, like his old man -- shifty employ that keeps him tuned to the underground, just in case he should ever find the will to act upon his weak desire for revenge against Deuce. It is Frank, meanwhile, disappearing into the desert landscape and eventually becoming a cog in the Mexican Revolution, who learns that blood spilled in retribution will not necessarily equal redemption. Kit tries to break family ties by attending engineering school in Europe -- but his scholarship comes by way of Scarsdale Vibe, the man who likely paid to have Webb killed for blowing up his railroad lines. It is Lake who binds herself most closely to a sense of disastrous familial legacy and fate, by marrying Deuce -- knowing full well his role in her father's death. (The Traverse family tree, incidentally, ultimately branches all the way into Vineland.)

While the Traverse children are the tesseract cornerstone of the novel, their numerous associates receive if not equal then certainly quality time. Along with Basnight, the Rideouts, the Vibes, and the Chums, there is Professor Vanderjuice, a kind of mad scientist, studying the aether and delving into time travel; Yashmeen Halfcourt, a gorgeous "polymorphous prodigy" and schoolmate of Kit who is capable of warping space through sheer mathematical computation; the Zombini family, traveling magicians who create doppelgangers of their stage volunteers by using mirrors made of the refracting calcite Iceland Spar; an enclave of pseudo-spiritualists known as T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys); and Cyprian Latewood, a fop who seems to have been teleported in from an Evelyn Waugh novel, most likely The Loved One. It's a cavalcade often bordering on being a parade of names, only a few of which will morph into full characters. Pynchon favors characteristics over characterizations; it is his forte, and the subjects in Against the Day are every bit as lifelike and as valid as Prince Florizel and company in Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights, or for that matter the legion of wacky servicemen in Heller's Catch-22. By abdicating any deep psychological qualities not relevant to the matters as hand, Pynchon frees himself to render a world that refracts through his characters.

And it is an eerie, doomed world, indeed. Though the principals never articulate it, they clearly feel the boom being lowered, as the century turns and the War approaches, as from a dark cloud bristling with lightning. Pynchon treks into the metaphorical sci-fi terrain most frequented by Ray Bradbury, and retrofits history in the same fashion that Area 51 scientists supposedly reverse-engineer crashed UFO parts into our own, less advanced aircraft. Characters meet shadows of themselves: Trespassers, they are called -- ghosts from the future who have come to warn, or perhaps mourning time travelers who want to revisit what is to be lost; it is never made sure. Meanwhile, among comical Star Trek and Doctor Who allusions, a military search is underway to locate the fabled land of Shambhala, to secure a backup paradise before the greater world is lost. And finally a device is invented that extrapolates information from photographs, allowing views into either the past or the future, moments beyond the shutter click -- suggesting that all of history is only some kind of false memory, anyway. A trick of the light.

Pynchon's first five novels -- from the paranoid quiltwork of V. to the giddy, melancholy divisionism of Mason & Dixon -- are all stories of wrong-minded, impossible, disrupted quests. Against the Day breaks this tradition, and Pynchon, late in his career, boldly sets off in a new direction -- a move that seems to have disoriented some critics. Ironically, it is his esteemed Gravity's Rainbow that is often described as a plotless, unstructured beast. That novel actually has a definite though deliberately incomplete structure -- the book even ends in mid-sentence to point this out. Here at last, Pynchon has turned in the novel he has been accused of for thirty-five years: there is no plot device outside the simple passage of time.

As such, the novel runs like, well, like clockwork. Exactly like clockwork, actually -- gears clicking, cogs a-spin, cuckoos and all, chiming at intervals dictated by a kernel mechanism just out of sight. Though some might say the trouble with clocks is that they measure something you're never going to get to the end of, the pacing is ingenious: the multiple storylines alternate for exact amounts of time -- just long enough to introduce some new tantalizing thread, or provide symbolic echo for one of the other episodes. Like Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa, I suspect it would be possible to read the stories separate from each other, that Against the Day -- like the split beams of light that comprise the novel's controlling metaphor -- would come apart just as easily as Pynchon has put it together.Though there may be no tangible plot, don't be fooled -- this by no means signals a dearth of story. In fact, Pynchon throws away more story elements than most novelists employ in a full career. Through 1,085 pages of slapstick encounters, thwarted intentions, and sinister conspiracies both explicit and alluded to, he still only skims the surface of the world he's imagining. This is no shaggy dog narrative -- the narrative is the shaggy dog, a tail-wagging catalog of visions of the unexpected, breaches in the Creation where something else had had a chance to be luminously glimpsed. Ways in which God chose to hide within the light of day, not a full list, for the list was probably endless, but chance encounters with details of God's unseen world.

Long discussed as our one living writer capable of inheriting the literary mantle of Melville, Pynchon is actually shooting for the throne of Cervantes, here. And with this much story afoot, this many characters, this much mischief, Pynchon exhibits an astonishing restraint. Absent are the massive, brain-crushing narrative monologues, the characteristically arcane and cryptic ramblings; his tangents are now controlled, precise. What once took entire passages is now often done in a few words -- a remarkable, heartbreaking economy, redeeming light from the inertia of precious metals. This is lightning that strikes right out of the bottle.

Yes, Pynchon still has his fastball, after demonstrating a deceptive curveball (Vineland) and wicked slider (Mason & Dixon). His style is again historically (not to mention hysterically) affected -- this time it's chiefly an era-appropriate turn-of-the-20th-Century idiom; think Arthur Conan Doyle on mescal. (I'm quick to imagine a hypothetical audio book, read by a smirking Orson Welles.) What's too often forgotten in the discussions of Pynchon's word games and conceptual puzzles is that the man can flat-out write. In his dreamlike prose, all described action takes on the thrust of greater import, of movement toward revelation. Descriptions of social conditions, mathematical theories, even just passing landscapes turn into roaring visual sweeps, the royal thunder of genius coming over the mountain -- a sound not heard since the publication of Gravity's Rainbow. The resulting reading experience is both luxurious and unsettling, very like a moment of post-lunch midday drowsing that results in vibrant, unlooked for flashes from the deepest parts of the brain.

Against the Day is, ultimately, that kind of book, demanding to be read on its own time, for a reader to pay attention, to actually read, a simple thing we sometimes forget to do in an age when books are too often expected to behave like television shows and merely distract us. Distraction is, after all, the last thing Pynchon is after. How else to explain the fierce moment he brings the proceedings to a halt, some 150 pages in, to describe a terrible tragedy in a city that must be Manhattan -- Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes ... but with only dwindling moments of normal history remaining, where could any of them have found refuge in time?

Using history both real and imagined, Pynchon creates a world that floats off the page, into our own, and beyond. People see the world differently -- which must necessarily mean, according to the logic of Against the Day, there are different worlds to see. Parallel universes have long been Pynchon’s main concern -- on landscapes divided between the Haves and the Have Nots, he ever takes the side of those forgotten by history: the Passed Over, the Preterites, the Thanatoids. And now, the Trespassers, lost somewhere between a real doomed world and a paradise that probably never existed, not even in memory. Where does the truth lie? Was there a moment, now unreachable, where things took a terrible turn, and the world split, leaving us in the Bad one, while the Good one goes on spinning right next to us, but always out of reach?

Well, to paraphrase one of Against the Day's many characters, the "truth" is never as important as what lessons you might learn from the events themselves, however distorted they may appear to be. But ultimately Pynchon leaves us to our own devices, we Constant Readers, lost, ourselves -- for in the end, we are the Trespassers into the world of Against the Day. And the fractured reality we see within is only a reflection of our own.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, May 13 2007

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