Thomas Pynchon: “Against the Day”

There was a time when I read books voraciously. In fact for most of my life I have read at least one book per month, if not week, meaning that if I was to enter a fund-raising read-a-thon I would most most likely send all of my sponsors broke (assuming, of course, that I didn’t just read a whole stack of Mr Men books to make up the numbers). In recent years, I have become increasingly nerdy, to the point where I have begun to list the books I’ve read over a given six month period (see July to December 2005 and January to June 2006). In July 2006, however, something happened to me. Personally, I blame it on the utter chaos that’s characterised my life in the last year or so, rather than the (obviously tempting) reason that I’ve actually read all that I need to read but the fact remains that I went for several months without so much as picking up a book. I didn’t read anything. Well, I read the paper, and so on but I didn’t actually pick up a book. All of that changed, however, last December when I went out and bought a hardcover first edition copy of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Against the Day. And now I’m thrilled to announce that last night – that is, three months and 1085 pages later – I finished the damn thing.

I haven’t read any of the reviews yet (you can find a list of them here) and I’ve barely peeped at the Wiki page for Against the Day set up by some fanatical brainoids (and from which the picture on the left, showing an airship observing the collapse of the Campanille in Venice, is taken) but my emotional reactions to finishing the book were initially those of sadness, relief and disbelief. Sadness that such an amazing book, filled with so many loopy and outright funny moments (the kind of spitting coffee on a white doona moments), should ever have to end (and yes, I did have the same reaction to finishing The Neverending Story). Relief that maybe one day I might be able to start reading another book, or go to a movie, or watch the second series of Arrested Development, instead of having to read another thirty pages of a book so convoluted and absorbing and plain heavy that I think my wrists are now permanently damaged from holding it. And disbelief firstly that anyone could actually write a novel this convoluted and elliptical, secondly that Pynchon-obsessed fans could produce a whole Wiki on it within days of its release, and thirdly that this may well be the last Pynchon novel to be released.

These are strange and contradictory emotions but, as we used to say in primary school, der. Having now read all of Pynchon’s published output; and having also read somewhere that he was, in the 1960s, working on four novels at once; and being now able to identify at least three of these – the equally monstrous Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon and Against the Day – plus a fourth, Vineland, which Pynchon fans may or may not class as one of his great novels, owing to its shorter length and puzzling conclusion (two characteristics that actually endear me to this book); and thinking also that surely, once you’ve written a 1085 (or 1120, depending on the edition) page novel, your first thought would be to go easy on the writing for a while; and given that Pynchon is not getting any younger (if he even exists); and finally, given that I’m only three paragraphs into this review and already I’m starting to create sentences that are far too long and needlessly convoluted, perhaps what I’m really saying is that I hope this is the last Pynchon novel to be released, because otherwise I’m likely to go insane. Given, however, that tomorrow I am likely to remember even less of this insane book than I do today, perhaps it’s best that I just keep on writing its effects out of me now, in the hope that I may find some peace in my life.

Let me just say that, in case you hadn’t guessed already, I am a certifiable Pynchon fan – I was first introduced to his works via undergraduate English at the University of Sydney, where we were set The Crying of Lot 49 – mercifully, a very short novel. Vineland had been released in paperback the previous year and I saw a copy of it at the Co-op bookshop going for something like $4 – in fact, there was a whole stack of them looking, perhaps ominously, like remainders – and so I snapped it up and read it avidly, obsessively, over and over again. In fact, this is the only Pynchon novel I have read more than once. A year or so later a friend gave me V as a birthday present and I read it while writing my Honours thesis, listening to Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted LP and pretty much thinking WTF – V was the first of Pynchon’s “massive” novels, with a sprawling plot, a billion pages and some pretty insane storytelling going on in it, with spies and intrigue, alligators in the sewers of NYC (not to mention a priest who administers to a colony of rats also living in said sewers), treatises on the symbolic meaning of the yo-yo, parties where people try to squeeze watermelons into shot glasses, a sub-plot involving slavery in southern Africa in the 19th century and so on.

That’s just what I remember about it today. The (some would say dangerous) thing about reading gigantic books is that you’ll never know when some part of the book will return to haunt your waking mind, or make you laugh, or just go, WTF, as I have, many times since reading that book. In 1997, when Mason and Dixon came out, I bravely went out and bought the sucker, and then sat down to read it and was somewhat relieved to find that in comparison with V, its plot was a relatively straightforward (always an inaccurate word to use when writing about Pynchon) narrative of the two guys who lent their name to the Mason-Dixon Line. Of course, this being a Pynchon book, it also featured a talking dog (the Learned English Dog), an interlude in a giant vegetable garden (a la Jack and the Beanstalk), old-fashioned substance abuse and flying medieval Chinese astronomers, none of which I can recall as being that important to the central narrative. Still, I loved it. People who reviewed the book at the time, however, said that it was no Gravity’s Rainbow. Deep in my heart I knew that I would have to read that one some day, but first I read Slow Learner, a collection of Pynchon’s early stories, most of which had been published originally in chapbook or dollar sci-fi story format (some of these stories can actually be found, in their original format, in the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney, and I am sure elsewhere too).

Before I could get around to reading Gravity’s Rainbow, however, I had a life-changing experience, on a train headed from New York City to Buffalo, in the fall of 2002. I was terrifically hung-over, having spent the last few days catching poetry readings in Manhattan and acting like a loon. I looked across the aisle to where this old guy with long grey hair was sitting, reading through what looked like a massive manuscript. In my addled state, I suddenly realised that the guy was Thomas Pynchon (I’d recently seen the doco about the obsessed journalist who took a photo of Pynchon walking down a street of NYC – an incident that I used in my poem “Thomas Pynchon and the Art of Anonymity Maintenance”). In one of those moments you only experience when you’re overseas – the kind of this is my only chance, what have I got to lose, I’m probably still drunk moments – I leaned over, excused myself and said something like “Hey, I notice you’re reading something there – can you tell me the names of any good bookshops in NYC?” I know, kind of daft. But Pynchon, who introduced himself as “Jerry”, was happy to talk, and we spent about ten minutes chatting. He wrote down the names of some bars and bookshops in Greenwich Village and we eventually said goodbye, soon after which he got off the train. I mentioned this experience while conducting an email interview with author Robert Merkin, who confirmed that that train journey was/is one of Pynchon’s regular haunts, and that it was probably him. He said that I should have taken Pynchon’s photograph. In fact, I did try to take a surreptitious snapshot however it didn’t turn out. I did also get “Jerry’s” telephone number but when I got back to NYC and called him up, there was no answer.

Anyway, in 2004, I finally read Gravity’s Rainbow. It totally screwed with my head. I think I can safely say that of all Pynchon’s works prior to Against the Day, Gravity’s Rainbowis by far his most profound, moving, impossible and sad book. Taking in the trajectories of V2 rockets, the bizarre play on words of the section entitled ‘The Kenoshi Kid’, a gigantic adenoid, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, seances and the occult and a trillion other things somehow connected to the second world war, it’s just mind-blowing. The almost obsessive uses of ellipsis lends the book a strange poetic feeling, and also helps to lend coherence to the more obscure passages of the book, some of which are technically unreadable and may well have been composed while experiencing the effects of helium or something. Nevertheless, there is a kind of unity to Gravity’s Rainbow, a unity or wholeness that is not dissimilar to the kind of dramatic closure Pynchon seeks to achieve in Against the Day. While the latter does lack the former’s searing, majestic, almost Rilkean tone, they may well come to be seen as natural counterparts – the former concerned chiefly with WW2, the latter with (the lead-up to) WW1. In all other respects, of course, the two books are completely different.

In the end, however, perhaps it’s not useful to talk of these as separate books, for Pynchon, perhaps more than any other modern author, utilises intertextuality within his own works, so that for example most of his books feature a sailor named Pig Bodine (absent in Against the Day); and motifs such as that of the father and daughter recur, with almost the same kind of sentiment(alism) evident on both occasions. There are countless other examples, a great number of which are documented in the Pynchon Wiki linked to above. It’s kind of pointless for me to attempt any kind of critical analysis of Against the Dayas text, mostly because that’s not my job, and I”ve always regarded academic dissertations on Pynchon as slightly unfair – the works, IMHO, are supposed to be enjoyed, not canonised. That being said, it was largely thanks to an elective subject on postmodernism that I grew to appreciate the ironic, postmodernist and critical aspects of Pynchon’s work, and I have, in all truthfulness, longed to write a dissertation on the possibility of Nicholas Cage playing Zoyd Wheeler in the movie version of Vineland. Pynchon’s work has entered the meta-critical.

Nevertheless, I’d like to keep it simple, if not stupid. For me, the major positive aspects of this novel include its quite trenchant critique of capitalism (especially the late 19th century form of ‘robber baron’ capitalism); the quite brilliant and hilarious portrait of the Chums of Chance (a kind of cross between a Boy’s Own gang and an issue of Vizmagazine); the intricate puzzle of the sections devoted to the Balkan peninsula just prior to the outbreak of war; the (by now compulsory) smattering of song lyrics and ditties sung by characters almost at will; the bizarre science-fiction subplot involving visitors from the future; the incorporation of real-life weirdos including Nikolai Tesla (whose lifelong mission to create a worldwide system of free electricity is one basis of the whole novel’s premise(s)); the parade of Anarchist bomber characters, most of them just as zany as Zoyd Wheeler or any of the other freaks in Vineland; the welcome return to England and especially London, a city that Pynchon wrote about in such an electrifying way in Gravity’s Rainbow; the surprising series of references to cricket, legspin bowling and the Anarchist bomber of Headingley; and last, but not least, Pynchon’s mention of Wagga Wagga.

Obviously, in over one thousand pages, Pynchon manages to cover much more than this. However, I’m not about to write a thousand page long blog post in response, am I? Therefore, just to be binary and for the sake of brevity, I’d like to conclude by talking about some of the things I dislike about this novel. First and foremost, the fact remains that Pynchon still cannot write about sex. One scene from this book, featuring a man trying to have sex with a dog, was nominated for the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Awards in 2006. Personally, I think that this scene, while grotesque, was at least funny. There are countless other scenes in the book where the sex is so gratuitous, the writing so pathetic, the focus so juvenile and masculine, as to render the point of the passage meaningless. If you’re game, you can read the “dog” scene and another one here – scroll down the page. Me, I’m all for sex in novels. I’m no prude. However, as readers of Pynchon would have to admit, sex has never been his strong suit. One gets the strong impression that Pynchon (or the narrators, shall we say, of Pynchon’s novels) find(s) sex just a little bit challenging – perhaps even something of a problem. Mostly I say this because sexual relations in this book are predominantly seen from the masculine point of view. Sure, there’s some (still gratuitous) lesbian sex in the book, and even one or two gay characters; however, there’s also a threesome between two guys and a woman at the point where four American state borders intersect that’s so insulting I can’t be bothered quoting it; towards the end of the book, there’s a final, demeaning interlude between a private “dick” and a “bored” housewife that’s so cliched as to have passed beyond cliches. Honestly, get a therapist.

The book is also ridiculously long and unnecessarily so. If Gravity’s Rainbow could achieve its aim in less than 800 pages, I can scarcely see why another three hundred were necessary here. In fact, whole sections of this book are so banal as to be redundant, which begs the question as to whether Pynchon has ever had an editor. Methinks not. But surely a big red pencil would have improved this novel. A lot. The dialogue between characters also verges on the ridiculous at many points of the narrative, each character speaking with a kind of wise-arsed, know-it-all superiority that’s (I hate to say this) uniquely American. In other instances in Pynchon’s works, I’ve found this kind of conversation warm, entertaining and realistic; in a sprawling novel set in the Wild West in the early 1900s, it’s just a bit dull. As a non-mathematician I also found the more scientific sections impenetrable but I guess that’s why there are mathematicians in the world and then there’s everybody else. These quibbles however (apart from the poor writing on sex) are relatively minor and indeed, give me reasons to go back and read the novel again. One day. Until then, I’m thinking that a bit of trashy science fiction, preferably in paperback format, and preferably under 150 pages long, might be all I need. Then again, who knows what Pynchon’s going to pull out next.

6 Replies to “Thomas Pynchon: “Against the Day””

  1. Wow, all I’ve done is pick it up in the bookshop and put it down again. Bravo, nice post.

    Nicholas Cage, oh YES. Vineland and GR are the only ones I’ve read (GR only this year, actually.) He is reported to have said that he was quite ‘fucked up in the head’ when he wrote GR. Not that it made me feel like that at all. You’re on the money about the sex though, and the mathematics.
    I am blown away by your Emmaus-like meeting with the man. Was not your heart burning within you?
    And last, but not least, how nice of him to notice little Wagga Wagga.

  2. Hey Genevieve,

    Thanks! You know, re meeting TP, it was indeed an amazing experience. It completely changed my whole trip. Finally, I was in the land where anything could come true (haha …). I had entered the hallucination. So yeah, it’s strange to see so many references to Australia in this book, (well, more than one anyway) whereas I don’t think anything relating to Australia has ever been mentioned in any of his other books? I guess that’s what those wikis are good for = and yes, Wagga Wagga. God bless it.

    D

  3. nice genuine read and response…I’m hooked on your meeting him……why didn’t ya ask him if he was who you thought he was?

    re: sex in Pynchon……I think it is mostly bad to show how decadent we are…..most sex is infused with power plays or non-loving
    aspects…….remember In Which Esther Gets a Nose Job?…….”Saying No, meaning Yes”……..date rape overtones before we popularized the phrase.
    he only points at real human mutually loving sex….as he only points at heaven on earth…

  4. Hi Mark,

    I think I was just genuinely stunned, and didn’t want to spoil the experience by ‘letting on’ …

    Thanks for your comments. I hadn’t thought about the sex/decadence angle – it would certainly explain certain scenes in ATD (the four states scene, for example) – and I must go back and read V again – that’s where Esther is, yeah? Or was that an early story? In any case, thanks for stopping by!

    Davey

  5. “…each character speaking with a kind of wise-arsed, know-it-all superiority thatís (I hate to say this) uniquely American.”

    Actually, this is a provincial American characteristic, to be found in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

  6. Hi Brett –

    yes, it seemed a bit Californian to me, especially in Vineland, where it worked … as for ATD – I’m not sure it does.

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