Dream Maps: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day
Review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, by Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times, November 26, 2006
IN ‘‘Against the Day,” his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown. Its import emerges only gradually, camouflaged by the sprawling absurdist jumble of themes that can only be described as Pynchonesque, over the only time frame Pynchon recognizes as real: the hours (that stretch into days) it takes to relay one of his sweeping narratives, hours that do ”not so much elapse as grow less relevant.”
Where to begin? Where to end? It’s both moot and preposterous to fix on a starting point when considering a 1,085-page novel whose setting is a ”limitless terrain of queerness” and whose scores of characters include the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a dog who reads
Henry James, the restless progeny of the Kieselguhr Kid and a time-traveling bisexual mathematician, not to mention giant carnivorous burrowing sand lice, straight out of ”Dune,” that attack passengers of desert submarines — or, rather, subdesertine frigates. In any case, Pynchon (speaking, one presumes, through his characters) dismisses the existence of time as ”really too ridiculous to consider, regardless of its status as a believed-in phenomenon,” asserting that civilization has been dead since World War I and ”all history after that will belong properly to the history of hell.” He also rejects a fixed notion of place. To him, delineations of the known world are merely maps that ”begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world, and resume as dreams again.” Let us proceed, then, like Pynchon: as we wish, without a map, and by bounding leaps.
Let us sample a portion of the plot: During the run-up to World War I, Kit Traverse, the math-whiz son of a Colorado anarchist dynamiter known as the Kieselguhr Kid, en route to grad school in Göttingen, finds himself in Belgium, pursued by hirelings of the evil capitalist magnate Scarsdale Vibe. Escaping from a sinister Flanders mayonnaise factory, Kit is propelled through a window on a flume of sauce ”in a great vomitous arc” and lands in a canal, where he is scooped up by his Italian friends, Rocco and Pino, who happen to be passing in their dirigible torpedo. ”Nothing’s been rigorously what you’d call ‘real’ lately,” he observes.
Continuing his flight, Kit ends up in Siberia on June 30, 1908, where he witnesses the eerie devastation of the Tunguska Event. Like many of the historical and mathematical phenomena touched upon in this book, the Tunguska Event was an actual occurrence — an explosion that toppled more than 800 square miles of trees. Some think it was caused by the airburst of an asteroid a few miles above the earth. Others wonder if the physicist Nikola Tesla may have caused it with a transmission from his aerial wireless tower, trying to impress the polar explorer Robert Peary. Whatever the cause, in its aftermath Kit begins to question the purpose of his incredible journey. ”There may not be a ‘mission’ anymore,” a fellow traveler tells him. ”As to our purpose now — no one has the wisdom or the authority to tell us anything.”
Prepare yourselves. The expedition is going to be a long one, and it’ll be a wonder if a single sled dog escapes the stew pot.
In ”Against the Day,” Pynchon’s voice seems uncharacteristically earnest. He interrupts his narrative from time to time to lay down pronouncements that, taken together, probably constitute the fullest elaboration of his philosophy yet seen in print. One of the novel’s idées fixes is that mysterious agents are trying to send messages to individuals and to humanity at large in surprising ways: through bloody detonations of shells or dynamite I.E.D.’s (think of this as percussive Morse code that explodes into shrapnel as it’s received); a tornado nicknamed Thorvald that students attempt to communicate with by telegraph; garrulous whirls of ball lightning; coal gas (people wear special headsets to interpret the fumes and hang upside down to inhale messages through their stoves); and massive explosions on the level of the Tunguska Event or Hiroshima, which may be the footprints of angels, communicating through murder on a cataclysmic scale. In a singularly disturbing imaginative leap, he seems to make a ghoulish association with the gas chambers of the Holocaust. ”Suppose the Gentleman B.,” one character observes, ”is not a simple terrorist but an angel, in the early sense of ‘messenger,’ and in the fateful cloud he brings, despite the insupportable smell, the corrosive suffocation, lies a message?” By this logic, mass death could be one of the agents that increasingly seek to communicate with the world, like an insistently ringing hotline. What does mass death want to tell us? That ”acute suicidal mania” is justified. You might want to leave the phone off the hook.
And yet, despite all this, Pynchon’s novel is also buoyant, more mirthful than any of his previous books, with the qualified exception of his second, ”The Crying of Lot 49,” which was too short and too narrow in scope to furnish the varieties of humor deployed here. In ”Against the Day,” Pynchon actually seems to be having fun with his characters. Admittedly, it’s often rough play. Again and again, he hauls his creatures into shadowy amusement parks, from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (where Franz Ferdinand makes an appearance, seeking permission to turn the Chicago stockyards into his own personal swine-shooting range) to Wall o’ Death, Mo., a blighted community awash in opium dreams, built around a collapsed Ferris wheel; to a surreal university for time-travel theorists, Candlebrow U., where a merry band of youthful sky pilots called the Chums of Chance alight in their hydrogen airship Inconvenience; to the Volks-Prater in Vienna, where two of his characters, Cyprian Latewood (a ”pasty-faced sodomite” secret agent) and Yashmeen (a bisexual mathematician who walks through walls), take a gondola ride through a Viennese panorama of Venice, like lovers in an Ophüls film. Later (whatever ”later” means in a Pynchon context), Kit Traverse reappears, joyriding with an Italian pilot named Renzo, who likes to send his triplane bomber into a shrieking nosedive and pull out at the last moment, playing chicken with the earth’s surface. The appeal, Kit explains, is ”the incorporation of death into what otherwise would only be a carnival ride.” The ultimate destination of some of the fellow travelers is the most enchanted funhouse of all: the utopian paradise called Shambhala (decoders will spot echoes of Vheissu in ”V”), which, practically speaking, does not exist.
”The fascination of what’s difficult,” to steal from Yeats, is what first drew readers to Pynchon’s novels. ”V,” published in 1963, when he was 26, is a garrulous tale that travels from the Eastern Seaboard to Africa to Malta and beyond (and back), impelled by the MacGuffin of a mythic woman. ”The Crying of Lot 49,” published in 1966, is a paranoid phantasmagoric fable set in California that features a narrative as linear as an acid trip. ”Gravity’s Rainbow,” which appeared in 1973 and won the National Book Award, has been rated supreme among Pynchon’s creations. A furious fiction set (in great part) in Blitz-era London, its protagonist, a lusty American antihero named Tyrone Slothrop, has a phallus that serves as a dowsing wand for German missiles. Slothrop’s manhood is pruriently beckoned by a substance called Imipolex G, another MacGuffin that turns out to be an erotic cloth serving as a catsuit for a young German catamite who, at book’s end, is wrapped into a warhead and transformed into a lethal flying human dildo.
Back in 1973, it would have been reasonable to ask Pynchon, ”Can you fake crazy?” There could be no doubt about his idiosyncratic genius, his brilliant pictorial scene-setting or the daring of the unanswerable questions and accusations he hurled onto the page like a carnival knife-thrower who didn’t care if his blade impaled his target. Like Kurt Vonnegut in ”Slaughterhouse-Five” or ”Cat’s Cradle” and Joseph Heller in ”Catch-22,” Pynchon was much preoccupied with the inhumanity that had been unleashed by the 20th century’s wars. But unlike Vonnegut or Heller, his writing showed startling amorality — no pity or grief, just a great perplexity and confoundedness. In his early novels, his style shared less with other American writers than it did with pessimistic picaresque European fabulists like Voltaire (”Candide”), Hasek (”The Good Soldier Svejk”) and Grass (”The Tin Drum”). The experience of reading ”V” and ”Gravity’s Rainbow” was akin to experiencing demonic possession or receiving a communiqué from another planet. Any page might turn up a grotesque, unregretted horror, symbolic or not — the senseless castration of a fat soldier in a pig suit; violent sexual episodes, often incestuous or fetishistic, with pubescent girls or masochistic nymphomaniacs; the gruesome death of a corrupt old priest who turns out to be a nubile woman with android properties. Pynchon’s pulsating, wounded psyche revealed itself as ”a dream of annihilation.”
After the publication of ”Gravity’s Rainbow,” Pynchon disappeared for more than a decade. Notoriously reclusive, he vanished from the literary scene, publishing nothing but the occasional essay or book review and, in 1984, an introduction to a collection of his early short stories, ”Slow Learner,” that was remarkable for its lucidity and directness. He cited early influences (Ginsberg, Nabokov, Henry Miller, Bellow, Roth, the Beats, James Bond, boys’ adventure tales, spy fiction and Roadrunner cartoons) and regretted the ”quaintness and puerility of attitude” of his early writing, along with a certain ”thermodynamical gloom” and the ”pose” of ”somber glee at any idea of mass destruction or decline.” He didn’t publish another book until 1990. In that novel, ”Vineland,” which opens in California in 1984, an ex-hippie named Zoyd Wheeler flips out when he learns that the government might cut off his mental disability checks, sending his teenage daughter on a wild goose chase to reclaim her father’s (and thus her own) psychedelic ’60s past. The result — a trip through a pop-culture house of mirrors — could be an installation of the conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, a clinic for reclaiming memories, an imaginary mental ward transposed into gallery space.
In 1990, the famously solitary Pynchon married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson; and in 1991, they had a son, Jackson. Six years later, Pynchon produced a masterpiece, ”Mason & Dixon,” dedicated to his wife and child. Elegiac, intricate, whimsical and psychologically probing, the book was set in the 18th century, during an age of revolution and exploration, before ”Doubt’s advancing Phalanx” had weakened public confidence in the forward motion of civilization’s march. The strength of the narrative lay in the affectionate interplay of its title characters, the astronomer Charles Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. Pynchon reimagined them as a sort of Bouvard and Pécuchet, traveling together to South Africa to record the Transit of Venus, then to the American colonies to pin down the Mason-Dixon line. At the time of their mission, Pynchon writes, the New World was regarded abroad as a mysterious repository of dreams, ”a secret Body of Knowledge, meant to be studied with the same dedication as the Hebrew Kabbala would demand. Forms of the Land, the flow of water, the occurrence of what us’d to be call’d Miracles, all are Text, — to be attended to, manipulated, read, remember’d.” Mason and Dixon look forward to a time when the coordinates they have laboriously measured upon the earth’s surface can be obtained from the sky. ”Earthbound, we are limited to our Horizon,” a visionary American tells the men of science. ”Yet aloft, in Map-space, origins, destinations, any Termini, hardly seem to matter, — one can apprehend all at once the entire plexity of possible journeys, set as one is above Distance, above Time itself.”
And so, in ”Against the Day,” Pynchon takes to the sky, as if to gain a better vantage on what lies beneath. However, setting his narrative (notionally) around the turn of the last century, he soon decides he would rather not look down after all. Far better to ponder alternative realities: ”a giant railway-depot, with thousands of gates disposed radially in all dimensions, leading to tracks of departure to all manner of alternate Histories.” Beating a retreat from the injustices of capitalism and the looming atrocity of World War I, he builds himself the refuge of a dream-draped world by overlaying bloody late-19th-century labor disputes and 20th-century catastrophes with the raiment of escapist popular literature. Lovers of the detective genre might find echoes of Conan Doyle’s peculiar American coal-mine-country intrigue, ”The Valley of Fear”; fans of Horatio Alger will spot nods to by-your-own-bootstraps nostalgia; P. G. Wodehouse fanatics will be amazed to discover abundant Woosterish scenes peopled by wacky Brits (they belong to an esoteric society called True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, or T.W.I.T.); sci-fi and fantasy devotees will find homages to Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein and H. G. Wells (”Walloping Wellsianism!” a character cries); comics junkies will think of Neil Gaiman; admirers of ”adult” fiction will savor salacious tangles redolent of Tom Robbins; and western aficionados can revel in tales of vigilantism, vendetta and heartbreak in rugged Western mining towns and old Mexico.
Among all these genre detours, one is particularly unexpected. Throughout, Pynchon embraces the conventions of classic children’s fiction, not only using variants of their props and window-dressing (J. K. Rowling’s ”cloak of invisibility” and Diagon Alley; Philip Pullman’s zeppelins, animal warriors and portals to lateral worlds; L. Frank Baum’s gnomes and talking roses) but also annexing the concept of an entire juvenile series, the Tom Swift scientific adventure books, for his Chums of Chance. The chums, mysteriously ageless boys, as immortal as inhabitants of Oz, sail among the clouds in their high-tech hydrogen airship, fulfilling assignments of unclear origin or purpose. In a running gag, Pynchon drops references to published accounts of the Chums’ past exploits: ”The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa,” ”The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang,” ”The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico” and so on. These adventurers float in the heavens, oblivious to the various forms of historic hell unscrolling on the landscape beneath their gondola. But Pynchon assigns them real-world doubles: the dead of World War I, ”juvenile heroes of a World-Narrative — unreflective and free,” whose idealism flung them by the thousands into the muddy fields and trenches of Europe.
Pynchon’s Swiftian crew of Chums open the book, lifting off in their flying machine to head for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. ”Cheerly now … handsomely … very well!” they cry. ”Prepare to cast her off!” Their vessel may be hydrogen-fueled, but its real source of power is the blind optimism and all’s-right-with-the-world self-assurance (also known as denial) of its passengers. And yet, none of these diversionary tactics hide the author’s intent. Even Miles Blundell, the jocular cook aboard the skyship Inconvenience (cf Tom Swift’s cowpoke cookie, Chow Winkler), picks up hints of it, ”beaming good-humoredly” because he doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. ”When all the masks have been removed, it is really an inquiry into our own duty, our fate,” he brightly informs his crewmates during a 1902 visit to Venice (where the Chums of Chance meet their Russian counterparts, the crew of the Bol’shaia Igra, and knock down the campanile of the Basilica San Marco, or seem to).
Pynchon subjects the Chums to reality tests, which they fail splendidly. He sends them on a perilous fool’s errand under the sand; gives them a ride in a ramshackle time machine that shakes and roars and fills them with dread; and drops them at Candlebrow U. to partake of a kind of time-travelers’ remedial session. There the Chums endure a chilling run-in with a group known as the Trespassers, grim visitors from the future who bring intimations of destruction and mortality. The boys recoil from the dark message, ”ready to deal with hell itself, to betray anything and anyone if only they could be sent back to when they were young, be allowed to regain the early boys’-book innocence” they had previously enjoyed.
Luckily, like futuristic sylphs in a story by Wells, the Chums have a short memory, and soon embark on new missions, their resolve as resilient and self-renewing as fiction itself. Officially, they seek the same mythical Shambhala as earthbound men and women, but their real destination is their skyship. And even on the ground below, Pynchon’s characters begin to doubt the sense of their own questing. After a life of roving, Auberon Halfcourt (adoptive father of the lascivious Yashmeen) gives up his own quest, explaining, ”For me, Shambhala, you see, turned out to be not a goal but an absence. Not the discovery of a place but the act of leaving the futureless place where I was.” The futureless place, Pynchon means, that is the present.
When Wells, the father of modern science fiction, published his first novel, ”The Time Machine,” in 1895 (the newfangled genre was then known as ”scientific romance”), he sent his time traveler to the year 802,701, to a post-apocalyptic terrain in which the upper classes had evolved into beautiful, helpless surface-dwelling innocents who served as food for a foul underground horde. Returning briefly to the modern world to share this dismaying vision, the time traveler strapped himself back into his chrono-booth and disappeared for good. His abandoned contemporaries were left with the haunting question of why their friend had chosen not to stay with them. He ”thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind,” they knew, and ”saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end.” What was left for those who remained behind? Sharing Wells’s optimism and hopeful view of ”futurity,” they concluded that ”it remains for us to live as though it were not so.”
Pynchon disagrees. ”It doesn’t make much sense,” one of his characters observes, ”this pretending to carry on with the day.” What remains, his new book suggests, is to write as if it were not so, to ”construct a self-consistent world to live inside.” When ”The Time Machine” appeared, Joseph Conrad, electrified by Wells’s inventive power, wrote to him in praise, calling him ”a realist of the fantastic.” But Conrad wasn’t the optimist that Wells was. Just a few years later, in ”The Secret Agent,” he presciently addressed the subject of terrorism and burst the daydream that science or ideology could create a solution for the problems of the modern age. With ”Against the Day,” Pynchon proves himself the heir to both writers, and a matchless fantasist of the real. The only prescription for salvation he offers is the same one a sheriff’s wife gives to the dynamiter’s troubled daughter midway through the novel: flight from reality. ”Let go,” the sheriff’s wife explains. ”Let it bear you up and carry you, and everything’s so clear because you’re not fighting back anymore, the clouds of anger are out of your face, you see further and clearer than you ever thought you could.”
Pynchon Notes, a journal operated by Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, USA.
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