BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 5, 2007
Against the Day
By Thomas Pynchon
(Penguin Press, 1,085 pp., $35)
Click here to purchase the book.
Broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from Richardson and the other from Fielding. Richardson's minute epistolary method slows the novelistic examination of motive and desire to an agonizing lento, in which the individual perspective is everything. Plot expands and expires in Clarissa: there is a central, driving question--will Clarissa succumb?--and hardly a subplot of note in 1,300 pages. The labyrinthine belongs not to plot, but goes inward, into the human soul, and is inscribed in the advances and retreats, the feints and parries, the accommodations and resolutions, of the two central characters, Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Richardson's influence on European romanticism was massive: on Diderot, on Pushkin, on Stendhal, on Proust. There is a kind of seriousness about human activity, and especially about the psychological and moral analysis of pride and abasement, that one sees in books such as Rameau's Nephew and Notes From Underground and even in The Portrait of a Lady, which at least in part derives from Richardson.
As Richardson describes people from inside, so Fielding is the great externalizer. Fielding belongs to the theater. His characters vibrate vividly on the novelistic stage, are seen from the outside, and reveal themselves only in speech. His novels are manic factories of plot: foundlings, lost heirs, faked letters, complex family inheritances. There is a nice, relaxed approach to accumulation; new characters can come aboard and disembark whenever they like. But these characters are relatively simple: doctors always talk like pedantic doctors, lawyers like Jesuitical lawyers, parsons like parsons, and so on. Goodies and baddies are clearly delineated. Even a wonderful comic creation such as Parson Adams, in Joseph Andrews, proceeds from one central "Cervantick" trait. He is an innocent abroad, like Don Quixote, and does not know it. Comedy is thus situational rather than characterological; it tells us less about the particular character than about general comic truths.
And, as in Cervantes, although much violence is done to the body, the essential rule of the weightless cartoon applies, in that no one can really be in danger. Thus the rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity of the happenings in Fielding--people getting into the wrong beds, hurling chamberpots of piss at each other, attacking the wrong people with cudgels and nearly beating them to death. No one is actually in danger of being beaten to death. It is a safe world, because a simple one. Controlling all this crazy busyness is an affable, attractive narrator, who is apt to interrupt the story with comic asides (such as a chapter that is titled "Which some Readers will think too short, and others too long"). Fielding, unlike Richardson, had little impact on the European novel, but he defined a strain of theatricality, and a kind of intricate plotting, which would enormously influence the English novel. You can detect him in Thackeray, Dickens, Meredith, Kingsley Amis.
This is doubtless a rough division, but it has some application to the contemporary postmodern novel. Commentators like to go on about Thomas Pynchon's daunting modernity--the indexical learning, the fierce assays and essays in thermodynamics and polymers and mathematics, the brilliant parodies and pastiches of different novel genres--but fewer point out that in some ways he is a very old-fashioned novelist, one whom Fielding (and Cervantes, for that matter) would instantly recognize. Mason %amp% Dixon, written in a flawless pastiche of eighteenth-century prose, was not eccentric, but the logical fruit of Pynchon's aesthetic interests: a busy eighteenth-century novel--itself already, in some ways, a "postmodern" artifact, because a self-conscious one--selfconsciously rewritten by a twentieth-century postmodernist.
There is nothing more eighteenth century than Pynchon's love of picaresque plot-accumulation, his mockery of pedantry which is at the same time a love of pedantry, his habit of making his flat characters dance for a moment on stage and then whisking them away, his vaudevillian fondness for silly names, japes, mishaps, disguises, farcical errors, and so on. His characters sit down and lengthily, larkily "dispute" ideas with each other as if sitting in roadside taverns and sharing pipes and pots of ale. As Fielding is an ironist, insisting on his own moralism while apparently undermining its grounds, so Pynchon likes to promote meaning and then sack it for getting above itself.
There are huge pleasures to be had from these amiable, peopled canvases, and there are passages of great beauty, but, as in farce, the cost to final seriousness is considerable: everyone is ultimately protected from real menace because no one really exists. The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard. The Nazi Captain Blicero in Gravity's Rainbow and the ruthless financier Scarsdale Vibe in Against the Day are not truly frightening figures, because they are not true figures. But Gilbert Osmond, Herr Naphta, Peter Verkhovensky, and Conrad's anarchist professor are very frightening indeed.
Pynchon's works are prodigies: they do everything but move us. But they certainly are prodigious. Against the Day begins with the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and is set mainly in the years leading up to the Great War. It moves among Mexico, Colorado, London, Venice, Göttingen, Brussels, Iceland, the Balkans, and the Siberian wastes. It features scores, perhaps hundreds, of characters, each given his or her candy-striped name. Fielding has his Mrs. Slipslop and his Mr. Thwackum and his Reverend Supple, but Pynchon outdoes him or any other pretender to this bizarre onomastic supremacy: Professor Heino Vanderjuice, and Edwarda Beef (with her maid, Vaseline), and two thugs called Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, and two English ponces called Neville and Nigel, and the Reverend Lube Carnal, and Ellmore Disco, and a circus midget called Chinchito, and an Irish anarchist named Wolfe Tone O'Rooney, and a touring Englishwoman named Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, and so on. There are eccentric professors, villainous financiers, dreamy mathematicians, captious anarchists, spies, detectives, and floating above the action a merry band of balloonists called the Chums of Chance.
Those Chums are supposed to be the fictional heroes of a series of boys'-own tales (such as The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth or The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash Into the Kremlin), a device that allows Pynchon to burlesque the narrative style of early twentieth-century pulp fiction for boys (the kind of thing Frank Richards did in his Billy Bunter and the Famous Five series, or that F.W. Dixon did in the Hardy Boys books), with often amusing results. It is merely one of many pastiches. Pynchon makes use of the British espionage novel of international intrigue (John Buchan, Eric Ambler), the Victorian and Edwardian adventure novel (H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne), Western dime-store novels (Louis L'Amour), English comic farce (Wodehouse), and many others I am not badly read enough to recognize. The novel swoons in the false gas of the inauthentic; it delights in the copied, the second-hand, the centerless imitation, the flawless fraudulent surface. Like the rest of Pynchon's work, this novel accumulates meaning only to disperse it.
One central storyline concerns Webb Traverse (the surname is borrowed from Vineland; Pig Bodine, from V, makes an appearance here, too, as one O.I.C. Bodine--oh I see). Traverse is a radical Colorado miner who goes around sabotaging mines by blowing them up, assisted by Veikko, a mad Finnish anarchist. This being Pynchon, Webb has an almost mystical devotion to dynamite, and an unbudgeable paranoia. "There is a master list in Washington, D.C.," he announces one day, "of everybody they think is up to no good, maintained by the U.S. Secret Service." Webb is murdered by the stooges Fresno and Kindred, who are funded by Scarsdale Vibe, a villainous plutocrat. Webb's children are all marked by the killing: Reef Traverse travels through the West, determined to avenge the death by killing the killers. He also assumes his father's mantle, continuing the mystical anarchism of detonation: "Each explosion was like the text of another sermon, preached in the voice of the thunder by some faceless but unrelenting desert prophesier who was coming more and more to ride herd on his thoughts." (This is by no means the only passage here that sounds as if Pynchon has been reading Cormac McCarthy--though who knows, he may be parodying him.) Lake, Webb's daughter, scandalously marries Kindred; and Kit Traverse, who has one of the largest roles in the book, accepts compensatory payment from Scarsdale Vibe, who funds his education at Yale and his mathematical research at Göttingen.
As wartime London, in Gravity's Rainbow, was the hive of buzzing paranoias--"Everyone watching over his shoulder, Free French plotting revenge on Vichy traitors, Lublin Communists drawing beads on Varsovian shadow-ministers, ELAS Greeks stalking royalists, unrepatriable dreamers of all languages hoping through will, fists, prayer to bring back kings, republics, pretenders, summer anarchisms that perished before the first crops were in"--and as the America of the 1760s in Mason %amp% Dixon was populated by wild German sects and dour Puritans and mysterious Jesuit networks of surveillance and British agents, so Against the Day is a salad of buoyant despair, filled with peculiar groups and clubs devoted to esoteric branches of mathematics, spiritualism, and espionage. The Vectorists (of whom Kit is one) are at war with the Quaternions. In London, Neville and Nigel, the English dandies and drug addicts, hang out with a group who call themselves the T.W.I.T., or True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tectractys: "seekers of certitude, of whom there seemed an ever-increasing supply as the century had rushed to its end and through some unthinkable zero and on out the other side, the T.W.I.T. had chosen to follow a secret neo-Pythagorean way of knowledge, based upon the sacred Tectractys." Its "Grand Cohen" is Nicholas Nookshaft, who dresses in "mystical robes appliquéd with astrological and alchemical symbols." One of its members is Yashmeen Halfcourt, a sensual, opaquely Oriental mathematician, who is at Girton College, Cambridge, and who has affairs with Kit and Reef.
As in previous work, especially Mason %amp% Dixon, which featured people asking for "half and half" with their coffee and George Washington smoking a joint and someone singing Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," a good deal of the comedy--and, one assumes, the novel's proposed political import--is generated by cheerful anachronistic slippage. Mention is made of an operetta that is all the rage in Vienna, titled The Burgher King, "in which the ruler of a fictional country in Central Europe, feeling disconnected from his people, decides to go out among them disguised as a member of the urban middle class." (That is a pretty good joke.) Jewelry is once referred to as "ice." The Chums are fond of the word "bloviator," though the evidence suggests that the word, which may have originated in the 1860s, had fallen out of use by the end of the nineteenth century. (It was resuscitated in the 1960s, apparently.) When one of the Chums uses the word "nooky" (cited by the OED as first used in 1928), Pynchon uses another Chum to comment, jauntily:
"Another of your vulgarisms, Suckling, with which I must confess myself, no doubt mercifully, unfamiliar."
"An ignorance likely to continue," prophesied Miles Blundell, "until the year 1925 or thereabout."
In one early scene, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand decides to visit Chicago. Lew Basnight, a private detective who will later be hired by T.W.I.T., is asked to assist the Austro-Hungarian security aide, the field chief of "K%amp%K Special Security." Lew and the Austrian get on well: "They got into the habit of early-morning coffee at the Austrian Pavilion, accompanied by a variety of baked goods. 'And this might be of particular interest to you, Mr. Basnight, considering the widely known Kuchenteigs-Verderbtheit or pastry-depravity of the American detective....'" The Archduke likes to give his minders the slip, and is found, one night, at "a Negro bar down on South State in the Thirties, the heart of the vaudeville and black entertainment district in those days, hollering his way into an evening which promised at least a troublesome moment or two.... 'Squalid!' screamed the Archduke. 'I love it!'"
This little passage is classic Pynchon. There is the knowing reference to "K%amp%K" (the Hapsburg Empire was known as K.u.K., or Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal); the jolly anachronism, whereby obvious reference--pastry-depravity--is being made to our contemporary cliché of the Dunkin' Donut-size American cop; there is the cod-pedantic (but actually pedantic, because it is correct) German for pastry-depravity," Kuchenteigs-Verderbtheit (Kuchen is coffee cake, and Verderbtheit is depravity); and then there is the Archduke himself, hollering in a Negro bar in Chicago.
"Temperament, as much as anything else, determines whether or not you warm to an episode like this, and its rousting schoolboy silliness..."
Temperament, as much as anything else, determines whether or not you warm to an episode like this, and its rousting schoolboy silliness. If you like it, you will quote Hazlitt and praise Pynchon's irrepressible "gusto." If you whisper coldly that it is strictly meaningless--that its very point is to have no meaning--covens of Pynchon lovers will howl at you as if you are the ghost at the endless Pynchon banquet. But meaningless, qua episode, it is. (Of course, a mosaic of such episodes does make cumulative negative meaning, of a kind, which I think is Pynchon's point.) And much of the novel's comedy proceeds in this way. It is situational rather than characterological; and the comedy is not about people but about culture, or about a comic fantasy of a hypothetical cultural friction--in this case, the Austros meet the Afros. This means that even its high spirits are lively rather than life-giving, because it is always the willed idea of comedy rather than the accidental embodiment of comedy.
Pynchon can make you laugh, and there are some good cracks. I liked the joke about how "Deuce's sidekick, Sloat Fresno, was about twice his size and thought that Deuce was his sidekick," and the substance called Smegmo, "an artificial substitute for everything in the edible-fat category, including margarine.... An eminent Rabbi of world hog capital Cincinnati, Ohio, was moved to declare the product kosher, adding that 'the Hebrew people have been waiting four thousand years for this. Smegmo is the Messiah of kitchen fats.'" (Though Pynchon, like the Farrelly brothers, has a perfectly adolescent inability to know when we have had too much of a good thing.) And I quite liked the mayonnaise joke, though it has the feeling of a gag prepared in advance, before the actual narrative cooking has been done: Kit and a glamorous woman named Pléiade Lafrisée meet in a Belgian bistro. We are informed that the whole of Belgium is alive with the culte de la mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is everywhere. Cue gag:
"How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?" she inquired.
He shrugged. "Maybe up to the part that goes 'Aux armes, citoyens'--"
Later that day, Kit visits the central mayonnaise factory for all of Flanders. There is some sort of explosion at the works, and Kit nearly drowns in a tsunami of mayonnaise, finally pushed by the viscous tide through a broken window and "out in a great vomitous arc which dropped him into the canal below." Fielding could not have done it better.
This kind of larking about--much of it on a level with American Pie--is juxtaposed, as it always has been in Pynchon's work, with passages of rhapsodic, densely fine, sometimes beautiful prose. Pynchon's obvious difference from a novelist like Fielding is that he likes to combine the japes and plot maneuvers with a modernist flexing of stylistic muscle, and he has a fine musical ear to accomplish this. Many things can be said against this writer, but no one has ever accused him of lacking talent. (It may be that he has too much.) Consider this passage:
Planted rows went turning past like giant spokes one by one as they ranged the roads. The skies were interrupted by dark gray storm clouds with a flow like molten stone, swept and liquid, and light that found its way through them was lost in the dark fields but gathered shining along the pale road, so that sometimes all you could see was the road, and the horizon it ran to. Sometimes she was overwhelmed by the green life passing in such high turbulence, too much to see, all clamoring to have its way. Leaves sawtooth, spade-shaped, long and thin, blunt-fingered, downy and veined, oiled and dusty with the day--flowers in bells and clusters, purple and white or yellow as butter, star-shaped ferns in the wet and dark places, millions of green veilings before the bridal secrets in the moss and under the deadfalls, went on by the wheels creaking and struck by rocks in the rust, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over.
This is very fine, and reveals once again the influence on Pynchon of Melville, and perhaps, here, of Lawrence, too. (The "green veilings before the bridal secrets" is mildly reminiscent of Melville's famous description of the inside of a whale's mouth, "glossy as bridal satins.") The control of rhythm is almost unerring in Pynchon.
The problem is that, like Don DeLillo, Pynchon has a tendency to use rhapsodic "fine writing" to smudge the coherence of his meaning, to let the music take the strain of the mystical. Here Reef, on the trail of Fresno and Kindred, reflects that the stooges are even worse than the plutocrats:
If Capital's own books showed a balance in clear favor of damnation, if these plutes were undeniably evil hombres, then how much more so were those who took care of their problems for them, in no matter what ignorance of why, not all of their faces on the wanted bills, in that darkly textured style that was more about the kind of remembering, the unholy longing going on out here, than of any real-life badman likeness...
Again, the musical control is flawless, and the long sentence, slowly read, is perfectly comprehensible. Pynchon is saying that the drawings on the "Wanted" posters never looked like the real men, and that their unlikeness--their "darkly textured style"--tells us more about a "kind of remembering," an idea, or Barthesian "mythology" of the Wild West, than anything else. This accords with the novel's systematic argument against the possibility of finding the authentic: everything is mediated, pastiched, mirrored, seen through glasses darkly, or seen twice. But "the unholy longing going on out here" seems a little idle, a little vague, and it seems more idle and vague precisely because it is piled up like this in a lyrical list--precisely because the music is trying to carry its sense for it, and throws it next to "the kind of remembering." The ellipsis in the above quotation is Pynchon's, and marks a section break; and in a way, the ellipsis is the only place this long sentence has to go--into the empty terminus of broken meaning.
Pynchon's texts mobilize what might be called a double mysticism: on the one hand, a fear of total connectedness prevails (paranoia, dystopia), and on the other, a hope for total connectedness makes itself heard (ecstasy, utopia of a kind). It is a negative and positive mysticism, the one half of the binarism producing the other, as air conditioning makes you sweat. It is fair to say, I think, that the intimations of positive connectedness are reserved for the most rhapsodic prose: these are the moments when the novel "dreams" (one of Pynchon's favorite words). These can be touching moments, though often, as in "the unholy longing going on out here," there is a sense of meaning being a little too conveniently pushed beyond the verifiable, or even coherent.
Sometimes, of course, the connections may be both potentially good and potentially bad, depending on who is viewing them. Webb Traverse's wife, Mayva, sees Kit off at the railroad station. "Some stirring now along the line of town trainwatchers, as if they'd caught signals from the invisible distance in that joint waking dream of theirs." Lew Brasnight feels, "in crazier moments," that the railroad network covering the nation is "a living organism, growing by the hour, answering to some invisible command." On the other hand, this network is also felt by Lew to be "redefining the nation into exactly the shape and size of the rail network, wherever it might run to." Another character, a German professor, is described by his English colleague as believing that "the primary geography of the planet is the rails, obeying their own necessity, interconnections, places chosen and bypassed." Elsewhere, we hear about how "lateral world-sets, other parts of the creation, lie all around us, each with its crossover points or gates of transfer from one to another"; about how Iceland, to which the Chums travel, "is not only the geographical Iceland here, it is one of several convergences among the worlds, found now and then lying behind the apparent." In New Orleans, Reef falls in with a gang of anarchists who are all waiting to get on the next ship, as if there might be some utopian refuge, free of time and even ideology itself:
Someplace all the Anarchists could escape to, now with the danger so overwhelming, a place readily found even on cheap maps of the World, some group of green volcanic islands, each with its own dialect, too far from the sea-lanes to be of use as a coaling station, lacking nitrate sources, fuel deposits, desirable ores either precious or practical ... a place promised them, not by God, which'd be asking too much of the average Anarchist, but by certain hidden geometries of History, which must include, somewhere, at least at a single point, a safe conjugate to all the spill of accursed meridians, passing daily, desolate, one upon the next.
Pynchon does not necessarily agree with all of the opinions, of course, and some are expressed by crackpots. But his work has been consistently involved with the notion of utopia, of finding--or not finding--"certain hidden geometries of History," of escaping time, of opting out (as Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49 dreams of rusticating herself from America and joining the Tristero, one of Pynchon's shadowy organizations); of the subjunctive. In Mason %amp% Dixon, Dixon recalls that borders drawn in ink soon become "Fences of Stone." But underneath these ideological lines are the magical ley lines of the non-linear: "Down Below, where no property Lines existed, lay a World as yet untravers'd." Pynchon, one feels, has more than a little in common with the Rousseau who famously announced, in the Second Discourse, that civil society began when a man drew a circle around his property and announced it his.
One feels that much of the praise that this book has enjoyed is really backdated political support for Pynchon. It is interesting that hardly one of the "good" reviews that Against the Day has received offered any convincing account of pleasure on the part of the reviewer. Themes and patterns and old obsessions were ticked off, and applauded for their presence, but it was never clear how any of this might deeply move or instruct or enchant or sustain. Pynchon is easy to like politically, because he is earnest about the unverifiable (utopia, "hidden geometries of History") and comically skeptical of the blatant and potentially oppressive (Truth, frontiers, Time, "accursed meridians"). One wonders how many of his "fans" might dwindle away were his genial, nicely hippie-ish view of anarchists closer to the gloomy conservatism of Joseph Conrad.
"So Pynchon is easy to like politically; but this book's will-to-nullification is deeply frustrating..."
So Pynchon is easy to like politically; but this book's will-to-nullification is deeply frustrating. First of all, the farcical mode of the novel makes coherence and the making of serious distinctions profoundly difficult (deliberately, I think). The comic principle throughout is vaudeville--the circus, the carnival, the musical. Characters drop everything to break into silly songs whenever they can. Professor Vanderjuice, for instance, recommends that Kit continue his research at Göttingen, then produces "as from empty space a ukulele of some dark exotic wood trimmed with tortoiseshell and, after strumming a peppy eight-bar intro, sang":
That Göttingen Rag
Get in-to, your trav'ling coat,
Leave Girl-y, a good-bye note,
Then hop-on, the very-next boat,
Those craz-y, pro-fessors there,
They don't ev-er cut their hair,
But do they, have brains to spare--
You wait and see!
The rhetorical unit of this carnivalesque fun is the manic, hyped-up list--the disease known in my household as John Leonarditis. Each place on Pynchon's far-flung map resembles the other, because each is a circus. This is Greenwich Village:
It was Saturday night in Kipperville. Bearded youths ran by, chasing girls in Turkey red print dresses. Jugglers on unicycles performed tricks along the sidewalk. Negroes accosted strollers, exhibiting small vials of white powder and hopefully enquiring faces. Street vendors sold corn on the cob and broiled squabs on toast.
But here, three hundred pages later, is London, sounding remarkably similar:
Up and down the street, buskers pranced and spun before the theatre queues--conjurors produced small animals from nowhere, tumbling routines featured skull-and-pavement clearances running typically in the millimeter range, while just in front of the Duke of Cumberland's Theatre a ukulele quartet were playing and singing a medley of tunes from Waltzing in Whitechapel, including one intended to be sung Gilbert and Sullivan style by a chorus of constables to a matching number of streetwalkers.
And here, another three hundred pages later, is a Provençal town, favored by anarchists and "hasheesh devotees":
Dozens of small groups had set up camp, like bathers at the seaside, with coffee messes, cooking fires, bedrolls, flowers in flowerpots, awnings and tents.... A choir was practicing a sort of counter-Te Deum, more desperamus than laudamus, bringing news of coming dark and cold.
The template for all this is laid out at the beginning of the novel, and its description of the anarchic, inauthentic circus that is the "alternative" World's Fair:
Armed "bouncers," drawn from the ranks of the Chicago police, patrolled the shadows restlessly. A Zulu theatrical company reenacted the massacre of British troops at Isandhlwana. Pygmies sang Christian hymns in the Pygmy dialect, Jewish klezmer ensembles filled the night with unearthly clarionet solos, Brazilian Indians allowed themselves to be swallowed by giant anacondas, only to climb out again, undigested and apparently with no discomfort to the snake. Indian swamis levitated, Chinese boxers feinted, kicked, and threw one another to and fro.
This is not the "official" World's Fair, but a kind of Saturnalian, hypothetical version going on at the edges, at the "unmapped periphery" of the event--a kind of Chicago Fringe Festival. That is why the police are keeping watch: after all, we are in Pynchonville.
The list is a stylistic amphetamine; it speeds up verisimilitude, makes it frantic. It is Janus-faced: on the one hand, it insists that one pay attention to its sleepless abundance; on the other, its very length tacitly acknowledges that distinctions are less important than the overall effect of abundance, and thus that one will not really pay notice at all. It is a defense against the loss of readerly attention. What all this means, in practice, is that Against the Day is a massive novel that never feels spacious, because it so rarely slows down to describe anything properly, never indulges in that rallentando of respect whereby each note is awarded its imperishable thisness. Instead, the descriptive keyboard is manically swiped, up and down, up and down, from top to bottom, as if some genius child were proving to us that yes, he can play the piano.
One of the problems with hysterical realism, of which this novel is a kind of zany Baedeker, is that one suffers both the hysteria and the realism: the worst of both worlds. There is the weightless excess, the incredibilities, the boredom that always attends upon cartoonish, inauthentic novelistic activity. But there is also the boredom attendant upon the rather old-fashioned, straightforward realism used to create this very escape from realism. Thus one of the most peculiar elements of this clearly ambitious and daring novel is that its stylistic syntax is relatively undaring, and so conventional. Of course much of it is pastiche, so in a sense it slips out of the charge of conventionality. But the practical effect is a grammar of realism that challenges nobody and nothing.
On the jacket of the novel, a summary, apparently by Pynchon himself, promises the following: "Meanwhile, Thomas Pynchon is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange and weird sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-fact occurrences occur." This nicely parodies both kinds of potential response, the breathless adulation of the novel and the gloomy opprobrium. But in fact, although there are plenty of "contrary-to-fact occurrences," what is striking is how much there is that is not at all contrary to fact. This may be a vast mosaic of parodies, and it may delight in anachronism, but like any conventional historical novel it builds its verisimilitude with an enormous amount of period detail. Characters are given their proper sociological bearings. When Pynchon tells you, on page 896, that Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was given its first performance at Gloucester Cathedral, at a Three Choirs Festival, you know he has done his research, he knows his stuff. This is not at all counterfactual. At the level of style, despite the deliberate aura of the inauthentic, the governing narrative mode is a smooth, fast, fairly undemanding comic realism, which keeps the many stories ticking over nicely. There may be many tricks involving "stupid songs" and time travel and hidden cities under the desert and exploding mayonnaise, but there are no deep tricks involving the question of how to represent those songs and mad happenings. Mimesis is under little pressure in this book. (Fictional speech, for instance, occurs within traditional quotation marks, flagged with "he said" or "she said.")
In other words, as in science fiction, which may be the best way to describe this book, an avant-gardism of content pertains, but not an avant-gardism of form. The result is that a conventional code of narrative is utilized in order to deliver the unreal. For instance, Yashmeen travels down from Cambridge to London with a group of girlfriends. They take what sounds like an early twentieth-century version of the London Eye, a vast Ferris wheel with enclosed capsules. The girls' capsule is full of London proles, "British holidaygoers, all busily eating sausage rolls, whelks, and pork pies by the hamperful ... 'Care for a nice bit of jellied eel?' one of the funseekers now wobbling a portion of the open-air snack favorite quite close to Neoellyn's face." Of course, this is a pastiche of a certain kind of snobbish, jolly-hockey-sticks girls' book, of the kind that Enid Blyton churned out. We can tell this, thanks to phrases such as "by the hamperful." Yet the fact remains that, despite the japes, we are left with a portrait of London that simply reproduces the cliché. New Orleans is the same:
Voodoo? Voodoo was the least of it, Voodoo was just everywhere. Invisible sentinels were sure to let you know, the thickest of necks being susceptible here to monitory pricklings of the Invisible. The Forbidden. And meantime the smells of the local cuisine, cheurice sausages, gumbo, crawfish étouffé, and shrimp boiled in sassafras, proceeding from noplace you could ever see, went on scrambling what was left of your good sense. Negroes could be observed at every hand, rollicking in the street.
Again, this is not to be taken seriously. No more, perhaps, than the description of Greenwich Village in which "Negroes accosted strollers, exhibiting small vials of white powder and hopefully enquiring faces." Obviously, Pynchon is not a racist idiot. He is telling us that the real New Orleans is not accessible to novelistic enquiry; behind his false surfaces are only more false surfaces, the ones that we create. But there again, the fact remains that the New Orleans of Against the Day, the New Orleans set down on the page, is a city of grinning Negroes and gumbo. Either it is offensive if he means it, or it is slightly differently offensive if he doesn't mean it, because he has still committed it to paper. This novel systematically denies the reader any purchase, any Archimedean position, and that is its anarchism of method: not Against the Day so much as Against Method. But 1,100 pages of antic surface is an awfully expensive way to pay for these pretty obvious splashings in skepticism.
In an otherwise intelligent review of Against the Day in the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Sorrentino argues that those who dislike this novel are people whose ideal novel is "lean, well-plotted, linear and related from a single point of view." There may well be such mythical beasts around, grunting for their daily grub of realism. But what if you wanted a novel that had little plot but much internal story, that was morally and aesthetically complex, stylistically difficult and demanding, determined to put language to some kind of challenge, formally lovely and alluring, humanly serious but also humanly comic (I mean a book that comically investigated deep human motive)? A novel that was narrated in the internal voices of several different characters, but characters who really have their own voices, not just vaudeville ventriloquism? Well, then, you might read the great novels that are set in the same era as Against the Day: these include The Man Without Qualities, Remembrance of Things Past, The Radetzky March, The Secret Agent, Confessions of Zeno (which ends with a prophesy of something very like atomic destruction), The Magic Mountain (which ends with the Great War), The Good Soldier Svejk. Many of these are quite funny--but not farcical--novels, above all profoundly involved with the exploding of truths, then finally devoted to the search for truth.
Naturally, a search for truth implies a wariness about the definition of truth. But it is hard not to feel that Pynchon is postmodernistically consumed by the latter, while he merely snacks at the former. Another reviewer, this time in London, gives a generally positive--again, joyless!--review of the book before complaining that, after all, the whole thing is too much: "Against the Day resembles Moby-Dick in its vast scale, its displays of learning, its engaging larkiness. But it's a Moby-Dick with no Ahab, and no whale." But wouldn't Moby-Dick without Ahab and the whale be a Moby-Dick without anything at stake? Wouldn't that be a book for children?
By James Wood