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Thomas Pynchon

Against the Day

Thoughts, but in no way the summary

Pynchon’s experimental, anti-narrative tendencies appear in his latest novel, Against the Day (1,085 pages) in full-blown, runaway metastasis. All that is glorious and exhilarating about Pynchon is found here, but the problems of scale are taxing. There is a spinal story of sorts: 1890s cowboy and anarchist bomber Webb Traverse is killed by hired guns in the pay of plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. His four children – Frank, into revolutionary politics and bombing; Reef, a reckless tunnel blaster wandering the Balkans as Europe shudders into war; Lake, who marries her father’s assassin, and Kit, a Yale- and Gottingen-educated mathematical prodigy preoccupied with arcane and unsolvable formulae – take up the question of vengeance with varying degrees of dedication.

Blessed with droll, laconic cowboy dialogue, the Traverse children and their partners in restless travail are tracked through the thickets of the novel, regularly abandoned then picked up again. Their appearances provide, if not structural succour, then a regular buffer against the seething, overly diverting profusion of other characters and their escapades.

The text is overwhelming, unstable, encyclopaedic and extravagantly allusive. Characters bejewelled with such names as Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Oomie Vamplet, the Kieselguhr Kid, Darby Suckling, Oleander Prudge and Sloat Fresno are implicated in at least a dozen parallel, interwoven accounts that feature a train that travels through sand under the surface of deserts, a dog that reads the work of Henry James, a previously unmapped district of Chicago, a near drowning in a quantity of mayonnaise, the performance of an operetta titled The Burgher King, a sentient ball of lightning called Skip and a balloon crewed by boyish adventurers known as the Chums of Chance.

At times, the author seems burdened with a surfeit of research material and discharges it, at regular intervals, into long, scene-setting paragraphs that simply list the contents of rooms or environments. That these contents are generally exotic does not preclude their coming to resemble, after, say, the eighth time, a hardware catalogue or a set-dresser’s checklist.

When gadgets and inventions simply strut across the scene, Pynchon joins company with neurotic French proto-Surrealist and novelist Raymond Roussel, whose highly schematic books feature a dry ingenuity applied to the repetitive description of absurd machines.

None of this detracts from the unique pleasures of a mighty novel that will delight Pynchonians and seduce newcomers. The latter should be prepared to put about a month aside at two hours a day, five days a week. The scale of the novel induces memory loss but as with balloon flight, or fever, the return to terra firma is accompanied by feelings of wise, wide contentment.

Beneath the disconnected pointillism, lies an energetic universe through which waves of history, light, time and number flow, at times in concert, at other times colliding. Their collisions coalesce into the interference patterns that are the novel’s episodes and events. Arcane, embedded codes pervade a Pynchon novel at every level, so consider the episode in which Reef Traverse is about to attempt penetrative sexual intercourse with the lapdog Mouffette. This occurs on page 666, the Number of the Beast.