Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Against the Day

After you've read Thomas Pynchon, everything else, all other prose, seems boring, muted, and dull, as if it were coming at you from deep under water, or as if you were under water - drowning perhaps - and someone was trying to yell at you. But you can't hear them, because you're under water.

Introduced to his novels by a Christian English professor at a Christian college in the Saskatchewan prairies, which is I imagine one of the least likeliest places to encounter Pynchon (a Christian English professor who, by the way, once told me he'd had to think long and hard to decide, when it came down to writing his Ph.D thesis, between a focus on Pynchon and one on John Milton, a decision that is doubtless evidence of some great and incomprehensible psychic schism in his personality),* I have been reading Pynchon for several years now, having made my way heedlessly and recklessly though the sickly and wet corridors of Gravity's Rainbow at least twice, and in parts far more than twice, and through the circuitry and broken synapses of The Crying of Lot 49 more times than is probably healthy or sane. I've only read Vineland once. I have not yet read either V or Mason & Dixon, and I'm not sure why but I'm not really in any rush to, either.

There's really no way to take on a novel like Against the Day, or a novelist like Pynchon, except by diving straight into it, hurled headlong, immersing yourself within its inky and sticky depths, flailing around in it, probably drowning,* or at least feeling as if you're drowning, only occasionally breaking through some surfaces, if only momentarily, to see the sunshine above you, or if not the sun then at least some terrible counter-sun, a solar doppelganger shedding not light but anti-light, Pynchon's light, as he turns the world you know into something alien, menacing, dangerous and erotic in all the wrong ways.

The novel's narrative, if the definition of narrative can be manipulated to include a novel such as this, is carved out during the time between the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to the time just following World War I, when the world, newly made (or perhaps newly destroyed, its pieces left strewn about Europe), is taking its first steps into what we now understand to be the current situation. If you're not into that whole abstraction thing - and I probably wouldn't blame you if you weren't but I would also suggest to you that Pynchon, probably not your cup of tea - the novel is about Frank, Reef, and Kit, the sons of one Webb Traverse, dynamite-hurling anarchist and union man, and the ways in which the three of them deal, or don't deal, with his (spoiler!) murder. There is a lot more to it than just that, however... a whole heckuva lot more. Just look at this: here, out of context, are just a few things that happen: a set of boy adventurers, along with their Henry James-reading dog, travel through the Earth in a hydrogen balloon; they then, later in the novel, travel under the desert in a sub-desertine ship; a man teleports, and changes race and hair colour, through yoga; a man nearly dies under a wave of mayonnaise; people communicate with an intelligent tornado. It all takes a bit of getting used to. As in Gravity's Rainbow, but ramped up in Against the Day to fever pitches, history and science, the very world we've come to know and rely upon, unhinges, blends without warning into pseudo-scientific phantasmagoria, dimensional instability, and moral horrors only slight exaggerated. Things drawn from nearly every conceivable corner and province of the early 20th century, things like the mysterious Tunguska Event, the collapse of the St. Mark's Campanile, the minutia of early 1900's fashion, the bloody politics of the Balkan Peninsula, the 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot, the Reimann Zeta Function, a form of calcite known as Iceland Spar notable only for its properties of double refraction, religious mania, sexual obsessions and depravities, all and more... worlds and worlds more... it's all here, everything you didn't know about the world. Pynchon is one of those authors who apparently not only knows everything, but has subjected everything there is to know to his own often horrific, often hilarious re-imagining of reality. The end result is a work of literature as likely to baffle and perplex as it is to dazzle and seduce.

It's clearly not for everyone. I've been reading Pynchon for a few years now and I had trouble accepting what he was doing here. But for those willing to sail the skies with Pynchon in this strange airship of a novel, the rewards, and the incredible and simple pleasure, of reading a master who not only wants to say something but have fun saying it are without comparison. Read Against the Day.

* He chose Milton.

* Drowning is the metaphor of the day. Deal with it.


Life of Turner said...

Sounds like Vonnegut on speed. Sounds like my kind of read sometime.

dcornelius said...

I vastly prefer Pynchon. Nothing against Vonnegut, but Pynchon's my preferred brand of literary insanity.

dcornelius said...

Also, read The Crying of Lot 49. It's short, and probably wouldn't take you more than a day or two. Against the Day is... longer.