Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

“Now single up all lines!” begins Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, a fairly simple beginning for an author known for being convoluted and obscure. I’ll take any chance I can get to write about Pynchon, and the first paperback release of Against the Day seems to warrant it. In case you missed its original release last winter, the novel typical Pynchon: a sprawling epic filled with hundreds of characters, stretching across the world (and beneath it, and a few other places not on the map) and spanning the era from 1893 to World War I. Although it doesn’t quite equal the achievement of his earlier work, Against the Day is a solid entry into the Pynchon canon, consistently offering enough fantastic characters, absurd and expansive settings, and bizarre humor to make it his most entertaining work to date.

Against the Day is a behemoth of a book (1085 pages in paperback), fitting for its author, one of the giants of postmodern literature, and, in my opinion, the best living writer. Pynchon’s personality (or lack thereof) has gained almost as much notoriety as his work; he is famously reclusive, refusing to give interviews, promote his books, or even be photographed, creating a weird mystique about him (although he did lend his voice to an episode of The Simpsons a few years ago, in which he appeared with his head covered by a paper bag). He published his first novel, V., in 1963 to rave reviews; V. established the themes and styles he would build on in his later work: paranoia, entropy, the preterite and the elect, and obscure and abstruse knowledge. In 1973, his masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow, was published; a gigantic book covering nine months at the end of World War II and featuring over 400 characters, it was too big to be ignored, causing some to hail it as the greatest work of the twentieth century and others to call it completely unreadable.

Against the Day is clearly set in the mold of Gravity’s Rainbow, on a larger scale, if possible. It’s hard to summarize such an enormous book, but I’ll try anyway. The major plot strand concerns the Traverse family: Webb, the father and a miner who is mixed up with an anarchist group and killed early on in the book; Reef, the street-smart oldest child who travels across the world hustling and barely making his way; Frank, the middle son, an engineer who chases his father’s killers into Mexico; Kit, the youngest, who pursues a career in theoretical mathematics in Europe and elsewhere, sponsored by those who had Webb killed; and Lake, their sister, who marries one of Webb’s killers. Webb and his family are pretty standard Pynchon fare, a group of disparate rebels struggling against Them, personified here by the wealthy robber baron Scarsdale Vibe. This Wild West drama is offset by the other major plot thread: The Chums of Chance, a group of plucky airship-riding lads who travel the world righting wrongs and promoting the American way, not unlike something from a turn of the century boys’ novel. These are just the main plot strands, however, and there are hundreds of hilarious minor characters, from Oscar Wilde-style fops to Al-Mar Fuad (say it out loud to get the joke), a Uyghur who talks with a discernable lisp about hunting “wabbits.”

There isn’t really a plot arc, besides the Traverses coming to terms with and avenging Webb’s death; it’s mostly just characters bouncing around the world and trying to live within the System, unaware of the impending world disaster. It seems like this would be a bad thing, but it really lets Pynchon embrace the storytelling aspect that’s been subdued in some of his other work. The way he intersects all the various plots and the generally entertaining episodes make the novel an engaging read, despite its length, and hearken back to the literature of the period he’s writing about, especially in the Chums of Chance chapters. In this way, Against the Day is his most accessible work since The Crying of Lot 49; you never really get too bogged down trying to figure out what’s going on. Despite the entertainment value, it’s not an intellectual slacker. There’s a lot going on here with doubling and light, as well as the standard Pynchon stuff, and it takes multiple reads to scratch the thematic surface.

That alone makes Against the Day a worthy entry into Pynchon’s body of work, but it never really measures up to his best. It lacks the enormous monumentality of Gravity’s Rainbow, slightly diluting its grand, apocalyptic vision (though it comes close when it describes the destruction of an anonymous city by a mysterious Arctic object early in the novel). And although Against the Day has some great and funny characters, they all seem a little like caricatures and cutouts, as in his early work; in 1997’s Mason & Dixon, Pynchon proved he was capable of heartfelt, human characters, but he doesn’t deliver them here. There’s also the matter of obscure knowledge: as with every Pynchon book, you’ve got to have a strong backing in science, math, and pretty much everything else to understand the novel, or be willing to do a lot of research. There’s less work in Against the Day than some of his earlier work, but it’s still Pynchon, after all.

All the work’s worth it, ultimately; though it’s not his best, Against the Day is still very, very good, and a great starting place for anyone new to Pynchon. Pick it up and prepare to lose yourself for a few weeks in the grandiose, epic vision of a genius, to have your mind thrilled and expanded by our greatest living writer.

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