Sunday, September 9, 2018

Book Review: Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is Lit!


Last summer, topping off a binge of reading Thomas Pynchon books, I set forth on the long, arduous, and vastly entertaining excursion of reading his 1,085-page epic, Against the Day. Almost a year later, I'm still preoccupied with this multifaceted meganovel. Before putting the cinematic cinderblock of letters back on the shelf for a while I've got some thoughts I'd like to share on it here.

Mainly, I must declare that Against the Day is Lit!!! As in, Against the Day is Literature in extremis! Literary, narrative worlds taken to extreme levels of world building, as Bruce Allen of Kirkus Reviews captured it, "Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith." The book is all about journeys traversed around the world, and it is told in a bountifully rich style of extremely erudite yet comedically committed prose that serves to weave a vast interconnecting network of literally hundreds of characters across the span of a few decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

It's also Lit as in Bonkers as in yo this book is lit af. (Millenial slang for "yo it's wild as fuck!") In Against the Day, Pynchon takes risks, letting the imagination expand in full flourish of zany, unpredictable explosive interactions and storylines, straining the limits of credulity as he works within the genre of what Wikipedia calls historiographic metafiction or metahistorical romance. The powerful electrical experiments of Dr. Nikola Tesla himself make up part of the story, mixed with the ominous tensions of turn-of-the-century political revolutions and the buildup to World War I, witnessed by a team of globe-trotting, time-traveling aviator adventurers (the Chums of Chance), with the overall storyline centered around a decades long struggle between the family of a murdered anarchist bomber (Webb Traverse) against a merciless robber baron/cartel boss (Scarsdale Vibe). It is the grandest manifestation of Pynchon's consistent theme of the struggle throughout history between what he labels the elect vs the preterite or the rich and powerful vs the common man. Serious, important historical stuff. But as Steven Moore noted in his review, the book's Marxist melodrama is laced with the comedic strain of Groucho Marx. Since this is Pynchon in full force, the novel is completely bonkers, often hilarious or silly, and sometimes ridiculous in its sexual excesses.

For example, flipping open the book at random, on page 384 we encounter a freedom fighter in the Mexican Civil War named El Ñato described as an "energetic presence" dressed in an "officer's jacket from the defunct army of some country not too nearby" with a ridiculously oversized parrot perched on his shoulder, "so out of scale in fact that to converse with its owner it had to lean down to scream into his ear." Then we meet the parrot:
"And this is Joaquin," El Ñato smiling up at the bird. "Tell them something about yourself, m'hijo."
"I like to fuck the gringo pussy," confided the parrot.
Later on when one of the main characters is about to strangle the insolent parrot, Pynchon describes El Ñato "sensing psitticide in the air." Parrots being of the Latin order Psittaciformes, Pynchon invents a clever word for parrot murder.

And finally, the novel is also Lit in the sense of Illumination. One of the main preoccupations of Against the Day is Light. The novel is full of newly lit cities, luminous prose, an ever expanding glow of creativity and proliferant storylines intent on covering everything under the sun. The force of the Tunguska event plops upon the text with "A heavenwide blast of light" (p. 779) that leaves the sky over the European continent alight for weeks. The light-refracting crystal Iceland Spar is a recurrent element in Against the Day. We experience frequent digressions into philosophical, scientific or occult contemplations of Light itself, as in the scene where the young genius mathematician/engineer Kit Traverse argues with his cynical brother Reef on science vs mysticism, pointing out how wireless waves were complete "bunk" not very long ago, then he reminds us: "Seems every day somebody's discovering another new piece of the spectrum, out there beyond visible light, or a new extension of the mind beyond conscious thought, and maybe someplace far away the two domains are even connected up." (p. 670)

To illustrate the ways in which Against the Day is totally lit, let's further expand on each aspect of its lit-ness:



1. Against the Day is Lit! (Literature)

Pynchon's grandiose turn-of-the-century epic is written in an elegant prose with a humorously rich vocabulary. The word "absquatulate" (verb meaning "to leave abruptly") appears multiple times in the text, for instance. Pynchon has loads of fun here. With this colorfully weaved quilt of English language he presents an array of interrelated stories from various genres. A good chunk of the text reads like a gritty old Western, then you've got the steampunk sci-fi airship adventures, a gumshoe who becomes a "psychic detective" involved with a Pythagorean cult reminiscent of Dr. Strange and the Masters of the Mystic Arts, endless varying subplots involving mathematicians, chemists, engineers, scientists, and shamans, not to mention the shadowy interactions of a string of mysterious international spies reminiscent of Gravity's Rainbow (in fact, the text often felt to me like a lighter, more entertaining prequel to Gravity's Rainbow).

Fairly early in my experience of reading this book, I was struck by the sense that Pynchon was here pushing the bar so far as to make it nearly impossible for another novelist to touch him. Against the Day is a remarkable feat of storytelling. The aforementioned varying threads of theme, style, character and storyline are all directly or indirectly involved in many of the major historical events around the advent of the 20th century---Tesla's experiments in electricity, the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, the Michelson-Morley experiments, the Mexican Revolution, the Colorado Labor Wars, the Tunguska explosion, and the outbreak of World War I among other things. The book's breadth of setting spans virtually the entire atlas and beyond, over a period of more than 30 years. Somehow Pynchon assembles all of this into a coherent, highly readable, extremely entertaining narrative.

Impressive as the vast Byzantine design of style and technique is, there is also plenty of heart here. In some ways it is probably Pynchon's sweetest and most heartfelt novel. There are a number of amorous (as opposed to erotic) pursuits in the novel, most enticingly the love story between Kit Traverse and Dahlia Rideout where the two young lovebirds withstand circumstances pulling them apart over a period of years---literally at one point, when a cruise ship transforms into dual split battleships in mid sea voyage---until they finally reach an idyllic crescendo of romantic coupling (in a scene where Pynchon manages to be deeply romantic without getting too corny or straying from his satirical style) and then eventually, years later the couple experience the sad, slow unraveling of their bond.

There is also in Against the Day, as in seemingly all of Pynchon's post-Gravity's Rainbow novels, a strong emphasis on familial bonds. The novel as a whole is essentially about the Traverse family, the father Webb and mother Mayva, their three sons Reef, Frank, Kit, and their daughter Lake. The family's response to the murder of Webb by the ruthless plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe sets the whole story in motion. I also noticed that, much like the father-daughter bond at the center of Vineland, there are at least three important father-daughter relationships in Against the Day. The chemist/engineer Merle Rideout raises his witty daughter Dahlia as a single parent until she's old enough to go off on her own adventures around the world, eventually reconnecting with her father towards the end in perhaps the tenderest scene of any Pynchon book; throughout the novel, the stunningly beautiful vagabond mathematician/mystic Yashmeen Halfcourt yearns to be reunited with her father Auberon and vice versa (the delivery of a letter written by Yashmeen to her father makes for one of the book's epic cross-continental journeys); and the fraught, volatile relationship between Webb Traverse and his rebellious daughter Lake leads eventually to a gut-wrenching twist following his murder.

Lastly, Pynchon in Against the Day frequently deploys two of my favorite of his devices: detailed, contemplative descriptions of setting and long, drawn-out, clever catalogs of items. The latter abounds, often to amusing effect. Piles of technological bric a brac litter the pages of this book, on page 1035-1036 for example: "The shelves and benchtops were crowded with volt-ammeters, rheostats, transformers, arc lamps whole and in pieces, half-used carbons, calcium burners, Oxone tablets, high-tension magnetos, alternators store-bought and home-made, vibrator coils, cut-outs and interruptors, worm drives, Nocol prisms, generating valves, glassblowing torches, Navy surplus Thalofide cells, brand-new Aeolight tubes freshly fallen from the delivery truck, British Blattnerphone components and tons of other stuff Chick had never recalled seeing before."

Pynchon is probably my second favorite author (behind James Joyce) and throughout my reading of his works, it's consistently been his beautifully evocative descriptions of place that I love most about his writing. Against the Day is a novel of landscapes traversed, vast distances covered by hoof or by foot (or airship), and thus Pynchon has a field day with his creative depictions of setting. Here's one especially representative example, from early in the book when Merle Rideout and his young daughter Dally are riding a stagecoach across the American frontier looking for work:

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 ruts, sparks visible only in what shadow it might pass over, a busy development of small trailside shapes tumbling in what had to be deliberately arranged precision, herbs the wild-crafters knew the names and market prices of and which the silent women up in the foothills, counterparts whom they most often never got even to meet, knew the magic uses for. They lived for different futures, but they were each other's unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them did come to pass was lit up, beyond question, with grace.
(p. 70)

2. Against the Day is Lit! (Bonkers)

Everything in Against the Day is amped to extremes it seems. The historical forces of energy and innovation are converging toward a crescendo, potentially something great but also the looming plague of modern warfare. The western gunslinger hero doesn't fire pistols he explodes dynamite aimed at taking down the capitalist system. The global narrative is punctuated by not just any meteor impact but by the largest impact event on Earth in recorded history. The novel is also extremely filthy, filled with a wide array of sex scenes whose excesses are sometimes pushed to different types of disturbing extremes. And as you might expect of a Pynchon novel, there's no shortage of characters consuming psychoactive substances.

What I found especially astounding was the depiction of sci-fi fantasy concepts throughout the adventures of the aviator team, the Chums of Chance. Pynchon has an uncanny ability to summon the right words to perfectly describe his outlandish ideas. It's one thing to have your characters travel in a grimy old time-machine or carve thru an ocean of sand like a submarine, it's another thing to detail all of that in an exquisite prose of realism. When you realize the Chums of Chance are seriously going to pilot the airship Inconvenience through a hole in the "hollow Earth" to take a short cut from south pole to north, it's an amusing surprise. Then when Pynchon describes the expedition with such language and imagery as this, there's simply awe:
Far "below," through the intraplanetary dusk, they could make out upon the great inner concavity, spreading into the distances, the phosphorescent chains and webs of settlement crossing lightless patches of wilderness still unvisited by husbandry, as, silently as the ship's nitro-lycopodium engines would allow, the skyfarers made their passage. (p. 116)
Similarly in the scene of the Chums of Chance searching for the lost ancient city of Shambhala by burrowing beneath the desert sands of Inner Asia---as Mark Z. Danielewski beautifully put it, "Against the Day revive[s] the sands of time as a medium intent on voyage" [from his introduction to Bachelard's The Poetics of Space])---when I first was reading this and the "subdesertine frigate Saksaul" prepared to embark below the desert surface I thought how the hell is he gonna make this work? only to again be dumbstruck in awe of the evocative visual imagery:
It as little resembled the upper-world view of the desert as the depths of an ocean do its own surface. Enormous schools of what might have been some beetle species swarmed, as if curious, iridescently in and out of the searchlight-beams, while, too far away to examine in any detail---in some cases, indeed, well past the smeared boundaries of the visible---darker shapes kept pace with the ship's progress, showing now and then a flash, bright as unsheathed steel. Presently, according to the charts, felt more than seen, there rose to port and starboard the jagged mountain ranges known to long-time Inner Asian sand-dogs as the Deep Blavatsky.
(p. 434)
All this happens in the text not long after an incredible depiction of time travel when the Chums of Chance track down a working-though-beaten-down time machine in an underground electrical station in New York City. My god, the time machine scene! Wonderful stuff. A heavily Brooklyn-accented psychopomp guides the aeronauts through the back alleys of foggy turn-of-the-century NYC til they approach a gigantic archway described as "gray and time-corroded, seeming to date from ancient catastrophe, far older than the city" with an engraving reading "I AM THE WAY INTO THE DOLEFUL CITY - DANTE." (p. 401)

The boys meet a zany Dr. Zoot and are not entirely impressed with his beat-up old time machine:
The Machine's appearance struck neither lad as particularly advanced. Amid a hoarse droning, violent blue sparks leapt noisily between unwieldy electrodes that might not have seemed out of place in a dynamo of Grandmother's day. A once-unblemished exterior had become long putted and stained with electrolytic wastes. What numerals were visible on the dust-covered dial-faces owed much to the design preferences of an earlier generation, as did the Breguet-style openwork of the indicator arrows. More alarmingly, even the casual eye could detect everywhere emergency weld-lines, careless shimming, unmatched fasteners, blotches of primer coat never painted over, and other evidences of the makeshift. The overwhelming impression was of revenue diverted from any but the simplest upkeep.
(p. 402)
The subsequent depiction of time travel (page 403-404) is among the most arresting passages in the book. It's so good I don't even want to spoil it here but I will share this funny line from the aftermath: "The fiendish 'time machine,' still in one piece, quivered in its accustomed place, as if with merriment."

Having penetrated beyond the boundaries of time, the boys start experiencing weird phenomena upon their return. Mysterious figures called Trespassers show up, seemingly messengers from the future trying to warn them of the impending destruction of the Great War. One exchange particularly stands out, when aeronaut Miles Blundell bicycles around the city of Ostend, Belgium alongside one of the Trespassers who shares a grave prophecy (which takes on new meaning for me now that I recently returned from a trip to the Flanders region):
"Flanders will be the mass grave of History."
"Well."
"And that's not the most perverse part of it. They will all embrace death. Passionately."
"The Flemish"
"The world. On a scale that has never yet been imagined. Not some religious painting in a cathedral, not Bosch, or Brueghel, but this, what you see, the great plain, turned over and harrowed, all that lies below brought to the surface---deliberately flooded, not the sea come to claim its due but the human counterpart to that same utter absence of mercy---for not a village wall will be left standing. League on league of filth, corpses by the uncounted thousands, the breath you took for granted become corrosive and death-giving."
"Sure sounds unpleasant," said Miles.
"You don't believe any of this. You should."
(p. 554)
Europe's slow unraveling into all-out war provides a backdrop (sometimes distant, sometimes immediate) for some of the epic excursions of the book, the long treks across the Eurasian landmass. I'm thinking especially of Kit Traverse journeying from Venice all the way along the Caspian Sea to the remote Kashgar region of eastern China. Once there he ricochets off to another journey through the rugged terrains of the Uyghur region in search of a desert prophet, the Doosra. The expedition begins by passing thru an ominous arc known as the Prophet's Gate. Here it is in real life:

"Prophet's Gate" in Xinjiang, China. (Photo by Philipp Reichmuth)

The Prophet's Gate, or "Tukush Tash" (p. 769) as the novel calls it, is about as tall as the Empire State Building. Wikipedia says "it is probably the world's tallest arch" but apparently it is so remote that the Guiness Book of Records couldn't locate it to verify and it wasn't until the year 2000 that National Geographic "rediscovered the arch for foreigners." But of course Pynchon was all over it. Much like with Gravity's Rainbow whose oft-praised, unbelievably detailed depictions of European cities belied Pynchon's never having visited them, Against the Day provides a sensory tour through an encyclopedia of geographic details. In their dialogues or narrated backstories, characters often toss off a quarter-globe's worth of cities and regions trekked like it's nothing.

One passage where the retired old lieutenant-colonel turned remote Kashgar region inhabitant Auberon Halfcourt is describing the rugged mountainous routes to Kit feels like a metaphor for the journey of the book itself, a long and challenging excursion that demands respect:
"It isn't only the difficult terrain, the vipers and sandstorms and raiding parties. The journey itself is a kind of conscious Being, a living deity who does not engage with the foolish or weak, and hence will try to dissuade you. It insists on the furthest degree of respect."
(p. 765)
On his long, slow path to find "the Doosra" in remote Siberia, Kit falls in with a band of religious wanderers, "former hard-labor convicts who had been sentenced years before to internal exile in Siberia," who distill and guzzle vodka and Fusel oils. Another way in which Against the Day is Lit: the characters are often getting lit. The Siberian wanderers bring back "sacks full of strange mottled red mushrooms that sent them off on internal journeys out to Siberia of the soul." (p. 788) These sound like Amanita muscaria mushrooms. Earlier in the book somebody inhales a hallucinogenic element of dynamite called cyclopropane and endures a strong visual trip seeing "realms of crystallography" (p. 183) in everything. Later there's a reference to what must be Pynchon's invented early-aughts slang for marijuana, "lettuce opium." (p. 470) And perhaps most memorably, when Frank Traverse gets in among native Mesoamerican sorcerers after fighting in the Mexican Civil War, he ingests some hikuli, a type of peyote cactus, and goes on a vision quest in the Chihuahuan desert.



3. Against the Day is Lit! (Illuminated)

This novel is completely preoccupied with Light. When reading through a second time you notice how discussions of Light are involved to some degree on almost every page, starting from the book's epigraph from Thelonious Monk: "It's always night, or we wouldn't need light."

The obsession with Light includes describing a group of "diet fadists who styled themselves Lightarians, living on nothing but light." (p. 60) A whole section of the book is named for Iceland Spar, an oft-mentioned crystal known for its propensity to double-refract light. The chemist Merle Rideout is a pioneer of early photography, eventually concocting a miraculous device that can summon a sort of film of the past and future by illuminating a photograph.

The characteristics of Light are frequently invoked to describe setting, often to great effect. When Frank Traverse ascends into the mountains of Telluride he's described as "turning from the day, from all the could be safely illuminated, into the nocturnal counterpart behind his own eye-sockets, past any after-images of a lighted world." (p. 298)

The moment where Webb Traverse officially passes away is defined by this line that tickled the back of my neck upon reading: "He watched the light over the ranges slowly draining away." (p. 198)

Besides all of these brightly illuminated scenes, culminating in the meteoric blast of on page 779 with "A heavenwide blast of light," there are also plenty of philosophical and scientific contemplations of what Light is and what role it has played throughout history. The Michelson-Morley experiments of 1887, an attempt to confirm the existence of an aether through which light travels, form a part of the story, for instance. 

A few other fascinating considerations of light in Against the Day stand out for me. For instance, when one of the Chums of Chance, Lindsay Noseworth, ponders the effect of light on historical events: 
having lately been studying historic world battles, attempting to learn what lighting conditions might have been like during the action, even coming to suspect that light might be a secret determinant of history---beyond how it had lit a battlefield or an opposing fleet, how it might have come warping through a particular window during a critical assembly of state, or looked as the sun was setting across some significant river, or struck in a particular way the hair, and thereby delayed the execution, of a politically dangerous wife one was determined to be rid of---
(p. 431-432)
Or the occult meditation provided by the Grand Cohen of the T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Tetractys, a math-obsessed mystic cult) who shares this secret wisdom with Lew Basnight: 

"We are light, you see, all of light---we are the light offered the batsmen at the end of the day, the shining eyes of the beloved, the flare of the safety-match at the high city window, the stars and nebulae in full midnight glory, the rising moon through the tram wires, the naphtha lamp glimmering on the costermonger's barrow.... When we lost our aethereal being and became embodied, we slowed, thickened, congealed to"---grabbing each side of his face and wobbling it back and forth---"this. The soul itself is a memory we carry of having once moved at the speed and density of light. The first step in our discipline here is learning how to re-acquire that rarefaction, that condition of light, to become once more able to pass where we will, through lantern-horn, through window-glass...."
- p. 688

A similar meditation on the nature of light and the soul springs about later on during Frank Traverse's remote Mesoamerican journeys among the native people, when he encounters a tree full of luminescent insects:

He couldn't say when exactly, but at some point Frank came to understand that this bearer of light was his soul, and that all the fireflies in the tree were the souls of everyone who had ever passed through his life, even at a distance, even for a heartbeat and a half, that there existed such a tree for each person in Chiapas, and though this suggested that the same soul must live on a number of trees, they all went to make up a single soul, really, in the same way that light was indivisible. "In the same way," amplified Günther, "that our Savior could inform his disciples with a straight face that bread and wine were indistinguishable from his body and blood. Light, in any case, among the Indians of Chiapas, occupies an analogous position to flesh among Christian peoples. It is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind."
(p. 991)

As soon as I make it through the rest of the Pynchon oeuvre (Mason & Dixon is next, leaving only V. still to read), I hope to return to Against the Day once more and read it again with a special focus on the central role played by Light in this most Lit of books.

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