Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Against the Day" Thomas Pynchon

There can be little doubt now that Thomas Pynchon is the greatest living American writer –although as Chavenet used to remark, perhaps this is not saying very much, given the lukewarm efforts of his competitors. Pynchon consistently churns out huge monolithic novels bursting with invention of ideas, structure, language and images. Reading a Pynchon novel gives one the feeling that neither writer nor reader is really in control of the material: his novels take on a life of their own through their sheer unwieldiness, their sheer unyieldingness to assimilation, the very magnetism of the parts which make up the whole and which keep the reader gripped even while a sense of that whole slips ever further away. His novels constantly refuse to bow to the literary conventions of pace, structure, characterization, thematic development, cultural reference, propriety and so on: the narrative arc, that bane of American literature originating in the creative writing class, is mercifully alien to Pynchon.  Reading him is the closest mental equivalent, I guess, to falling without a parachute or to journeying at great speed without a map or compass, as the reader’s most consistent response is a feeling of slightly hysterical disorientation, best expressed by the modern acronym: WTF!?

The Age of Electrification

Against the Day is a gigantic work, encompassing and describing the fin de siecle in Europe and America: the Age of Electrification. It begins with the Chicago World Fair, one of the earliest uses of urban electrification, and ends with -  well, one is not sure exactly what it ends with – but at any rate, it appears to be post WW1. It includes references to major world events that fall between these two markers: the Mexican Revolution, the days of the Wild West, the development of Anarchism and Socialism in the mining industry of Colorado, the development of American Capitalism, the Mayerling incident, the Tunguska event, the Turkish occupation of the Balkans, secret societies and seances in London, the high days of imperialism as the British, Russian and Austrian Empires jostle for control of natural resources, the development of photography, both moving and still, the invention of dynamite and the discovery of relativity.  And yet, is it the real world? Chronologies are subtly altered, events are slightly changed, technological developments are brought forward – airships - and exist side by side with entirely imaginary ones – time travel. The world of the novel is a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know.

The plot, such as there is, concerns the doings of the five children of one Webb Travers, a nascent, undeveloped American socialist revolutionary, whose unfulfilled struggle against Them – typical Pynchonian trope there – is carried on in one form or another by his offspring in various parts of the world after he is murdered by two hitmen. Reef, the oldest son and genius with explosives, finds himself in various parts of Europe putting his skills to use blowing tunnels through mountains; Frank stays in the American South West, and finds himself increasingly involved with the Mexican Revolution and various shady business deals; Kit, the youngest son and math genius, finds himself in Yale, then London, then Gottingen, interacting with all the great mathematicians of the day; Lake, the only daughter, shacks up with her father’s killer out of a perverse sense of the perverse.

These characters, and events are linked together in many ways, but chiefly through the device of a dime novel read by one of the characters, The Chums of Chance, the crew of a huge airship on various secret missions through known and imaginary worlds. Our entry into Against the Day is through this dime novel, a blend of Boy’s Own Magazine, the science fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the futuristic fantasy art of Albert Robida. It’s the presence of the Chums of Chance that does much to create the kind of steampunk retro feel to the whole book.

This device also brings to the foreground the themes of the book, in that the two realities of the novel: the stories of the Traverse kids, and the story of the Chums of Chance, which one of the Traverse kids is reading, intersect in a number of interesting ways, as characters from the world of the Chums of Chance appear in the world of the Traverse kids (and vice versa), so that one is not actually sure which level of reality is the real one. The characters who intersect with both levels of reality are Merle Rideout, the peripatetic photographer who joins up with the Chums, and then meets Webb Traverse later on in his travels; and Lew Basnight, the private eye from Chicago, who hitches a ride on the airship The Inconvenience, and then is involved with the industrialist Scarsdale Vibe, the man who ordered the murder of Travers pere. 

These two worlds, then, are joined hip to hip, one is the shadow of the other, like the bifurcation of image one sees in the crystal known as Iceland spar. Iceland spar recurs throughout the novel, both in the world of the Chums, and the world of the Traverses, and acts as a central symbol for the various sub-themes to do with light (and its absence) which provide the main intellectual backbone of the novel: the intersection of light, time, electricity, waves, advanced mathematics, relativity, particle physics, and a whole host of other nerdish concerns. Double refraction appears again and again as the  key element, permitting a view into a Creation set just to the side of this one, so close as to overlap, where the membrane between the worlds, in many places, has become too frail, too permeable for safety…

The Uses of History

Pynchon’s main theme in this book, as in all his others, is history.  In Gravity’s Rainbow, history becomes a plot in which war is waged by Them against the individual, symbolized by Slothrop’s erections coinciding with the sites of V2 landings. In V, history is a fabric: Perhaps history this century is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated at the bottom of the fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof,  pattern or anything else. By virtue , however, of existing in one gather it is assumed that there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which come to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any continuity. Here in Against the Day the metaphor is light and time. If light and space-time are curved, and include a fourth dimension, as all the mathematical sections of the novel posit, then this has interesting ramifications for history. The counterfactual exists alongside the factual, like the shadow of what could-have-been lying against the day of what was, parallel dimensions, occasionally touching each other in monitory pricklings of the invisible. This idea appears in the novel in the presence of the Trespassers - figures who return from the far future to the ‘now’ by means of time travel to warn the characters of what will come to pass; in the presence of déjà vu; in the presence of ‘fictional’ characters living in the ‘real’ world, and vice versa; in the occasional ghostly presence of the airship Inconvenience parked in the sky just beyond the edge of vision; in the slight fudging of the sequence and timing of ‘real’ historical events; in the conspiracy-theory explanations given to historical incidents; the presence of dreams in one world which form real locations in another parallel to it.

Pynchon’s use of history as a theme for his literature largely accounts for the great length and volume of his works, and the way they seem reluctant to ever finish. His novels seem to aspire to the condition of history itself, which has no conclusion, no discernable structure, no single viewpoint. What makes Against The Day different from his previous works is a sense of anger at the way America -and things in general- are going.

Pynchon famously wrote in the blurb to the book before its publication: With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.
One of the Trespassers says to the Chums of Chance: Your future, [is] a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty – the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that the Earth’s resources were limited, in fact, soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith… Pynchon sets most of his novel in an America before Roosevelt’s trust busting activities; and the character of Scarsdale Vibe incorporates characteristics of the great tycoons of the period including J.P. Morgan, and especially the art collector James J. Hill, drawing connections between this earlier lot of scoundrels and the shadowy crooks who run the world today, the Waltons, the Kochs, the Barclays… Pynchon has Vibe articulate the naked truth of rampant capitalism, in quasi Randian viciousness: So of course we use them […] we harness and sodomize them, photograph their degradation, send them up onto the high iron and down into mines and sewers and killing floors, we set them beneath inhuman loads, we harvest from them their muscle and eyesight and health, leaving them in our kindness a few miserable years of broken gleanings. The ‘them’ he is talking about are ordinary people, in other words, you and me.

Pynchon’s anger, however, is not only directed at the capitalists, but at the tenor of life in the USA, both then and now: It was the USA after all, and fear was in the air… the terrible American divide between the hunter and prey…. and at the mind-boggling gullibility which is both a symptom of America’s ills and a cause of it: “You people really just believe everything you’re taught, don’t you?” remarks a British character to one of the Traverse boys.  In the final pages of the novel, Webb’s grandson brings home an essay assignment entitled “What it means to be an American”. He writes: It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down, an assessment that is as much true for the fictional historical America in the novel as it is for the real place now.

(How) Does it all work?

One of the points Pynchon seems to making with this novel is the value we assign to various forms of knowledge. One of the most noteworthy and deliberate omissions in a work that appears to include absolutely everything, is the complete absence of literature and philosophy, the humanities, modes of knowledge usually privileged by literary art. In a comprehensive portrait of the fin de siècle/belle epoch, which this appears to be, one would expect mention of the great literature and philosophy of the period, but where is Baudelaire? To be sure, there are echoes of literary tropes - there is a witty passing reference to Oscar Wilde, for example, and some of the Anarchists have a conversation about Bakunin and Kropotkin, but this is little more than simple name dropping, and in a work of this size these are the only two examples that spring to mind. Likewise, the appearance of the ghost of Webb Traverse in a dream to his son does not echo Hamlet so much as reference a vastly older and more universal archetype of revenge, of which Hamlet is only another expression. The characters do not read (except trashy dime novels involving the Chums of Chance), they do not think in terms of the literature and the thought of the past; and more crucially, neither does the narrative voice.  The plot  - all of Pynchon’s plots- may be seen as a series of interconnected Menippean satires in the style of Swift or Voltaire, but the text would never hint at such a thing itself. Instead, science, especially maths and physics, (in)forms the cultural code underpinning the text. Pynchon seems to be resolutely refusing to acknowledge any literary or philosophical influence by his almost total exclusion of the humanities. At the same time he appears to be attempting to break down the barriers between the humanities and the sciences by his use of a purely scientific cultural code in a work of art, fusing two realms largely considered incompatible or at least disparate. Pynchon’s literary art, paradoxically, creates a space that is almost totally devoid of literature, and in this lies his greatest originality and achievement.

However, this also entails great risks, which I am not entirely sure Pynchon manages to avoid.  One of these is the problem of interpretation.  As a reader with next to no knowledge (and even less curiosity) about physics, I’m quite sure that whole levels of meaning in the novel remain unavailable to me. For example, the non-linear construction of the plot and the constant switching between different branches of the narrative may have more to do with structures such as the Tessaract or Kepler-Poinsot polyhedrons (isn’t Google a wonderful thing?) than with conventional literary structures. By foregrounding science as a cultural code and eliminating the humanities, Pynchon takes the risk here of placing possible interpretations of his work, its meaning and its relationship to its form beyond the reach of readers without this kind of background knowledge. Sure, one can look things up, but this reduces the ideas in the book to mere information, rather than wisdom. Perhaps that is Pynchon’s point: in the Age of the Algorithm in which we live, when mega-rich Californian nerds can assure a like- minded audience who lap it all up, with all the seriousness and sincerity of a religious cult, that their little gadgets and toys for grownups are life altering and world changing, while the great bulk of the human population of the planet can still not count on constant access to reliably clean drinking water and live in conditions which are still medieval, our wisdom has not kept pace with our scientific abilities and the uses to which we put those abilities. As a species we have never had so much access to information, but we have also never been stupider.

The second and related risk is the notion of seriousness. Western literature largely signals its seriousness by including a cultural code derived from the humanities. A novel of ideas, for example, includes ideas which are largely determined by art and philosophy: ethics, problems of identity, personal, political, social, relationships, history and the individual, our experience of death and God, the problems of consciousness and so on. With an almost total absence of such a code, how does a novel signal its seriousness? Without this seriousness, a novel risks becoming merely a divertissement, a jeu d’esprit. But, can a book that comes in at over 1000 pages and takes at least a month to read really be called a diversion? The great weight and length of the work signal another kind of seriousness, one that asks us to appreciate the abstract beauty of theorems and algorithms and to read history in their light. This is ultimately a work of literature that seeks to liberate us from literature, that has the aim of trying to  free us from the thinking of the past and to see that past set against the day of our own time.

In one of the most stunning images of the novel, two of the Chums of Chance get into a time machine and travel into a future far beyond theirs and ours. This is what they see:

Undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses……thus galloping in unceasing flow ever ahead, denied any further control over their fate, the disconsolate company were borne terribly over the edge of the visible world…


David Auerbach said...

Quite enjoyed this. Clute's essay on the book is worth reading if you haven't already.

David Auerbach said...

Really enjoyed this. Clute's essay on the novel is worth reading if you haven't already.

dglen said...

Thank you so much for writing this. Many things I tried my best to get my head to think you spoke articulately and beautifully.