Monday, September 28, 2009

In the 20 months that it took me to read Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day cover to cover (1) Pynchon himself wrote – or at least completed – and published another novel and (2) a paperback edition of the original tome appeared that, if nothing else, is lighter than the volume that built up my wrist strength each night before bed. I am, as I’ve noted here before, a slow reader, slow enough in fact to be given some special education in the process when I was in what would now be thought of as the middle school grades – it seemed unreasonable that someone who read four or five years above grade level should also be the slowest reader in school, tho it never seemed unreasonable to me. For one thing, I always thought that words had sounds & took the time to voice them to myself. They tried (in vain) to purge me of that silly idea.

So the prospect of a Big Book is always a challenge – ironic, I know, given my own writing. I’m thinking I will start Robert Bolaño’s 2666 soon, but that means sometime next spring. For the nonce, I need a few novels that will function as palette cleansers after the experience of 1,085 pages of Pynchon. Against the Day is, to my mind, Pynchon’s third great book, following V & Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s a far better novel than virtually any of the reviews made out & for reasons that I have yet to see discussed properly. It may have taken me 20 months to read the book, but I was never once bored, never once felt that it was a “slog” to get through. It contains not just some of Pynchon’s best writing, but some of the best writing I’ve read anywhere.

What makes Against the Day one of the best novels of the past half century is how Pynchon deals with plot, or rather refuses to deal with it. He is a master story-teller who never completes a thought. This gets joked about from time to time – Inherent Vice, his new novel (which I’ve promised myself I won’t even buy until it’s been in paperback awhile), is reported to have a plot, as if this alone makes it noteworthy in Pynchon’s career. Certainly his early books – V, The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow – had plot-like structures throughout, tho from Vineland onward it has been increasingly clear that this is not what interests Pynchon & not what drives his writing. Some skeptics go further & suggest that he flamed out as a creative talent post-Rainbow precisely because he no longer appeared capable of telling a story. I’m here to tell you that it’s not so, tho I do think you could read the middle books, Vineland and Mason & Dixon, as preparatory exercises for the monster task that is Against the Day.

One of the really interesting – embarrassingly so – aspects of this is that you can go back to all of the book’s early reviews and read some sort of hopeless attempt at sketching a plot summary. Even Wikipedia has one. In fact, what you really notice reading all of this book’s reviews is that they focus almost entirely on the first 100 pages. The Chums of Chance, the focal point of that portion of the book, are marginal-to-irrelevant throughout much of the rest of the novel, but you won’t grasp this if what you know of the book is what you got from the major establishment media reviews. If e’er there was a volume built to demonstrate which critical emperors have not a stitch of clothing, Against the Day is that book.

What Pynchon does is much closer in practice to recent painting than it is to the Quietist novel favored by the trade presses. Instead of telling contained stories, he offers us narrative tableaux & arcs that are themselves incomplete, but fit together collage-like across large sweeps of language. Day has nearly 48 named characters, at least a third of whom might be called “major” in that they are the focal point of some period of narrative herein. In a few cases – but not all that many – there are attempts (comic in the case of the Chums of C) at closing the loop on their tale, but mostly they come & go, their tales unfinished just like life itself. There are even some significant characters introduced for the first time in the last 30 pages of the book.

Pynchon does build in certain elements that give the book more cohesion than you might imagine. The characters weave in & out of each other’s lives. There is generally a time scheme held to, starting in the 1890s, ending in the 1920s. And, most important of all, there are thematic echoes everywhere. Considering that one of the major sources of Pynchon’s style here is revenge literature, as such, it’s noteworthy just how much of this book is about forgiveness. And acceptance.

But what really matters, to my eye, is how all these elements weave together, like images in a painting, or (better yet) an assemblage by Robert Rauschenberg. It’s all story- telling, all narrative, but Pynchon doesn’t want you to get hung up on what will occur on the final page, just trust that it will feel complete & that the journey itself is what matters, regardless of whether you find out what happens to the mathematicians, to the Mexican revolutionaries, to the doomed flappers of Paris or the missing young lady in LA. He really wants you to luxuriate in the story-weaving process and the way to make you focus on it is to remove the elements of writing (e.g. narrative closure) that flip us away from the process to an imaginary universe of reference. The whole point of having the air ship Inconvenience, which starts out blimp-like & ends up rather more like a dream of Miyazaki’s, a city floating in the sky, having this airship travel upward from the south pole to the north via a hidden tunnel that connects the two – don’t think too hard about the gravitational impossibility of this – is that it is ludicrous, but it’s the ludic Pynchon wants you to see.

As you might imagine, all this is quite close to my heart. I have no clue what it might be like for somebody to pick up The Alphabet and try and make their way through, but Against the Day is in its own way not such a terrible analog of how this might feel. For me, it has been very nearly two years of engaged, fascinated reading, and the book certainly passes my own personal test of the novel – it made me feel energized just to be reading it, every day.