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Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day

Let me get this out of way right up front - Thomas Pynchon is our greatest living novelist, and his works will stand alongside those of Joyce, Proust and other writers of seemingly boundless intelligence and imagination. Also, I'm in no way qualified to make this judgement, but I make it anyway. Pynchon has a new book out called Against the Day, a 1,100 page behemoth that surpasses in length his two other monstrosities, Gravity's Rainbow (the greatest book of the post-modern era) and Mason & Dixon (maybe the other greatest book). Ok, so what? Why bring this up amidst the online music and movie reviews? Because it's art and it's important, that's why! I realize that few people are going to feel compelled to read such a demanding work, or anything for that matter, in these waning days of our civilization, but I hold out hope that there are some who desire what only great literature can bring - scope and wisdom.

What's it about? Wrong question, but here goes. It covers the period from the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 to the aftermath of World War I, and ranges from the Fair to Colorado, Mexico, Siberia, Venice, the Balkans, etc. etc. We open with the Chums of Chance, a perpetually youthful band of adventurers who travel by a balloon called the Inconvenience, and who receive their marching orders from unseen authorities. We then proceed to the major plot, involving an anarchist bomber, Webb Traverse and the man who has him killed, arch capitalist Scarsdale Vibe. This murder sets in motion a revenge saga (sorta) wherein the Traverse boys attempt to hunt down the killers and the man who sent them. I could keep going, talking about the rivalling math geeks, the Vectorists and Quaternions, the search for the mythical city of Shambhala, the fascination with the crystal Iceland Spar, which refracts an image in two, and on and on.

But that's not what Against the Day is about. It's really about an alternate future, a road not taken, another possibility than the one we are stuck with. Iceland Spar represents the major theme of the novel, doubling. Every place and person seems to have a double, some counterpart that operates in a parallel reality a few inches to the left. The Chums have a group of Russian rivals, American anarchists fighting capitalism mirror the Balkan revolutionaries who will spark World War I, the inventor Nikola Tesla has a competing scientist in Heino Vanderjuice, a British Professor Renfrew has a palindromic rival in Professor Werfner, etc. One of my favourite examples is Scarsdale Vibe's assistant, Foley Walker, who is sent to seduce Webb's son Kit to Yale to study math. He claims to speak for Vibe, biblically proclaiming "I am he" (see John 18), and also claims to have been Vibe's conscription substitute during the Civil War. But the theme is so pervasive and so deeply incorporated into the telling that naming a few examples doesn't do Pynchon justice. It is his organizing principle for ATD, and its all-pervasiveness is one of the major intellectual achievements of the novel.

At the same time, there are stretches of great beauty and raucous humour, which make the reading of this gargantuan text constantly enjoyable, as well as challenging. Two passages involving the evil Scarsdale Vibe strike me as the height of Pynchon's art. The first is a pseudo religious discussion between Vibe and Walker, with capitalism as God and Socialists as Satan:

"...what we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked. All this pretending-'equality','negotiation'-it's been such a cruel farce, cruel to both sides. When the Lord's people are in danger, you know what he requires."


"Smite early and often."

"Hope there's nobody listening in on this."

"God is listening. As to men, I have no shame about what must be done." A queer tension had come into his features, as if he were trying to suppress a cry of delight.

Along with the taut economy of this exchange, that last sentence in particular is chilling. All this talk of killing is really getting him off. And later, halfway around the world in Venice, Kit Traverse watches the failed assassination attempt on the man who killed his father. Two pages of tense, horrifying beauty culminate in the following paragraph:

Vibe stood at the highest point of the little bridge without speaking, back turned, a solid black silhouette, head and cloak, held waiting in an unmistakable tension seeming not to grow in size so much as, oddly, to take on mass, to become rectified into an iron impregnability. For an instant, before he made his deliberate way back into the shelter of the lighted and melodious palazzo, he turned and stared straight at Kit, leaving no doubt that he recognized him, and even with the falling night, the foschia and the guttering torchlight, Kit could see enough of the triumphant smirk on the man's face. You pathetic little pikers, he might have been chuckling, who-what-did you think you were up against?

What indeed? I can only hope that these few passages will indicate to you the riches in store for the brave and the persistent. It's long, like a drive cross country, but you're singing the whole way.