Fortunately, I am a fan. But it’s
important to observe for the less committed that we
are in for a long haul here, in Gravity’s
Rainbow and Mason & Dixon territory,
rather than the relatively svelte trips of The Crying
of Lot 49 or Vineland.
You’ll be wanting to know about
the plot and characters, then? Okay, here goes. The
narrative occupies about thirty years from the Chicago
World’s Fair of 1893 to the early 1920s aftermath
of WWI, and chiefly concerns the adventures of three
brothers (a stock fairy-tale motif) and their efforts
to avenge the murder of their father, a pro-union engineer
named Webb Traverse who was eliminated by stooges of
the plutocracy – personified here by industrialist
railroad tycoon Scarsdale Vibe – that hijacked
the U.S. after the Civil War. A related story line involves
a photographer/inventor and his red-haired daughter,
Dahlia, who, like the brothers Frank, Reef and Kit,
spends a lot of time in Europe during the tumultuous
days before war breaks out – a war, it is implied,
that everyone saw coming but no one knew how to stop.
Hovering above them all are the Chums of Chance, the
plucky crew of the airship Inconvenience, and
the heroes of a series of boys' adventure novels.
All of Pynchon’s novels have
revolved around the chance/necessity, accident/design
conundrum, and Against The Day is no different.
The penchant for characters bursting into silly vaudevillesque
songs, here accompanied by ukulele, is alive and well
Webb, it is suggested, was moonlighting
as an anarchist bomber, and parts of the novel dramatize
the strikes and acts of "anarchy" of Colorado
mineworkers in reaction to the inhuman treatment they
received at the hands of greedy captains of industry.
Though he covers the major events of this period in
well-researched detail, parallels with our own troubled
times readily invite themselves. But Pynchon is mostly
concerned with how decent people of any era cope under
repressive regimes, be they political, economic or religious.
It is easy, for liberal-leaning lefties
like me, to like Pynchon politically, even if you do
have concerns about his aesthetics. Underneath the vast
erudition and technical savvy on display, he has always
been on the side of the angels, who operate sub
rosa, or would like to think he is. He likes his
anarchists more than Conrad liked his, and his old hippie
countercultural ideals shine on. This is blue state
fiction, and will not play well in Bush country. "Capitalist
Christer Republicans" are a recurring target of
contempt, and bourgeois values are portrayed as hollowly
vacuous and essentially totalitarian. But neocons don’t
read postmodern novels anyway.
Criticisms? Well, there is the nagging
suspicion that certain younger followers of Pynchon
are now doing what he does so much better than him.
David Foster Wallace’s hefty Infinite Jest
is now ten years old, but still it seems to say more
about how we live now, and in a more heartfelt, gut
wrenching way, than the oldster’s historical excavations
do, however much they show us where we’ve come
There will also be those who argue
that as a novel it never really coheres. But that’s
a bit like saying that Miles Davis is too improvisatory.
Better to compare it with another recent sprawling epic
by a similarly offbeat, madcap American master, David
Lynch’s Inland Empire. You might not
get it all the first time round. But then again, was
there really a good reason for Pynchon to stop at p1085
instead of p542, or indeed, p2170? Possibly not.
Finally then, maybe it’s not
so easy to get away from the question of size. Saul
Bellow once opined: "Pynchon I like, but he is
sort of an endless virtuoso. It’s like listening
to twenty hours of Paganini. One would be plenty."
Those who lack world enough and time may well agree.
Regularly touted as a Nobel Prize candidate, Pynchon
is, as Hugh Kenner wrote of Beckett, sui generis.
But, unlike our own self-effacing – if equally
reclusive – recipient, a minimalist he ain’t.
First published in The Sunday Independent