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Against The Day
By Thomas Pynchon

(Jonathan Cape, £20 stg, H/B)

This review is a tad tardy, and for a good reason: the novel under discussion is 1085 pages long. Previous reviews of Pynchon’s latest have tended to focus ad nauseam, to the point of predictable repetitiousness, on its intimidating girth. However, I am not about to take the tack of a critic from a rival publication, who dismissed my own first furtive foray into full-length prose fiction with the insightfully informative line: ‘Life…too short…this sort of thing.’ Yes, it’s big, like DeLillo’s Underworld and Franzen’s The Corrections were big, so that it can invite accusations of pretentious posturing, as though it is the product of an insecure macho-man, overly worried about how much size matters. But such a glibly facile approach is shallowly reductive. There is more to it than showing off.

More immediately, though, the basely material length does throw up a few teasers for the humble, hapless hack. Should he be paid on the double, or even treble, for undertaking to write about a book two or three times longer than the average, even if he is still required only to submit the usual 800 word review? Is he being foolishly diligent in persisting in reading, rather than skimming, the bloody thing? And how much can meaningfully be said about a 1085 page novel that took ten years to write in an 800 word review that took two hours?

 

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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 too.

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 from.

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

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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