Thomas Pynchon's latest work, Against the Day, was always going to be a monster of a novel. Prior to being published, there were rumours that Pynchon was researching mathematician David Hilbert and Sofia Kovalevskaya. A book on mathematics, went the theory. Russian and German mathematics, anyway. Nothing more was known, but Pynchon fans being what they are, grand theories of 'what if' and 'could be' floated about the internet. In July 2006, nine years after Pynchon's previous novel, Mason & Dixon, was published, a brief message/plot synopsis was posted on the Amazon.com webpage for his novel, adding a title - Against the Day. The message was written by Pynchon himself, and was pulled a few days later. Thrilled fans posted the synopsis over and over. A Pynchon novel set before the Great War! Anarchists, scientists, different countries, bizarre characters, odd sexual practises! Chums of Chance, T.W.I.T., Quarternionists, Vectorists! But what does all this mean for the actual novel?
Against the Day is a mess. It is 1085 pages long, split into five enigmatically titled sections, each dealing with its own group of characters, situations, time period, geographic location and philosophical and scientific problems and situations. The Traverse family are the arguable link for the novel as a whole, but to try and pinpoint a grand, overarching plot is perhaps beside the point. A mess, the novel was called - and yes, it is. It seems at times as though Pynchon knows this could be his last book (He was born in 1937), and thus he shoved every last thought and wander of the mind he could muster. If the last, put it all in. If the last, make it count. So here it is, and does it count?
The answer is yes. Pynchon's novel is difficult to follow - but they all are, from the 00000 Rocket in Gravity's Rainbow to Mason and Dixon's magickal travails throughout pre-American Revolutionary War United States. There are so many characters and so many situations that it is difficult - impossible - to hold it all in on the first read. Added to that is the 'obscurity' of the time period, for how many of us are familiar with events throughout the world between the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and World War I? Throw in killer mayonnaise, the Chums of Chance zipping about on an airship, Scarsdale Vibe and his evil capitalistic intentions, and we have a lot to hold on to as we read.
But to worry about plot and pacing is hardly keeping in the spirit of what a Pynchon novel is all about. Against the Day is set in a time of the world when technology was increasing at an astounding pace. New inventions, new concepts by which people ran their ordinary lives were appearing all of the time, electricity being a major one. The ease of transport was increasing. Governments were restless, countries were antagonising one another in brief economic and military jousts. The times, as they say, were active. Discontent was rife as people perceived themselves becoming marginalised against the day of companies and the Corporation, which had recently gained 'personhood' status in America. Pynchon's novel revels in all of this, it wallows, wandering from here to there and place to place to observe Tesla's experiments with electricity, to visit mathematically vibrant Göttingen, to watch the Wild West of American become less cowboy and unknown.
The link, if it exists, is twofold - which itself echoes a major theme of Pynchon's work. The Traverse children are scattered around the globe, nominally focused on discovering the whereabouts - and later particulars - of their father. The second link is that everyone is aware that World War I - or something massive, anyway - is on its way. The world is rumbling towards an event unlike anything seen before. And the characters can't, or won't, do anything about it. As the times become more involved, more convoluted, difficult to define and impossible to control, characters begin to engage in increasingly bizarre sexual practises, a common thread in Pynchon's literature. Perhaps he is suggesting that as the world turns mad, so do we, through our relationships, our romances, our ideas, beliefs, desires, dreams.
As mentioned, doubling is a significant presence within the novel - and even outside the novel. The cover looks as though it has been 'doubled' by Iceland spar, or crystallised calcium carbonate. 'Iceland Spar' is the name of a section of the book, and the doubling effects it creates visually is extended to double characters and situations, from Renfrew and Werfner, to events and activities that happen simultaneously or nearly so, each affecting the other.
Compared to Pynchon's other great work, Gravity's Rainbow, Against the Day is much less paranoid, and the humor is markedly different. Characters, no matter the difficulty, seem to be able to retain a casual, laconic perspective on their lives, which at first is disconcerting but settles into a sort of rhythm. The primary nature of people, it seems, shines through no matter the situation or outcome. Characters joke even in the middle of a tunnel fighting strange mythical monsters; they laugh and jibe at one another in serious and silly situations.
The characters in Against the Day are, almost uniformly, named with tongue firmly placed in cheek. The Traverse family do just that - they wander, they journey, they travel. Added to that is Pugnax the dog, the Kieselguhr Kid, Deuce Kindred, Merle Rideout, Luca Zombini. It is something of a shame that Pynchon chose to continue his attraction for bizarre naming schemes, because Against the Day is filled with numerous little sadnesses, the sort that afflict our own lives and times, but which become something in the way of foolish when applied to oddly named characters and situations. There are fallings out with parents, broken relationships, missing fathers, dead mothers, stolen babies, lost friendships, all told with surprising emotion and skill. Yet they often fall flat due to the names of the characters.
The novel is written with no main style. It changes as the situation demands. The Chums of Chance, whose antics open the novel and who appear with charming randomness, are written with an eye to old pulp boy's adventure novels, the sort where the adults are always wrong, and an adventure is just around the corner for every boy under eighteen. Later, deep within the Wild West, the style mimics the great Western authors, and later still the style breaks down completely, changing from page to page as situations and characters move about. Pynchon is unafraid to turn his hand to any particular genre or style, if it will properly convey the mood and atmosphere of the piece.
When reading Against the Day, caution should be observed. It is a novel that may frustrate due to the massive loose ends. Plots are added and added and added, new characters are introduced all the time, leaving the reader to think - what am I to do with this? The answer is: let it slide. Keep what is interesting, keep what tickles your own particular fancy, and do not worry about the rest. The world is so massive, and even events which seem clear and explainable - such as the Great War - are really a culmination of instances built from frenzied, inarticulate madness. The threads of the world are never pulled tight to create a masterpiece, nor should the plots of Pynchon's work similarly cohere. The major themes abound amongst themselves, the characters love, laugh, die, kill, murder, hide, invent, create, destroy, plot, wonder, become confused and confuse others. The parallels to our own time should not be ignored - we too are living in a time of rapid change, fast-paced diplomacy and information, and the discontented grumblings from various parts of the world. Cohesion is not always possible, and should not always be sought. From Pynchon's novel, we can take chaos, madness, ripe exuberant craziness, and, ultimately, snippets of human life and love. And isn't that what counts?