review: against the day by thomas pynchon

After reading Against the Day, I can reaffirm Thomas Pynchon as a writer on the leading edge, one with enormous creative muscle and a masterly control of the English language, one who can delight and entertain us with a universe of crazy details in so many different fields of human endeavour, but particularly in science, language and history, and a writer with many fresh takes on the follies and foibles of the human being in the modern world. And I like his sense of humour.

I acknowledge the help of the online Pynchon wikis and blogs (chumpsofchoice.blogspot.com) in my journey through this book. The generosity of such sites helps us to reap more from our time invested. The novel is bound together with a tale of revenge: After Webb Traverse, miner and suspected anarchist (handy with dynamite) is killed, his sons seek revenge for his death which was ordered by mine owner, Scarsdale Vibe and carried out by Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred. This plot is traversed by a boys’-own type adventure where a group called the Chums of Chance travel the world in a zeppelin like balloon which continues to grow in size over the course of the novel. Sections are told in a range of genres, including schoolboy Western, detective noire and classical Pynchonian.

The novel is set in the years from 1893 to about 1918. While it creates a world which explores various global forces at play at that time: from great industrial expansion to union unrest, to the great optimism in the new science and technology (Nikolai Tesla is a character), to the exercise of international diplomacy in places such as Mexico and the Balkans, and an extensive take on the Great Game, World War One receives about two pages of attention. I consider this as a statement by Pynchon on how it can often be helpful to take a sideways view on issues and events to better understand them. This may link in with theories on the curvature of light. One benefit of fiction is to assist us in finding better perspectives on what we call facts. One reviewer comments how, throughout the whole novel, the Great War ‘looms as an approaching catastrophe’. This is a fair statement. Perhaps in this novel, we have someone who is seeking out the metaphysical origins of the war rather than raking through the manifestation of the war itself. This fits with my emerging theory of quality of reading when we come to Pynchon.

In the past, I have followed Pynchon for his particular skill with well crafted sentences. Some of these sentences can be very long, but still remain brilliant displays of what can be done with the English language. Such bonza sentences are almost a separate genre of writing in themselves.

But it is in this novel, I realised that Pynchon has so much skill in sentences of any length. He delivers a sharpness, and a twist, on so much of what he observes, the reader is often left pondering on how they have never before encountered such descriptions. This is why Pynchon is not a waste of time. And it is not so hard to read a book, sentence by sentence. We imbibe the language as we go along, we are not racing to the end to find out what happens next. With a Pynchon novel, we enjoy our reading journey, we savour the fruit that falls from every line. Following is one example of Pynchon setting a scene:

‘The night before Wolfe sailed, he, Reef, and Flaco stood down by the river, drinking local beer out of bottles and watching the fall of night, “weightless as a widow’s veil,” observed the young Irishman, “and isn’t it the curse of the drifter, this desolation of heart we feel each evening at sundown, with the slow loop of the river out there just for half a minute, catching the last light, pregnant with the city in all its density and wonder, the possibilities never to be counted, much less lived into, by the likes of us, don’t you see, for we’re only passing through, we’re already ghosts.’ (p 421 vintage edition)

Wikipedia offers an expansive take on the themes of this work.

Some commentators point out that Pynchon’s characters are often zany and kooky, but still fairly flat and we are not very inclined to have any great affection for them; we may be interested to see how they fare in their travels, but there is something missing in the way Pynchon crafts them. This set me thinking that it is possible that we do place a lot of focus on the narrator, as if we are enchanted by the voice, like children sitting around the room listening to the teacher reading us a story from a book, and there are some of us who want to stare at our teacher, listen to his or her voice as they read to us, for there is something about their energy, their vibration, that we are compelled to stare at, and it could well be that the story they are reading elicits that energy from the person who is reading it, even as we fail to hear the words as they are spoken. Some say that story is the thing, but the story is a vehicle to deliver something else again. This ruminating leads  me to consider how we are so still authoritarian when it comes to the role of the narrator in literature. It is true that the narrator must give in to the flow of the story, but perhaps a day will come when characters play a more active role in the tale being told, Please excuse me, I have been inspired to a fresh take on an upcoming story of mine. Pynchon does this to me.

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