Reading a novel by Thomas Pynchon is like trying to piece together a giant puzzle, only you don’t know what the picture is supposed to be, and dump trucks keep stopping by to pour out more pieces. It’s great, if distressing, fun. In Against the Day, Pynchon’s first novel in nine years, he forecasts the dawn of a sinister future for a world in which technological advances outpace humankind’s ability to responsibly wield the resulting weapons.
The book is a chaotic squall of intersecting plotlines, covering a period from 1893 to shortly after the end of the First World War. Three brothers from the American West set out to avenge the murder of their unionist father by an industrial magnate. An American detective becomes embroiled in a mystical English order. The world’s scientists war over the possibility of time travel, the physical qualities of light, and the various uses of electricity. A valiant crew of airship adventurers and their literate dog set forth on outrageous journeys. Pynchon is known for weaving together such disparate plots with a natural aplomb. One of his densest novels, Gravity’s Rainbow, received the 1974 National Book Award.
The action of the book centres around a mysterious “Event,” based on a real event that has come to be known as the Tunguska Event, during which a force equivalent to a large atomic bomb swept over Siberia on June 30, 1908. The cause remains, for the most part, unknown. Pynchon’s novel is in many respects a catalogue of impossible explanations for this just-as-impossible, yet actual, occurrence.
Despite the book’s apocalyptic core, diffuse structure, and astonishing length, Against the Day is a surprisingly brisk and enjoyable read. The style is almost breezy, loaded with puns, jokes, and silly song lyrics, even though few of Pynchon’s sentences run for less than three lines, and many run for twelve. The language is ornate, every line of the immense book honed to a precision at times comic, at times deeply affecting.
“Meet me tonight,” Pléiade Lafrisée tells Kit Traverse, “out at the Mayonnaise Works, and you shall perhaps understand things it is given only to a few to know.” This lofty promise is made during an espionage plot, just prior to a comical assassination attempt where Kit is almost killed by a flood of mayonnaise.
Pynchon moves deftly from this kind of absurdity to more poetic statements. At one point, Frank Traverse regards photographs of prehistoric art. They show scenes of “human-looking bodies with snake and lizard heads, above them unreadable apparitions, trailing what might have been fire in what might have been the sky.” The simple insertion of the tentative “might” renders this bare description haunting.
Pynchon is a wellspring of astonishing erudition, and seems to grasp the finer points of physics, antique weaponry, and geopolitics as confidently as he grasps his pen. He writes in a haphazard genre of his own diabolical creation, mixing dime novel adventure with western gothic and elements of fantasy and science fiction. Throughout it all, he maintains a surprising consistency of tone, with subtle variations meant to exploit the possibilities of such an experimental approach while maintaining the text’s accessibility.
At times, the novel can feel like an endurance run. Just when some plot thread seems to near climax, it strays sideways to avoid denouement, evolving into some more complex form in a bid for longevity. Though an ingenious tactic, it can be frustrating to find one’s expectations so playfully established and destroyed.
At one point, airship voyagers the Chums of Chance travel on a mission beneath the earth’s crust, and begin a climactic battle with a race of Gnomes. At this point, the narrator interrupts to skip over the action and thrust the Chums into a new storyline. Readers interested in “the Legion of Gnomes” and “the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia” are “referred to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth.” However, the reader is cautioned that this imaginary book is “for some reason one of the less appealing of this series,” the author having received many letters “expressing displeasure, often quite intense, with my harmless little intraterrestrial scherzo.”
The effect of this phantasmagoria is to place the book’s reader into a situation similar to its protagonists. The reader is bombarded with an excess of seemingly meaningful information, all of which appears to relate somehow to other pieces of information and to the larger, looming Event. The reader and the characters struggle alike, seeking out the book’s invisible substructure.
What produces anxiety is the gradual realization that this governing structure is not merely invisible, but illusory. This is a defining quality of Pynchon’s novels, which are as much about their inability to present bounded narratives as about their ostensible subject matter.
Any reader with patience, affection for language, and willingness to experience a story instead of merely pursuing its end, should delight in Against the Day. Is it sprawling, complex, and demanding? Certainly. Does it lack coherence, cry out for completion? Without doubt. Is it nevertheless accessible, engaging, intelligent, and as enjoyable as it is imaginative? The answer, yet again, is a pleasant affirmative.
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