Against the Day
Everything that Thomas Pynchon’s critics have loved about his first five novels is in his sixth, Against the Day. Everything that his critics have hated about his novels is there, too. Both lists usually contain the same four or five items. The novels sprawl; at 1,085 pages, Against the Day is longer than any of its lengthy predecessors. They contain countless characters, with several hundred in Against the Day. They shift from high seriousness to silly songs; there are twenty songs in Against the Day (or twenty-one if you count “Very Nice, Indeed,” which is simply that phrase sung to the tune of the William Tell Overture). They rely on obscure metaphors from mathematics, engineering, and physics; Against the Day deals with aetherism, quaternions, double refraction, multidimensional vector-space, and Riemann zeta functions, among other science topics. They are vulgar and obscene. Each of these can be valid complaints against any Pynchon novelwith a quibble over the one about length, which is not true of Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49, and may or may not be true of 1990’s Vinelandincluding Against the Day. Each complaint, however, can be answered in turn, for Against the Day is Pynchon at the top of his game.
The first is sprawl. Against the Day certainly does that. The usual assumption of negative critics is that, unlike the similarly sprawling novels of Leo Tolstoy, Pynchon’s do not cohere. A Pynchon novel, the mantra goes, is unintegrated fiction for a disintegrated age. Still, there are themes that do promise to hold Against the Day together. One theme is that traditional methods of coherence, such as temporal and special sequence, are illusory and, conversely, that things that seem to that same traditional mind totally disparate, such as physics experiments and labor movements, are intimately connected. Exploring such themes takes a vast canvas, and many who reach page 1,085 of Against the Day will find even that vast expanse too cramped to portray them adequately.
Fictionally, the most common method of coherence is plot, and though critics have called Pynchon’s works plotless, Against the Day does have a discernable thread that runs through the center of the bookthough with so many alternate plots, few readers will want to concentrate on it alone. This plot follows the interconnections of two families, that of mining engineer Webb Traverse and billionaire mine owner Scarsdale Vibe. When Traverse becomes a troublesome labor organizer, Vibe hires Deuce Kindred to kill him. What follows takes on the flavor of early twentieth century Western revenge thrillers, but without the moral clarity of that genre. Good guys and bad guys merge as Vibe becomes a foster father to Webb’s son Kit, whom he sends to Yale; Webb’s daughter Lake marries Kindred; sons Reef and Frank each attempt to deny their implicit duty to avenge their father’s murder.
The second complaint is too many characters. There is more truth to this gibe than most. Michiko Kakutani argues in a New York Times review that the sheer number of characters leads to shoddy characterization, which leads to poor rapport with the reader: We cannot care about characters dashed in broad strokes. That is true for a majority of the characters in Against the Day; however, in a novel with hundreds of characters, what is true for the majority is irrelevant. All most readers ask of any kind of novel is one or two characters they can care about, and Against the Day offers several choices, each as deeply characterized as any contemporary reader can expect: Frank Traverse, the avenging son (any member of the Traverse family, in fact); Lew Basnight, the “psychical” detective; Yashmeen Halfcourt, the drop-dead gorgeous mathematician.
The fact that these character types are clichés from the popular adventure fiction of the time period in which the story is set masks Pynchon’s real accomplishment in characterization. He has taken cardboard types never intended to be realistically drawn and asked: What would they be like if they were real people in the real world? What surprises the careful reader of Pynchon is not how facile the virtuous aviator is in fin de siècle adventure fiction but the disturbingly human way Commander Randolph St. Cosmo of the “Chums of Chance” outgrows his dime novel outlines even as we read Against the Day. Contributing to this marvelous illusion is Pynchon’s adaptation of the dime novel idiom, including hundred-year-old spellings (just as he employed eighteenth century diction and orthography in 1997’s Mason and Dixon). Darby Suckling, for instance, is not the ship’s mascot for the Chums of Chance, but their “mascotte,” the spelling indicating how recently the French loan word has attained its...
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