Humming along

Michael Wood

  • BuyAgainst the Day by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape, 1085 pp, £20.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 224 08095 4

Many readers can’t bear whimsy and never make it far into books containing cute animals and characters with funny names. I’m not wild about whimsy myself, and a first glance at Thomas Pynchon’s new novel had me worried. I could scarcely be surprised by the funny names or the animals, since Pynchon’s early fiction had people called Dennis Flange, Rachel Owlglass and Emory Bortz, and in Mason & Dixon there is a considerable speaking role for Vaucanson’s mechanical duck. But here on page 1 is a group of boy adventurers called the Chums of Chance, heroes of a series of jolly books with titles like The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit and The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis, not to mention The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Kahuna and The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth. The narrator addresses us as ‘my faithful readers’ or ‘my young readers’, adopts a verbose and patronising diction to match, and presents us with a dog who appears to be reading Henry James. Well, surely is reading Henry James, because when asked what his book is he says, ‘Rr Rff-rff Rr-rr-rff-rrf-rrf’, easily scanned as The Princess Casamassima. I never heard a dog joke I didn’t like, but those chums were looking tiresome already, and I sneaked a glance at the later pages. Was Pynchon going to keep up the pastiche? Was someone going to take over from these wretched boys? I was not consoled to see the chums (and their dog) still there on page 1085, and at many stations in between.

I was wrong to worry, though. Although Pynchon did a fair amount of 18th-century pastiche in Mason & Dixon, his more usual stylistic mode, in Against the Day as in V and Gravity’s Rainbow, is a fast eclecticism running from slangy to stately, a voice full of echoes, littered with jokes and songs, and often reaching into a curious tenderness, a tone of laid-back elegy. Within a few pages of the beginning of the book, even the fussy chums and their unlikely airship enter another register and another world: ‘As they came in low over the Stockyards, the smell found them, the smell and the uproar of flesh learning its mortality.’ There is frank talk of ‘preacherly drivel’ and a fine description of Queen Victoria as the ‘much-beloved though humourless dumpling of legend’. An American couple, surprised to find themselves hopelessly in love, are said to be ‘both so easily ridden in on by these unannounced passions’. Another character enters ‘a condition a little displaced from what he’d always thought of as his right mind’. We hear of ‘long moon-stung waves’ and a ‘low tobacco-stricken voice’. There are many versions of the trope Pynchon so loved in V (‘sailors being, under frequently sentimental and swinish exteriors, sentimental swine’), the one that says disguise is no disguise. ‘Certain telltale nuances’, for example, give Russian spies away: ‘fur hats, huge unkempt beards, a tendency in the street to drop and begin dancing the kazatsky to music only they could hear’. An Indian researcher is evoked as a person who ‘didn’t say much, but when he did, nobody could figure out what he meant’. Pynchon even uses the biblical phrase ‘it came to pass’ as if it was just another narrative convenience, and in what I think is my favourite drop from the divine to the demotic, announces the arrival of a creature who is ‘the angel, if not of death at least of deep shit’.

And then there are the jokes and set-pieces: the mean, swift gunslinger whose back seizes as he’s about to draw; the other gunslinger who is upset because he is always being compared unfavourably to Butch Cassidy; the doomed Polish entertainer who thinks a floor show is literally a display of floors, or ‘more usually fragments of them’; the man who buys a used time-machine. ‘“Pre-owned” was how they put it,’ he says. There is the predictable but still funny answer to the would-be rhetorical question. ‘How can anyone set off a bomb that will take innocent lives?’ ‘Long fuse,’ someone suggests. ‘Easier with a timer,’ someone else says. Worst/best of all, because so lamentably engineered, is the following exchange:

‘How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?’ she inquired.

He shrugged. ‘Maybe up to the part that goes “Aux armes, citoyens” –’

A little later this character almost drowns in a mayonnaise factory, and you have to think he was asking for it.

‘Whimsy’ is not the word for any of this. Pynchon has an extraordinary, open-ended affection for whoever and whatever is not serious – that is, not wholeheartedly committed to rationality, purpose and greed. Most of his stories – and his novels are crowded with not always connected stories – are about drop-outs of some kind, or people who would drop out if they could, characters who are trying to focus their disagreements with what he calls, in his new title and throughout the text, ‘the day’. ‘He had learned,’ we are told of one character, ‘to step to the side of the day.’ Resistance to exploitation ‘must be negotiated with the day’; people who don’t know what’s about to hit them are said to be ‘pretending to carry on with the day’. Of course, ‘against the day’ also, or even chiefly, means ‘till the day comes’, and that is part of Pynchon’s point. Beyond or outside the current day is our image of its counterpart, a lure or a threat, a world far worse or far better, doomsday or deliverance or even both. A character finds himself ‘facing west into a great flow of promise, something like wind, something like light, free of the damaged hopes and pestilent smoke east of here’; and the words ‘longing’ and ‘yearning’ recur with astonishing, eloquent frequency. One of the hardest-nosed crooks in the novel is shocked at the flamboyant gay behaviour he sees in New York, ‘and it would have figured only as one more item of city depravity, except for the longing. Which wasn’t just real, it was too real.’ A sinister Belgian proto-fascist buys a camera that he mistakes for a kind of super-bomb, and the seller is ‘unprepared for the yearning he saw in the operative’s face’ – in this case ‘the desire for a single weapon able to annihilate the world’.

Against the Day is lengthy and rambling, and not half as much happens as you are hoping for. Each new chapter, even halfway through the book, feels like a new bit of exposition. Revenges and conspiracies keep fizzling into distraction. But then there are local pleasures – insights, gags, turns of phrase, throwaway questions – on almost every page, and to say the book is uneven is not to say much except that it is hard for any single reader to follow Pynchon everywhere with equal enthusiasm: to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, to mines in the Rockies, to the North Pole; to London and Cambridge as viewed by P.G. Wodehouse, and the Mexican revolution as viewed by B. Traven; to Venice, Vienna and various strange locations in what is called Inner Asia; to a mathematicians’ conference in Ostend, a time-travellers’ meeting somewhere in the American Midwest; to the decks and cabins of a boat that is simultaneously a liner and a battleship, to the innards of a land-equivalent of a submarine travelling under the shifting sands of the desert. And of course, again and again, to the airship and bantering world of the Chums of Chance.

You take your pick. There is a lot of mathematics and a lot of spying; there is a continuing western novel where people are always ‘fixing’ or ‘aiming’ to do things. There is a constant preoccupation with the properties of light. There is a hotel where everyone has insomnia, there is a visit to America from the as yet unassassinated Austrian archduke, something of a rowdy as he appears here. ‘When Franz Ferdinand drinks,’ he yells in a Chicago bar, ‘everybody drinks.’

Pynchon has managed to keep his private life, if he has one, secret. But he has also done something that, for a writer, may be even more remarkable: created a career impervious to narrative. His first novels, V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1967), were cult books that went on to become contemporary classics, and his extraordinary reputation, at least among nerds and academics, was sealed with Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Most schoolchildren in America have at least heard of him, and many have even read him. The current MLA bibliography lists 1254 Pynchon items (articles and books), although of course a few of those represent comparisons or mentions, rather than studies of the individual writer and his works. After 1973, there were 17 years of silence until Vineland (1990), punctuated only by the republication of some early short stories in the volume Slow Learner (1984). Then Mason & Dixon appeared in 1997. There is nothing as dramatic as a development here, and still less is there a decline. To be sure, new topics and zones of interest arise, and there is a difference between the secular Manicheism of the early work – if everything is not a conspiracy, everything is an accident – and the easy, patient interest in secret structures of all kinds that we find in the later novels. But how big a change is that? From an eager concern with omnipresent conspiracies to a relaxed concern with the same things. Critics can’t bear this lack of story, and have been keen to see in Against the Day a steep drop (once gifted writer finally loses his grip) or a new adventure (arcane writer seeks a new, broader public), but nothing of the kind is happening. This amazing writer continues to be amazing, and in much the same way he always was.

Much of this book seems to me as compelling as anything Pynchon has ever written: ambitious but low-key, amiable even in its anger, more like V than like any of his other novels; but there were also stretches when I was just humming along, waiting not for something to happen but the next troubling or luminous idea, the next sudden expression of stray emotion. Like the thought that crosses the mind of a man being tortured to death: ‘It didn’t look like these two were fixing to ask him any questions, because neither spared him any pain that he could tell, pain and information usually being convertible, like gold and dollars, practically at a fixed rate.’ Like the following evocation of a grandmother’s feelings as she watches the sea on which her grandson’s ship has departed:

She looked to every horizon, taking her time, saving south for last. Not a wisp of smoke, not the last, wind-muted cry of a steam siren, only the goodbye letter waiting this morning on her work-table, held now like a crushed handkerchief in her pocket, in which he had given her his heart – but which she could not open again and read for fear that through some terrible magic she had never learned to undo, it might have become, after all, a blank sheet.

The main plot line, if it is a plot line, concerns the legacy of Webb Traverse, a miner in the western mountains of the US whose devotion to the workers’ cause finds its expression in dynamite – ‘explosion without an objective is politics in its purest form,’ someone else says at one point – and loses him his life, and before that, the company of his wife and children. ‘In each explosion,’ one of his sons later decides in a tangled but very precise thought, ‘regardless of outcome, had spoken the voice Webb could not speak with in the daily world of all whom he wished … never to harm.’ Webb is killed by a couple of the mine company’s goons, his wife mourns the absence of a man who was never entirely present, his children betray and seek to placate his memory each in their different ways: by setting out to avenge him and losing track; by managing to kill one of the killers; by marrying another of the killers; by accepting the company’s money to get an education at Yale. Webb’s ghost appears several times, and is perhaps as close to a moral centre as the book has. ‘I sold my anger too cheap,’ the ghost says, ‘didn’t understand how precious it was.’

What the ghost still doesn’t get is what the rest of the book is trying to tell us, in more ways than I have yet managed to count: that anger is only one mode of resistance, that resistance itself is not always the right term for whatever it is that takes us out of the day or sets us against it. One way of approaching an understanding of this mood might be to take two or three key terms from Pynchon’s earlier novels: ritual reluctance (from The Crying of Lot 49); the company of the preterite (from Gravity’s Rainbow); the concept of the subjunctive (from Mason & Dixon). There is something of all three of these in Against the Day, but there is more too; and the combination itself makes a difference.

‘It is at about this point in the play,’ Pynchon writes of the production of a Jacobean tragedy in The Crying of Lot 49, ‘that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words … a new mode of expression takes over. It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance.’ The preterite are the non-elect of Puritan theology, those who are passed over, abandoned by God and history, and in the first pages of Gravity’s Rainbow the bombed population of London during World War Two is already discounting its chances: ‘Each has been hearing a voice, one he thought was talking only to him, say, “You didn’t really believe you’d be saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow.”’ Mason & Dixon is full of evocations of the subjunctive, memorably described as an alternative to ‘our number’d and dreamless Indicative’, and as a point of projection for dreams that will not die, ‘some great linear summing of Human Incompletion, – fail’d Arrivals, Departures too soon, mis-stated Intentions, truncations of Desire’.

Pynchon’s interest is in what can’t be said, who can’t be saved, and what can’t be finished – but also in who and what can, however faintly or helplessly, be hinted at or remembered. ‘Whereof one cannot speak,’ Wittgenstein famously wrote, ‘thereof one must be silent.’ Pynchon has a good joke about the opening sentence of the Tractatus in V, a simple employment of the literal German word order: ‘The world is everything that the case is.’ But Wittgenstein also writes, a few lines before his lapidary ending: ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.’ It does show itself, Pynchon’s novels say, and all the time, but it’s not the mystical: it’s the everyday uncanny. We might be tempted to say, following the language of Mason & Dixon, that it’s whatever is unnumbered in our lives, but Against the Day goes to great lengths to show that dreams of other worlds haunt mathematics, indeed perhaps are mathematics.

Even the chums have their moment of half-illumination as they stray into a fair within the World’s Fair, ‘a separate, lampless world, out beyond some obscure threshold, with its own economic life, social habits and codes, aware of itself as having little if anything to do with the official Fair … As if the half-light … were not a simple scarcity of streetlamps but deliberately provided in the interests of mercy, as a necessary veiling of the faces here, which held an urgency somehow too intense for the full light of day.’ Of another town Pynchon says what we see is not only not the whole story, it is ‘not even the picture on the cover’. In fact, there is no one in this book, not a spy or rebel or killer, not a mathematician or cowboy or dippy aristocrat, who doesn’t have some intimation of a world beyond the familiar world. Sometimes it’s a matter of remembering the dead, or what might have been; often it’s a sense of a second life being lived even now, some form of bilocation; more often still it’s an attempt to get beyond time. ‘Watches and clocks are fine,’ one character says, ‘don’t mistake my meaning, but they are a sort of acknowledgment of failure, they’re there to glorify and celebrate one particular sort of time, the tickwise passage of time in one direction only and no going back.’ And finally there is the remote possibility of an accommodation with time, what Pynchon calls ‘agreement, even occasions of intimacy, with Time’. This would not free us from tickwise time, but it would allow us some movement among the other sorts, even if the promise is only ‘a propaganda of memory and redemption’. Some people will never reach this agreement: ‘salesmen, tourists, the resolutely idle, the uncleansably rich, and other practitioners of forgetfulness’. But some troubled and negatively privileged people will see faces, hear voices in the dark, travel to past and future. Who are these people? Who could they be except the permanent residents of Pynchon’s novels, those who can’t speak, at least not about what matters to them, those who are not saved, and those whose business is never finished: ‘fugitives, exiles, mourners and spies’. Against the Day adds another term, both early on and as its last word: ‘grace’. But this would have to be a grace that only the graceless can find, or even look for.