When I was a student the rumour was that Thomas Pynchon didn't exist. To be more precise, the rumour was that he was actually a team of anonymous academics from the cream of American universities who spent their summers composing improbably brilliant, densely erudite, and fantastically complex fictions which they then, for reasons of their own, published under the Pynchon pseudonym. The evidence for this was (a) Pynchon never appears in public, (b) the only photograph of him is a nondescript young kid in navy uniform from the 1950s (who could, obviously, be anybody at all), and the clincher: (c) the name "Thomas Pynchon" is lifted from one of the acknowledged masterpieces of American literature, Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. It would be like two dozen British academics publishing fiction under the pseudonym "Oliver Twist."
The reality is less interesting than the rumour, alas, as it often is: of course Pynchon does exist, and is one man. He's given occasional interviews. He's even appeared on The Simpsons. But underlying the conspiracy theory was a solid ground of plausible incredulity. How could one man produce such extraordinarily capacious and variegated fictions? Now that the internet has delivered the global cabinet of wonders direct to everybody's study it'll soon be easy to forget how hard this sort of polymathy used to be, when it involved not a few Google-searches but years in libraries all over the world. Pynchon's reputation depends upon the work of this genuinely polymathic individual, although it also trades on the glamour of his shadowy "other," the extraordinary and impossible fabulist. Life not so much imitating art as cloning it.
And now we have Against the Day, a book as difficult to assess by the criteria of contemporary fiction as it would be to judge Cerberus with the rest of the Crufts usuals. Sui generis doesn't even begin to describe it. It's not just a question of the novel's great length, or density, or the fact that it orchestrates more than a hundred characters, or that it so deftly traverses half a dozen discourses of science, technology, mysticism, practicality, spy, adventure, sexual excess, and transcendentalism, although it does all these things. It's that it is a book that inhabits its own rumour, as it were. It's a book that contains its own shadow; that generates an alternate novel in the process of generating its own story. It embodies as well as narrates the condition of its own uncertainty.
Summary is expected of reviewers, but it's a tall order as far as this novel is concerned. We start in the 1893 World's Fair at Chicago, and follow scores of characters across most of the globe through the next quarter-century. Against the Day is a book about this world in its two guises, how it is now, how it might be; something with which SF fans are well familiar under the rubrics "alternate reality," "counterfactual," "mirror universe" and the like. It demonstrates its author's breathtaking and rather scary command of both the idiom of "realist" novel, and the idiom of the sciencefictional; and, indeed, its main point may be the dialectical interchange between these two modes.
To be a little more specific: Pynchon's multistranded narrative weaves itself out of two major nexuses (nexi?) of stories and characters. On the one hand there is the Wild West plotline. Webb Traverse is a dynamite expert much in demand in the mining communities of the American West who treads a dangerous line between following his own Anarchist sympathies (for he'd much rather be using his dynamite to blow up Capitalists and Bosses) and his need to placate the Establishment and ensure the security of his family. He is murdered early in the book, at the behest of evil plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe and his sidekick Foley (a fleshed-out and malign sort-of Mr Burns and Smithers). This act sets in train a complicated revenge plot that overshadows the life of Traverse's children. One of his sons chases the hired goons who actually did the deed through the Midwest and Texas and into Mexico, and afterwards plans to assassinate Vibe himself. Another son, for complicated reasons, accepts sponsorship from Vibe and travels to Europe, where he falls in with a couple of decadent spy organisations, hangs out with mathematicians and beautiful women, joins a quest to locate the mystic Shambala, and many other things. When summarised in this manner this story, perhaps, might seem a little random; but the effect of reading Pynchon's dense, often beautiful, almost always sharp-witted (occasionally constipated) prose is that a density of affect accumulates around and gives real heft to the rococo twists and turns of narrative. You believe it, even when—or especially when—it slides from the Realist-historical to the fantastical.
The other nexus of story is the one with which the novel starts: the "Chums of Chance," who are the crew of the high-tech zeppelin Inconvenience, and straight out of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or Moorcock or some other period steampunk pastiche. Or, more likely (given the precision with which Pynchon evokes this period), they're drawn not second-hand but from the originals. One other rumour about Pynchon, circulating two years ago, was that he had taken up residence in London and was spending long hours at the British Library. I like to picture him there ordering up and reading aerial adventure tales from the 1890s and 1900s, books like Rowland Walker's The Cruise of the Air Yacht Silver Cloud, Stephen Partridge's The Phantom Airman, Herbert Strang's A Thousand Miles An Hour, and J. F. C. Westerman's A Mystery of the Air. In Against the Day the reader is referred metatextually to a number of titles, amongst them The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit, The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico, The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis, and The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama: ghost books, all, but ghosts with a haunting presence in Pynchon's world. My point is that whilst Pynchon is writing a pastiche of the thrilling wonder stories idiom, he is doing it so expertly that he compels belief.
The Chums and their zeppelin retrieve a mysterious and possibly alien entity from the north pole. They fly inside the hollow earth and have adventures with the gnomes that live there. The crew journey in a craft that travels beneath the desert sands as a submarine travels beneath the water. They travel in a time machine—indeed, they wander through a whole junkyard of the devices:
"Walloping Wellesianism!" cried the Professor, "it's just a whole junkyard full!" Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines—Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s—broken, defective, scorched by misdirected flares of misrouted energy. (p.409)
Pynchon's apprehension of SF is nothing if not comprehensive. It wouldn't be far wrong to call it "comprehensively playful."
These two starting points for the novel, the carefully realised "historical" idiom of Webb Traverse's sons and the lighter-than-air "scientifiction" idiom of the Chums of Chance, suggest a binary; a division between the realist and the fantastical, between mainstream and SF. And this binary is one of the strong structuring principles of the sprawly whole. If I had to put my finger on it I'd say that this is what the novel is "about." What is set against the day in this book (which is to say, against the everyday, the ordinary, the quotidian) is precisely the fantastical, the out-of-the-ordinary, an entire "olio of oddities." The fantastical-adventure format of the Chums shadows or mirrors the grittier, more down-to-earth sequences with the Traverses; and the delicate touch with which Pynchon interweaves the two of them is one of the joys of the novel. On the one hand the Chums of Chance themselves are precisely borderline figures ("the aeronauts' dual citizenship in the realms of the quotidian and the ghostly" p. 256), who tangle with sideways timelines and bizarre alternate versions of our world, but also with the cast of the other, mainstream-ish story being orchestrated here. On the other hand characters from the quotidian reality ("our" world, we might call it) find themselves slipping, at odd and unpredictable moments, into parallel existences. A door appears in a wall, and through it a character steps to emerge somewhere wholly other and unexpected. In a lovely sequence, Kit Traverse, fleeing America and Scarsdale Vibe for Europe, wanders belowdecks on his liner, the Stupendica. But when he tries to reascend he finds he's not on the Stupendica anymore; he's on a warship, in a martial alternate reality; pressed to work as a naval rating, he finally absconds at port, makes his way to Amsterdam, and finds that he's somehow slipped back into his original reality.
As with the junkyard of time machines, Pynchon plays all the cards in the "alternate reality" SF-deck. For much of the novel the characters are in search of Iceland Spar, a crystal that (speaking roughly) splits light into two slightly different duplicates of itself; and which can be used either as a lens to shine a light on alternate possible worlds, or perhaps as the key component in a weapon of mass destruction. This medium of doubling refracts, textually, the whole of literature (or near-as-dammit) into the twin discourses of "realist" and "sciencefictional." We read a doubled and simultaneous novel: not "realist sections followed by SF sections," but somehow, SF and realism continually in superposition with one another.
It's a yin-yang, or day-night dialectic. Against the day, we might say, stands the night. The novel's epigraph is a rather lovely line from Thelonius Monk: "it's always night, or we wouldn't need light." Pynchon returns again and again to descriptions of the sky at dawn, or sunset. Characters make elaborate and sometimes startling statements of allegiance to the light. "I want to know light," says one. "I want to reach inside light and find its heart, touch its soul, take some in my hands whatever it turns out to be, and bring it back, like the Gold Rush, only more at stake, maybe" (p.456). Or, as the head of a strange London-based religious sect says to private detective Lew Basnight:
As if imparting a secret Lew could not help thinking he had somehow, without knowing how, become ready to hear, the Cohen said, "We are light, you see, all of light—we are the light offered the batsmen at the end of the day, the shining eyes of our beloved, the flare of the safety-match at the high city window, the stars and nebulae in full midnight glory ..." (p.687-8)
But the other side never, in Pynchon's book, relinquishes its pull. Another of Webb Traverse's sons, Frank, has a dream of his dead father:
The sky is always bleak and cloudless, with late-afternoon light draining away. Through the clairvoyance of dreams, Frank is certain—can actually see—his father; just the other side of the closed door; refusing to acknowledge Frank's increasingly desperate pounding. Pleading, even, by the end, crying "Pa, did you ever think I was good for anything? Don't you want me with you? On your side?" Understanding that "side" also means the side of the wall Webb is on. (p.650)
Side means death, then. With a lovely modulation Pynchon leaves a line break after this paragraph, and begins the next section with the seedy, understated yet touching regrowth of: "It had rained in the night, and some of the ocotillo fences had sprouted some green." There's a huge amount that if grim, oppressive, painful, and ugly in Pynchon's set-against day; but there are also great quantities of brightness, sex, moments of great beauty, and clumsy but rather charming humour. The "realist" daylight sections depend upon, and in turn determine, the nighttime frolics. There is a carefully worked process of doubling at work through the fiction as a whole.
Most of the characters in the novel have phantasmagorical, uncanny, or buffoonish doubles. The British thinker Renfrew talks of his German opposite number, the sinister Werfner, although the two men seem, in some sense, to be the same individual. Auberon Halfcourt, spymaster, has a Russian counterpart and enemy, Colonel Yevgeny Prokladka. The Chums of Chance are shadowed by a Russian zeppelin the Bol'shaia Igra and its crew the Tovarishchi Slutchainyi (the "comrades of randomness"). There are, indeed, many dozen similar examples of Pynchon laying out his pattern; but he does it so expertly that it rarely seems forced or over-schematic.
In fact things are a little more complicated than this, since this binary, "quotidian"/"fantastic", actually entails a four-fold thematic patterning. This is because, as any matricist will tell you, parsing two terms inevitably generates a fourfold grid (a and b; a and not b; not a and b; neither a nor b). And through the bulk of the novel Pynchon plays myriad changes upon this rule of four; not the least of which is a detailed and sometimes baffling investigation into the old theory of quaternions. Then, as the novel moves closer to its end, he seems to lose interest in twos and fours, and instead throws a great number of threes at us. Not least amongst these threes is some threeway sex. Indeed, and despite the fact that up until page 800 or so the sex in the novel has been sporadic and (by Pynchon's standards) quite restrained, the last stretch suddenly explodes with some eye-poppingly explicit couplings. The foresquare, or square-dance, formalism of character interactions—in which key figures very pointedly don't meet, or don't get it together—gives way to a porn-film excess in which everybody has sex, pretty much, with everybody else.
Which brings us back to the question of value-judgment. The prospective reader, contemplating parting with her £20 (or $35) and several weeks of her spare time, is entitled to know: is this book good?
Against the Day has, of course, been extensively reviewed, and many of the reviews I've read are curiously evasive on this question; as if it somehow misses the point of Pynchon to subject him to such petty assessments. It's certainly true to say that Against the Day dwarfs other fiction. But then again you might not necessarily find giganticism an attractive quality in itself, or your bedroom walls would be plastered with images of the actor who played Jaws in the old James Bond films, rather than those posters of fine-boned Orlando Bloom or Elijah Wood that you've actually stuck up there. Giganticism can involve coarseness as well as magnitude; and if I tell you that Against the Day is a monster you may decide that monstrosity doesn't appeal to you. But monster is also a term of breathless approbation, and that's how I mean to use it here.
There are certainly uneven stretches in amongst the marvellous ones, unsurprisingly so in a novel of this length. Pynchon's American dialogue is almost always excellent, but he isn't as good at capturing a Britishness of tone as he thinks he is ("caught at silly mid on!" and so on); and I don't know many Irishmen who sound like his Wolfe Tone O'Rooney ("what the bloody fuckall would you know about it? ... and here's hoping that you don't work for the bloody Brits, or I'd be obliged to deal with that somehow"). He has an ungainly habit of ending sentences with prepositions ("...due to the money that Ewball's pockets were mysteriously full of.") The hyper-explicit sex is variegated, but does rather exhibit a tendency to fall back onto models of women being made to submit, or being degraded, which makes rather depressing reading after a while.
On the other hand, it would be easy to make a case precisely for this unevenness; like Pynchon's awful jokes, and his refusal to give up the cringeworthy made-up song lyrics with which he's been interspersing his prose since V, an unevenness of tone is actually part of Pynchon's global effect: a refusal to play within the rules of good taste, a sort of heroic and brilliant sprawl. This is also what's going on with the occasional lapses of proper historical verisimilitude. Characters talking of "antiterrorist security" (p.25) are being anachronistic in the 1890s; just as R.U.S.H. the "Rapid Unit for Shadowing and Harassment" (p.708) sacrifices historical accuracy for the progrock joke (although in this case Pynchon at least has a character challenge the usage: "'shadowing?' [asked] Cyprian ... 'Following a subject, keeping as close as his own shadow' Theign explained"). In part these occasional moments stand out because, in other respects in this enormous and dense work, the research is so faultless. But "shadowing" is too crucial a concept in Pynchon's work to go unnoted. And what shadows the book is its own brilliance. Its own sheer excellence.
You have heard rumours about this novel. I'm here to tell you that the rumours are true. Against the Day is extraordinary, almost overwhelmingly so; but it is, amongst many other things, extraordinarily good.