24 February 2014

Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day

“Two facing rows of storefronts receded steeply down the packed-earth street. Where the buildings ended, nothing could be seen above the surface of the street, no horizon, no countryside, no winter sky, only an intense radiance filling the gap, a halo or glory out of which anything might emerge, into which anything might be taken, a portal of silver transfiguration, as if being displayed from the viewpoint (let us imagine) of a fallen gunfighter.” 

Until I was eighteen, I dined on science fiction and fantasy. I played Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, and Magic the Gathering. The fiction I devoured was branded with Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Battletech. I read Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and my tastes changed. I fell I love with density: sentences that made me struggle to understand it and writing that hurt a little going down. Ever since I’ve missed some of the feelings I got from simpler stores: being unable to put a book down because I need to find out how it will end, being immersed in a different and magical world, being sad when a favourite character is killed off. And my attraction to wizards, dragons, and robots never quite died. So I’ve been searching for a novel that combines Nabokov’s exuberant prose, Dostoyevsky’s puzzling morality, and Cormac McCarthy’s stark melodrama with wizards, dragons, and robots. (Tolkien fits the bill, but surely there must be others!)

Against the Day is the closest to this target I’ve come across. It has zeppelins, cowboys, dynamite, intercontinental conspiracies, and a sentient ball of lightning. At the same time, it has writing that is as breathtaking as it is elaborate. It could be described as a magical cyberpunk Western revenge epic. Or it could be called a Big Book about Everything. Capitalism, love, abstract mathematics, anarchy, time travel, philosophy of electricity, capitalism, sex (once it starts it just keeps coming), familial loyalty—it’s all here.

I’ve read quite a few 800+-page novels and most of them, at times, make me wonder if they are worth the commitment of months of my reading life. I never questioned whether Against the Day was worth it. (On the other hand, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon tried my patience at times.) Long books are capable of a unique joy. Too vast to be focused around a single plot, the experience is not as much about following a story from beginning to end as it is about immersing myself in the book’s world and the author’s mind. After a thousand pages with one voice, the recurring grammatical tics, rhetorical flourishes, dramatic buildups, and emotional concerns imprint themselves on my mind like the favourite (and least favourite) quirks of a close friend. At the end of a favorite long book, having to leave its world is a bittersweet feeling, many times more poignant than the death of a favourite character. But the downside of long books is that it is rare that an author’s interests will sync up with mine for such a gargantuan stretch of text. It is almost inevitable that I will find some pages, or some chapters, less than thrilling. The unique beauty of a long book has its price.

Against the Day consistently tickled my brain. Each night (and afternoon, morning, evening) after I put it down, I was thinking. About what, exactly, I’m not sure. Maybe absorbing the historical detail, maybe keeping track of the many plots, maybe situating all the characters in their relationships to one another. It lit me up. Like the other Pynchon I have read, it feels like there is a puzzle to solve, but what precisely that puzzle is, I could not say. Like any good narrative, it sucked me in. By page fifty, instead of thinking “What’s Pynchon doing with this?” I was thinking “What will happen next?”, “Gosh that’s beautiful”, and “I hope nothing bad happens to Dally. That’d break Merle’s heart.” I liked Dally a lot. Her story was touching.

Even though I cared for the characters, I also found them alien. They think and feel, but they do not think and feel in the way that I do, or in the way that as far as I can tell anyone I know does. I never felt sympathy for the characters. Their experiences were clearly intense and powerfully described, but there were no moments of “I’ve felt that way before,” no moments where I bask in the author’s ability to put the elusive tickles and tidal waves of qualia into words. Throughout the book, decisions are confounding and passions are unexpected. Somehow, it works. Against the Day has its own world, saturated in detail and functioning according to its own internal logic. The characters do not feel in the same way that I do, but they feel in the same way as each other, making the whole plausible. The alienation is consistent, strange but not unpleasant.

There is also no palpable sentience behind the words. With most authors, their books seem to provide insight into their personalities. Nabokov’s willingness to imbue his prose with as many histrionic flourishes as possible reveals both his arrogance and his genius. David Foster Wallace’s sensitivity to the trials and tribulations of human existence manifests itself in his pushing of literary boundaries. Reading a book can feel like the writer is there, present, telling the story to me. Reading Pynchon is not like this. He is unfathomable and absent. Having read his books, I can infer certain things about him. He likes crude puns, silly names and superstition of all sorts from conspiracy theories to religious mythology. He searches his novels extensively. He seems to dislike capitalism. But the writing shows no sign of an author behind the words. It is impersonal. The dialogue sounds like the characters are talking. The narration imbues all events, whether life-changing or slapstick, with the same Wagnerian drama. Like the characters’ alienating feelings, Pynchon’s detachment is a feature rather than a bug. It is part of the experience. Being immersed in it for a thousand pages is strange but wonderful. Against the Day has a near-constant turbulence of intense feeling and dramatic prose, but it unclear what to make of it. Each chapter ends with a climactic finale, a gorgeous and confusing final paragraph.

Thomas Pynchon’s novels have a mystique to them. I remember reading the first few pages of Mason & Dixon while waiting for my mom at a bookstore, then going back the next day to buy it because I needed to figure out the nature of the strange beast I had just sampled. The novels are complicated. They are silly. They are frustrating. They are puzzles that may or may not be worth trying to solve, that may or may not have a solution. On Against the Day, he writes better than anyone, delivering page after page after page of exquisite rhythm and perfect word choice. Most of the sentences are beautiful and almost none are flat or uncomfortable. Starting the book felt like embarking on an adventure, a trip into the jungle, mysterious and exciting. Not many writers can give me that feeling. And it lived up to this initial excitement by never becoming a slog, by keeping me on my toes, by realizing my dream of a literary scifi-ish fantasy-ish novel, by making me think and feel in ways I have never thought or felt before.

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