Another Pynchon `monster'

From the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the dark underside of power

Review Novel

December 03, 2006|By Christopher Sorrentino | Christopher Sorrentino,Special to the Los Angeles Times

Against the Day

Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press / 1,086 pages / $35

Nearly 50 years into the Thomas Pynchon era, it's our failing if we don't understand the author's manner and method, which are inseparable from the artifacts he has produced. Despite the legendary slowness of his process, and his even more legendary "reclusiveness," Pynchon has delivered seven books, including four massive novels. Yet is there another contemporary "master" whose career is more routinely subjected to reassessment with each new work?

Pynchon, of course, has brought a lot of this upon himself. Though his fiction helped to define the very idea of literary postmodernism, the best and most concise adjective to define it is still the tautological "Pynchonesque"; his books remain leading examples of the sort of novel Henry James referred to, half a century before postmodernism, as a "loose, baggy monster."

Though his work both recalls and anticipates that of his contemporaries playing in the same ballpark - William Gaddis, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joseph McElroy, Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace, for example - there is no team to which he belongs.

His careful (or haphazard, if you like) mix of confidently asserted scientific flimflam, stunningly serene description, madcap situational farce, peculiarly compelling but disconcertingly intermittent plotting, polymorphic sexual perversity, rat-a-tat dialogue, witheringly pessimistic analyses of power, extended parodic forms and metafictional winks has never centered on any particular idea about how a novel ought to work. Rather, it has accommodated all the things a novel can contain.

One is reminded of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the old radio program, which disgorged the entire contents of NBC's sound effects library when opened. A Pynchon work, then, automatically becomes the focus of those who lament excess, cleverness, self-indulgence, difficulty and other apparent literary sins, whose ideal novel is lean, well-plotted, linear and related from a single point of view.

Against the Day, Pynchon's first novel in nearly a decade, will give such critics plenty to complain about. "[N]ews travels at queer velocities and not usually even in straight lines," one character observes, and that seems a fitting rubric for the Byzantine workings of this book.

Opening in 1893 at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition - organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' expedition to the New World - it is, at just under 1,100 pages, Pynchon's longest effort yet.

With its displays of new technology, its audacious assertion of America's pre-eminence as an urban society and its ratification of the emerging consumer culture and the capitalist lords who would supply it, the Columbian Exposition took place a little more than 20 years before the beginning of World War I, at which time all of the marvelous ideas on exhibit were used for the making of war to an unprecedented degree.

This eventuality looms like a gigantic thundercloud throughout most of Against the Day, and although Pynchon doesn't suggest that the world of 1893 was a more innocent one, he rather ingeniously channels its optimism by kick-starting the novel with a sustained, and hilariously absurd, parody of "boy's-book" writing that introduces the Chums of Chance, a cheerily ingenuous group of youthful balloonists and adventurers that seems to exist simultaneously in the realm of popular literature and in the world at large. They act out the codes of a waning era, although as gentlemanly and clean-cut as they are, they're charged at the fair, in a bit of dark foreshadowing, with counterterrorist duties.

Indeed, fear of anarchists and trade unionists - often the same thing here - is as rampantly indiscriminate in this world as fear of terrorists is in ours.

The book proceeds in a pass-the-baton manner, with one character or plot line depositing the narrative in the lap of the next, advancing in leaps and bounds that cumulatively span 30-odd years. Many of these episodes are linked by MacGuffins - a favorite Pynchon strategy - including, in this instance, decades-long searches for an unbelievably powerful weapon, possibly of extraterrestrial origin; the key to time travel; the secret of "bilocation," or the ability to be in two locations at once; and the lost city of Shambhala. Typical of Pynchon, the main players unwittingly stumble across or experience each of these things while searching for something else.

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