Critical Mass

Heresy of Truth: Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day”

By Dale Peck

NBCC member Dale Peck presented this apologia at the NBCC's “Critics Revise and Recant ” event this fall, as part of Litquake's 3rd annual NYC LitCrawl:

Before it’s read, a book is a closed box only incidentally filled with words—a doorstop, a replacement for the broken leg of a couch. Literature has no value, no meaning even, until it enters what my friend and fellow novelist Calvin Baker calls “the cultural conversation.” 
A manuscript is just so much kindling (or more likely, a few hundred kilobytes of data, smaller than an mp3 or a jpeg of your new puppy) until it’s disseminated and interpreted, argued about, passed on. It’s an anxious business, not just for writers, but for readers as well. In the twentieth century, an increasingly self-aware bourgeoisie demanded a greater say in what it should read (as opposed to what it would read, where the taste for sex and violence has remained unsated since Paris ran off with Helen, and Achilles dragged Hector’s corpse thrice ’round the walls of Troy). Academics and critics, fellow writers and privileged patrons, talk show hosts and bloggers and the mass of ordinary readers represented by the phrase “the New York Times bestseller” participate in an increasingly populist (and increasingly unruly) parliament, anointing a few books literature while the rest remain mere poetry or fiction, memoir or history.

Occasionally these opinions converge with reverberations that extend beyond the world of letters: the resurrection of Moby-Dick, say, or the deferential haze shrouding Ulysses. Such instances are proof, if any were needed, that the process of canonization isn’t always timely, nor is it foolproof: memoirist and novelist Dave Eggers, despite a manifest lack of talent, has become the center of a dwindling but persistent clan that follows him with the blind fervor of ClayMates, while The Da Vinci Code, a book whose leaden prose makes Eggers’s writing seem positively euphonious, is less a novel than a cottage industry, one that just happens to be a worth a few billion dollars. At such moments we would do well to remember that literature—in which category The Da Vinci Code and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius belong, however much we may wish it weren’t so—is a fundamentally irrational enterprise, one whose psychological exigency is undisputed even as its social utility remains the subject of fretful contention. It is for precisely this reason that the critical process is often more concerned with a writer’s place in society than the meaning of his books. Kurt Vonnegut railed (ineffectually, and quite possibly disingenuously) against the “sweetly faked attention” with which his writing has been cultishly misread since the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five almost forty years ago, while J.D. Salinger ultimately felt compelled to flee readers who had come to revere him as a quasi-religious crusader against “phoniness.” “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote at the beginning of The White Album, yet this is the one sentiment that seems to have escaped critical exploration in the reaction to The Year of Magical Thinking, not just because it’s voyeuristic or unquantifiable, but because it’s irrelevant. As horrific as such a sentiment must seem to a culture that esteems individual expression over ethical behavior, Didion’s memoir is no longer her book. It is her readers’, to make of what they will.

As with Salinger—or, if you want to dress it up a bit, Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo—Thomas Pynchon avoids public exposure, but in his case the performance is precisely that: a bit of theater, half serious, half in jest. From his “isolation” he’s written liner notes for the band Lotion, blurbed a few writers, and faxed answers to at least one interviewer (and of course “guest starred,” Unknown Comic–style, on two episodes of The Simpsons). He also makes his home in Manhattan, so his anonymity must be seen as a media creation as much as his own, a handshake, if we can invoke the patrician world from which both the writer and the publishing industry originally hail, between gentlemen. More to the point, the author’s career is no less the creation of the media than his pen. When Gravity’s Rainbow appeared in 1973, it achieved instant totemic status, rendering Pynchon one of America’s most charitably—i.e., poorly—read contemporary novelists, by which I mean that the significance ascribed to his famously hyperbolic evocations of entropy and paranoia and ungovernable paraphilias, of mathematics and metempsychosis and other phenomena both mundane and mystical, so far exceeds what actually exists on the page that uninitiated readers often feel they’re being punk’d by the literary establishment. At least part of the establishment agrees: though Pynchon won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, the advisory board of the Pulitzer Prize overturned the decision of its own judges, calling the novel “overwritten” and “unreadable.”

Pynchon touches tangentially on this in the introduction to his 1984 collection of “early stories,” Slow Learner: “My best hope is that, pretentious, goofy, and ill-considered as they get now and then, these stories will still be of use with all their flaws intact, as illustrative of typical problems of entry level fiction.” Excluding the words “now and then,” this modest (and surprisingly readable) statement pretty much characterizes my feelings toward the entirety of Pynchon’s ouevre. To what “use” the stories in Slow Learner are to be put, however, is never said. Are they merely of interest to critics and fans interested in the “problems of entry level fiction”? Or are they also for the more general reader, who tends to regard a book as a discrete entity, of “use” not for what it promises but for what it is? Pynchon’s early fiction—by which I mean not just the stories but all his work up to and including Mason and Dixon—exhibits a fantastically unfettered imagination, an undeniable brilliance in both wordplay and subject matter, and a consciousness that, however “unpolitical” the writer himself once characterized it, is strongly attuned to the most socially engaged of the cardinal virtues, justice—none of which prevents it from being simultaneously willfully obtuse, emotionally closed, pointlessly overwrought, and almost stunningly banal. It was also not very funny, the jokes coming at the expense of themselves, if not the reader. And yet, after more than four decades of laborious progression through the “apprentice” and “journeyman” stages of his craft, Pynchon has at last fulfilled his promise, syncretizing his various preoccupations and taming sentences he once described as “too fancy to read.” Against the Day, the author’s seventh book, stands as the crowning achievement of his or indeed any career.

And now a confession, quite possibly superfluous:

At the time my copy of Against the Day arrived, I was reading a single-volume history of the world—the Big Bang through 9/11 in just under 1200 pages, which is to say, just a hundred pages or so longer than Thomas Pynchon’s seventh book, which spans the years 1893 through 1920 or so. This seemed to me the perfect starting point for a review whose original thesis, formulated before the novel even showed up, ran something like this: “Thomas Pynchon is the most talented living American writer, yet his self-indulgence has prevented him from ever writing a good book.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked the cover, smirked my way past the epigram from Thelonious Monk (“It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light”), noted the avalanche of typically improbable names on the first two pages (Randolph St. Cosmo, Lindsay Noseworth, Miles Blundell, Darby Suckling, Chick Counterfly, and Pugnax, a dog who reads Henry James), and immediately found myself sucked into a story that melded narrative genres—boy’s adventure stories, science fiction, the Western—into a balanced, taut, enticing, and often extraordinarily moving dialogue with the very thing I had set aside in order to read it: history. And yes, it’s funny too.

History, of course, has long been Pynchon’s preferred subject—or, if you will, his preferred lens—and Against the Day is another link in a chain stretching from the pre-Revolutionary trackers of Mason and Dixon to the dawn of Cold War paranoia in Gravity’s Rainbow and on through the counterculture elegized in Vineland, creating what seems in hindsight to have been an exploration of evolving notions of freedom, both individual and (let us use the word, quite probably against the author’s will) political. Nearly every critic has mentioned the difficulty of summarizing its plot because of its digressiveness; chances are if you’re reading such a late review, you’re already familiar with at least the names: the Traverse kin, Frank, Reef, Kit and daughter Lake, who marries Deuce Kindred, one of the two killers of her father, Webb Traverse, aka the Kieselghur Kid, a terrorist who dynamites mining operations in Colorado, and whose murder is commissioned by Scarsdale Vibe, a technologically minded plutocrat/fascist on the order of Henry Ford; The Chums of Chance (enumerated above), who travel the world in the zeppelin Inconvenience, investigating such phenomena as æther, Iceland spar, “Tesla devices” that might or might not be responsible for the Tunguska Event in 1908, and time machines that allow beings called Trespassers to journey to the Chums’ present, where it is feared they will steal resources to bring back to their own depleted era (nudge, nudge); and the Rideouts, Merle, a photograher, Erlys, who left to marry a traveling magician named Luca Zombini, and their daughter Dally, who shares a flirtation with Kit Traverse aboard the Hapsburg ocean liner Stupendica—that is, until it splits into a second ship, the Emperor Maximilian, which sales off on its own distinct temporal trajectory.

As my far-from-complete summary indicates, the narrative in Against the Day grows out of the author’s themes and intellectual pursuits, in direct violation of the writing school (or, for that matter, Aristotelian) dictum that even a fantastical narrative must follow certain rules, avoiding manipulations of plot for the sole purpose of making a point (or often, in Pynchon’s case, avoiding one). In fact, what this particular bit of common wisdom actually states is that a fantastical narrative must first establish its rules and then follow them, and this Pynchon surely does; they are merely rules that many readers don’t truck with, because they place no outer boundary on where, when or how the novel’s narrative might proceed. The reader is required to treat each digression, however unbelievable, and each observation, however arcane, as equally important (or equally irrelevant) until he reads the last page and can decide how it fit into the larger scheme. Such an experience is grueling only if you think of it in Joycean terms, as though each aspect of the novel were part of a hermetic puzzle that will eventually resolve into a single entity. Pynchon’s approach is fast and loose by comparison, half planned, half intuitive—a risky approach whose success or failure depends entirely on execution. I wouldn’t have thought any contemporary writer could pull it off, least of all this one; yet every word-filled page has the splendor of the Great Wall of China, providing the reader with a sense of just how large the finite world truly is, how majesterial an object can be produced by an activity as mundane as bricklaying. We once called such experiences of manmade grandeur “sublime,” a concept that’s been more or less subsumed by the sentimental lionizing of the Internet, whose vastness, though immeasurelessly larger than the lost library of Alexandria, is nevertheless diminished by the mediating aid of search engines. Pynchon’s universe, however, isn’t Googleable, nor can it be Wiki’d if it is to be truly comprehended. It must be navigated sequentially, one word at a time, and only through that banal, methodical, ageless labor can we experience the grandness and generosity of his vision. Reading the novel isn’t simply a semantic or aesthetic experience: it is meditative, and quite possibly transcendental. You don’t just have to read it: it must be felt in order to be understood.

There are writers who see the world as it is, and then there are writers like Pynchon, who see the world as we live in it, which is less a place than an experience of a place, mediated by the collective sum of human activity: not history, but culture itself. Against the Day’s numerous instances of doubling (the two ships Stupendica and Emperor Maximillian, for example, or Drs. Renfrew and Werfner, British and German scientists with a fierce animus toward each other) and lenses (the most important, the aforementioned Iceland spar, refracts any object seen through it into two distinct images, each of which is real) reinforce this trope. Broadly speaking, historical fiction falls into two categories: romance (what if…?) and tragedy (hindsight is 20/20). The appeal of both approaches is more or less self-evident, as are the limitations, and they’re basically the same thing: historical fiction reminds us of something we’ve lost—a powerful and important memorial that all too often effaces the thing it attempted to invoke. It is only too easy to forget that everything in an historical novel is a lie (except for the facts, which, in the most literal sense, aren’t part of the fiction at all), but, rather than run from this trap, Pynchon plays right into it, pouring on the sentimental re-creations of daily life (i.e., the sort of stuff that makes historical fiction such a good read), only to burst the fictive bubble with absurd passages that can’t be rationally incorporated into any notion of the period under review. In other words, Pynchon writes both kinds of historical fiction at once. We might think of Plato’s worlds of becoming and being—to which Pynchon, audacious trickster that he is, adds a third category: what might have been. What the past might (or might not) have been, but also what the future—i.e., our present—might have been, and might still some day become, if we learn to understand historical chains of events as not merely causally related phenomena, but products of unspoken, often unacknowledged human desires. “Understand,” of course, is a tricky word, for it contains both rational and irrational components, as this passage, spoken by one of the time-traveling Trespassers, makes clear:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate….”

And so we come to the real problem of Against the Day: not its text, which is pretty much perfect, but the context into which it’s been published. Critics have always tried to make Pynchon’s work appear socially engaged, because that’s what art is supposed to be, at least in the bourgeois conception, but the truth is novels such as Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason and Dixon are more concerned with escaping the restrictions of everyday life than investigating them. At the same time, an ambivalence—Pynchon is nothing if not a product of the bourgeoisie—hampers this flight, just as it mars the work of Pynchon’s heirs, who, like their master, can neither depict reality accurately nor offer something purely fictional in its place. To me, Against the Day is the first of Pynchon’s novels bold enough to posit the real world as the lens through which it views the ineffable human condition—what Pynchon himself called, in the introduction to Slow Learner, “an attitude toward death”—rather than the other way around. Yet ironically enough, when the writer has at last managed to perfect his technique, critics see only self-parody and self-indulgence.

“There is the feeling that the magician has fallen in love with his own stunts,” Louis Menand wrote almost contritely in the New Yorker, “as though Pynchon were composing a pastiche of a Pynchon novel.” The Times’ Michiko Kakutani was less conflicted, declaring Against the Day “the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes,” an opinion Laura Miller took a step further: “Slogging through the underbrush of the vast and quintessentially Pynchonian new Thomas Pynchon novel,” Miller pontificates in Salon, “it's hard not to think, almost with the turning of every page, of all the other writers who now do this better.” Tom LeClair, an academic writing in Bookforum, reminds us that “Pynchonian” also entails “Pynchonists,” i.e., “fetishizing collectors of P-trivia,” whom LeClair imagines as the only readers who will finish Against the Day, let alone like it. Confessing that he has taught “nearly all of Pynchon’s novels to unwilling undergrads and grads,” LeClair almost reluctantly characterizes Against the Day as “a giant bag of imaginative hot air,” only to conclude with this moving (if slightly perverse) postscript: “I hope I’m wrong. I hope some future scholar will read the novel twenty times and either illustrate how it recapitulates the whole history of narrative or demonstrate how every piece fits together into a fourfold design that will replace four-base genetics as the model of all life.” The truth, of course, is that Pynchon has been guilty of precisely the crimes of parodic self-indulgence his critics accuse him of here, and that, as LeClair’s review makes clear, this is precisely what they’ve always wanted from him: the excessive Pynchon, the obscure Pynchon, the quintessential Pynchon. Such self-contradictory cavils lead one to wonder if Against the Day’s reviewers are actually reading the new book, or if they’re merely reading “a Pynchon novel”—if what’s really happened is a retroactive interpretative fatigue that now seems too onerous to bear. Forty years, after all, is a long time to do a writer’s work for him, and Pynchon’s critics are hardly the first people to find the treasure not worth the effort it took to find it.

Well. Part of me wants to label Pynchon the boy who cried wolf, and blame him for the failure of his latest novel to be seen as anything more than another false declaration, just as part of me wants to accuse Pynchon’s reviewers of a case of the emperor’s new clothes, incapable of seeing anything but what they’ve been told to see. But both accusations are, in light of the present accomplishent, irrelevant. With Beloved, Blood Meridian and a handful of other novels, Against the Day stands as one of the few works of literature published during my lifetime that manages to confound reductive exegesis without resorting to meaningless blather. It almost sounds like I’m writing as if Pynchon were already dead, though for all we know he has another, better book in him. I hope so, because the day grows darker by the moment, and we need more of the light this novel offers.