Friday, May 7, 2010

Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day": Book Review

It's set a hundred years ago but not much has changed. "This big parade of modern inventions, all spirited march tunes, public going ooh and aah, but someplace lurking just out of sight is always some lawyer or accountant, beating that 2/4 like clockwork and runnin the show." (33)

Investigating Anarchists in Chicago, Lew's "down in the deadfalls where the desperate malcontents convened, fingerless slaughterhouse veterans, irregulars in the army of sorrow, prophesiers who had seen America as it might be in visions America's wardens could not tolerate." (51) This novel fills with unease, unrest, and privation.

Modern chemistry replaces alchemy as capitalism "really gets going," true, as Merle says. But, Webb suggests: "Maybe 'capitalism' decided it didn't need the old magic anymore." He goes on: "Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people's sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes." (79) This tale pits the haves vs. the have-nots, relentlessly; both appear trapped by their ideology.

After their Arctic expedition by balloon, each of the Chums of Chance gaze "at the enigmatic miniature he had purchased, representing a faraway disposition of rocks he would probably never get to see, and try to glimpse, even at this degree of indirectness, some expression of truth beyond the secular." (126) The yearning for a higher meaning permeates this panoramic, unsettling, recondite, and arcane narrative.

It's as if a brane slithered next to our world for a slightly alternate history, a counternarrative full of what science fiction and adventure tales might have imagined for early 20c readers of pulps, westerns, and Oriental mystery. "Let us imagine a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know, in which just this has come to pass." (230). The era described, at the end of the Victorian reign, sounds not much different than what transpired, in its "grim realities." Aging and Death are resisted, within "this all-enveloping pantomime" enacted by twin professors Renfrew and Werfner, England and Hanover, temporal flow of Time against sinister Power half-glimpsed.

This malevolent tension between those who favor the spirit and those who triumph by the sword permeates this plot. As with Asia, where "two distinct versions" endure: "one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth-- the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all question of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools." (249)

Into this standoff, time-traveling agents enter. Mr. Ace: "Glossy black eyes, presented as weapons in a duel. The gently damaged, irrevocably educated eyes we associate with the visiting dead. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring." (415) The trespassers back from the future do not bring solace.

Neither can science, even theories of higher mathematics where more than one character seeks answers. "Vectorism, in which Kit had once thought he had glimpsed transcendence, a co-existing world of imaginaries, the 'spirit realm' that Yale legend Lee De Forest once imagined he was journeying through, had not shown Kit, after all, a way to escape the world governed by real numbers." (675)

Meaning may beckon earthier pilgrims too. Shambhala in Central Asia possibly exists; the quest for a terrestrial paradise consumes the next chapters that particularly engrossed me. The Pure Land sought by Buddhists, the rebirth by penance, the advent of The Compassionate, Tibetan tales of wisdom all flicker as if in a comforting mirage, or fevered vision. But transcendence passes and again, war and murder stalk the Balkans and Venetian shores closer to the heart of a Europe to be torn by hatred and profited from by Capital.

Yashmeen leaves an Austrian passage as "she gazed backward at iron convergences and receding signal-lamps. Outward and visible metaphor, she thought, for the complete ensemble of 'free choices' that define the course of a human life. A new switching point every few seconds, sometimes seen, sometimes traveled over invisibly and irrevocably. From on board the train one can stand and look back, and watch it all flowing away, shining, as if always meant to be." (811) A very Buddhist concept, amid the chaos to be unleashed by spies and soldiers around her and her companions.

Contrast with Cyprian's filtered thoughts, from "this bottom dead center of the European Question, this bad daydream toward which all had been converging, murderous as a locomotive running without lights or signals, unsettling as points thrown at the last minute, awakened from because of some noise out in the larger world, some doorbell or discontented animal, that might remain forever unidentified." (845)

Later, out in Mexico during its revolutionary melee, Frank hears a 'brujo' muse about the destruction wrought by progress. He wonders: "who at some point hadn't come to hate the railroad? It penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love." (930)

Every few pages, no matter the convoluted plot or the erudite references, passages such as this leap out of the prose. This makes this book such a powerful read, a novel of ideas, yes, but one where-- and I differ a bit from conventional criticism of the book here-- you do care about the impact of lofty schemes upon little people. The characters do flit and pass and I wish I had a scorecard to keep track. The aims of this famously difficult author (thanks for those Wiki-linked annotations) may be ambitious as before, but there is an outrage at inhumanity which makes this much more than a parody of styles, a catalogue of registers. The Albanians watch the intruders from the West: "what were they doing out here this late in history?" (948) We, like them, wonder. Caught up as they all are in a geopolitical, intellectual, puzzling game, we have no clue either.

The Tree of Diana, in film-crazed Hollywood, will then blossom, silver amalgamated with quicksilver under a lens, nitric acid added to animate it. For this element too is alive: "Has its own forks in the road, choices to make just like the rest of us." (1060) Convergences and coincidences in a book begun and ended with the Chums of Chance fill this narrative. Even the natural world shares the patterns grooved deep.

It's a human book, for all its superhuman scale. Yashmeen's love for Cyprian, his for a higher calling, the familial ties that try to resist the juggernauts of death machines driven by Capital: touches of intimacy soften the epic, relentless, global scale of this ambitious novel. As with an epic, the individual struggles to stand out in a starring role. The cast threatens here to exceed thousands.

Pynchon attempts to straddle three decades of planetary chaos while focusing on a dozen or so people caught up in the whirlwind. The pace lags, as when the crew of the "Inconvenience" floats over the Great War and the refugees in its aftermath as if far too detached from the human suffering. I failed to feel as if I was in Mexico during the Revolution, or lost in the Balkans or studio-birthed L.A. except for momentary passages. The little men and women do get crushed, after all, on the other hand, and this plays into the difficulty readers may have in reconciling their humanist expectations for the novel to the pitiless, yet fitfully compassionate movements of this grand scheme. This telescopes and then draws back, over and over.

Years pass in a paragraph as the Soviets rise and the Tsar falls yet another paragraph is given over to a debate about potato salad among Iowan transplants to L.A. That paragraph, however, took place a mile from my house. So, I attest in the local geography back then applicable, the author got all his left turns right and knows to his dubious credit as we natives may that rats do nest up in palm trees.

In the end, as we know from the Colorado mines and Haymarket and the L.A. Times bombing all attributed to Anarchist terror rather than plutocratic suppression, the "commonwealth of the oppressed" succumbed. Scarsdale Vibe imagines above Denver where the strikers are to be mown down or driven off what may not be so much prescient ten decades ago as predictable: "Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage monies will be paying to build for us." (1001)

Was it worth the dozens of hours? Yes, uneven as it was, it would not let go of my imagination. I'll take its ups and downs over smoother paths worn down by more timorous novelists and predictable thinkers anytime.

(Posted to Amazon US; cross-posted to "Not the L.A. Times Book Review" 4/24/10. P.S. On the current Tea Party resistance to Big Government and not Big Business, see Tamerlane's "A Thin & Weak Brew"-- and my comment re: this novel and anarchism.)

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