On my six months with Mr. Pynchon's "Against the day"


I've just finished -- a few weeks ago -- Mr. Pynchon's latest novel, "Against the day". The book is a weighty 1100 pages long. The actual physical bulk of Mr. Pynchon's text makes reading it even more challenging. Being in Paris, of course, one would like to spend some time on a nice terrace somewhere with the damn thing, but the book is so heavy that one thinks twice about taking it anywhere. My slim civil-service briefcase (honestly) bulged noticeably and I always knew I had it with me. On the crowded metro line four, everyone looked at me when I took it from my bag. On longer transatlantic voyages I thought twice about packing it with me as I am a checked-luggage only kind of guy and adding that book means subtracting socks for a week. The last book of considerable bulk that I read was David Foster Wallaces' "Infinite Jest" which was also over the 1,000 page mark (but that was a paperback).

Yes, but what about the book? It's of course impossible to distil it's essence into a few words. There is the thinnest of plot lines to connect all the disparate threads of the book: it's a cowboy revenge story set around the turn of the century which crosses many different continents, from the far American west to deep under the deserts of inner Asia. Mr Pynchon's book teems with characters, most of which only appear once never to be seen again. Because the book is so long it can be difficult to keep track of everyone (a friend of mine kept an annotated Dramatis Personae to remind him who was who). Floating above the main action of the book are the ballonists "the Chums of Chance" a "Band of Boys" drawn in from the classic adventure-story mould. In the best metafictional tradition however, these boys are aware of the novels they appear in. They communicate back with (an ill-defined) base using an action-at-distance receiving apparatus which works thanks to one of Nicola Tesla's lesser known discoveries in the physical sciences.

For me that's what makes the book so enjoyable -- it's the geeky humour and scientific in-jokes. In Mr. Pynchon's Universe, coyboys are au fait with the latest developments in experimental physics, such as Michelson and Morley's famous interfermetric experiments. In our universe, those experiments demonstrated conclusively that the lumiferous ether didn't exist but in Mr. Pynchon's continuum this outcome is never so clearly stated. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not apparent which path modern physics would go down, what things would be possible and what things would be impossible. Suppose there really was a lumiferous ether? And that Mr. Tesla's inventions really did work as advertised? All sorts of things could become possible, including travelling in time. In one of my favourite scenes in the book, the Chums of Chance take a trip in a poorly-maintained time-machine operated underneath a stretch of New York's elevated subway (where there is, of course, a plentiful supply of electricity). It's not clear where the Chums are hurled, the distant past or the distant future, but they catch a terrifying glimpse of dark plain filled with unknown beasts and an overpowering stench of decay and excrement.

There are other brilliant scenes in the book -- the Chums' descent deep under the desert using a new form of propulsion -- but they are embedded deep in several other threads of the story which are much less interesting. It's not clear where Mr. Pynchon is going here; his last book, "Mason and Dixon" offered a slightly less opaque story, with characters one could care about (it's still my favourite book of all time about astronomers) and many of the same themes of "Against the day". It's impossible not to admire the immense erudition and energy of this latest work but hey! Why not edit it just a little?