Saturday, March 09, 2024


I was recently chatting with my brother (no, my other brother) about Thomas Pynchon. We both describe him as one of our favorite authors, despite not really having read a whole lot from him. The Crying of Lot 49 is an incredible book, one of the most gripping and mesmerizing and lingering novels I've read. Beyond that, though, Pynchon gets a lot more challenging, with books that are considerably longer while also being very complex and layered. I've enjoyed everything of his that I've read, but other than 49, it's always taken a real concerted effort and sometimes multiple attempts to finish something.


I just finished reading "Against the Day", which I think puts me past the halfway point of Pynchon books I've read. It's a beast of a book at over 1000 pages, but from page to page it's highly readable and fun. Pynchon has an amazing gift for language and voices, a sharp sense of humor, intricate drama and surprising allusions.


Overall, I think this book most closely reminds me of Gravity's Rainbow, both for its epic historical sweep and its deep interest in science. Where GR was set late in World War 2 and dealt with contemporary ideas of ballistic missiles and relativity, ATD spans the time from the late 1800s to the end of World War 1 and is interested in the scientific ideas of that era. The nature of light and the aether are especially important in the early part of the book, and characters both talk about these concepts and see them acted upon in their journeys. Explosives are similarly central to the narrative. One thing that I adore about Pynchon is how he ties everything in together around a central axis but then kind of moves up in a third dimension, circling around a consistent concept but exploring radically different aspects of it. For explosives, an early character named Webb Traverse is very knowledgeable about how to detonate explosives, and can apply that knowledge in his work in the Colorado mines; but over time we see those explosives being turned against the system of capitalist exploitation that drive those mines in the first place, and how they can be used to cripple the railroads and factories. The concrete, technical aspects of explosives segue into the philosophical theory of anarchism, in a way that feels natural and inextricable.

Pynchon really knows his stuff, and isn't afraid to dig deep into nerding out on science and math. Vectors are a really big part of the story. One of Webb's sons is Christopher, nicknamed Kit, who becomes an expert on vectorism, a practical application of math to predict real-world movements. In the tone of the novel, though Vectorism is most often described like a religion, with its adherents and priests and heretics. Kit moves in the circles of Vectorists, but later on gets mixed up with the Quaternions, a more European branch of mathematics that deals with four-dimensional rather than three-dimensional movement. Quaternions require imaginary numbers and radicals and other things that cannot exist in the real world, yet nevertheless may be useful to analyze real-world concepts. I took one of several detours to Wikipedia to confirm that, yep, quaternions is a real thing, though generally not with the mystical overtones they accrete in this book.

Electricity is a big deal as well, with Tesla playing a somewhat significant role in the first third or so of the novel. Here too, the science of electricity is explored, but so too is the whole social and financial territory in which it is being deployed. In the Chicago World's Fair, electricity is still something of a novelty, enabling late-night activities that previously would have needed to wait for the next day. We see how the landscapes of America and Europe are transformed as they are lit up by incandescent bulbs. Tesla seeks to make electrical power available for free for everyone over wireless transmission. He is subverted by his supposed investors, the real Morgan and the fictional Vibe, who bankroll his experiments while secretly sabotaging them, ushering in the transactional Edisonian world that will ensure regular payments to the wealthy of the world.

Like I mentioned before, light is a huge concept in the book, and especially refraction and reflection. An early section of the book is titled "Iceland Spar", and it's both a plot point and an analogy, a special type of rock that can doubly refract light, producing duplicated images. During a detour through a traveling troupe of magicians, we learn that this is how they accomplish many of their illusions: but when doubling a person, that person is actually doubled, producing a doppelganger that will continue to live even after the act is over. As with many other things in the book, I initially assumed this was a creative invention, before checking and realizing that, yep, Iceland Spar actually exists. (But it doesn't really create flesh-and-blood duplicates of people. Probably)

I'll try to not describe every single topic Pynchon dives into, but I will say that one of the coolest has to do with silver. In the first couple of chapters, we learn how fascinated Merle Rideout is with photography: a process by which silver and light interact to freeze an image onto paper. Much of the following action then takes place in the silver mines of Colorado, where men work hard and set off explosives and use pickaxes to extract silver ore from the earth. Those mining operations tie in with the politics and economics of the Free Silver movement and the recent bodyslam of Repeal; for this community, it's just Repeal, everyone knows what was repealed so they don't need to explain it. Doubling back to photography, it's also a matter of light. In film, the cels advance like clockwork, so you're really seeing a still image for a fraction of a second, then another still image for a fraction of a second, and so on. Merle muses that this seems awkward: we should be able to do something with light itself to directly transmit the movement of images. Much much later in the book, Merle invents an process by which a single photograph can be extrapolated into a film: if you consider the act of freezing movement onto a skein of silver as taking the derivative of an equation, it should be possibly to take the integral to restore the fourth dimension, letting the silver flow again.

I hadn't made this association before, but it occurred to me while reading this that there are more than a few similarities between Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson. Their styles are very different - Pynchon tends to be more layered and baroque, uses more dialect and shifts between different styles in the course of a book, while Stephenson's prose is more consistent within a given book - but they share a palpable joy for knowledge and a propensity to detour through scientific explanations in the course of their swashbuckling books. The nature of their interests varies a bit; Pynchon seems more drawn towards mathematics and pure research, while Stephenson is more interested in applied science and engineering. Both of them can give an almost science-fiction vibe within their historical fiction novels, showing the latticework that supports their historical society and helping us understand the space the characters are moving through.

Both authors have also recently made me a lot more interested in Venice (as has playing Europa Universalis IV and reading A Splendid Exchange) - in the past I've just kind of dismissed it as a gimmicky canal city, but it has a really fascinating history, and I've gotten a lot of enjoyment out of reading about it on Wikipedia.

This book also made me think of Sunless Skies, which is similarly set in the early 1900s and seems animated by the spirit of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. There's a sense of optimism in the possibility of science, the improvement of humanity, that new discoveries will lead to new benefits and a brighter future. However, the novel is always very aware that a dark future looms, as the narrative inexorably marches towards the mass slaughter of World War I. Even within the context of the book itself, characters receive ominous warnings from the future, as confused dead souls hurtle backwards in time to bear witness to the coming horror.

It's interesting; I think that when I was growing up, I was particularly bored at this period of history, after the Civil War and before World War II: too modern for cool medieval stuff, too early for cool machine guns and robots. But in recent years I've come to see that stretch from about 1850-1950 as the most impactful century in history, way more important than anything which has happened since. It spans the birth of capitalism, the victory of the scientific method, the migration from rural farms to urban industry, development of modern nation-states, so much of our world. It's incredibly ambitious for Pynchon to have tried to take on the sweep of these decades, and at a big scope too.

I want to talk about the Chums of Chance! They open up the book, and periodically drop in as the story goes on, although their appearances grow further and further apart as the timeline grows closer to the present. These sections remind me a lot of the kind of books I loved reading as a kid, about other kids going on adventures, learning things and solving mysteries. The writing in these sections also echoes the voice of those stories as I remember them: like, Pynchon won't write that a character "said" something, but that they "cried" or "exclaimed" or "pondered" or "ejaculated", like in old Hardy Boys books. And fun little call-outs are embedded into the prose as well, like "To learn more about what transpired next, dear reader, be sure to check out The Chums of Chance in the Land of the Ophidian Queen."

It took a while for me to get a bead on exactly how the Chums of Chance fit in with the rest of the (many, many, many!) storylines, and I'm still not totally sure if I have it right. When they first appear, they seem to strain but not break credulity: they travel the world in a hot-air balloon, going on adventures, are friendly with Harvard professors and travel with an incredibly intelligent dog. Later on, they cross firmly into the realm of the fantastical: they travel through the hollow Earth, battle evil gnomes, conduct aerial battles against hostile forces and so on. This is a marked contrast to the rest of the book, which, while hardly realistic, seems considerably more grounded (in all senses of the word.)

At some point, one of the other characters references a Chums of Chance novel. That made me think for a while that the Chums were a fictional story within this fictional story: further down the wick, if you will. But later in the novel the Chums directly encounter characters from other storylines, which leads me to believe that they're part of the same (fictional) reality, which in turn makes this entire work fantastic, even the passages that read as more realistic. (Though, as a final curveball, in one of the last Chums section we learn how they traveled to the Counter-Earth, a more ominous version of reality, which then leaves me wondering if we, the people reading "Against the Day", reside in the Counter-Earth, and the Chums of Chance and the rest of the novel inhabit the real Earth.)


While the Chums open up the novel, the single biggest storyline is probably that of Webb Traverse and his progeny. Webb is a true and dedicated believer in Anarchism; not at all out of a sense of nihilism, but rather the opposite, he sees the grinding gears of capitalism as an evil and destructive force, and anarchism as a human-centric, social way of relating. Webb is pretty fanatical on the topic, and ends up alienating all of his kids in various ways. His eldest son Frank has a lot of aptitude for mining and wants to become an engineer, which to Webb aligns him with the enemy. The shiftless Reef doesn't want to build community or put down roots. Lake loves boys, including the sons of the mine owners, which causes the furious Webb to erupt. And young Kit is very close to his dad, but as a brilliant budding mathematical mind, he receives a scholarship from the hated mine owner Scarsdale Vibe, causing Webb to feel disavowed.

The most tragic part of the whole book is Webb's betrayal, brutal torture and murder. This passage was really hard to read, and felt a lot like Blood Meridian. For the rest of the novel, Webb's family lives under the shadow of this great loss, variously feeling guilt, anger, resentment, and generally trying to avenge Webb when the opportunity arises. One big exception is Lake, who, shockingly, falls in love with Webb's murderer and marries him. This leads to a very... challenging storyline, with something that may or may not be sexual abuse. I'll have more to say about that later.

As with science, everything is connected in this book. Scarsdale ordered Webb killed for the immediate impact on his business interests, but there's a very explicit political dimension as well: Scarsdale as well as Webb sees this as a grander battle between capitalism and anarchism. Scarsdale is actually one of the most articulate characters in the book: often hatefully so, but he does come from a fully-realized point of view, and is eloquent at describing his vision for the future of the country, why he thinks it's good and all that he's willing to do to bring it into reality.

From what I remember of Pynchon's other work, these big shifts in tone from section to section are part of his style. There are some long stretches in this book that are really funny - Kit and Reef reuniting and razzing each other, pretty much everything that happens in Göttingen, most of the Chums of Chance, and so on. That's all a sharp contrast with the bleak despair of much of the Western action. Later in the novel Cyprian's escapades have all the pacing of a farce, but the actual content of his storyline is really disturbing and dire.

Speaking of which, Cyprian is probably the character who grew on me the most over the course of the book. He's really pathetic early on, a confirmed "sodomite" with a snarky attitude towards everything, and gets tangled up in an incredibly dark and abusive sexual torment. Complicating this is Cyprian's apparent predilection towards some degree of masochism, but he does not at all deserve the terrible things that happen to him. He is kind of "rescued" by Yashmeen, both physically and eventually psychologically as well. There are a ton of twists to his story, but it kind of reaches its full flowering in a polyamorous triad between Cyprian, Yashmeen and Reef. This seems to be such a close mirror to the earlier relationship between Deuce Kindred, Lake Traverse and Sloat Fresno that it must be intentional, down to the favored sexual positions of the women. The whole relationship feels different, though. Yashmeen is absolutely pivotal in orchestrating her companions, while Lake feels more like a victim in hers (I could never quite tell whether Lake actually enjoyed it or had some form of Stockholm Syndrone, but she's definitely responding to her situation rather than initiating it). There's genuine growing mutual love and affection between Cyprian, Reef and Yashmeen, growing out of sexual desire but flowering into affection and tenderness, and eventually a family welcoming a child. It's genuinely sad when Cyprian leaves the other two, and interesting as well. For most of the novel it's seemed like his "deal" was being homosexual, but his last few chapters dwell more on his ambivalence about his gender, as he wants to embrace the more traditionally feminine virtues. It's very odd but fitting that he winds up in a nunnery.


I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of this book - we haven't even really gotten into the time-traveling strangers or the Xanadu-esque Shambhala or the hard-boiled tarot detective or Bosnia or the Tunguska Event. A lot of the book feels jumbled-up, and while reading this story a big part of my mind has been devoted to trying to sort it. Some parts feel like true history and science, some parts feel like weird boundary-pushing science, and some parts feel like pure mysticism. It's often unclear just what part a given phenomenon belongs to; some events that read like bizarre alien encounters are actual documented history, after all.

I've just finished the novel and it's still fresh, but I've got that mulling-over feeling, which to me is one of the hallmarks of a good Pynchon story. There are dots to connect, between events in the story and between the story and real life. There are opportunities to go deeper, and to go broader. There are gut-punching emotional moments to sit with, and rousing developments to cheer, and silly songs to laugh at. Reading this was definitely an investment in time and effort, and feels well worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment