Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon © 2006
Reviewed by NC Weil
In the nearly-1100-page steppes of this novel, Pynchon starts at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, carrying us through the tumult, political and scientific, that lay the tracks to World War I. We cross continents and oceans to linger in the mining boom-towns of Colorado; observe competing strains of obsessed mathematicians who gather in Illinois, at Yale, in London, Gottingen and Ostend to disagree about the shape of time; fly with a crew of perpetually adolescent extra-dimensional balloonists - The Chums of Chance - materialized from the pages of dime novels to ply the skies, unseen by the earthbound as they undertake missions-for-hire; loathe an evil plutocrat who perceives that money is the next ruler of the world; and most especially, follow the family of Webb Traverse, Anarchist dynamiter of mines whose murder scatters his wife Mayva, sons Frank, Reef and Kit, and daughter Lake to lives seasoned by explosion, whose travels suggest the scattering of bomb shrapnel: revolts in Mexico, mines and railway tunnels of the Alps, uprising in the Balkans, a journey in Siberia during the Tunguska Event of 1908. And to Venice, where they don't have purpose so much as compulsion to spend time.
Secret organizations advance their chess-games of strategic mayhem, at times in opposition but perhaps always in cahoots, their purpose the domination of masses of people by means of exhausting work, controlled information, and the lure and necessity of money, using nationalism and war to stamp out the anarchist dream of humanity in cooperation.
The students of time gather annually at Candlebrow University in Grossdale, Illinois, where one might find patrons, professors, lunatics, and a time machine junkyard:
"Up and down the steeply-pitched sides of a ravine lay the picked-over hulks of failed time machines - Chronoclipses, Asimov Transeculars, Tempomorph Q-98s - broken, defective, scorched by catastrophic flares of misrouted energy, corroded often beyond recognition by unintended immersion in the terrible Flow over which they had been designed and built, so hopefully, to prevail... A strewn field of conjecture, superstition, blind faith, and bad engineering, expressed in sheet-aluminum, vulcanite, Heusler's alloy, bonzoline, electrum, lignum vitae, platinoid, magnalium, and packfong silver, much of it stripped away by scavengers over the years. Where was the safe harbor in Time their pilots might have found, so allowing their craft to avoid such ignominious fates?" The time machines' names are made up, and some of those materials would seem to be too (packfong silver? bonzoline?), but Pynchon didn't invent them - he's just very skilled at finding obscure terms and ideas, then making them both exotic and necessary.
Meanwhile, gaps open between dimensions, and the alert and perceptive can use them to inhabit paired worlds. And it wouldn't be a Pynchon novel without hefty doses of kinky sex.
As a lover of words, Pynchon gives us indelible names: Scarsdale Vibe, the American financier/archvillain. We also have Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematical genius of Russian descent; her inamorata spy-bait Cyprian Latewood; Merle Rideout, an itinerant American photographer and his daughter Dahlia (Dally), abandoned by wife/mother when Dally was little; Lew Basnight, a private detective hired by Vibe and his henchman Foley Walker to break up Anarchist gangs in the Colorado mines; the Quaternions (a mathematical cult who believe in four-space) vs. the Vector Analysts who dispute their conclusions. And there is Shambhala, an other-dimensional paradise to which only the pure of purpose have access.
There are mystical instruments: the paramorphoscope, which allows the viewer to see "...Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed." And the Hypopsammotic Survival Apparatus, or Hypops, "revolutionizing desert travel by providing a practical way to submerge oneself beneath the sands and still be able to breathe, walk around, so forth."
He gives us Iceland Spar, a calcite crystal through which one may see a pair of refractions - the same image in different space/time. Mined in Iceland and Mexico, it was used by mirror-makers in a sunken portion of Venice where the craftsmen were held prisoner and eventually went mad thanks to the clarity of their creations.
Okay, so what happens? Plot, please! Thematically, we have the hegemony of money and nationalism against unions and anarchists; war against cooperation; light against darkness, but with light the villain; we have the dominance of materialism over mystic options and dimensions; we have the importance and the futility of family ties - though the murderers of Webb Traverse are soon known, and two of his sons agree to go after Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, years go by and the brothers keep getting sidetracked. Revenge tugs at them like ill-fitting clothes, not quite annoying enough to do something about.
Pynchon draws some parallels between that era a century gone, and our own: the acceleration of travel and communications forming a web that entraps and constrains us as surely as the network of train tracks bound the earth; military uses of light in the 1900's evolving to today's lasers; sophistication of weapons enabling less human-to-human combat, tending instead toward large-scale deployment and slaughter; Muscle, whether in the guise of private enforcers like Pinkertons and thugs or well-funded armies, does the unquestioned bidding of Authority; and surely, the more factually-"understood" our world, the more we crave the lighter touch of mysticism: Tarot, travel through dimensions and time, the hidden relationships between things, places, people which our logical minds deny, but whose connections govern us.
He frames the Tunguska Event in Siberia as a rupture in the fabric of space-time. We think of it now as a large meteorite impact, but in this novel, people all over the world are affected by it in varying ways, depending on their sensitivity to extra-rational activity. It represents a great pause in the onrush of mechanization, war and the pitting of groups against one another by nationality, belief and class. As memory of it fades, accessibility to a higher plane of existence is lost.
When a novelist creates and populates a world, the details have to ring true. Recognizing inaccuracy ejects a reader from the story, damaging our faith in our guide through a place we do not know. My travels and interests have intersected Pynchon's at many points, and not once did I catch him in error. In an era of sloppy off-the-cuff "information" I find it refreshing to read a well-researched book. He so skillfully interweaves what we only believe with what we have proven, that his most outlandish-sounding ideas make more sense than much of what we take for "reality" these days.