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Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day

This is Pynchon’s longest novel at 1085 pages. The Guardian says the chances of more than a handful of people completing it must be slim. As one of the handful – and, I suspect, we are more than a handful – I can report that it is totally Pynchonesque. Everything that you would expect is there – messing with science, messing with history, messing with (geo)politics, entropy, boy’s adventure style of writing, a cameo from Bodine, friends bumping into one another in the remote places of the Earth, sinister organisations with strange acronyms, people trying to rule the world single-handedly, strange doings in the postal service, characters crisscrossing the world, explosives and a plot or, rather, plots, you probably cannot follow. I have read it once. Pace the Guardian, I suspect that some people will have read it more than once and, in reality, you will need to do so to have a clear idea of what is going on.

So what is going on? The novel is set around twenty years either side of the turn of the twentieth century. There is a framing story and it involves the Chums of Chance. The Chums of Chance – straight out of a boy’s adventure novel – fly an airship called the Inconvenience, on behalf of their somewhat nebulous organisation. Who the main organisation is, is not made clear but then organisations in Pynchon are often mysterious. They hand out orders to the crew of the Inconvenience in subtle ways (e.g. by leaving instructions pinned to the rigging) which generally involve great adventures, both by attacking bad guys (not always human but often out of myth and legend or even science fiction) and carrying out tasks for money. The crew is merely five people and we follow them intermittently in their travels and adventures (as do others, with some of the characters reading their adventures). There are other branches of the Chums of Chance, particularly their friends/rival, the Russians. We start with the crew of the Inconvenience at the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893 and end with them in their final adventure.

Part of Pynchon’s technique is to use the Chums (and others) as a launching board to meet other characters whose adventures we then follow. However, there is one main plot buried in the many, many sub-plots. It concerns the Traverse family. Webb Traverse is a mine worker, specialising in dynamite. He is also an anarchist and opposed to the mine owners. He may also be the Kieselguhr Kid, possible former friend and associate of Butch Cassidy and dynamiter of mines and other infrastructure and therefore an enemy of the mine owners. He is married to Mayva and they have four children – Frank, Reef, Lake and Kit (Lake is female, the other three male). The mine owners have him killed (in a rather nasty way) and much of the book is about how his children attempt to avenge their father’s death, though they take their time about doing it and do not fully succeed. Indeed, two of the children are involved with the killers. Lake marries one and lives, for a time, in a ménage à trois with two of them, while Kit is sent on an engineering scholarship to Yale at the expense of the mine owner, Scarsdale Vibe, who had Webb killed and he even shares a room with Vibe’s son, Colfax. Frank and Reef, who travel round the world, are keener on avenging their father but they have many, many detours before they do.

Of course, Frank, Reef and Kit and their many friends, acquaintances and lovers (Lake is more incidental to the story) get involved in key historical events, from the Mexican Revolution to the origins of the First World War as well as events which are more figments of Pynchon’s mind than real. As this was a time when major scientific discoveries and inventions were taking place, Pynchon takes it all one step further and not only incorporates real inventions but takes all the various theories and ideas of the time as real (including time machines and a machine that can take an ordinary photo and determine what happened immediately before and after the photo was taken). It makes for complicated science and complicated reading but, as in his other novels, it is enormous fun.

So how does it compare to his other works? Given its length, one reading may not be enough to judge it but my feeling is that this novel and its predecessor lack the passion of the earlier works. The imagination, the cheekiness, the invention, the cleverness are all there but, at times, I had a feeling that he was going through the motions. The now defunct (in terms of books) Metacritic has lots of links to other reviews so check them out before you decide whether or not to read 1085 pages. I enjoyed it and did not regret it but it doesn’t compare to Gravity’s Rainbow.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by The Penguin Press