by Robert WeibezahlDecember, 2006
Thomas Pynchon's anarchistic adventures
<b>Thomas Pynchon's anarchistic adventures</b>Thomas Pynchon's extraordinarily long, labyrinthine new novel, <b>Against the Day</b>, is equal parts Jules Verne, Zane Grey, Dashiell Hammett, Henry Miller, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Monty Python. It is, at various points, everything one expects from a Thomas Pynchon novel tangled, funny, prone to digressions, mind-numbingly convoluted, perceptive, over-the-top, louche, erudite, perplexing, heartfelt, encyclopedic, indulgent and, for the intrepid reader who makes it to the end, ultimately worth the often arduous journey.
Weighing in at around 1,100 densely typeset pages, <b>Against the Day</b> is not for the fainthearted (or the weak-muscled). The multiple plotlines repeatedly converge, diverge, then converge again, and it would be a fool's errand even to begin to try to summarize the plot with any hope of getting it all. The key word is anarchy, which is the driving political motivation of some of the central characters, as well as the pervasive tone of the book. The story, or, more accurately, stories, begin at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition, which marked the fourth centenary of Columbus' arrival in the New World and celebrated the dawn of what would much later be called the American Century. It closes in Los Angeles just after the First World War, as the world as we knew it has come to an end.
In between, the narrative travels just about everywhere you could imagine, from the Colorado mines and Mexican desert, to above the Arctic Circle and Siberia, to London, Venice, Paris and Sarajevo. There are occultists, mathematicians, vaudevillians, robber barons and double agents. At numerous points the story veers with a sci-fi insouciance in two alternate, parallel directions, a phenomenon Pynchon calls Bilocations. Anachronisms are de rigueur, and adding to the fast-and-loose grasp on realism, a band of (perhaps fictional) Tom Swift-like adventurers called the Chums of Chance literally drift in and out of the story in a hydrogen sky ship. Just grazing the tip of this daunting narrative iceberg, we can say that the predominant story involves the family of Webb Traverse, a dynamite-wielding anarchist bent on destroying the mining interests of East Coast millionaire Scarsdale Vibe. When Vibe has a couple of hired guns kill the explosives expert, two of Webb's sons, Frank and Reef, vow to avenge their father's death. But a third son, Kit, a brilliant vectorist, is seduced by Vibe's offer of a Yale education, and the only daughter, Lake, actually runs off and marries one of her father's killers. Eventually, Kit and Reef both wind up in Europe, as the internecine intrigues leading up to the Great War percolate, and espionage, betrayal, spiritualism and no small amount of sexual deviation abound. Playing central roles are two women Dahlia, an American actress, and Yashmeen, a mathematician from Kit's time at Cambridge and a Wyatt Earp-like detective, Lew Basnight, who dips in and out of the story at key moments.
It has been nine years since the famously private Pynchon's last novel, <i>Mason &andamp; Dixon</i>, and it is not hard to imagine the National Book Award winner spending every waking hour during those years working on this doorstop of a book. Readers who have never read him before would be better served to begin with one of the earlier novels, notably the much more concise and accessible <i>The Crying of Lot 49</i>. But Pynchon devotees and other adventurous readers are sure to embrace <b>Against the Day</b>.