Searching in the Dark: On Pynchon's Against the Day by Jon Rachmani
"Against the Day"
by Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press, 2006
Thomas Pynchon wants you to take a month off from your complicity-inducing corporate entertainments and enter a dream-world best approached with the mind wide awake and hypercritical, a world where nothing, certainly not the reader's aesthetic comfort, is guaranteed. Don't beg the boss for a vacation, though, because days spent in morally ambiguous drudgery for plutocratic forces such as Pynchon's latest antagonist, "Scarsdale how-about-you-all-go-live-in-shit-and-die-young-so's-I-can-stay-in-big-hotels-and-spend-millions-on-fine-art Vibe," are a good preface to nightly dream-sessions in this writer's anarchic romance.
There's no point in trying to summarize the several interweaving plots of Against the Day, a book so shamelessly digressive and prank-pulling that even an old fan is soon longing for the heavy dose of paranoia that Pynchon brilliantly turned from a mental disturbance into a structuring principle for his fiction in the first half of his oeuvre. Here once again hundreds of characters step in and out of a narrative progression that more closely resembles the logic of thirty-odd years of lucid dreaming than the same period of external events ostensibly covered by the story. Pynchon's treatment of history is much akin to the unconscious mind's treatment of the raw material of daily life—there is a mangling and churning and then a reconstruction along looser and more evocative lines than what the outside world throws at us. But readers will find this novel to be on the easy side of the Pynchonian spectrum. And this surprise may be a function of the novel's very lack of a strong enough organizing principle to justify the universe laid out here, the kind of principle that requires readers of a novel like Gravity's Rainbow to do much of their own digging, but with the guarantee that a grotesque order will emerge from where it lay hidden under the rubble of the modern world's chaos.
Some earlier reviewers have chalked this lack of salutary paranoia up to a breaking of Pynchon's spirits by our perverse sequel to the Gilded Age reflected so bleakly by this his new novel. However, a more noble form of retreat seems to be at work here, an increasingly obsessive and curmudgeonly insistence on not completing the circuit, not following through with the propositional logic that so closely resembles the public lies of the oppressors. The view of the world that accompanies the close of Against the Day is a twist toward utopian and self-consciously unrealizable optimism rather than the aftermath of the supposed War to End All Wars in which his characters find themselves embroiled. Pynchon proves once again averse to neatness and the very idea of a conclusion is banished from his works. It is no accident that he chooses the years leading to World War I as his subject for such a treatment, a time when what seemed like a stable culture began to collapse just prior to a collective suicide that cost millions of lives and is arguably still going on in the military/political/corporate adventures of our time—a progression ill-suited to rational story-telling. "In France," a Belgian nihilist explains to one of the novel's protagonists, Kit, "they speak of He Who Must Come .... He is unnameable. Nevertheless one would have to be uncommonly isolated, either mentally or physically, not to feel his approach. And to know what he is bringing. What death and what transfiguration." And yet what comes in the end for readers of this novel is more dreaming, with a sardonic knowledge that the most morally worthwhile posture is also the least tenable.
With this refusal to meet expectations, to pleasure the reader's desire for narratives more ordered, more comprehensible than uncut real life, rather than radically less so, Pychon pushes us past what we could call a novel, out into uncharted pages. Those searching for some "trick" behind the novel, those reviews terrified by the possibility that they're missing the big payoff, might do better to turn their attention to what we do get ....
Despite numerous subplots, the reader spends most of her time in the company either of the Traverse family or the Chums of Chance. Webb Traverse, father to Lake, Reef, Frank and Kit, is a miner and possible anarchist bomber who gets murdered by two corporate stooges, against whom his three sons vow revenge. Frank manages to kill one, the other of whom their sister, Lake, marries. Meanwhile, the Chums of Chance are a team of boy balloonists who are sent on paramilitary adventures around the world and may or may not be unwitting pawns in a conspiracy to keep time travelers from the future from perhaps warning the people of the present of their perilous situation—on the immediate cusp of war and, with just a leap of ninety years, on the cusp of global breakdown. Out of the pastiches that give the novel a multitude of narrative voices, which brilliantly avoid cacophony, the most outstanding for its departure from Pynchon's usual voice is the dime novel adventure narrator who handles the exploits of the Chums. Even in these sections we move from reflections of Jules Verne to Jamesian niceties. But with a Platonic allegory and Wild West Thrillers and revolutionary Mexican reportage and family saga melodrama and utopian fantasy and true confessions and five dimensional dreamscapes, it's Pynchon's own voice, the mirror that is most definitely a cracked one, and as such never lets the reader forget that it transfers three dimensions down to two, that gives the novel much of the cohesion it manages. The counterpoint of the Chums to the Traverse kids helps the reader along, too: where the Chums, for all their boyish folly and naivete get the job done, regardless of who they're actually doing it for or why, the idealistic brothers fail to exact significant revenge for their father's death by such long shots that it soon becomes clear that a fairly bleak point is being made about where individuals and there convictions end up in a world run from behind a curtain. Frank spends much of the novel lost in Mexican revolutionary politics, Reef gets sidetracked in the carnal pleasures of decadent high society, and Kit goes to Yale courtesy of the man probably behind his father's death, the robber baron Scarsedale Vibe. And in the background we have the miners and rail-workers doing the grunt work of the plutocrats and learning anarchist bombing skills through their on-the-job dynamite work. Risky relationships with power run deep.
What real hope is offered is not in the closed circuits that set off blasts and turn on the electric lights, but in the very possibility of what we call Post-Modern art, that is, arguably, art without a stable reference-point. Two thirds of the way on, in one of the novel's most poignant and well-achieved scenes, Kit and Reef have a seance with the famed medium, Madame Eskimoff, to try to call up the spirit of their dead father. Where Hamlet couldn't get rid of his father's ghost, these guys know they need some encouragement with revenge plans that have dragged out for years. But Reef, especially, is sure that Eskimoff, an entertainer of the leisure class, will prove a fraud. She goes into her trance and mutters a stock phrase their father could well have once said before leaving the boys behind. " 'It wasn't even Pa's voice,' Reef in an angry whisper, 'I tell you, Kit, it's just a con game.' " But then Eskimoff replies,
Fraud is the element in which we all fly, isn't it ... it bears us aloft, there isn't one of us hasn't been up on fraud, one time or another, before some damned beak of the materialistic—'Ha! I saw that, what's that going on with the toe of your shoe there?' Insufferably smug guardians of the daylit world ....
Hers is not a bad apology for Pynchon's whole project, and her defense of the false is a defense of hope in a world where the surely possible is so often no more than a tool of oppression. She convinces Reef to go into trance himself, and sure enough, instead of a cheap fraud, he brings up his father's voice, manner, and sentiments. Whether attributable to spirit channeling or the power of suggestion, it doesn't matter, it moves the boys closer to their father, though not to achieving revenge. The scene ends with an exchange in the cliched language and common sentiments the reader will be surprised to find used so frequently throughout the book, in Pynchon's one unwaveringly accurate act of mimesis—the smallness of the individual in the face of an incomprehensible world. Reef is stunned as he reflects on his disloyalty to his father and he pours out his fears. Pynchon writes: "It almost sounded like a cry for help. 'I don't even know who I fuckin am anymore.' " The reader's patience is often tried with what seem like easy sentiments passed off again and again in this book. Combined with the teeming disorder of the world portrayed and Pynchon's reluctance to construct even such a system of meaning as we find in his earlier works, the novel runs the risk of finding its final place in the bin of literary correctives that try to push culture away from what one artist perceives as a dead end. It would seem like Pynchon is warring with all his strength against imposed symmetries and what Ben Marcus recently dubbed "Regressive Realism." What, though, does he move us toward now that he's given up even most of his own best techniques? That's a question that can only be answered with another book, but one that dares to propose an alternative to what Pynchon here rejects. However, the reader who expects that all this trouble is best attributed to a great writer getting on in years is invited to sit down with the novel and witness its cognitive enormity, its shimmering wit, and what perhaps is the best it has to offer: its careful distinction between the artist's constructive frauds and the tyrant's deadly lies.