Against the Day

I just finished reading Pynchon’s new novel. It took me two months. I only read it in the late evening, just before going to bed. Sometimes I would only read for 15 minutes or so, sometimes for an hour and a half — it depended on how tired I was, and how late it was. But I read at least a few pages every single night.

The phenomenology of reading is important, when it comes to a novel that is 1085 pages long. (This makes it, I think, the third longest novel I have ever read cover to cover — after Proust, of course, and Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling). With a very long novel, you need to sink into the rhythms of the prose; these rhythms have to insinuate their way into your dreams. If a long novel doesn’t put me into an altered state, there is no way I will ever finish it; but if it does, then I will go on reading it, in a sort of trance, and — when I finally reach the end — feel regret that there wasn’t even more. One way to read a great long novel is to take a vacation from the rest of your life — reading it all day, picking it up and putting it down, and picking it up again — doing nothing else in between the bouts of reading, except for household chores and physical exercise. There was no way I could do this with Against the Day, given how busy my life is at the moment — so the only alternative left was reading it at bedtime, when I was already starting to slip into an oneiric state, and when I could let all the concerns of the day just concluded slip away…

You will gather that I am utterly unable to comprehend the most frequent comment people have made about Against the Day: that it is impossible to read, that its size is just too imposing, that forcing yourself to go through it is a chore, etc. etc. To the contrary: for me, reading it was an extraordinary pleasure, an epicurean delight. Pynchon’s supple and sinuous prose is something I have to savor, reading slowly and carefully, letting my mind wander in the labyrinths of clauses and associations, in the twists and turns and continual modulations of tone, from the crassly comic, to the urgent, to the elegiac. There may well be other writers who are more profound than Pynchon; but there no other living writer of the English language whose sentences I enjoy anywhere near as much as I do Pynchon’s.

1085 pages? I was only sorry that the book had to come to an end, when the lives of the characters, and the flows of History in which they found themselves immersed, clearly were able to continue…

Against the Day is set mostly in the two decades 1893-1913; that is to say, from the great Chicago World’s Fair, up until just before the outbreak of the First World War. In geographical extent, during these years, it covers most of the northern hemisphere: the US, Europe, and Asia. Pynchon passes over the War itself in just a few pages, and the novel ends with a sort of post-War coda, in Hollywood and Paris at the start of the Roaring Twenties.

If the book has an overarching theme, it is that of people trying to live their own lives, despite being overwhelmed by the forces of History. The two decades in which most of the novel takes place are a time of ferment and imagination and invention, but also a time when everything is hurtling towards disaster. The characters are dancing on the deck of the Titanic, even though they do not realize it. (The Titanic disaster is itself absent from the pages of the book, unless I missed it somehow, which is always possible with a text as encyclopedic as Pynchon’s).

The novel is filled with politics: capital versus labor in the mines of Colorado; the Mexican Revolution; Anarchist agitations and bombings of all sorts; the jockeyings of the European Powers for influence and control in the Balkans, and in “inner Asia.” There are also ongoing quests of a more esoteric sort: searches for mystical cities hidden beneath desert sands; passages through the “hollow earth”; speculations on the secret cause, and hidden significance, of the Tunguska Event of 1908; psychedelic journeys of the Tarahumara; crackpot inventions of time machines, and of devices for exploring additional dimensions.

Most of the characters — the American ones, especially — just want to be left alone to live their own lives. But this (very American) desire is constantly being thwarted by the depredations of Capital, and the machinations of the Great Powers. And so, most of the characters also have ethico-political committments and allegiances: they are mostly Anarchists, sworn enemies of State and Capital (if sometimes a bit lackadaisical in their actual commitment to the cause). The politics of the novel are perhaps best summarized in an essay one of the characters, a teen-ager and high school student, writes on the subject of “What It Means to Be an American”: “it means to do what they tell you and take what they give you and don’t go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down” (page 1076).

This being Pynchon, the novel is also highly concerned with science and technology: we get some bits about Nikolai Tesla, and a lot of talk about the mathematics, of the time, particularly quaternions and vectors, the legacy of Riemann, and the new sorts of mathematics that are associated with the Theory of Special Relativity (the novel mostly precedes any consideration of the Theory of General Relativity, which Einstein published in 1915, or of quantum mechanics, whose major principles were only worked out in the 1920s).

These mathematical and scientific developments are related, on the one hand to war, and the technologies behind the machinations of the Great Powers — there’s a good deal here about the transition from balloons to airplanes — and on the other hand to the possibilities of Escape from the horrors of war and political repression, and, more generally, History.

The way that Pynchon so casually passes over, or through, World War I in a few distant and allusive pages is itself expressive and meaningful: the war’s horrors simply defy representation, cannot be narrated in this otherwise amazingly capacious volume. Almost at the end of the novel, in Paris in 1920 or so, one of the characters remarks that “We’re in Hell, you know… The world came to an end in 1914. Like the mindless dead, who don’t know they’re dead, we are as little aware as they of having been in Hell ever since that terrible August” (page 1077). And arguably, we still are, to this day.

The daytime is the realm of History with all its horrors — which is one reason why the novel is entitled Against the Day: a retreat into the hoped-for safety and shelter of the nighttime, but also the quest for another sort of illumination, one that is not bound to the imperialism of the Day. (Hence all the talk of time travel, and vectors, and additional spacetime dimensions). The epigraph of the novel (attributed to Thelonius Monk) is quite beautiful: “it’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.” Stephen Dedalus called history a nightmare from which he was trying to awaken; for Pynchon, the daylight world is itself a waking nightmare, from which his characters are always trying to escape, through an alternate sort of illumination which is also a kind of blissful sleep. (And which none of the characters ever finds, though the book does end with a kind of respite; the War is over — or, it is not yet apparent that an even worse one is a mere two decades ago — and the characters are paired together and reunited in a sort of reconciliation that is characteristic of comedy as a genre. Even though, really, nothing is resolved. Pynchon did something similar with the ending of Vineland).

But let me get back to the prose, to the sentences of Against the Day. For all its historical and geographical and scientific and pseudo-scientific detail, the novel is largely an affective text. What really makes it work is the beautiful expression of various affective registers, and the ways that these registers continually shift and modulate. I love the way the novel works itself out moment by moment, with all its impressions of landscape and of memory and desire. At one moment we are reading about the subtle distinctions of light in Venice, at another about the ambivalent emotions animating the vaguely s&m, and overtly bisexual, menage a trois in which certain of the characters have become involved, at still another moment about the perils of drowning in a river of mayonnaise. As a reader of the novel, I cannot avoid the modernist tendency of trying to fit it all together, trying to discover some grand plan, finding a schematics that draws all the metaphors and all the situations into one overarching structure or system. But I also feel the need to resist this tendency; I love the novel most of all for its sensitivity to microclimates of feeling and desire, to the various sorts of yearning, nostalgia, satisfaction (sometimes, rarely), envy, imagination, and lust that it bathes me in moment to moment.

I do not agree with the tendency of so many readers to fetishize Gravity’s Rainbow as Pynchon’s one great book, and to ignore, or dismiss as uninteresting and second-rate, all three of the novels he has written and published since. To my mind, Mason & Dixon, and now Against the Day, both of which are longer than Gravity’s Rainbow, are both every bit as wonderful — and indeed as timely, or as untimely — as that earlier book — even if they do not overtly display all those kewl proto-cyberpunk dynamics.

7 thoughts on “Against the Day”

  1. Wonderful. I am way behind, as ever. But I do love it. Isn’t War and Peace longer? And Clarissa, of course….

    I think Satantango is the longest movie I’ve ever watched in one showing.

  2. A wonderful review

    To me Against the Day is a wonderful bookend to Gravity’s Rainbow. While GR is about the end of WWII (as the seeds for the Cold War), Against the Day is about the beginnings of WWI. While GR is about the ponderous workings of gravity, Against the Day is about the weightlessness and levity of light. GR ends with impending doom and descent while Against the Day ends with ascent into the air. But even if Pynchon had launched his career with Against the Day, and there was no comparison, it would be a masterwork.

  3. A very fine appreciation, I say…you summed up the overarching theme as I sayit better than almost all the paid reviewers……I am to around page 700

  4. Right at about page 750 or so. The more “visible” reviews were especially bizarre with this book….perhaps because, as you say, it does have a recognizable “overarching theme.” For me it is wonderfully Hamletesque — the time is out of joint — one lives in the space between revenging and not revenging dead fathers. (Of course, if you have skipped Clarissa God knows what else…)

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