Short Article on Thomas Pynchon
by Gregory Feeley
A month after its long-awaited publication, Thomas Pynchon’s sixth and longest novel has received a problematic reception. Early reviews were sharply mixed, with a publication-day savaging from the New York Times’s notorious scold Michiko Kakutani, who called it “a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative . . . complicated without being rewardingly complex,” followed by a longer, more astute appreciation by Sunday reviewer Liesl Schillinger, who hailed it as “his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel.” If it is not hovering low on the best sellers’ list, as Pynchon’s previous few novels had managed in their first weeks of publication, it has nonetheless enjoyed a fierce, if focused, attention: a Wiki site devoted exclusively to its mysteries was launched the day the novel appeared, burgeoning with glosses and annotations that grow by the day.
In fact, both Times critics are wrong: Against the Day is not a pretentious mess, nor is it the best entry point for readers new to his work (The Crying of Lot 49, scarcely a tenth the current novel’s size, is surely that). Its tremendous length – the 1,085 pages hold nearly half a million words – encompasses something like half a dozen plot lines, most spooling off from a murder of a Colorado anarchist in 1900 by union-busting mine owners and his various children’s attempts to avenge or come to terms with it. Numerous reviews have mentioned the multiplicity of narratives and enormous cast, and all have noted its succession of exotic locales (and no surprise: the jacket copy, written by Pynchon, colorfully emphasizes it).
As reviewers have also mentioned, Against the Day shares many features with earlier Pynchon novels. The underrated Vineland had a comic subplot involving a Japanese monster attacking a city; Against the Day features a much stranger and melancholy tale of an indefinable (and, strangely, soon forgotten) monster devastating New York City. Gravity’s Rainbow opposed the arc of nature’s rainbow with the malign trajectory of the V-2 rocket; Against the Day plays off both metaphors. The nineteenth-century fancy of a hollow Earth, which figures in Mason & Dixon, reappears (to even stranger effect) in Against the Day.
More significantly, the vivid central image of Mason & Dixon – its protagonists’ boundary line conceived as a gash upon the Earth’s being, the imposition of unnatural linearity upon the complex topography of the living Earth – is evoked repeatedly in the new novel, where numerous man-made features – mine shafts, state lines, railroads – are presented as industrial capitalism’s violations of nature. (The name of the murdered anarchist, Webb Traverse, embodies this tension between linearity and an organic interrelatedness.)
What no one has mentioned is how profoundly this vision seems indebted to a much older writer, one whom Pynchon’s postmodern fans have probably never read: D.H. Lawrence. It may seem peculiar even to mention the hectoring and deeply unfashionable Lawrence, who since the Sixties has been excoriated (somewhat unfairly, if only somewhat) as a male supremacist and proto-fascist. But Pynchon is a child of the Fifties, not the Sixties, and the Fifties saw Lawrence as an apostle of sexual liberation and heroic opposition to the dehumanizing power of modern society and industrial capitalism. The opening chapters of his 1915 novel The Rainbow, which dramatize the sundering of the Brangwens’ farmland by the first railroad lines, sees a powerful echo in Pynchon’s scene of Traverse selecting and then blowing up a railway bridge that cut through the countryside and people’s lives.
Lawrence’s biographer John Worthen has noted that what Lawrence’s contemporaries found radical and upsetting about his work was how it “centered on articulating the experiences of the body,” and this characterizes Pynchon’s work as well. Lawrence and Pynchon are profoundly different writers – Lawrence could be pretty humorless, while Pynchon is as comic a writer as Joyce – but the Lawrence who wrote in 1914 that “You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character” is a writer with whom the author of Gravity’s Rainbow – whose protagonist in the end simply dissolves into the landscape – possesses important (and overlooked) affinities.
Pynchon’s novel opens with a scene of high-spirited airship-flying young men – the Chums of Chance – soaring through the clouds, a parody of the boys’ adventure novels (such as The Airship Boys Due North) of the early twentieth century, which Pynchon relates in the actual style of those old novels. This tactic was first used in Into the Aether, a 1974 novel by Richard Lupoff, but Pynchon’s use of it is considerably more original and complex.
Lecturing at Cornell in the Fifties, Vladimir Nabokov noted that the fantastical scenes in the Nighttown episode in Ulysses could not be explained as the hallucinations of any character or combination of characters, but represented something strikingly more free-form: “The book is itself dreaming and having visions.” Pynchon was one of Nabokov’s students, and the strangest, most disconcerting aspect of his later novels – that some scenes are set in a different universe than others – may have had their inspiration here. The Chums of Chance, like the indeterminate monster and other bizarre creations, inhabit a different reality than the rest of the novel, and until the reader realizes this, he will vainly try to reconcile Pynchon’s painstakingly researched evocation of pre-World War I America with an alternate universe in which people used airships like roadsters.
Much of Pynchon’s novel is a good deal easier than this: Schillinger is right to emphasize its humor, and to observe that Pynchon can be “uncharacteristically earnest” when treating political matters. (Various characters, including Traverse’s youngest son Kit, must deal with the system’s attempts to co-opt them, which Pynchon describes – “Despite having gone in with a determination to cut the place some slack, Kit had seen Yale almost immediately for what it was” – with unconcealed disdain.)
How good the novel is – whether it will be remembered, like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, as one of the great American novels of our time – is a judgment no one can make after a single reading, and I certainly have not yet gone through its thousand pages twice. Richer and more various than any six novels you are likely to encounter, Against the Day requires a significant investment of time and energy. Like exploring a new continent, it promises to exhaust you at times, leave you feeling lost, and show you some things you have never seen before.