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Back to the Future: On Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

ISSUE:  Summer 2007

Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin, November 2006. $35

Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling, untidy new novel, Against the Day, is only as frustrating as most of his fiction. It starts in the air, high-minded as a kite, and gradually flutters groundward, dragged down by subplots galore and characters thrown in willy-nilly, as if a novel’s only virtue were how many characters it could stuff into a phone booth (no doubt Pynchon, who has loaded the book with more Victorian mathematics than Carter had pills, has an algorithm up his sleeve).

The Chums of Chance

Against the Day opens aboard the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, sailing in stately fashion toward the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The year is 1893. The crew belong to a “celebrated aeronautics club” called the Chums of Chance, which dispatches its fleet of dirigibles on heroic exploits. The narrator quietly identifies himself as the author of the dime novels that record these deeds of daring. This sidling revelation complicates the authorial voice; but, as so often in Pynchon, revelation has no relevance. It’s only an arpeggio from an author who specializes in red herrings and dead ends.

Behind the Chums, whose wanderings form the first thread of the tangled plot, lies a droll homage to boys’ fiction—to the technology of Verne, the allegorical futures of Wells (though Pynchon loves allegorical pasts even more), the manic improvisations of the Uncle Scrooge comics, and the hackwork of Tom Swift tales and Hardy Boys mysteries (Tom Swift and the Boys often referred to their friends as “chums”). Titles like Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship and Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible suggest that Pynchon is not alone in his fascination with giant gasbags, while Tom Swift and His Big Tunnel; or, The Hidden City of the Andes and Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders; or, The Underground Search for the Idol of Gold prefigure, or rather postfigure, those in the Chums of Chance series. The Chums are the Tom Swift books rewritten by James Clerk Maxwell and Buster Keaton.

Deviant History

Because Pynchon writes neither counterfactual history nor historical fiction, perhaps “deviant” should be “deviated,” like a septum—or, as his advance statement warned, “what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two” (if there are alternative universes, there are alternative Pynchons in them). Counterfactual history begins with a striking premise—Caesar surviving the knives on the Ides of March, Lincoln dying of pneumonia after his first inaugural, the Nazis winning World War II. Historical fiction, on the other hand, devotes itself to recreating the small details of dress and dinner, reproducing the archaeological to speculate on the biographical (historical fiction often aspires to be history-plus-dialogue). Although he introduces elements of fantasy, such as airships far in advance of their day, Pynchon bends his narratives around historical events (the Exposition, the collapse of the Campanile in Venice, the Galveston hurricane), which provide the backdrop for his comic-book characters, esoteric conspiracies, and zany inventions. These absurdist romps, ensnaring common men in the machinations of government and shadow government, show a fidelity to the past even historians might admire. In his almost seamless integration of history into the fictional world (which, to the reader, gives the illusion of the reverse), the story gets pried this way and that to accommodate whatever lumps of fact the past requires; but the leverage is so obvious it contributes to the maniac comedy. The verisimilitude that licenses Pynchon’s flights of fancy may corrupt (may even intend to corrupt) a reader’s faith in any chronicle, whether of antiquity or the day before yesterday.

Pynchon is fanatical about trivia; and you’d be wise not to engage him in a bar bet on Edwardian insurance trends, Russian crew nomenclature, the use of pneumatic tubes in London, or the international language of Idiom Neutral. The novel is a drunk man’s walk through the Americana of scorcher caps, Nernst lamps, Saratoga chips, Floradora girls, Little Nemo, and Arbuckle’s coffee. (Anyone who revels in the pastness of the past will find pleasure on every page.) The pains taken over insignificant matters, however, don’t mean Pynchon can be trusted with significant ones. (He wrote in Slow Learner, with slightly tipsy syntax, that “it may not be wrong absolutely to make up, as I still do, what I don’t know or am too lazy to find out.”) Indeed, his watchmaker’s care may lull the reader into a trust undeserved—in Against the Day, crossword puzzles appear a dozen years before their introduction in 1914 and Joe Hill was hardly urging American workers to organize before he had arrived in the country, much less joined the Wobblies.

Questions to Which a Reader Would Like an Answer

What is the evidence for the motorcycle act called the Wall of Death prior to the twenties? Was there a twelve-shot Confederate Colt, or has Pynchon confused it with the ten-shot LeMat? How can a character recite “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” years before Robert Service wrote it? Did Yale have a drama department in 1905? Were novelty X-Ray Spex available before the forties?

Language as a Yoohoo

The verbal texture of his novels derives partly from Pynchon’s delight in slang and cant, meticulously corrected to the period. The appearance of the words below, however, predates their first use in the OED or the existing volumes of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

gumshoe (1899)
jake [adj.] (1914)
jass [jazz] (1916)
dazzle painting (1917)
highhat [vb.] (1922)
gunny [gunman] (1926)
paradiddle (1927)
wingding (1927)
nooky (1928)
snoot [to snub socially] (1928)
sports page (1930)
keester (1931)
boilermaker [whiskey with a beer chaser] (1934)
rat [to inform] (1934)
cupcake [attractive young woman] (1939)
hootenanny [social event] (1940)
double-dome (1943)
yoohooing (1948)
chip shop (1953)
cannonball [vb.] (not in OED or RH)
pre-owned (not in OED)
twofer (usage not in OED)

Slang is not always trapped in print until years or decades after its first use. The little loop on the back of a man’s shirt, for instance, though called a “fag tag” in Long Island high schools as early as 1967 (and often torn off to comic and destructive effect), does not receive its first citation in Random House until 1980.

Words Surprisingly in Use Long before the Novel

dittoes [clothing] (1755)
nautch girl (1809)
skylarking (1809)
lettuce opium (1816)
solenoid (1827)
on spec (1832)
discombobulated (1834)
bell-buoy (1838)
picnic (1838)
splendiferous (1843)
Vulcanized rubber (1845)
pixielated (1848)
empowerment (1849)
skeezicks (1850)
Mafia (1866)
running mate (1868)
bucket shop (1872)
fox trot (1872)

Does Pynchon use the OED? See his introduction to Slow Learner.

Naming Names

Even in the novel’s final pages, new characters come trooping in, as if the author suffered some strange compulsion to expand the cast (novelists don’t have to budget as playwrights do). Yet who would want to be deprived of the “old-school spagyrist name of Doddling,” the “star, Solange St.-Emilion,” “Octave the barman,” a “U-boat captain named Max Valentiner,” the “baby Plebecula,” a “strangely possessed algebraist named E. Percy Movay,” or half a dozen others left to the bitter end? Pynchon (a man with an odd name himself) cooks up names the way some novelists slop in adjectives—he invents characters to swell the crowd, as a bad painter uses landscape to fill the canvas to the frame. This perhaps explains why so many of Pynchon’s characters (more than seven hundred in Against the Day, almost twice as many as in Gravity’s Rainbow) are hilariously named but inanimate as rocks.

Dickens established through character the realism his naming threatened to subvert (you wonder if he feared being sued for libel, his christenings grew so outlandish). His names offer a public-spirited advertisement of moral virtue, measured by pun if not mellifluousness (there is music to morality, so musicians believe, with every sour note a sin)—Dedlock and Skimpole and Vholes, to get no bleaker than Bleak House, prove more flawed or vice ridden than Summerson or Woodcourt, who enjoy the pastoral virtue of their surnames; but even a Guppy, trivialized in the very saying of him, has his saving graces.

Pynchon, by contrast, rejects the novel’s realist longings whenever names are named, though last names like Suckling and Grace may be found in the telephone directory. However extravagant, even preposterous, his dramatis personae, they are different in bearing from Sheridan’s Lady Sneerwell or Mrs. Candour, Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind or Uriah Heep, where the character’s character precedes him by his calling. Pynchon’s names, more often than not, seem the gift of an evil fairy-godmother or a god with a malign sense of humor. They form part of the aesthetics of doubt fate introduces right at the start.

Characters disappear, dropped after some considerable space and attention, for no better reason than that the author has galloped off after some will-o’-the-wisp, or no worse than that the plot found no further place to accommodate them—though it could be argued that after prolonged effort Pynchon has not really constructed a plot at all. The ingenuity with which he ushers characters into the book and then gives them the bum’s rush secures him large reinforcements, should coincidence require a familiar face or, rather, a familiar name.

A Few Names from a Stroll through a Hundred Pages or So

Reverend Moss Gatlin
Mayva Dash
Alden Vormance
Chick Counterfly
Constance Penhallow
Templeton Blope
Hastings Throyle
Otto Ghloix
Dodge Flannelette
Burke Ponghill
Clovis Yutts
Dr. Oyswharf
Rica Treemorn
Deuce Kindred
Sloat Fresno
Jimmy Drop
Linnet Dawes
Nicholas Nookshaft

Pynchon also has a taste for the oddball names history itself supplies: the almost forgotten actress Olga Nethersole, for example, or the mathematician Ernst Zermelo, formulator of the Axiom of Choice.

The Construction of Character, Lesson I: Introduction by Epithet

“Chinchito, a jumped-up circus midget”
“East Coast nerve case Thrapston Cheesely III”
“a certain Madame Aubergine”
“the provocative and voracious Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin”
“Wolfe Tone O’Rooney, a traveling insurrectionist”
“the messenger, one ‘Plug’ Loafsley”
“Mr. Gideon Candlebrow . . . , who had made his bundle back 
during the Lard Scandal of the ’80s”
“Captain Q. Zane Toadflax, Commander”
“a civilian passenger, Stilton Gaspereaux”
“an American stoker named O. I. C. Bodine”
“a wealthy coffee scion named Günther von Quassel”
“the noted Uyghur troublemaker Al Mar-Fuad”
“a telepathic waiter named Pityu”
“a fandango girl named Chiquita”

The Novel as Juggernaut

A long novel is as difficult to shift from its course as an ocean liner; and Pynchon is no novice captain of the stout tug Coincidence, the favorite of every clumsy novelist since Thomas Hardy, if not long before. (The line of coincidence starts with Oedipus Rex—Shakespeare, Defoe, Charlotte Brontë, and many another have kept it alive.) Novels are famously more conservative in their social physics than in their propriety; random acts offend the reader’s expectation of a moral fate and undermine the Whig view of history on which much modern fiction is based. Novels that embrace the Mode of Perennial Accident—sometimes generated, like the productions of Oulipo, by chance method—often comment upon fiction in a meta-novelistic way. These are gestures of an art fatally uneasy with its means.

Pynchon does everything possible to prevent the reader from taking his novels seriously. Realism, however (like the sincerity and authenticity so beloved in contemporary poetry), is itself full of secret inauthenticities—fiction’s handling of dialogue, for instance, rarely echoes the way people actually talk. As a young writer in the fifties, Pynchon was drawn to the new diction promised by the civic poetics of Roth and Bellow (which, however rowdy once, now seem merely an updating of Edith Wharton), as well as the howls howled by the Beats, the jazzy riffs of Norman Mailer, and the lofty-headed formalism of Vladimir Nabokov, whose oracular, idiosyncratic, and apparently nearly inaudible lectures Pynchon attended at Cornell. There are seeds of Nabokov in Pynchon’s giddy use of coincidence to poke fun at novels plotted out like a housing development. (Given names in Lolita such as Clare Quilty, Dolores Quine, and Humbert Humbert, Pynchon was perhaps more influenced by Nabokov than at first appears.) Half a century later, the younger author’s struggles for style seem out of date, less a Masonic high-sign than a habit that has outgrown its virtue—the coincidences in V. took a shortcut to meaning, but the coincidences in Against the Day seem a lame excuse for failing to provide one.

Pynchon knows that the reader’s tolerance for accident is limited and therefore uses chance to begin a scene, not to end one. His coincidences are usually meetings of the “As destiny would have it, whom did she run into out on the town that very evening but . . .” or the “In a train depot up in Montana . . . . , who’d they happen to run into but . . .” or the “whom should he run into but his father, . . . whom he hadn’t seen since 1892 or thereabouts” variety. Amusing alternatives are the “Who had come blowing in to town” dodge as well as the “Cyprian came unexpectedly face-to-face with . . .” ploy, the “Who should appear but . . .” maneuver, and the “Only to find out that . . .” gambit. Pynchon is not a Dickens who could master plot by being mastered by it. The younger author’s story lines are coercive to an unusual degree—and though coercion multiplied doesn’t always equal comedy, even 1984 can seem a species of farce.

Against the Day is not immune to other methods of muscling the plot, developing as it does by fits and starts, unlikely detours through the center of the Earth and visitations by trespassers from the future. Occasionally, all else failing, in the space of a sentence one character will develop a marked and unlikely crush on another, which proves that Eros can be as effective a deus ex machina as any god. Many of these divertissements prove culs-de-sac, making the reader wonder whether Pynchon’s novels are planned in any conventional sense or mere constructions of whim plus steroids. He has long depended on charm to escort him past logic.

The universe of chance, Pynchon’s novels long ago discovered, is one in which almost anything can happen, but only certain things do. Physics receives a partial exemption. Pynchon allows himself extraordinary leeway in the world he creates, introducing sentient ball-lightning, a dog who can read Henry James, and even time travel, which, apart from a horrifying premonitory vision of World War I, promises more than it delivers. Fiction is like radio—it can get away with more impossibilities than movies or television, and for just the price of a pen and a sheet of paper.

It isn’t clear whether Pynchon plots by the seat of his pants or has his own secret and impenetrable designs—the hither-thither meanderings of character, the appalling songs, the Rube Goldberg contraptions (some not yet invented, some perhaps never to be invented in our time-stream) might all be constituents of some larger, rational order. Such wishful thinking it is criticism’s usual duty to propose. “Yeah, yeah,” the author might reply.

In Tin Pan Alley

The dust jacket warns that “characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs.” Pynchon’s characters at first did this with clunky parody lyrics (sung to tunes like “Aura Lee” or Cornell’s “Alma Mater”) but, from Gravity’s Rainbow onward, with goofy humor, methedrine rhymes, and little discernible talent. The results sound like W. S. Gilbert on a very bad day or Noel Coward on LSD. An allegedly “melancholy yet catchy tango” floats out of a Montparnasse nightclub:

Vege-tariano . . .
No ifs ands or buts—
Eggs and dairy? ah no,
More like roots, and nuts—

Pot roast prohibido,
Tenderloin taboo,
why should my heart bleed o-
ver the likes of you?

The songs rarely function as the comic relief the porter scene in Macbeth is said to provide, because they’re funny only in a strained and sniggering way. There’s little more embarrassing than to see a writer of genius fail at something trivial (it’s difficult to prevent the shiver of Schadenfreude that follows). Pynchon obviously delights in writing dreadful lyrics; otherwise he would stop. He’s hardly unaware of how bad they are—the jacket copy was written by Pynchon himself.

Bad Jokes

“‘It is comforting to imagine this as an outward and visible manifestation of something else,’ chuckled one of the Austrians, puffing on a cigar stub. ‘But sometimes a Tatzelwurm is only a Tatzelwurm.’”

*  *  *

“Ich bin ein Berliner!”

“Excuse me?” The patient seemed anxious to speak with Kit.

“He will not harm you,” Dr. Dingkopf assured him as attendants adroitly steered the patient away. “He has come to believe that he is a certain well-known pastry of Berlin—similar to your own American, as you would say, Jelly-doughnut.

*  *  *

“There is now an entire branch of spy-craft known as Applied Idiotics—yes, including my own school, a sort of training facility run by the Secret Service, near Chipping Sodbury actually, the Modern Imperial Institute for Intensive Instruction In Idiotics—or M6.I., as it’s commonly known.”

Pynchon’s attorneys might mutter that such jokes are never “bad” in an absolute or moral sense, but merely the projection in our “time-stream” of a humor (call it a “variant stimulus to laughter”) in common use in the future but not yet available to us. They are therefore not prochronistic, rotting away any slim foundation of realism that remains, but always already anticlimactic.

Pynchonean Acronyms

F.I.C.O.T.T. (First International Conference On Time Travel)
I.G.L.O.O. (Inter-Group Laboratory for Opticomagnetic Observation)
L.I.S.P. (Lieutenants of Industry Scholarship Program)
M.6I. (Modern Imperial Institute for Intensive Instruction In Idiotics)
R.U.S.H. (Rapid Unit for Shadowing and Harassment)
T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys)


The nightly talent included Professor Bogoslaw Borowicz, who put on what he called “Floor Shows,” which, due to his faulty grasp of the American idiom, turned out to be literal displays of floors— . . . as well as “trainers” of stuffed animals whose repertoire of “tricks” inclined to the rudimentary, narcoleptics who had mastered the difficult but narrowly appreciated knack of going to sleep while standing up, three minutes or less of which had audiences, even heavily opiated themselves, fighting to get out the exits, and crazy inventors with their inventions, levitating shoes, greenback duplicators, perpetual-motion machines which even the most distracted of audiences understood could never be demonstrated in any time frame short of eternity, and, strangely often, hats—notably The Phenomenal Dr. Ictibus and His Safe-Deflector Hat.

*  *  *

The rooms seemed to run on for blocks, stuffed with automata human and animal assembled and in pieces, disappearing-cabinets, tables that would float in midair and other trick furniture, Davenport figures with dark-rimmed eyes in sinister faces, lengths of perfect black velvet and multicolored silk brocade a-riot with Oriental scenes, mirrors, crystals, pneumatic pumps and valves, electromagnets, speaking-trumpets, bottles that never ran empty and candles that lighted themselves, player pianos, Zoetropic projectors . . .

The list may be the manifest sign of research the novelist can’t bear to throw away—anyone with a little dangerous knowledge knows how deep Pynchon’s reading runs. He is rarely as poetic as when indulging himself in lists, arias to the material probity of the world, to the existence whose dissolution the novel makes its stuttering stand against—a dissolution toward that greater entropy predicted by Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, the law Pynchon would have loved to discover. That doesn’t mean the author hasn’t realized the humorous dimension to this, like a fourth hovering above the material three—the matter of matter is almost always farcical in accumulation, from Dickens’s dust heaps in Our Mutual Friend to Imelda Marcos’s shoes.

The list, taken to such extremes, is a provision beyond the reader’s appetite, a local surfeit that imitates, if it does not divine, the overindulgence intimate to the long novel itself. The meaning of the title, should Against the Day mean anything, lies in shoring up the present against those ruins of the future—and to that end, the list stockpiles odds and ends, like boxes of Civil Defense crackers, as a specific against destruction. The question is not why Pynchon’s one short novel and his stories seem trivial; it’s why most of his epic novels do not.

Webb Traverse & Sons & Daughter

Dynamite, the anarchist Webb Traverse believes, is the “medium of truth.” Patriarch of the clan that makes Against the Day far more a family saga than previous novels, Traverse makes his journeys through western mining camps where ten-dayers and nippers and swampers fight it out with mine bosses. His sons emerge into a world where the antagonists are less clearly identified and the moral choices less easy. Shortly after being introduced, Webb blows up a railroad bridge, allowing Pynchon to digress, as he is all too delighted to do, on the methods in favor among dynamiters of the day—gelatin vs. sticks, oak magneto box and spool of wire vs. two-dollar Ingersoll watch and time delay. The use of modern explosive (one character snacks on a variety of it) warns of that terrible future the novel cannot avert, where warfare employs more and more monstrous ways of blowing men up. Dynamite, introduced after the Civil War, was once called Nobel’s Safety Powder, one of the few facts Pynchon doesn’t mention.

The novel uncovers anarchists wherever it goes—even Pugnax, the canine mascot of the Inconvenience, is seen reading The Princess Casamassima. Pynchon’s absorption in anarchist thought might suggest a curiosity born in aesthetic prejudice, given that his novels, should they require a justification of form, might find it more easily in Bakunin or Kropotkin than in the divine right of the author or the democracy of plot. (If science were wanted, the equations describing Brownian motion were scribbled down by the young Einstein during the annus mirabilis of 1905.) Pynchon’s novels begin in confusion and end in mystery, with so many diversions, divagations, and dead ends a reader would at times like to blow up a few railroad bridges himself.

Webb, who may moonlight as a dynamiting outlaw named the Kielselguhr Kid, is assassinated by agents of the plutocrat R. Scarsdale Vibe, whose own family saga shadows the Traverses. The knop on Vibe’s walking stick is a miniature gold-and-silver globe (the stick houses a gun with which he wounds anyone who crosses him), a nicely judged symbol for a man who dominates the world by buying and selling it. Though Webb’s sons diverge in their occupations, scattering across the planet of which Vibe controls so much, they are haunted by their father’s death and vow to avenge it. The eldest, Reef, becomes a wandering gambler mixed up in various bunco schemes, rejecting yet almost helplessly drawn to his father’s legacy. After an avalanche in which he is presumed killed, he takes a new identity as a neurasthenic Easterner before hightailing it to dig tunnels in the Alps. The next son, Frank, a metallurgist for hire in a Mexico on the edge of revolution, is jailed in a fantastical underground prison complete with cantina, fandango girls, a nickelodeon theater, and gambling tables. Shortly after his escape, he kills one of his father’s murderers. (A daughter, Lake, eventually marries the other. Pynchon’s women are dishrags when they fall in love—they don’t just stand by their men; they sit, kneel, and flatten themselves.) The youngest boy, Kit, a math whiz and the most important character in the novel, has even before his father’s assassination been lured into unholy alliance with the Vibe Corporation, which pays his tuition at Yale.

The labyrinthine journeys of the Traverses through North America and Eurasia form the most dramatic feature of the novel, which might be called a revenge comedy—the narrative, against a background of great-power maneuvers, consists largely of liaisons between the boys and such mutable and seductive women as Estrella “Stray” Briggs, who marries Reef but ends up with Frank; Dahlia Rideout, who marries Kit long after meeting him on an ocean liner that turns into a battleship and then back again; and Yashmeen Halfcourt, a woman with mysterious and perhaps extratemporal powers who eventually becomes Reef’s lover. The sexual reticulations are Byzantine, unrepentantly sleazy, and cheerfully absurd.

Plot is the most irrelevant portion of a Pynchon novel, as character sometimes seems superfluous in James, whose great character is the prose itself (Aristotle no doubt said that, with access to one of Pynchon’s time machines). As it includes as many unidentifiable and miscellaneous ingredients as a fruitcake, however, the telling is itself the form of genius. Even an admiring reader might admit that Pynchon has an aversion to design or just doesn’t show much talent for it. He trusts that, if he marshals a battalion of characters and hurls a cannonade of ideas at them (improvising madly all the while), when the smoke clears some kind of incoherent coherence will result. This worked fairly well in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, fairly ill in Mason & Dixon (the most dazzlingly written of the novels), and not at all in Vineland. Even to begin to compass the historical mechanisms of Against the Day, a reader would have to go beyond anarchism to the turn-of-the-century battle between the Vectorists and the Quarternionists, played out in universities across North America and Europe; to the aftermath of the “War of Currents” between Tesla and Edison, Tesla’s AC power illuminating the Columbian Exposition; to theories about the aether (Pynchon is largely a bore about aether); to the Tunguska incident in Siberia (which conspiracy theorists blame on Tesla instead of a meteor); and to various sideshows in the Great Game (V. was Pynchon’s earlier novel on the subject), including some vicious skirmishes in the Balkans. Pynchon is not a polymath but an omnivore, so far as arcane learning is concerned.

Infiltrating these real-world events are the imaginary shenanigans at the imaginary Candlebrow University, periodically assaulted by a peculiarly long-lived tornado dubbed Thorvald and infiltrated by visitors from the future; the roguery of a mad inventor operating a secondhand time-machine deep in Greenwich Village (which lets Pynchon drag in notes from Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York—much of the bloated farce takes place in the demimonde of cities); the search for Shambhala, which may or may not exist; the hunt for a Quaternion weapon, which may be the A-bomb (or just another MacGuffin); and various ideas about double worlds and lateral realities, islands both present and absent, Earth and Counter-Earth, Venice and contra-Venezia, phantom railways, ghosts, and more bilocation than a Christian saint could manage. If someone mentions that he owns a certain map, it’s off on another Pynchonean wild-goose chase—but the novels are all wild-goose chases, whether the characters are in search of V. (V.), or a V-2 rocket (Gravity’s Rainbow), or some ancient conspiracy involving the mail (The Crying of Lot 49). In Mason & Dixon, the novel seems to be in search of the story itself.


Pynchon’s sex scenes are unconvincing at best, and he finds it hard to keep them in register between slapstick and blouse-tearing Harlequin romances (sometimes he seems to be trying both at once, with hazardous result). Most people believe they’re good in bed, so it’s no surprise that most novelists think their characters are good in bed, too.

“Quickly now. Into his mouth Reef in one stroke, no more, and then you must be perfectly still and allow this wicked little fellatrice to do all the work. And you, Cyprian, when he spends you must not swallow any of it, you must keep it all in your mouth, is that understood?” By now she could barely maintain the tone of command, having aroused herself with kid-gloved fingers busy at clitoral bud and parted labia now sleekly framed among the foam of lace around her hips. “You are both my . . . my . . .” She could not quite pursue her thought, as Reef, having lost all control, came bursting in a great pungent flood, which Cyprian did his best to accommodate as he had been ordered to.

It isn’t clear whether this parodies popular fiction or merely succumbs to it. Gravity’s Rainbow, after being selected by the judges, was turned down for the Pulitzer Prize in part because the Pulitzer board found it obscene. The current novel has more pneumatic coupling than Updike in his heyday. That board might have expired of apoplexy could it have read the already infamous passage of doggy sex:

He stroked the diminutive spaniel for a while until, with no warning, she jumped off the couch and slowly went into the bedroom, looking back now and then over her shoulder. Reef followed, taking out his penis, breathing heavily through his mouth. “Here, Mouffie, nice big dog bone for you right here, lookit this, yeah, seen many of these lately? come on, smells good don’t it, mmm, yum!” and so forth, Mouffette meantime angling her head, edging closer, sniffing with curiosity. “That’s right, now o-o-open up . . . good girl, good Mouffette now let’s just put this—yaahhgghh!

Reader, she bit him.

Pynchon in Style

Pynchon is more a mechanic of sentences than a stylist, even when the prose doesn’t drop into Late Hipster, which may be his default tongue. As he says in the most complete aesthetic statement he has made, the introduction to Slow Learner, “But as we all know, rock ’n’ roll will never die, and education too, as Henry Adams always sez, keeps going on forever.” The passage was written in 1984, a little late to be a hepcat. Apparently Pynchon never grew up, or the world grew up, leaving him behind. His famous Garbo act has had obvious advantages—but what if it has kept his diction isolated, even mummified his syntax, too?

In his novels, Pynchon tends to stutter out phrases in workmanlike fashion, pushing the boulder of narrative uphill like a Sisyphus. (Compared to that of a master such as Melville, Pynchon’s dialogue is disastrous—he has charmingly blamed this on an affliction known as “Bad Ear.”) There are, however, passages of consummated beauty, often a vision of capital where the phrases pile up like consumer goods.

Against the greased writhings of these dark iron structures, a brightwork of brass fittings and bindings, kept a-shine through the nights by a special corps of unseen chars, flashed like halos of industrious saints in complex periodic motion everywhere. Hundreds of telegraphers, ranked about the great floor attending each his set, scarcely looked up from their universe of clicks and rests—uniformed messenger boys came and went among the varnished hardwood labyrinth of desks and sorting-bureaux, and customers leaned or paced or puzzled over messages they had just received, or must send, as cheerless London daylight descended through the windows and rising steam produced an all-but-tropical humidity in this Northern Temple of Connexion.

These are almost the rhythms of Dickens, whose freakish surplus of characters, juddering episodic plots, and teary sentiment Pynchon half imitates, though in each case with a nearly lethal dose of irony (no one has ever wept over the death of a Pynchon character the way thousands wept over Little Nell). Something in the long sentence draws out his craft, just as the hammering together of obscure ideas sparks something remarkable in his intelligence:

“The sauce was invented as a new sensation for jaded palates at court by the duc de Richelieu, at first known as mahonnaise after Mahon, the chief port of Majorca, the scene of the duc’s dubious ‘victory’ in 1756 over the ill-fated Admiral Byng. Basically Louis’s drug dealer and pimp, Richelieu, known for opium recipes to fit all occasions, is also credited with the introduction into France of the cantharides, or Spanish fly. . . . What might this aphrodisiac have in common with the mayonnaise? That the beetles must be gathered and killed by exposing them to vinegar fumes suggests an emphasis on living or recently living creatures—the egg yolk perhaps regarded as a conscious entity—cooks will speak of whipping, beating, binding, penetration, submission, surrender. There is an undoubtedly Sadean aspect to the mayonnaise. No getting past that.”

Undoubtedly is a touch bullying, but a passage like this—improbable, brilliant, ragged with learning—is what keeps his cult in fresh recruits. (The Thomas Pynchon wiki is likely to prove a permanent resource on the web—authors who traffic in obscurity are perfect subjects for the slow accumulation and manic trivia of the wiki.)

There are some things Pynchon does superbly well as a novelist and others he does intolerably ill, though his fans can be counted on to call his sins saintliness. He writes like a savant missing significant parts—a piston here, a gearbox there—of the necessary machinery. If I say Pynchon is ungraceful, I don’t mean beyond grace, because he can whip up a landscape of which any Dutch painter of the seventeenth century would have been proud:

For the sunlight had to it the same interior darkness as the watery dusk last night—it was like passing through an all-surrounding photographic negative—the lowland nearly silent except for water-thrushes, the harvested fields, the smell of hops being dried in kilns, flax pulled up and piled in sheaves, in local practice not to be retted till the spring, shining canals, sluices, dikes and cart roads, dairy cattle under the trees, the edged and peaceful clouds. Tarnished silver.

That last touch of color returns to photography’s silver-nitrate solutions, quietly surrendering to the metaphor that binds the passage like the sheaves themselves. Grace is the last word in the novel.

Pynchon the Pub Bore

On the other hand, Pynchon launches himself into numerous lectures on great-power politics of the day, lectures that would suffocate an audience at a hundred paces. Let a character say, “But you’re itching to be filled in, I can see that,” and the author scurries to the library table to pot some history (he’s suspected of relying on the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for his facts, but his reading is far richer and more mutinous). The more he writes, the more stiff-necked the movements of armies and politicians; though these are Astaire waltzes compared to the global wars in mathematics:

“And that’s what has kept driving Cantor back into the Nervenklinik,” added Humfried, “and he was only worrying about line-segments. But out here in the four-dimensional space-and-time of Dr. Minkowski, inside the tiniest ‘interval,’ as small as you care to make it, within each tiny hypervolume of Kontinuum—there likewise must be always hidden an infinite number of other points—and if we define a ‘world’ as a very large and finite set of points, then there must be worlds. Universes!”

If this sort of thing gives you goose bumps, there are more than enough passages in Against the Day about zeta functions and the Riemann hypothesis to gratify you, as well as any of your relatives who happen by (like a gas, the math expands to fill the space available). Pynchon is perhaps the only novelist who could have written that “all mathematics . . . leads to some kind of human suffering.” After the publication of V., he was supposedly turned down for graduate work in math at Berkeley. He avenges that humiliation here.


Pynchon is so full of intrigue, so full of intriguing idea, each chapter casts off a premise whose particulars a lesser novelist might have taken a novel to tease out. The Chums of Chance are ordered south to Antarctica to go north to the Arctic, their route a passage through the Earth, where a vast civilization lies. They stop, merely for a page, to render the denizens of the hollow Earth assistance against an army of gnomes. The author—in as much of a hurry as the Chums, it seems—apologizes for not giving the details, referring the reader to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth. The unwritten novel has been written, only to join the Borgesian library of books whose spines have titles but whose insides are blank, at least to us—the library of all fictional books mentioned in fiction. (This incident seems curiously to be the only place in the novel the Chums prove of much help—mostly they lumber along above, well-meaning but feckless, accomplishing little except perhaps the accidental destruction of the Campanile.)

When Dr. Watson alluded to the case of the giant rat of Sumatra, he piqued the reader with a world beyond his grasp, a world composed of the lost passages of fiction, availing but unavailable (how different this is from knowing the titles of Sophocles’ lost plays, yet in the end how frustratingly similar). Apart from the deft and childish joke of it, this reminds the reader of all an author imagines but has chosen not to explore. The titles of other Chums novels are tauntingly scattered through the text, naming adventures left undetailed. Perhaps Pynchon has all these years been writing a series of boys’ adventure novels (the sort he himself read as a boy)—in this guise, some aspects of his fiction make more sense.

Pynchon’s indulgence in Borgesian whimsies, though they barely skirt outright doltishness (the sophistication of the author’s humor has always been in doubt—you get the feeling that he cracks himself up a little too often), is often where his most appealing contrivances occur. In Against the Day, these include:

The Book of Iceland Spar (spar is a form of calcite used as a polarizing filter), which contains an up-to-date record of an Arctic expedition, “even of days not yet transpired,” presumably due to the double refraction of which the crystal is capable;

Pugnax, the sky-dog who reads Henry James and can talk in primitive fashion (in Mason & Dixon, set more than a century before, the Learnèd English Dog spoke English impeccably and was even a singer of some talent);

Snazzbury’s Silent Frock, a dress that works on the principle of noise-canceling headphones, the “act of walking being basically a periodic phenomenon, and the characteristic ‘rustling’ of an ordinary frock an easily computed complication of the underlying ambulatory frequency”;

a philo-Semitic version of “Gaudeamus igitur”;

the game of Anarchists’ Golf, which possesses no defined sequence or number of holes;

an intelligent instance of ball lightning, named Skip;

the previously mentioned character who nibbles on a form of explosive called Cyclomite, just as the British eat Marmite and Vegemite (it’s a toss-up which of the three might taste the worst);

an annual conference on time travel where the dead are resurrected (those who have visited the MLA know this is closer to truth than satire).

These concoctions might be more amusing if they didn’t come with a note of giddy self-congratulation. Though he often sounds like a mad scientist, Pynchon has trouble harnessing his clever ideas—when he drags them into the story, he can’t always make them sound credible or, worse, make the reader care which end of the ill-delivered crate is up. In his alternative worlds, the whimsies have a strange logic (the novel at least doesn’t break down bearing such a cheerful wastage of material); but he is less successful in employing such devices for any purpose but decoration. You think he’s about to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but there are always three hundred rabbits and twelve dozen hats. Perhaps readers ought to be grateful, as his comedy is successful only in gestures—too much of Snazzbury’s Silent Frock would not be a good thing. (Science fiction is full of such bright ideas while being empty of most everything else.)

Novels in the Chums of Chance Series

The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa
The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico
The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna
The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
The Chums of Chance and the Ice Pirates
The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin
The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth
The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama
The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang

Three Corny Pop-Cult Allusions Pynchon Couldn’t Help Himself from Making

This person greeted the Cohen by raising his left hand, then spreading the fingers two and two away from the thumb so as to form the Hebrew letter shin, signifying the initial letter of one of the pre-Mosaic (that is, plural) names of God, which may never be spoken.

“Basically wishing long life and prosperity,” explained the Cohen, answering with the same gesture.

*  *  *

Reindeer [after the Tunguska event] discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries. . . . Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area.

*  *  *

“The operetta, all the rage in Vienna at the moment, was called The Burgher King.

The Chums of Chance (Slight Return)

Over the three decades of the novel, the Inconvenience is outfitted with new technology, grotesquely increasing in size. By the end, it has grown “as large as a small city,” resembling those utopias, suspended in the air, so beloved of science fiction.

There are neighborhoods, there are parks. There are slum conditions. It is so big that when people on the ground see it in the sky, they are struck with selective hysterical blindness and end up not seeing it at all.

The crew has not changed in decades and the Chums of Chance organization has almost collapsed, individual chapters now negotiating their own contracts and profiting accordingly. Though they show little sign of it, the boys must by this time be in high middle-age. The Inconvenience, “transformed into its own destination,” has become a metaphor for the long novel itself, one at least not inaccurately named.

Fourteen Characters Who Do Not Appear in the Novel

Leavisite Snack
Duodecimo Gazebo
Tanya Polyglot Moonlight
Wang Cheyenne
Judge Portobello Grim
Clive Polonaise-Boxer
Chauncey Hiccups
Warrant Dolomite
Chili Condominium, Jr.
Jeremiah “Dell” Delaware
Brightware T. Polonian
Sir Chloral Fundamentum
Typhus Smythe
Chad Ravine

Subplots the Critic Will Not Have Time to Mention

The intrigues of a neo-Pythagorean cult called the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, devoted to identifying the living avatars of the twenty-two cards in the major arcana of the tarot deck;

the appearance of the Archduke Ferdinand at the Columbian Exposition—a roisterer knowledgeable about the “pastry-depravity” of American detectives, he is discovered trying to engage angry patrons of the Boll Weevil Lounge in a primitive version of the “dozens”;

the casebook of the detective Lew Basnight, once known as the Upstate-Downstate Beast, guilty of some horrible crime he cannot remember;

the Sodality of Etheronauts, a society of women “dressed like religious novices,” bearing names like Heartsease and Primula, who fly winged-and-feathered machines and in short order marry the crew of the Inconvenience;

the travels of the subdesertine frigate Saksaul beneath sands inhabited by schools of iridescent beetles—as well as giant sand-fleas able to converse in ancient Uyghur;

an offer of eternal youth (perhaps the promise of fiction itself) that drives the crew of the Inconvenience to the “brief aberration in their history known as the Marching Academy Harmonica Band”;


Still Reading Pynchon / Reading Pynchon Still

Pynchon’s novels seemed crucial to the late sixties and early seventies. If there is a Zeitgeist (perhaps there are always incomplete, overlapping, competing Zeitgeister), there must be—should anything like a certainty principle operate in culture—music, and art, and literature to complement it, if they do not create it. In America, this has probably long been an adolescent or postadolescent phenomenon. In that dead world of 1969, that world of Vietnam and Cambodia, post–Civil Rights and pre–Ronald Reagan, post-Woodstock and pre-Altamont, public life ratcheted along full of secrets, and government had a thousand closets with a skeleton in every one (no doubt we open-minded many had many secrets of our own). The signs of resistance and disorder were a code well understood: Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” psychotropic drugs, the Firesign Theatre, Barthelme’s semi-surrealist tales, Transcendental Meditation, Pynchon’s novels, and much else represented a deviant metaphysics, one perfect if irrational, like the square root of -1. Watergate, a few years later, proved that the government lived on lies; but we were too young to realize that lies were the meat of democracy.

The residual fondness of older readers for Pynchon’s work is an eternal return to their own dumb innocence, before that innocence guaranteed they deserved what they got. Indeed, Pynchon’s later fiction, tacking between modern California and the Enlightenment, has been not merely an acknowledgment of the betrayal of values but also a recognition that the young were betrayed by themselves. If Pynchon seemed on the wavelength of some unreality that looked more promising, no doubt the hallucinogens played a part. A friend of mine, who once bombed a building or two for Weatherman, went underground and became a waitress in California named Roxy. She met Pynchon while there, but decades later she sounds like a character he made up.

When I look at my friends from college—now Fortune 500 execs, Rand Corp. think-tankers, museum presidents, tech wizards, sad-sack pols, sawboneses and mouthpieces, even a few casualties—I think the sixties were over before they properly began. Pynchon seems to have boarded the bus with the Merry Pranksters and never gotten off. He’s a throwback, a hipster, a true dreamer, and a truer cynic. All the bad methods of writing he confesses to at the beginning of Slow Learner he’s using still, and just as blithely when pushing seventy as when he was wet-eared in college. Some of the flair is gone, used up or burned off since he started writing nearly half a century ago, like a chemical process that on repetition grows less efficient and the resulting solution less potent, until it does not work at all. Yet he has matured in many ways, grown rueful and ramshackle. This gives Against the Day its bittersweet sadness for a fin de siècle world that had only begun to adore science and invention, a world that had not yet learned to distrust them. Those states and bodies politic knew the horrors of the Crimean and Civil Wars but not yet those of the Great War. After that heroic disaster—fought, so everyone was told, to end war—the common man might have thought things were looking up. Pynchon’s task has been to remind us that worse was to come.


The mulligan stew of Against the Day includes a boys’ dirigible novel, a spy novel (Pynchon is all too enamored of spies), a mathematician’s novel (half a sentence about the Zermelo axioms may send the reader straight to sleep), a western anarchist novel, a European anarchist novel, a search-for-Shambhala novel, and probably four or five novels the reader would rather forget. Pynchon makes a halfhearted attempt to tie up a few loose ends; yet vast stretches of Against the Day point toward something but finally have nowhere to get to. The true Pynchon fanatic would never be worried by this—as people say about their lives these days, it’s all about the journey. This gives Pynchon a license for picaresque most authors would kill for—his vices have been transmuted into virtues, a better bargain than that offered by the philosopher’s stone.

Intelligence makes Against the Day bearable, though everywhere it creates its own rules, undermines its own gravitas; in this it already satisfies the first condition of a classic: a novel we appreciate because of its flaws (the second condition is longevity). As an artist of paranoia, that American state of mind occupying the space between New York and California, Pynchon is the comic opposite of Kafka, whose Weltanschauung he otherwise embraces—a world of conspiracy and liminal terror, of shadow worlds that lie beneath real ones. Paranoia is the limiting climate in fiction, as depression is the limiting climate in depressives—if everything is a conspiracy, there’s no getting to the bottom of it, because fiction is a conspiracy of conspiracies, where a wizard, or a bunco man, always stands behind the curtain.

There’s a longing at the heart of Against the Day, a tortured desire to redeem and amend—the theme is taken up as vengeance but played out as nostalgia. Order is never restored in Pynchon’s universe, though things change: an old enemy dies ignominiously at the hands of his bodyguard, an assassin is taken unawares, third parties do away with a traitorous spy. No one takes much pleasure in these messy ends—death comes too quickly to afford the living any satisfaction. The final pages of the novel offer a frazzled sentimental tale of coupling and growing old, where antique outlaws are domesticated and matters come more or less right only in the way they go more or less wrong. The idea of time travel, though lugged in for laughs, suggests a hankering to go back and fix things (in science fiction, the theme usually turns into tragic farce—tragedy if you like science fiction, farce if you don’t). Yet when men arrive from some indefinite future, fleeing some unimaginable global catastrophe, they seem only to want to be left alone, the most pitiable of refugees.


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