[28 November 2006]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Marriage requires commitment.
Building a pyramid requires commitment.
Thomas Pynchon requires commitment.
You can take that last item two ways (we’re not constructing a syllogism here), as the ingenious, madcap author of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), V. (1963) and other mindfrazzling modern classics might gloss it.
First way, “Jeopardy/Karnak-the-Magnificent” style: “What are two practical truisms and one possible psychomedical necessity for a famously reclusive American author?”
Second way: Take a month off, buy the spouse and kids round-the-world tickets, pull the OED near the easy chair, stock up on food.
The new Thomas Pynchon novel, nine years in the making, has landed.
It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
So, permit me, in the spirit of the master, some syntactic tricks to get you acclimated.
Positive adjectives: Audacious, bodacious, entropic, synoptic, electric, eclectic, entertaining, hyperbraining, high-roller, tripolar.
Negative adjectives: Rambling, shambling, self-indulgent, non-refulgent, overlong, full-of-bad-song, seriously-scattered, plainly mad-hattered.
We’ll eke out others along the way.
What’s the best squib of Pynchon’s 1,085-page plot, even if attempting one resembles thumbnailing a Sunday afternoon on Fifth Avenue with the sentence, “Lady Astor, among others, strolled from West 42nd Street to West 59th Street”?
Here’s a go, noting that Pynchon himself supposedly wrote the five-paragraph flap copy for Against the Day (“Spanning the period between ... ), perhaps because no one else dared:
“Beginning with Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, and progressing through the end of World War I—a Gilded Age of corrosive capitalism and religio-scientific eccentricities and clashes—the four children of murdered Colorado anarchist Webb Traverse (Reef, Kit, Frank, and Lake) go their separate ways (settings include Mexico, Colorado, New York, London, Russia, Paris, Budapest, Gottingen, and “Shambala”), in some cases seeking revenge on murderous magnate Scarsdale Vibe while mysterious international groups of hydrogen-skyship fliers, arcane mathematicians, and anarcho-terrorists do their skulky business.”
But what to make of it?
“Pynchon surpasses every American writer since Faulkner in invention ...” literary scholar Harold Bloom once wrote. “What can be judged Pynchon’s greatest talent is his vast control, a preternatural ability to order so immense an exuberance ... Pynchon’s supreme aesthetic quality is what Hazlitt called “gusto, or what Blake intended in his Infernal proverb, ‘Exuberance is Beauty.’”
In deference to Blake’s principle, Pynchon appropriately receives special license in regard to the size, shape and promotion of his books. The hundreds of characters and scores of subplots in Against the Day amount to another decade at the office for the author.
Younger readers may wonder why Pynchon occupies his singular spot in American literature. Roll the camera back.
First, his books properly racked up prizes from the beginning. V. won the William Faulkner First Novel Award, with Paris Review editor George Plimpton describing Pynchon as “a young writer of staggering promise.” The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), published in Philadelphia by Lippincott, picked up the Rosenthal Award and more accolades for its author’s “brilliance.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, 776 pages in the current edition, took the National Book Award and quickly achieved cult status and academic immortality, the latter because Pynchon’s extensive intellectual allusions amounted to gold ore for academic miners while eliciting exegetical devotion from fans.
Then there’s the disappearing trick. Pynchon remains the most successful literary recluse in modern American history, J.D. Salinger not excepted. (We at least know where he lives.) No newspaper, magazine, TV station, gossip columnist or late-breaking blogger has been able to locate Pynchon in his 43-year publishing career.
Corroborated biographical data—born on Long Island, served in the Navy, Cornell graduate (1958), did a brief stint as a Boeing technical writer in Seattle—ended in the early ‘60s. The last undisputed photo dates from his high school yearbook (though the online magazine Radar recently snatched a photo off the MySpace page of Pynchon’s son, Jackson—a Manhattan prep school student—in which son poses with somebody who looks awfully like that high-school yearbook guy fast-forwarded to the 21st century.)
And so, young-uns, that’s why Pynchon remains unique in the eyes of cultural sophisticates. That’s why Against the Day raises more questions about the American novel in 2006 than any recent entry in the genre.
For instance: Does a great novel still require a shape that makes total sense? Or are its beginning and ending arbitrary, like the times we live in?
We say “No” to the first and “Yes” to the second—it’s what’s in-between that counts. Against the Day may split most naturally into five or six novels, but whether we’re watching Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin redefine high-class sex, or Professor Vanderjuice ferret out international profundities, it provides rollicking highbrow edification.
Still, that leaves one to wonder. In an era when cultural producers complain of the young’s MTV-brains, short-attention spans that demand quick cuts, shallow intellects that can’t absorb long books, will anyone under 25 buy Against the Day except as a snob item for an obsessive aunt?
Again, we think yes. Pynchon still delivers endlessly droll set pieces that transcend age. Maybe it’s Jackson, keeping his ear to the ground as Tom Wolfe’s kids helped Dad bone up on college lingo for I Am Charlotte Simmons. The multiple plots with Kit, Reef and company sometimes hits one like an international airport—you fantasize about heading east, west, north and south at the same time—but that’s the nice thing about a long book. You can put it down, and recalibrate your sense of direction.
In many respects, Against the Day resembles Gravity’s Rainbow more than any Pynchon book since. After Vineland (1989), a clever California tale about addled `60s mentalities in the Reagan ‘80s, and the 18th-century historical riff of Mason and Dixon (1997), Pynchon’s back to synthesizing his signature assets.
So, like Gravity’s Rainbow, which boasted more than 400 named (and usually sardonically named) characters, Against the Day tests the reader’s ability to keep people straight, even the “Chums of Chance” crew of the book’s star airship, the Inconvenience—Randolph St. Cosmo, Darby Suckling, Lindsay Noseworth, Miles Blundell and Chick Counterfly. But the lads eventually grow on you, and Pynchon ventriloquizes their voices distinctively.
Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow reflexes also return in other ways: the polymathic ruminations about technology and science, the smart-aleck shtick straight from the Catskills, the regular pokes in the eye to oppressive systems of capitalism and government, all amid a monumentalist fictional architecture.
Simple choice: You want goofy names, kooky groups, multi-claused, roller-coaster, Nabokovian sentences, pop-culture sarcasm, abstruse intellectual arabesques, 10-dollar words, inside jokes, fey attributions, self-parodying guides to interpretation—buy Against the Day.
You want order, coherence, clarity, terseness?
Buy a newspaper.