A Gas-Guzzling, Tailfin-Sporting Masterpiece

Part Three: Reviewing Thomas Pynchon

I thought I’d be done last week. Last week, I thought … But it takes a while to read a novel that’s roughly as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory. All right, yes, just the residential directory. So I’m merely looking for a little recognition here. There a problem with that? I put my time in. I read those 1,085 pages. I took notes. Notes, hell, I wrote down 50 or 60 quotes, I recorded place names, ship names (it seemed important there for a while), saloon names, drew diagrams and faithfully noted the names of several dozen characters, including two who turned out to be the same person (Renfrew/Werfner). I’ve even done family trees on the Vibes and the Traverses, who are sort of the Hatfields and McCoys of “Against the Day,” Thomas Pynchon’s sixth and longest (did I tell you? 1,085 pages) novel.

As always when one reviews something of an impressive intricacy and sophistication, not to mention great length, it’s tempting to match the language of the review to the outsize nature of the book under scrutiny. Very few reviewers are going to read a novel this enormous and then say merely that it was OK. They’ve invested a lot of time, so they’re going to call it magisterial, or they’re going to damn it as a disaster. And then they’re going to equivocate. They’re going to hedge and weasel, because after all, there’s always that outside chance that they’re just dead wrong. Because every reviewer has the haunting feeling—or should—that he or she might have reviewed James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and failed to notice that every chapter was based on a corresponding chapter in the Odyssey.

And with a writer like Pynchon, whose frame—or is it frames?—of reference include (just in this one novel) everything from boy’s fiction of the 1890s to Balkan history before World War I to fairly complicated mathematics, who knows what you might miss. This is one of the few novels you’ll ever read that includes mathematical formulas intrinsic to the plot—well, I think they are; you could fool me with seventh-grade algebra.

Reviewing Thomas Pychon Part 1: Pynchon on the Installment Plan Part 2: American Lit’s All-Night DJ Part 3: A Gas-Guzzling, Tailfin-Sporting Masterpiece

Complicating things, Pynchon’s not merely eccentric and erudite, he’s a sneaky game player. (And he inspires bizarre acts in others: the illustrations at the top of this review are excerpted from graphic artist Zak Smith’s “Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated,” for which Smith created over 750 drawings, paintings and photos, each inspired by a page of Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”) He tosses in little things just to see if we’re paying attention? Just to amuse himself? Dunno. But he made me laugh with a minor character named Al Mar-Faud, who speaks just enough English to say he’s going out hunting “gwouse.” And he made me wonder just how far he’ll go to perpetrate a literary prank. On the basis of the Marty Robbins reference, I’d say pretty darn far. Yeah, white-sport-coat-pink-carnation Marty Robbins. More precisely, “Gunfighter Ballads” Marty Robbins, because that’s where, in the song “El Paso,” you’ll hear all about Rosa’s Cantina and the doomed cowboy who’s gunned down at the end right after he sings, “Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys/ Off to my left ride a dozen or more.” Which will help you (at least for a paragraph or two) when “Against the Day”'s action shifts briefly to El Paso, and a character complains that the Law & Order League has been making complaints, “but not so much since ‘em seventeen mounted cowboys started runnin their patrol.” Now that’s math I can do. The point, though, is that while I’m catching one reference, I feel like I’m missing three more.

“Against the Day” takes its sweet time getting underway. By the time the action has moved from America to Europe, back to America, again to Europe, then Siberia, then Mexico, then Europe, certain things have become clear, but you’ve also read the equivalent of two longish novels. By the time we get back to Venice for the third or fourth time—this would be around page 700, give or take—the plot has settled down to a running feud between the Vibe family and the Traverses, whose father was killed by goons hired by Vibe forces. Venice is important in a Henry James sort of way: callow Americans adrift and at the mercy of European sophistication—the narrative even becomes convoluted and Jamesian every time the action arrives on Venetian streets and waterways. There is also a quest underfoot for a hidden Asian city called Shambala, a quest that sooner or later ropes in nearly every character in the story. There is a notion that certain characters can be two places at once (a natural enough conceit for a novelist who’s writing in the 21st century about events in the earliest part of the century just passed), that time travel is a distinct possibility, and that light is a redemptive force, if not an organizing principle of life itself (for most of the book we’ve been approaching the apocalypse of World War I but also Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the book kicks off with a quote from Thelonious Monk: “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light”).

Reducing the book to its Major Themes and Plots, however, does it a disservice. At about the three-quarter mark, I realized that I was asking the wrong question about the novel. Instead of beating my head against a wall by asking, what does it all mean? I should be asking, am I having fun yet? And the answer to that one was easy: absolutely. You could write a thesis on The Role of Children in Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day,” and sure enough children, along with inheritance, innocence v. experience—all that plays a part. You could write a literary thesis about a lot of aspects of this overstuffed novel—anarchism, spiritualism, the importance of the author’s fondness for lower depths, mines, the third-class sleeping quarters aboard ships. But the more I read, the more I was reminded not of other novelists or other novels but of the subversive anarchy of American comedians and musicians—the outside-the-academy work of off-the-map geniuses such as Firesign Theater, Winsor McCay, Spike Jones or the aforementioned Thelonious Monk. These are not trivial artists, but we come to appreciate their art through the back door of fun. The longer we stick with Little Nemo or Ignatz or walk around all day with “Well You Needn’t” stuck in our heads, the more we understand how badly we need these artists, musicians and writers—certainly more than I need Henry James these days.

When I was about 10 years old, I went up in the attic of our apartment one day and found a yellowed newspaper almost a year old. I was shocked to realize that the same Dick Tracy story I’d read that morning at breakfast had been running in the strip for months. Chester Gould knew how to drag a story out. The shock was that I didn’t mind. I was in it with Dick Tracy for the long haul and I had, without thinking about it, geared down to the strip’s crawling speed. Reading Pynchon, I thought of that discovery. He meanders, goes off for whole chapters to cul de sacs in the plot, then doubles back to pick up a thread he dropped a couple of hundred pages earlier. If you approach it like a conventional novel, I suppose it would drive you crazy. But if you slow down, let the author entertain you at his own speed, then it all opens up. He’s having fun one page at a time, no reason you shouldn’t, too.

I don’t mean to trivialize what he’s accomplished here. Beneath all the farcical plots and subplots and all the corny jokes and the groaner song lyrics, this novel has a dark heart. It’s like some musical comedy (where the pit band called in sick) about the collective death wish that led to World War I and the rest of what I once heard some British philosopher being interviewed on TV call “this so-called Twentieth Century.” The novel’s superficial frivolity only makes it that much more horrifying and macabre. And how good was it, you keep asking? OK, this good: it kept me from doing much else for the better part of a month. That’s as good as it gets for me.

And then of course there’s the feeling that Pynchon is doing this—writing enormous novels that are way longer and more complicated than need be—because it’s what he knows. He went into the Big Novel business back in ’63, when they were still putting tailfins on the new models. Now novels are all compacts and midsize, and yet here he comes, still clanging away at his forge, turning out one giant novel after another. But hey, it’s what I know, too. He writes another one, I’ll read it. And I’ll review it—in one installment. We lesser mortals, we learn from our experience.

Reviewing Thomas Pychon Part 1: Pynchon on the Installment Plan Part 2: American Lit’s All-Night DJ Part 3: A Gas-Guzzling, Tailfin-Sporting Masterpiece