Reviewing Thomas Pynchon: Part 1

Here’s my problem: I’ve now read more than 400 pages of the new Thomas Pynchon novel, “Against the Day,” and I’m not even half through. Normally I wouldn’t complain, and I certainly wouldn’t look for sympathy. Long novels come with the territory when you’re a book reviewer, and in the end, it balances out, because you read your share of short novels, too. Besides, no one’s going to give you a lick of sympathy when you get paid to read for a living, even if the book is in Urdu.

OK, that’s not really my problem. The real hitch here is how to review this 1,085-page behemoth. I’ve already made enough notes on this sucker to write my own book, because this story has enough plotlines for two or three novels, and so many characters that I’ve actually begun constructing family trees. If I wait until I’m finished to write a review, I’m afraid it’s going to wind up sounding like the old Woody Allen joke about taking a speed-reading course: “I read ‘War and Peace.’ It was about Russia.” To give you a review with sufficient detail to convey a sense of the story—and because I really, really hate throwing away good research—I’ve decided that the only way I can do justice to “Against the Day” is to review it in installments. If novelists can write serially, why not reviewers? Just think of me as a sort of sherpa guide.

Pynchon kicks his novel off with a big set piece at the Chicago Exposition of 1893 and focuses initially on a hardy band of boys called the Chums of Chance, who travel the globe in a hydrogen skyship named the Inconvenience. Their further exploits, we are told, are detailed elsewhere in a series of dime novels with titles such as “The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico” and “The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit” (that’s the one set in Washington, D.C.). Whenever the Chums appear throughout the narrative, Pynchon resorts to an orotund language reminiscent of the turn of the last century: “Miles, with his marginal gifts of coordination, and Chick, with a want of alacrity fully as perceptible, took their stations at the control-panels of the apparatus, as Darby Suckling, meantime, went scrambling up the ratlines and shrouds of the giant ellipsoidal envelope from which the gondola depended …” and so on. The boys have touched down in Chicago for an aeronauts’ convention. The World Exposition across town is just the icing on their cake. After a few pages of fun at the fair, we get the idea: the boys embody the childlike air of innocence that attended the fair, when the whole country could still get behind the idea that technology bred progress. But this is Pynchon, so you know that this Edisonian let-there-be-light fandango will go through some weird spin cycle pretty darn quick.

Enter Scarsdale Vibe, a tycoon on the order of Rockefeller and Morgan. Enter, come to think of it, a whole clan of Vibes: Colfax, Cragmont, Fleetwood, Wilshire, Dittany and Edwarda, née Beef, now Mrs. Vibe, with maid Vaseline in tow. As the story unfolds, Vibe and his family lurk on the edges of nearly every plot, or every plot sooner or later circles back to them. They are the dark counterweight to the Chums and anyone else of positive mien. Vibe is the sort to have a man killed and then send his son to college, not out of guilt but just to keep his enemies where he can see them. His muscle is a man named Foley Walker (best name so far in the book—more on this in a moment). It is a mark of Pynchon’s thoroughness that he gives everyone a backstory that shadows all in the present action: Walker was Vibe’s paid substitute in the Civil War. This is also the first sliver of a huge piece of the puzzle: doubles will crop up with increasing and increasingly menacing meaning.

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Now, as to those names: this is the one area of the novel where Pynchon seems a little off his usual standard. No one names characters better, starting with “V.” (Pig Bodine, Bloody Chiclets), “Gravity’s Rainbow” (Tyrone Slothrop—maybe the best WASP name ever), or “Mason & Dixon” (the Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke). But in “Against the Day,” nearly all the names are a half step off, just shy of the usual standard: Webb Traverse, Heino Vanderjuice, Alonzo Meatman—it just sounds like someone trying to make up funny names. There is Chevrolette McAdoo, but so far she’s a walk-on. Maybe it gets better. My heart definitely softened when I came up the ice cream parlor called Cone Amor.

By the time all these characters have appeared, the action has moved—an air balloon works wonders in the transition department—to the mine field of Colorado, the South Seas, Venice, Long Island, Iceland and the middle of the earth. That’s right: from a more or less realistic plane at the outset—if the Chums of Chance can be called realistic (well, it could happen)—the plot corkscrews with increasing regularity into the realm of fantasy, a fantasy where realism is just another voice to be heard. And all the while, things are getting darker and darker, to the point where even the Chums begin to question the authority of the faceless, nameless cabal that issues their marching orders. Will they survive the underworld beneath the Mongolian sands? Does Vibe control all? Is time travel possible? And what are we to make of the quest for Iceland Spar, a form of calcite found in Iceland? Iceland Spar is clear, and looks like a crystal but is in fact something called a cleavage fragment. It is said to have rhombohedral cleavage, meaning that each of its faces is a rhombus, a warped rectangle with no squared corners. The importance of Iceland Spar to this novel is that things seen through it appear doubled. And I can’t tell how it’s going to play out, but doubling is going to be an important theme down the road in this story.

At this point, I think I have most of the main story lines and their respective characters straight in my head. There are the Chums, the Vibes, the Colorado mining clan of Traverses, the itinerant photographer Merle Rideout and daughter, Dahlia. This cast combines, recombines, splinters, reforms. Their personal dramas are played out against the struggles of the time: capital v. labor, the gropings of science toward quantum physics, the stirrings of the movie industry and the furtive birth of jazz. But just when I thought I was getting a grip on things, I came across a chapter in which the Chums of Chance run into Merle Rideout at Candlebrow University … except that the boys were at Candlebrow a chapter or two before, and then went off to Asia, so … I think either I have lost the thread or there is some sort of as yet unannounced time travel going on.

What I said about the sherpa—that still stands. I’ll do as much of the heavy lifting here as I’m able. But you’ve got to understand that this novelistic mountain we’re climbing, well, I’ve never been to the top either.

Just a reminder. Stay tuned. Next time: are Thomas Pynchon and Bob Dylan the same person?

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