Reviewing Thomas Pynchon: Part II

More random thoughts while in the middle, literally, of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, "Against the Day": I once lived in a city with one of those public-supported radio stations that played just about every kind of popular music under the sun: rock, blues, jazz, Celtic, Tex-Mex, bluegrass, gamelin, calypso and so on and on. The show I remember best I remember for its title. The music on the show was avant garde, fringe classical: electronic stuff, computer-generated this and that. It was pretty interesting in short doses, but sometimes I wondered if anyone ever tuned in. Would you, for a program called—honest—"Difficult Listening"?

I was more sympathetic than a lot of people would have been, because the title always reminded me of my literary past. I came of age, i.e., got out of college one step ahead of the sheriff, in the early '70s, when Difficult Literature was all the rage. Modern English classes then were lessons in problem solving, which explains why everyone had to read "The Sound and the Fury" and no one ever read a word of Trollope. Literature, we were given to understand, was something like a watch that you could take apart and then put back together after you figured out how it worked.

So in our off hours, we English majors gravitated to writers such as Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth and—did you see this coming?—Thomas Pynchon, all writers of knotty, gamelike fiction where if you weren't puzzling it out, you weren't doing your job. I remember waiting for Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" to come out with the same sense of anticipation that drove me to haunt the record store for days prior to the release of "Abbey Road." It took me the better part of a school year to read it, and when I was done, I felt like I'd earned a merit badge.

All this came back to me while I've been reading Pynchon's latest, "Against the Day," a book that so far maybe outstrips "Gravity's Rainbow" for the sheer density of its construction, not to mention the cast-of-thousands list of characters. But what also occurred to me while reading was how much the literary landscape has changed since Pynchon began his career in 1963 with "V." Back then writers weren't always difficult, but they occupied a secure spot at the heart of the culture. A new Norman Mailer book was an event. When Truman Capote published "In Cold Blood," NEWSWEEK put him on the cover, and it was not the rare thing it would be today. In the '60s and '70s, the pop culture machine was just beginning to stir, and who could see that by the end of the century, writers would be pushed farther and farther to the edge of what mattered to people? I heard someone scoff at "Against the Day" recently, saying that it was in no way a literary event, to which I can only respond, "What is?"

It is tempting to say that pop music stars have elbowed writers out of the spotlight, and in a sense that might be true. Pop everything is driving the car these days. But in the '60s and '70s, young readers and young listeners were often the same people, looking to Lennon & McCartney and Dylan for illumination the same way they looked to Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop or Pynchon (and no, this is not about songwriters as poets so much as it is about people who had fun playing with words and making them light up your imagination). But the only writer of any stature that I can think of who seemed like he came out of the same world as, say, Dylan, was Pynchon. Lowell was a prominent war protester, but he was also the ultimate academic poet. Pynchon read as though he didn't just know of acid but might have taken some along the way. And again, it wasn't just the hallucinatory quality of his prose, it was the attitude. Pynchon read like Dylan sounded, like a well-educated hipster. Which is where I left off the last time when I wondered if they're the same person .

Probably not (Pynchon born 1937, Dylan in 1941, but hey, you never see them in the same room at the same time, so who knows?). But they sure share an outlook, not on life so much as on the way they look at their own material. With a Dylan song and a Pynchon novel, you always get the feeling of the singer/author being inside his work and outside at the same time, looking at it a little askance, a little ironically. Both borrow from high art and low and the culture at large to feed their art, and whatdya know, they're both still at it, a couple of cool cats hard at work. Dylan's recent work pulls together everything he knows about American music over the last century, which is a lot. It's Bing Crosby and Willie McTell down there on the killing floor, working it out. For "Against the Grain," Pynchon draws on dime novels, juvenile fiction, the history of American labor and anarchism, modern math and science and the balkanization of common sense that created the first world war. Pynchon and Dylan don't just have a foot in this camp or that one. They're each like a one-man game of Twister.

Which, to get back to what I started with, is what makes Pynchon fun. Yes, he's difficult. There are whole pages of this novel that I just bounce right off without a clue about what's going on. Usually, though, that's my fault. I'm reading too fast. The key to this enormous story is to go slow, which is not, I know, what you want to hear about a novel that's over 1,000 pages long. But when you go slow, it opens up beautifully, and then it's fun, and fun is always what redeemed those Difficult Writers I used to love so much. Rush it and you'll get impatient and throw the book across the room and kill the cat.

There is no narrator quite like Pynchon. The other evening I was up late with this book and it hit me, there in the deep quiet after everyone had gone to bed, that he's really most like an all-night DJ, spinning his favorites, talking about them, riffing on this and that and not really caring too hard who's listening. But like the best of those DJs, sometimes what comes out is so beautiful that your heart just jumps right into your throat. Like this description of life in the American heartland sometime in the 1890s:

"In the towns, iron-rimmed carriage wheels rang loud on the paving stones, and Dally [one of the novel's more winsome heroines] one day would recall how the horses had turned their heads to wink at her. Brown creepers strolled whistling up and down the tree trunks in the parks. Underneath bridges, struts rang when the riverboats whistled. Sometimes they [Dally and her father, an itinerant photographer] stayed for a while, sometimes they were on their way again before the sun had moved a minute of arc, having shone down on soot-black trolley tracks and bridge rails, clockfaces high on the fronts of buildings, everything they needed to know—though after a while she didn't mind even the big towns, was even ready to forgive them for not being Chicago, enjoyed the downtown stores smelling like yard goods and carbolic soap, black linoleum parquetry, went down sandstone steps to have her hair cut in fragrant barbershops in the basements of hotels, brightly lit against the stormy days, smelling of every grade of cigar, witch hazel brewed and distilled in the back rooms, leather-cushioned chairs with elaborate old footrests wrought in the rosebuds-and-bluebirds intertwining of the century about to pass, as if poised among the thorned helixes of vines … Next thing you knew, the haircut was done, a whisk-broom all over her back, and clouds of scented powder in the air. A palm out for a tip."

So what's happening in the story so far? I'm about halfway through, and the prominent characters seem to be the Traverse family. Webb, the father who was a demolition expert in the Colorado mines and an anarchist bomber on the side, was killed early in the story by anti-labor hired guns. One of his sons is hunting down the killers, one of whom is married to Webb's daughter. Other Traverses are at large across the country, and Kit, the youngest (I think) is on his way to Germany to study math. He's aboard an ocean liner that he's discovered can be transformed by its Austrian makers into a destroyer, so World War I has started to loom. This plot vector is sure to intersect with the one featuring a brainy young woman named Yashmeen Halfcourt who's also traveling to Europe to study maths (she's from England, so it gets the "s"). The Chums of Chance, those aeronautical boy-wonder crime fighters, are still cropping up from time to time, and time is passing because they're shaving now.

Plots converge and split apart, but somehow there is the haunting feeling (and you get the idea that it's a haunting feeling for the author as well) that everything connects, if only you had the wit to sort it all out. I'm not sure I have that kind of mind, but I'll say this for Pynchon: the guy knows how to create a world that you don't mind living inside for a good long time. And who knew that we'd look back over his career and see books about the 20th century, World War II, colonial America and turn-of-the-last-century America and Europe and finally realize that he's our most ambitious historical novelist? Go figure.