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Time Machine

Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Against the Day


It was rumored for years that the author of Gravity's Rainbow and Mason and Dixon had another epic literary monster on the way. Thomas Pynchon finally delivered Against the Day. This novel met with mixed reviews from "impressive if near confounding as a whole," to "a bloated mess." Scott McLemee in Newsday wrote, "It is brilliant. It is oblique, and in some ways obtuse. Very few people will finish it." Before publication, Pynchon himself said, "Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck."

The publication of a new Pynchon novel is an event and has been since, at age 25, the reclusive author dropped V, the story of a quest, in our laps. That first novel announced a gifted writer with the powers of a Joyce, Faulkner or Melville and the mind of an Einstein. Then came The Crying of Lot 49, which featured Oedipa Mass investigating a sinister underground postal service. Then there was Pynchon's most celebrated novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which follows paranoid Tyrone Slothrop. Whenever Slothrop has a sexual adventure, a rocket lands on the exact spot within days. After a book of earlier short stories and Vineland, sometimes considered a light-weight novel, Mason and Dixon appeared in 1997. It's a long novel in 18th century-styled prose about the two British surveyors who split America in half 10 years before the revolution.

Against the Day, which may suggest a terrible "day to come," has multiple stories, a myriad of characters and a Pynchonian labyrinth of plots that are difficult to track.

Against the Day has a complex pattern of twists and turns, but three narratives emerge. The novel starts with the Chums of Chance, a cheerful group of adventurous aeronauts who are featured in a series of young adult books reminiscent of the Hardy Boys. They travel the globe in search of adventure in a dirigible called the Inconvenience. The major plot, however, concerns the battle between anarchists and capitalists. Webb Traverse is a Colorado miner and anarchist bomber in love with dynamite. He dies at the hands of two hired killers employed by a venomous robber baron, Scarsdale Vibe. Two of Traverse's sons, Frank and Reef, set out to avenge Webb's death, while a third son, Kit, attends college on Vibe's money. Kit's sister, Lake, marries Deuce, one of the murderers, complicating this western-style revenge plot. Frank finds the other killer in Mexico during the revolution and at least settles one score. The Traverse family story alone might have resulted in a brilliant, if shorter novel.

A third story concerns the adventures of Kit and how he justifies Scarsdale Vibe paying for his Yale education. There are endless conversations about math theory and controversies, and a beautiful Russian woman, Yashmeen Halfcourt, appears to attack the possibly treacherous "Reimann hypothesis." (Math students may find this interesting.) Kit eventually meets Dahlia Rideout, a passionate redhead living in Venice. She is also from the Colorado mining country. Brother Reef becomes involved in a threesome that includes Yashmeen, and a bi-sexual British spy named Cyprian Latewood. Cyprian eventually joins a convent to become a nun "without even a sex change," Latewood notes. When Yashmeen and Reef leave him behind, it's a poignant moment. Scarsdale Vibe and Deuce eventually confront the consequences of their evil.

Along the way, Pynchon brings in themes of time travel and light, parallel universes and includes real people from Archduke Ferdinand of Austria to Groucho Marx.

One British critic insisted that Against the Day was like Moby Dick only without the whale. A New York Times critic suggested the novel was "bloated" and could have been written by a Pynchon imitator. Michael Wood insists Pynchon's book is "as compelling as anything Pynchon has ever written."

One problem with Against the Day is that it lacks the one element that has always made Pynchon's work dramatic: a major quest. It reads like a parody of western novels, young adult adventure stories and turn of the 20th century science fiction. Pynchon maintains the "voice" consistent with those styles. Gone are the hallucinogenic passages (like the scene when Tyrone Slothrop follows his harmonica down the toilet of Boston's Roseland Ballroom). There are comic songs, a device Pynchon has used before, and the comic names remain. There is a submarine that moves under desert sand, and a dog that reads Henry James. There is a hilarious description of Anarchist's Golf "in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number of holes, with distances flexible as well." Another Pynchonian theme is expressed by a creature who is "the angel, if not of death at least of deep shit." Pynchon refers to a production of Julius Caesar as "dagos with knives." In one chilling scene, Miles, a member of the Chums of Chance, visits with a "trespasser" from the future.

Against the Day reveals the old Pynchon magic two thirds of the way in, suggesting it might create remainder piles at the bookstores. It's a challenging book, it's exasperating at times, and you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters. For any Pynchon scholar, however, there are worthy puzzles to solve. Although Pynchon himself may have lost control of his multiple stories, periods of down time will suddenly reveal a heart-breaking scene.

At 70, Pynchon hasn't lost his powers. Against the Day demands a determined reader. This brilliant but uneven attempt to analyze our world by creating an alternate history and alternate worlds may attract only avid Pynchonites. There is the familiar argument that all great but "difficult" novels eventually fascinate only professors and students.

Perhaps one of Pynchon's time travelers in Against the Day holds the answer to what the future holds for Pynchon's new book.