Pynchon, though, is different. Just as a giant is distinguished not only by his height, but by his curious phrenology, the otherworldly proportions he displays in his limbs and hands and feet, so too are Pynchon's novels marked even at the level of the chapter, the paragraph, the sentence, as the mutants that they are.
An artist's rendering of AGAINST THE DAY alongside two other novels
As readers may remember, I embarked on my ill-advised journey into the giant's mountain cave back in December, when I began reading AGAINST THE DAY. I am sad to report that after two full months, I am only halfway through the novel(lum), and no closer to unlocking many of its mysteries.
AGAINST THE DAY is not just a historical novel, but a novel about the past: about innocence, about boys' adventure novels, about the legacy of parents on their children. And about time travel, let's not forget that. We move through its pages like these ghostly visitors from a tainted, darker future, unable to quite touch the characters who -- with their blazing red hair or their uncorrupted sensual passions or their inescapable missions or their half-mystical scientific theories -- seem to fly through the world fueled only by air and wonder.
What is this book about? Icelandic spar. Revenge. Two women named Estrella. Anarchy, dynamite. A family of magicians. A dog who reads. The World's Fair. A zeppelin. A harmonica academy. Venice. A vehicle that explores under sand. Eternal youth. Photography. An avalanche. A weapon based on time.
I am not going to lie to you: it is very difficult to follow the "story" of AGAINST THE DAY. There are several threads I can think of off the top of my head: the story of the Traverse family, headed by patriarch Webb, an anarchist bomber, whose children Reef, Kit, Frank, and Lake scatter in all directions after his untimely passing; Dally Rideout, whose father Merle raises her when her mother runs off to form a new family with impresario Zombini the Mysterious; the
Fraternity of the Venturesome Chums of Chance, a crack team of do-gooders who, it's strongly implied, are at least in part fictional; Lew Basnight, an amnesiac detective who uses explosives as a recreational drug and pals around with Englishmen Neville and Nigel; Yashmeen Halfcourt, a beautiful mathematician -- and on and on. And, as I suggested before, these stories hardly break down into managable fictive units. Characters appear in passing, then return to dominate a section or chapter; Pynchon lavishes detail on settings that, like the World's Fair, are rapidly dismantled before they can ever be fully explored. Reading this book is an exhausting experience.
And yet. I went away over the weekend, and on the train struggled through some fifty or so pages of this novel, only to set it aside. I felt frustrated that I had not finished the book yet, that I wasn't even close, and that it seemed like I would need to start from the beginning as soon as I finished, if I wanted to be able to comment meaningfully on it. I planned this blog post to be a tombstone to the reading project, an admission of defeat, a white flag raised to the forces of the forty-hour work week and the Playstation 3. And yet. On the train ride back, I read another novel, one I'll talk about in the next post, perhaps, a light, approachable novel about cakes and high school, and it happened to me again. That old feeling, the same one I had after finishing GRAVITY'S RAINBOW: the feeling that next to Pynchon, nothing has substance, nothing has depth. And it drove me back to AGAINST THE DAY.
Because next to Pynchon, everyone looks like a midget.