Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Mid-Day Report

If a short story is shorter than a novella, and a novella is the kid sister of the novel, then it stands to reason that there should be something that dwarfs all of these: a novellum?  A novelot?  Though we may not have a name for the form, that doesn't stop Pynchon from writing them.  It's not just the length I'm referring to here: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example, is hardly shorter than one of Pynchon's tomes, and the Harry Potter series, viewed as a single work, is double the length, if not triple, of any one of Mr. P's masterpieces.  But I'd hardly claim Clarke or Rowling's books exist outside the category of Mansfield Park and A Tale of Two Cities.  Their plots obey familiar rules; their structures fall into patterns the average novel-reader can easily predict.  The fact that they can be serialized easily, as multiple volumes or as a series of films or miniseries, reveal them to be nothing more than a series of friendly, approachable fictive units, sitting atop one another's shoulders, clad in a stiltwalker's clothes.

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.


Albert said...

“Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists,” Luc Sante wrote for the New York Review of Books (January 11, 2007), “to the point where you’d almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon’s work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities.”

The Chawmonger said...

Wow, Albert, I totally agree -- "in an exponential rather than simply linear fashion" is a perfect way of describing it, too. Thanks so much for reading (and commenting) on this post!

Bess Lovejoy said...

You have made me very much want to read Python now! And I love your "artist's rendering"! I think I much prefer novels that sprawl all over the place, picking up and dropping themes as they wish, as opposed to writers who tie everything up in a neat little bow. I kind of love the disparaging, almost Freudian idea that "plot is immature." Was it James Wood who said that?

The Chawmonger said...

Well, it certainly wasn't my intention to give short shrift to writers who use plot in a traditional way -- as I said in my post on Ishiguro (http://chawshop.blogspot.com/2009/10/night-music-for-robots.html), plot -- just as much as language or characterization or chronology -- can be manipulated, distorted, and complicated to create truly original and stunning fiction. Like any other technique, it just requires the touch of a master. (I'd throw myself into a ravine before I'd call, say, Richard Yates immature.)

Pynchon's work, though, does have the funny effect of making everything else look simple in comparison, and it's true of his shorter works as well as his longer ones. If you haven't read him before, THE CRYING OF LOT 49 is a great place to start.

John Wiswell said...

I really need to actually read his books instead of collecting them on my reading list.

Crying Lot of 49 is staring at me from the shelf right now, too.

The Chawmonger said...

Do it, John! You won't regret it, I promise. Pynchon is amazing.