When James Joyce published his seminal work Ulysses the reactions were varied, to say the least. Aside from being banned in Boston, and other ports of entry into the United States, Joyce's fellow writers were divided in their opinions. Although Hemingway is quoted as saying "One Hell of a book" or words to that effect, it's long been doubted he ever even opened the covers, let alone read the thing.
But one of the most damning phrases came from the originator of the run-on sentence herself, Virginia Woolf, when she compared it to "the idle scratching of a stable boy at his pimples." Whether the words were generated by spite, anger, jealousy, or professional opinion is anyone's guess, but if there was ever a case of the kettle calling the pot something only fit for heating water, I don't think we'd have to look much further.
Of course I'm probably prejudiced in that I've always preferred the work of Joyce over Woolf as I've found hers a little too out of touch with reality while, at least in the case of Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man and Ulysses, Joyce was writing about life among the majority. Woolf lived among the rarefied air of the Bloomsbury intellectual set, and was never lacking for funds, influence, or blind eyes turned to her marriage of convenience.
Joyce on the other hand grew up poor from the time his father squandered the family wealth when he was young and never lived to see any great return from his work. He died poor, blind, and exiled in Switzerland, where he fled to escape the Nazi invasion of France.
I'm sure by now everybody's wondering what any of this has to do with Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Against The Day, which nominally I am supposed to be reviewing. Good question, and the answer lies somewhere amongst some theory of mine that Pynchon is heir to either Joyce or Woolf, or is perhaps even some weird bastard son of them both, a kind of hybrid flower you'd get from the cross-pollination of Joyce's earthiness and Woolf's university intellectualism that's been spiced up with the cynicism of the last 40 years of the 20th century. Pynchon has the same reluctance to participate fully in the world that marked Woolf's life and permeated her work. But he has no problem with writing enthusiastically, one could almost say with idealism, about the American working class and their earthier pursuits.
In his foreword to Richard Farina's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, Pynchon compares himself to his schoolmate at Cornell University and seems to lament his inability to embrace life with the exuberance exemplified by Farina. Shy and bookish he was, and seems to still remain. Reading his work you get the sense of a man hiding behind words instead of using them to express emotions.
Inasmuch as you can ever say what a Thomas Pynchon novel is about or where it is set in time and place, regarding characters, locations, and other extraneous story line details, Against The Day is set in the years just preceding World War One and some of the years following. As the world we live in now is dealing with the wonders of digitalization, and the realisation that we've only scratched the surface of its potential, so were the learned folk of science grappling with electricity, combustion engines, and the power and energy of light in that time.
Theories, both physical and metaphysical, abound, which might sound like flights of imagination on the part of the author but become less outlandish when you remember how seriously people of the late 19th century took things like séances and fairies. That's not to say all the theories postulated in Against The Day about light and its qualities were actually put forth, but it does lend them an air of plausibility that might otherwise be lacking if set forth boldly out of context.
The Cast Of Characters is of quite some size, but as they are all particular to their own sets of circumstances, aside from periodic interconnection like motes of dust in light beams weaving in and amongst each other, it will be easier to describe bases of operation than individual characters.
Leading off the story are the crew of a rigid airship – or zeppelin as we have come to know them generically now – who upon first glance appear to be cut from the mould of the Hardy Boys and other wholesome "characters" that have permeated the world of "Boys' Own Fiction" since the days of the British Empire. Why The Chums Of Chance even have their own series of dime novels recounting their adventures around the world!
But they are not a solo crew we soon discover. The Chums Of Chance are an international organization with crews around the world and across North America looking out for the interests of… how shall we put this… certain interested parties. You see America is only recently recovered from its near sundering in the Civil War, and the Captains of Industry are slowly beginning to take advantage of the open expanses and cheap labour to finally exploit natural resources in safety.
But where somebody is reaping profits, many bodies are being broken to make that money. Out in the coal, gold, and silver mines of the west, men, women and children are worked six days a week and up to 14 hours a day, and when the unions start to form, war is declared in the office towers of the east. Anarchism is afoot in the wilds and in the streets of America in the form of the "eight-hour day" and the "five-day week".
How can a man grow sinfully rich under those conditions? But not to worry; there are plenty of men who will gladly split open the heads of their fellows like melons for a quarter and a badge giving them the legal right to do it. Hell, they even get to be patriots and heroes of the nation for conducting lynch mobs and burning women and children in their miserable shacks by the mines.
But the mine bosses have made a bad mistake in teaching their minions the means to fight back. Dynamite is a great tool for democracy in the right hands. It speaks louder than any speech and causes more disruption than a strike. In the right hands, or two pair of hands, because it takes less time to lay the charges and string the wire with two people, a trestle bridge can disappear during the Sunday morning church service when the miners gather to pray for the souls of their bosses in the far off eastern towns.
Against The Day is populated by bombers and their families, detectives out hunting the bombers, hired thugs taken on to kill bombers, bombers' children looking to take vengeance on the hired thugs, capitalists and their families, and all the assorted whores, gunfighters, school teachers, bartenders, piano players, grifters, card sharks, and other assorted flotsam and jetsam of humanity that ends up in frontier towns.
But at the other end of the stick are the dreamers, thinkers, scientists, mystics, tarot readers, mediums, frauds, explorers, whores, gunfighters, bartenders, piano players, and what ever else ends up being attracted to the academic environment of the times. Especially when the two sides meet and begin to intertwine over the need of a mined material. Specifically the new holy grail of alchemy, "the Icelandic Spar", a mineral with properties that change perspective and maybe even lead to gold.
Now that's quite a mouthful right there isn't it, but in reality it's only scratching the surface of the activity in Against The Day. Remember the book checks in at just over 1000 pages, 1085 to be exact, so there's lots of room for detail. Plenty of time to be spent with each character, even ones that never show up again, but who may have an important cameo, are treated to a part that would guarantee a good actor a nod for the best supporting Oscar nomination if not actually taking the little gold fellow home.
Earlier, way back at the beginning when I talked about Pynchon being the heir to Joyce and Woolf, I left out an even earlier influence, perhaps a literary grandfather if you like: Jules Verne. Like Verne he is concerned with the mythical and mystical properties of science. Pynchon also shares the naturalist's predisposition to long descriptive passages that detail everything down to the last hair follicle.
The characters in Against The Day live in a dense world, layers upon layers can be seen with the naked eye and thought about. When a character stands still for even a moment's rumination, his or her thoughts can end up filling pages if not chapters. While there is no doubt a beauty in all of this, and Pynchon has a relationship with the English language that should be the envy of every person who has ever attempted to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, something began to nag at me after the first couple of hundred pages.
What is the purpose of writing if not to tell a story? Does there come a time when a writer's means of expression start to compete with that purpose, and seem to be at odds with his or her attempt to impart information that is germane to the subject at hand? This review for example could have been half the length and still imparted the information I wanted, three quarters of the length I could have done that and still incorporated many of the elements I've used to give the review colour and depth.
Now I'm a lover of words, and had no trouble extending this review to the length it is, and have enjoyed every minute because I'm having fun. But I've also been very deliberate about it too in an effort to make a point that at some time it becomes tedious and the focus is more on me and my artistry, or lack thereof, instead of on the subject matter, Against The Day.
Am I committing that heresy of heresies and suggesting that Thomas Pynchon needs an editor? No, I'm just saying that this book is a hard slog to get through, and sometimes it doesn't feel worth the while. At other times his insights into human nature, his knowledge of history, science, math and his imagination leave you so breathless you want the book to last forever.
I was very excited to see a new Thomas Pynchon book available, for the reason that I always hope for something special from him. Against The Day seems to still be cursed by an inconsistency that has plagued him over the last two novels that I read, Vineland and Mason & Dixon.
While Against The Day has much more of the feel of his earlier work, there are still moments where its intellectualism overwhelms, and left me not really giving a damn about anything to do with the novel, style or content. Somewhere, somehow he needs to discover what he so long ago noticed he was lacking, which his friend Richard Farina had in plenty, a zest for living that translates into an involvement in your work.
Thomas Pynchon is probably the most skilled writer to be published in the English language since Joyce and Woolf. But I can only wish that he would make more of an emotional commitment to what he creates. Then I think we would be seeing something as close to perfection as possible.