The Marxist Brothers
AGAINST THE DAY
By Thomas Pynchon
Penguin. 1,085 pp. $35
News of an upcoming Pynchon novel has the same effect on the literati that an unscheduled return of Halley's comet would have on astronomers. The Internet started humming with rumors last June, and, after five months of anticipation, the mammoth volume has arrived and is everything a Pynchon fan could hope for. Against the Day is his longest novel, his most international in scope -- from the mountains of Colorado to the deserts of Inner Asia -- and is perhaps his funniest.
All of Pynchon's signature moves are here: As early as page 15, someone picks up a ukulele and sings a silly song; documentary realism morphs into hallucination without warning; loud, tasteless clothing is worn with aplomb; a wide variety of drugs and stimulants is consumed, matched by a wide variety of sex acts, including bestiality (which results in the most hilarious scene in the novel); and Pynchon's old leftist, countercultural ideals shine on. Vast erudition and technical savvy are on display, mostly to do with math. The novel is spooked by the occult, enchanted with fairy tales and myth. And the writing is orchestral, in registers ranging from magniloquent set-pieces to sass and puns.
The wonderfully complex plot occupies about 30 years from 1893 to the 1920s, and chiefly concerns the adventures of three brothers (a stock fairy-tale motif) and their efforts to avenge the death of their father, a pro-union engineer named Webb Traverse who was killed by agents of the plutocracy that hijacked the United States after the Civil War. (A good warm-up exercise for reading this is the "Robber Barons and Rebels" chapter in Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States; Pynchon shares Zinn's populist viewpoint.) A related story line involves a photographer/inventor and his red-haired daughter, Dahlia, who, like the brothers, spends a lot of time in Europe during the tumultuous days before World War I. And hovering above them all are "The Chums of Chance," the plucky crew of the airship Inconvenience and the heroes of a series of boys' adventure novels.
The spirits presiding over this novel are the Marx brothers -- humorless Karl as well as Groucho and the boys. Traverse teaches his sons that "Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof" (quoting from his union card), and parts of the novel dramatize the strikes and acts of "anarchy" of Colorado mineworkers in reaction to the inhuman treatment they received at the hands of greedy tycoons. But Pynchon doesn't let this become a dour proletarian tract because of his anarchist bent for doing in fiction what the Marx Brothers did on film. ("Duck Soup" is alluded to early on, and a young Groucho makes a cameo appearance under his real name.) Hence the silly songs, surrealistic pratfalls and Pynchon's tendency to undercut ominous pronouncements with wisecracks.
Though he covers the major events of this period in well-researched detail -- world politics, technological advances, sociological shifts, artistic experiments -- Pynchon is mostly concerned with how decent people of any era cope under repressive regimes, be they political, economic or religious. After drifting through Europe, the Traverse brothers and many other characters develop alternative families, communities, sexual arrangements and envision "the replacement of governments by other, more practical arrangements . . . when possible working across national boundaries." A countercultural, even utopian alternative is imagined, and the novel ends hopefully on that note, though whether such an alternative could exist outside the pages of a book is doubtful. "Fine idea while the opium supply lasts," a female character notes near the end, "but sooner or later plain personal old meanness gets in the way." That's what radical novels like his are for, Pynchon implies: to provide the kind of world our leaders would never allow, if only to inhabit for the week or two it takes to read this endlessly inventive work.
Pynchon fans will accept this gift from the author with gratitude, but I'm not so sure about mainstream readers. While Against the Day isn't as difficult as some of Pynchon's other novels, its multiple story lines test the memory, and some folks may be scared off by the heady discussions of vectors, Brownian movements, zeta functions and so forth, not to mention words and phrases from a dozen languages scattered throughout. Politically, this is blue-state fiction: It will not play well in Bush country. "Capitalist Christer Republicans" are a recurring target of contempt, and bourgeois values are portrayed as essentially totalitarian. As in his last historical novel, Mason & Dixon, Pynchon draws parallels between the past and present -- there's a brilliant evocation of the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan, where Pynchon lives -- and it's clear that the worldly author doesn't see much difference between the corruption of the late Gilded Age and that of our own era.
Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives. History lesson, mystical quest, utopian dream, experimental metafiction, Marxist melodrama, Marxian comedy -- Against the Day is all of these things and more. ·
Steven Moore, author of several books on modern fiction, is writing a history of the novel.