Against the Day begins at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Here, we meet nearly all of our main characters: Dahlia Rideout, the adventurous, but reluctant, vagabond daughter of photographer and “Aetherist” Merle; robber baron Scarsdale Vibe; ingenious Dr. Vanderjuice; White City Detective Lew Basnight; and the “Chums of Chance” inside their fantastic airship, Inconvenience. Along their journeys, we meet the siblings Traverse (dynamic Frank, rascally eldest, Reef, brainy young Kit, and their traitorous sis Lake) plus tarot-card sleuths Cyprian Latewood and Yashmeen Halfcourt. Pretty soon, Lew is hired to track down Frank, an outlaw, but then leaves for England out the port of Galveston just before a hurricane decimates that city. You might fear at this point that Pynchon has been reading too much Erik Larson, but the continuing story eventually dwarfs all the works of that journalist/historian combined. Actually, the book resembles, or emulates, dime-store novels, noir mysteries, modern science fiction and fantasy, and classics of la Belle Époque. Some sci-fi and metaphysical elements here actually remind me strongly of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: adventurers exploring the ends of different worlds for a mystical element or new dimensions. But Pynchon’s novels are actually like no other books on Earth.
Nearly all of Pynchon’s distinct elements are here: goofy names, ridiculous acronyms, epic journeys, and cameos by members of the Fender-Belly Bodine dynasty. The master novelist’s biggest strengths have traditionally been his wacky situations and his commentary on the chaos, or order, of the universe. Unfortunately, Against the Day is short on both. Worse, the journeys are perhaps a bit too epic. The characters in this novel travel from Chicago to Colorado, Texas, England, New York City, New Haven, Western Africa, Germany, Venice, Vienna, Pisa, the Arctic… And that’s just the first half of the novel. Pynchon’s prose is clear, and that’s an improvement for a writer who has been traditionally fond of long, long sentences. Plus, the cast of characters is thankfully small, by Pynchon standards. This time around, though, readers might not be lost within a labyrinthine sentence or forget which character is which, but will be confused by the book’s direction.
While there are plenty of things I don’t “get” about Pynchon’s body of work, his previous novels have rather simple cores. [I]V. is about a man’s quest to learn about his late father, just as Vineland is about a girl’s quest for her reclusive mother; Gravity’s Rainbow, for all of its bizarre episodes, is pretty much a meditation on the depravity of World War II. Against the Day has no such central theme or narrative. Most of the book revolves around the Traverse family and their deeply personal struggle against the Vibe empire, while Lew, Cyprian, Yashmeen, and the Chums search for the mystical city of Shambhala along the “Sfinciuno Itinerary.” Yet these quests take the characters through diverging paths and unexpected love triangles, quadrangles, and other amorous polygons. If you are taking on this novel, dear reader, keep the following in mind: this book is not, at its heart, about socialism, time travel, revenge, lost metropolises, or World War I. It’s about all of those things, but attempting to understand the book in relation to only one of those elements will only confuse you further. This book is a series of long journeys, some of them daunting.
There are plenty of arresting elements to the story. The juxtaposition of the coarse American West, the Industrial American East, imperial Europe, and desolate Tsarist Siberia all against one another is an effective and exciting execution of historical fiction. As Dally, in Europe, tells Reef, “You’re in Anarchist country, buckaroo. Sooner or later over here, they’re bound to run out of royalty to shoot at and start lookin around for more of the riffraff –politicians, captains of industry, so forth. And that’s a list Scarsdale Vibe has been on for some time.” Strikingly, the primal themes of light and dark, night and day are omnipresent throughout the text. While these ideas are used in rather broad ways, it seems that “day” and “light” are used to represent society, with all of its ills. And hovering above it all are the Chums of Chance, observing, “Somewhere down there was the White City… among the tall smokestacks unceasingly vomiting black grease-smoke…. Workers coming off shift…looked up at the airship in wonder, imagining a detachment of not necessarily helpful angels.”
The author creates his settings masterfully, like an experienced, cerebral backpacker, even if the book sometimes resembles a travelogue. Utah: “The country was so red that the sagebrush appeared to float above it as in a stereopticon view…. Out as far as Reef could see, the desert floor was populated by pillars of rock, worn over centuries by the unrelenting winds to a kind of post-godhead.” And, “Cyprian Latewood’s return to Vienna was accompanied either in or outside of his head by the Adagio from the Mozart Piano in A Major, K. 4888… Local baked goods were kept within his easy reach in piles far exceeding normal angles of repose.” But due to the book’s lack of a common thread, this expert prose is both a blessing and a curse.
To get through the incredible, and frequently frustrating, Against the Day, you will need an open mind, determination, fifty (or more) hours of free time, and help from the fellows at Hyperarts.com. If you haven’t read Pynchon before, I’ll be honest – don’t bother reading this book. For Pynchon fans, Against the Day is like catching up with a great old friend after twenty-five years, even if this friend just won’t stop talking and ask you about yourself.