Modern times

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of two novels, "Sound on Sound" and "Trance," which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

NEARLY 50 years into the Thomas Pynchon era, it's our failing if we don't understand the author's manner and method, which are inseparable from the artifacts he has produced. Despite the legendary slowness of his process, and his even more legendary "reclusiveness," Pynchon has delivered seven books, including four massive novels. Yet is there another contemporary "master" whose career is more routinely subjected to reassessment with each new work?

Pynchon, of course, has brought a lot of this upon himself. Though his fiction helped to define the very idea of literary postmodernism, the best and most concise adjective to define it is still the tautological "Pynchonesque"; his books remain leading examples of the sort of novel Henry James referred to, half a century before postmodernism, as a "loose, baggy monster." Though his work both recalls and anticipates that of his contemporaries playing in the same ballpark -- William Gaddis, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Joseph McElroy, Richard Powers and David Foster Wallace, for example -- there is no team to which he belongs. His careful (or haphazard, if you like) mix of confidently asserted scientific flimflam, stunningly serene description, madcap situational farce, peculiarly compelling but disconcertingly intermittent plotting, polymorphic sexual perversity, rat-a-tat dialogue, witheringly pessimistic analyses of power, extended parodic forms and metafictional winks has never centered on any particular idea about how a novel ought to work. Rather, it has accommodated all the things a novel can contain. One is reminded of Fibber McGee's overstuffed closet on the old radio program, which disgorged the entire contents of NBC's sound effects library when opened. A Pynchon work, then, automatically becomes the focus of those who lament excess, cleverness, self-indulgence, difficulty and other apparent literary sins, whose ideal novel is lean, well-plotted, linear and related from a single point of view.

"Against the Day," Pynchon's first novel in nearly a decade, will give such critics plenty to complain about. "[N]ews travels at queer velocities and not usually even in straight lines," one character observes, and that seems a fitting rubric for the Byzantine workings of this book. Opening in 1893 at Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition -- organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' expedition to the New World -- it is, at just under 1,100 pages, Pynchon's longest effort yet.

With its displays of new technology, its audacious assertion of America's preeminence as an urban society and its ratification of the emerging consumer culture and the capitalist lords who would supply it, the Columbian Exposition took place a little more than 20 years before the beginning of World War I, at which time all of the marvelous ideas on exhibit were utilized for the making of war to an unprecedented degree. This eventuality looms like a gigantic thundercloud throughout most of "Against the Day," and although Pynchon doesn't suggest that the world of 1893 was a more innocent one, he rather ingeniously channels its optimism by kick-starting the novel with a sustained, and hilariously absurd, parody of "boy's-book" writing that introduces the Chums of Chance, a cheerily ingenuous group of youthful balloonists and adventurers that seems to exist simultaneously in the realm of popular literature and in the world at large. They act out the codes of a waning era, although as gentlemanly and clean cut as they are, they're charged at the fair, in a bit of dark foreshadowing, with counterterrorist duties. Indeed, fear of anarchists and trade unionists -- often the same thing here -- is as rampantly indiscriminate in this world as fear of terrorists is in ours.

The book proceeds in a pass-the-baton manner, with one character or plot line depositing the narrative in the lap of the next, advancing in leaps and bounds that cumulatively span 30-odd years. Many of these episodes are linked by MacGuffins -- a favorite Pynchon strategy -- including, in this instance, decades-long searches for an unbelievably powerful weapon, possibly of extraterrestrial origin; the key to time travel; the secret of "bilocation," or the ability to be in two locations at once; and the lost city of Shambhala. Typical of Pynchon, the main players unwittingly stumble across or experience each of these things while searching for something else.

If world disaster hangs over the book's horizon, at its center is the story of Webb Traverse. A Colorado silver mine worker and anarchist saboteur, his skills in the second category have marked him for elimination by Scarsdale Vibe, the oligarch for whom the mine is but one aspect of the hydra-headed group of interests he controls. When Webb is murdered, his family convulses -- especially his children, who spin off on diverse meandering courses either to avenge the death or reconcile themselves as best they can to their complicity in it. One son, Kit, is a gifted mathematician who accepts a deal with the devil by allowing Vibe to finance his education at Yale; another, Reef, is a gunfighter and gambler who takes up his father's subversive work. Frank, an engineer, becomes involved in various revolutionary spasms in Mexico as a guerrilla and a war profiteer, while Webb's daughter, Lake, ultimately falls in love with and marries the man who killed her father.

The siblings' wanderings take us from the American West to Mexico, London, the European continent, Asia and beyond. They cross paths with outlaws, revolutionaries, mysterious women, detectives, mathematical cultists, supercilious government functionaries, suave secret agents and the malignant rogues who betray them, debauched nobility and even the Chums of Chance. (In one instance, Reef entertains himself by reading one of the novels in which they appear.) Occasionally, they run into each other. All of this enables Pynchon to scrutinize the various intellectual and technological changes that mark the start of the modern era, including genuine and imaginary advances in aviation, mass communication, electricity, explosives, metallurgy, mathematics and photography. As one might expect, he weighs in on some of the charlatanry and faddish thinking, religious and otherwise, that took hold as well.

There's much here that we've come to expect of Pynchon: silly songs; infantile jokes; Tourette's-like repetitions (the term "gutta-percha" is mentioned at least a dozen times); a sexually depraved set piece in which Reef is falsely seduced by an acquaintance's dog ("Reader," Pynchon demurs, "she bit him."); farcical disquisitions, including a formal speech on the history and social implications of mayonnaise; and a riff on JFK's idiomatic gaffe "Ich bin ein Berliner." The level of antic inventiveness can astonish, as can the breathtaking moments when Pynchon nails something as plainly beautiful as "[t]he unmistakable church-supper smell of American home cooking."

All the same, at times, the length and complexity of the book simply get the better of Pynchon. "Against the Day" isn't really a large, populous novel operating according to a homogeneous system but three or four novels yoked to a set of overarching themes. As startling and revelatory as Pynchon continues to be at his best, there are long stretches where his best doesn't make an appearance. It's hard to shake the occasional feeling that Pynchon is sifting among his dozens of players, searching for those who interest him or trying on situations until something clicks. (Throughout, he acts like the dutiful host, introducing you to every guest at the party, providing lengthy back stories for characters you suspect you will never encounter again.)

Certainly, some of the plots he stokes generate more light and heat than others, and when he changes direction abruptly, you begin to sense that Pynchon may be growing bored. The problem is that a book like this, with its hundreds of intersections, coincidences, correlations and parallels, has at least as big a turning radius as the Queen Mary 2. Because of that, a shift in direction requires either awkwardly gathering up all the characters and situations or offering a narrative ellipsis that leaves the reader baffled, at least until the spell is resumed.

BUT these are quibbles. Here's the point at which the book reviewer is supposed to say that the novel could have used the ministrations of a careful editor; that if only Pynchon had focused on one or two truly compelling story lines, then, ah, we might have a novel the reviewer could praise without reservation. Wrong reviewer. Although clearly this book was written without the forced-march pace of its reviewers in mind -- probably the most satisfying interpretations of "Against the Day's" labyrinthine workings, its frequently glorious excesses, will come from its more leisurely critics or from percipient readers willing to devote a couple of months to its slow uncoiling -- I'm willing to grant Pynchon the benefit of the doubt. A book this long that amazes even 50% of the time is amazing, and I suspect Pynchon would be the first to suggest we skip the boring parts.

Whatever the problems with sheer mechanical execution, Pynchon here offers his most successful and cogent articulation of the concerns that have haunted his work from the start. Throughout his career, he has described an arc that portrays the bloody origins and dubious consequences of modernity, reaching back to the 18th century with "Mason & Dixon," taking on the 1940s in "Gravity's Rainbow," the 1950s and 1960s in "V" and "The Crying of Lot 49" and the 1970s and 1980s in "Vineland." With "Against the Day," he comes full circle.

Above all, the book is concerned with the grasping fears that cause power to mobilize its forces: fears of change, fears of new mores and ideas, especially fears of new macroeconomic and social arrangements. It is concerned with the absolute ruthlessness with which power will act first to buy, then to compromise and finally to crush what threatens it. Since Pynchon focuses mostly on those who act in defiance of such power, the sense of dread and loathing that pursues them takes on a gloomy cast that shadows the book at even its most giddily coruscant.

Never before have the lineaments of the famous Pynchonesque "paranoia," in full effect, been more apparent. Pynchon makes mournfully clear his view that all of life, at least that which takes place within some sort of organized context, is rigged, that "brave men go down, treacherous ones do their work in the night, take their earthly rewards, and then ... live forever." His characters remain trapped, "incarcerated within the game," in the classic Pynchonian formulation, whether the action he depicts takes place in western Europe as World War I draws ever nearer or at the dwindling edge of the American frontier.

And yet, Pynchon discerns a kind of hope in that frontier -- the geographic variety, the scientific variety and the kind that exists at the boundaries of propriety and behavior -- positing it as the only psychic locale for resistance, for self-determination, for self-awareness itself. "The frontier ends and disconnection begins," one character observes, suggesting that to live so remotely from the consequences and origins of our lifestyle, from choice, robs us of the ability to recognize the forces that manipulate our lives. Even those who are on top of the game -- the "owners," in the book's parlance -- are braced by such self-awareness, as when Fleetwood Vibe, one of Scarsdale's sons, becomes "bedazzled at having been shown the secret backlands of wealth, and how sooner or later it depended on some act of murder." This hope enables Pynchon to end the book on a perhaps surprisingly upbeat chord -- though not without a note of premonitory angst. As one character says prophetically of World War I's effect: "The national idea would be reborn. One trembles at the pestilent forms that would rise up afterward, from the swamp of the ruined Europe."

And so onward, to "Gravity's Rainbow." *

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