Sunday, 21 September 2014

Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon

Against The Day a is 1000+ pages thick epic novel by Thomas Pynchon. It tells the somewhat absurd and humorous, but deeply emotional stories of a variety of characters, taking place in the years 1893 to 1923. They include, among others: The Chums of Chance, a group of adventurers who, in a loving parody of period pulp science fiction, fly around the world in the airship Inconvenience; Lew Basnight, a detective whose life is destroyed due to a crime he doesn't remember committing; Merle Rideout, the daughter to a travelling photographer, who as an adult sets off to find her mother who had run off with magician; Yashmeen Halfcourt, an orphan who is raised by English occultists and Cyprian Latewood, bisexual spy for the British empire, who begins to question his employer.

The centre of the book is however, the Traverse siblings, Frank, Kit, Reed and Lake. Their Father Webb Traverse is miner and an anarchist-syndicalist, who uses dynamite in his struggle against capitalism. Webb is however murdered by the villainous capitalist Scarsdale Vibe and his sons swear revenge. They soon get sidetracked however by their own stories.
The book is an absurd epic, but Pynchon manages to combine his absurd plots with very real human emotions and deep characters. As a writer, he is often accused of being emotionless and dry, something he ably disproves with this book. Amidst all the absurdity and humour, very real and resonant themes and emotions of loss and love develop. The characters struggle to love in an cold and cruel capitalist world, and must deal with death in various forms.

Pynchon is also an incredible stylist and the prose of this book is simply incredible. Here we have both humour and heart-rending emotion. Even if one loses track of the various plot threads, the prose makes one want to continue nevertheless.  I especially liked the parodies or pastiches of various genres of fiction. The Chums of Chance sections are for example written in a pulp adventure style, Lew Basnight's story is in the style of a detective novel and parts of the story of the Traverse family in a western style. There is a also a brief but very good pastiche of Lovecraft relatively early in the book.

Pynchon's use of motifs in the novel is also impressive. There is a central motif or theme in the book of doubling. The Chums of Chance, for example encounter Russian counterparts of themselves and at the end of the book gets transported to a parallel earth. There is two minor characters, the professors Werfner and Renfrew who are doubles of each other and whose names is a palindrome. The magician who Merle Rideout's mother runs off with, can create identical doubles of a person. In a memorable passage, fiction is described as giving the reader a "dual existence" between material reality and the world of the book. Finally, the book is dominated by the image of the Icelandic spar, which double refracts light.

Another central theme is the time period of 1893 to 1923 itself. Pynchon ably describes how the optimism of the age, which both the form of the liberal capitalist idea of eternal progress and the socialist dream of a better world, came to an end in the First World War and the brutal repression of the socialist movement in the United States. This is depicted partially through The Chums of Chance, who being pulp adventurers of course embody this optimism, and who comes to question everything they stand for, as the war approaches and eventually break out.
Pynchon gives powerful and harrowing depictions of both the war and the Ludlow massacre (a central moment in the repression of the US socialist movement), in which he doesn't parody, but rather evokes the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair and other writers who have depicted the same horrors.

But Pynchon doesn't give in to despair and is thankfully unfashionable enough as writer to give the reader a hopeful and happy ending. Despite everything, hope should not be abandoned, Pynchon seems to argue. The Chums of Chance eventually construct an new positive world-view after the war has ended and starts to build an utopia aboard their airship, which leads to one of the most moving and optimistic ending sentences in all of literature:  "They will feel the turn in the wind. They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace."

A fitting ending to one of the best novels I have ever read. A true epic, skilfully told with both love and humour.

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