Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Passage to Infinity

Passage to Infinity Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press. 1,085 pages. $35.00 Thomas Pynchon writes precious little, as famous novelists go. His latest is only his sixth over a career spanning nearly fifty years; a book of short stories, a handful of reviews and essays round out his oeuvre. Interviews and profiles are of course all but non-existent; he's the loner who doesn't want to be found, the monk who gets to speak every ten years. His novels are crammed with more thought and story than anyone can be expected to easily process, and you sometimes have to take them slow for everything to fall into place, providing it does, and he offers no guarantees. Just the opposite, in fact. Weeks before the publication of Against the Day, he seemed to be having second thoughts. In a self-penned, self-deprecating synopsis (which was later worked into the jacket copy) that appeared on amazon.com, Pynchon described a historical novel set between the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the First World War, featuring multiple characters and events, the author's usual "stupid songs," weird sex, and a few "contrary-to-fact occurrences." It ended on a cryptic note: "Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck." You can read a lot in those last words. Is he giving the finger to critics who might find the book overlong and obscure, as well as beating them to the punch? Is that "Good luck" as in "Buckle your seat-belts!" or "Hope I've made myself clear"? If that's the case, anyone who has followed his career since V may well ask "Why start now?" Doesn't this statement indicate a certain loss of nerve, as if even he's not sure he's really delivered? There are reasons to think so. First, there's the background material, which involves the 19th Century treatment of abstruse concepts in physics and science, ones I'll freely admit are so far over my head I can't even see them, and which I'll have a devil of a time trying to describe, because I only understand them at the edges, and I'm not even real sure about those. In his defense, I suppose it could be said that "non-trivial zeroes" and imaginary numbers and something called quaternions are hard to boil down into workable prose. On the other hand, he didn't seem to have any problem explaining entropy in The Crying of Lot 49. Still, as anyone who has read Gravity's Rainbow knows, Pynchon doesn't set a scene in its time and place so much as he backs into it, and if you want to really understand the historical or intellectual environment he's working in you may have to look elsewhere -- which raises the question of just how much a writer can fairly ask of a reader. It's one thing to ask a reader to pay close attention to ruminative prose or layered psychological digressions; maybe another to ask him to research the very tough concepts which Pynchon himself is simply too lazy to explain. I can already imagine the reaction of Pynchon acolytes, many of whom are no doubt used to this old objection, or who may not believe obscurity is a legitimate critical concern, or who may believe it's legitimate but unfair in this case, since a thing is not obscure if it can be grasped, you know, eventually. This is a writer, they will say, who feels no need to "talk down" to the reader, who expects a readership that is lively, smart, with-it, educated, literary, and who can pick up on the author's wavelength; who can hear a genius Charlie Parker solo where others hear static. They'll quote Blake: "That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care." Some writers think the simplest, most direct approach is the best, but that's not Pynchon, okay? He's not an Occam's Razor kind of guy. One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression and all that, yadda yadda. Someone may even point me in the direction of Zadie Smith's recent Guardian think-piece, which is not about Pynchon but does address the issue of the difficulty of reading:
"What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain ... Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more."
Fine. I'll start by asking for a payoff that's worth the effort. Second, there is Pynchon's style, which often feels just stubbornly, purposelessly enigmatic, not unlike the way Faulkner sometimes gets, where he seems to have this kind of passive-aggressive relationship with clarity. Its the opposite of economic and the essence of opaque. Random sentences go past florid and take a hard right at dense, and conversations are dull and contrived. Third, there's the mega-episodic story, which juggles several sub-plots, many of which go off on dreamy, side-winding tangents and then sputter out, and which demands a high, if not total, recall of the book's many characters, most of whom are either barely or unmemorably introduced, and may vanish for hundreds of pages between appearances. The events, too, are hard to track, as Pynchon seems to pursue every available tangent, lighting a lot of fuses that never really take off, and by the end has so damn much story on his hands that you can practically hear him wheezing under the strain. None of which should come as a total surprise to the seasoned Pynchon readers, as echoes of all of these complaints can be seen in criticism dating back to at least the early 1980s. Pynchon asks so much of the reader that I think his more submissive and faithful ones will ask if they themselves are not the problem. Am I reading this the right way? Do you take the "Don't sweat it" approach and try to read it in big gulps, or do you roll up your sleeves and get all scholarly, filling the margins with notes and the end-paper with disquisitions of both glee and despair, ultimately spilling over into spiral notebooks, pages of which will be clotted with yet more notes, quotes, questions, tearful confessions of intellectual inferiority and woeful acknowledgement of educational gaps, as well as printing out one hopefully trustworthy Wikipedia article after the next on vector space, the Michelson-Morley experiment, lumineferous aether, Riemann's hypothesis, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and (speaking of things I should have known about) the 1908 Tunguska Event? Reader, I did all that. I read it once like a true fan, sinking into it for hours at a time, nodding my head, getting into it, and eventually waking up stone blind in the latter third, where I could no longer remember or care how the story wound up in the Balkans and why everyone was dodging bullets. Then I tackled it all over again, as I sometimes do with books that leave some kind of weird impression, this sense that I missed something, that there may be more to it than the sum of my worst objections, and that despite my resistance the overall mystery of it had somehow wormed its way into my head. It begins, this enormous book, as a spoof and a sequel, written in inflated prose, detailing the latest misadventures of a gang of rowdy and pseudo-lovable adolescents we have apparently been following in an on-going series: the Chums of Chance, who tour the late 19th-Century world in their hydrogen airship the Inconvenience. All we do know, really, is that the Chums are mysteriously youthful, as they've been together for many years and still talk like they're 13, and they're just marginally innocent, since they serve as a roving surveillance crew for some mysterious employer they've never met -- a somewhat typical Pynchonian dilemma. As we soon find out, the novel does not exactly belong to the Chums, although they will continue to float in and out of it. Once the Inconvenience crash-lands into the World's Fair, we're in a country with one foot in the American Enlightenment and one in the Gilded Age, where corporate interests are ready to exploit new discoveries as quickly as scientists can make them. Our narrator, who has been reminding us of other Chums' adventures (The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa, The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis) loses interest in his nominal subjects as other stories take off; lots of stories will take off as the book continues, multiplying every few pages, with Pynchon sometimes tracking them to their end and sometimes abandoning them. There's the photographer Merle Rideout, single parent to Dahlia, who yearns to connect with the mother who deserted her at birth. There's Lew Basnight, an amnesiac who isn't sure whether he has committed a heinous crime or is about to, and who finds sudden employment as a detective. Most of all, there's the villain, Scarsdale Vibe, a wealthy silver magnate and a veritable old lefty cartoon of capitalism run amok. In a novel where just about everything has a religious dimension, and even mathmaticians will start splitting off into sects of their own, Vibe is a true-blue believer in the capitalist gospel. He looks suspiciously on anything that doesn't involve profit -- like Nikola Tesla's experiments in providing free electricity, which Vibe is bankrolling only so he can make sure it never happens -- or anyone who tries to disturb its flow, like the union organizers who are agitating at his Colorado silver mine. His dual opposite in this regard is Merle's friend Webb Traverse, a good-natured rebel who may or may not be the "Kieselguhr Kid," a Unabomber-esque mystery bomber who has been dynamiting Vibe's railways and has become something of an underground hero in the process. Against all this very concrete business, something very abstract is going on at the edges: the material world itself seems to be jabbering away, working in unison, offering ominous signs and symbols of the world to come. The great topic of the day is light, specifically aether, the theoretical heavenly body that moves light through space. Tesla sees light as a means of liberation; Vibe sees it as a source of control. Debates, serious and silly, fanatical and skeptical, revolve around the possibilities: is aether God, real in every way except in being detectable? Can you, as some claim, talk to light? Should you, as the religious sect known as the Lightarians preach, worship it? Light isn't the only natural element that seems to have conscious properties. There's also the double-refracting calcite known as Iceland spar, which can tell the future, may be proof positive that aether exists, may be the "sub-structure of reality," and may carry some holy scripture from beyond. The main thing it does is that it captures motion; it serves as a lens that can not just freeze time but unfreeze it, and it can see both behind and before. [A brief word here about this crazy rock. I'm a sucker for writers who pull the "truth is stranger than fiction" card, when the most bizarre and far-fetched elements actually prove to just be good research. I honestly thought Iceland spar was made up until I Googled it. Turns out there really is a clear, doubly-refracting form of calcite by this name and, as it does in the book, it had an impact on both the development of optical lenses as well as the camera, and yes, by golly, it can be found all over, even in New Mexico. All of which would make me feel really dumb had I not discovered that even geologists in Iceland don't know Iceland spar exists, or at least they don't know it by that name. Not long ago, my geography-minded friend Amanda told me she was going to Iceland for a week and promised to bring back a nice chunk of the substructure of reality. She returned convinced I was trying to make a fool of her. All week long she asked the good folk of Iceland about their native spar and they looked at her like she was nuts -- even the English-speaking residents of the Icelandic Geological Society. The more I told her about all the references to it on the Internet, the more she looked at me as if I had sent her on an international snipe hunt. Not so!] There's also a meteorite -- a barely visible, King Kong-sized, shape-shifting object unearthed on a Vibe-sponsored Arctic expedition to harvest Iceland spar -- which apparently wages war on New York City, a "catamite from hell" that makes the city its bitch. To all who can hear it, (only a handful, and they wind up going crazy) it offers a direct message of warning: "The man-shaped light shall not deliver you" and "Flames were always your destiny, my children." Is this a key event in the book? Actually, it's a red herring, one of many, a pseudo-pivotal fictional event involving a meteorite whose main function is to foreshadow the very real Tunguska Event of 1908, at the opposite end of the book, where what appears to be a meteorite (no one was around to see it, so no one's ever been completely certain) blasted 800 square miles of Siberia. Whatever the meteorite means in perspective, one thing becomes clear in the day-to-day world of the novel: the immediate future belongs to the Scardale Vibes of the world, who crush everything that stands in their way. Vibe, who may well be the Chums' secret employer, always gets others to rid his life of any "inconvenience," which is why he orders a couple of lowlifes, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, to knock off Webb Traverse. Traverse and Vibe are the polar opposites of Pynchon's world -- the doomed working-class hero versus the voracious corporate thug whose money always ensures success. As a mining engineer, Webb has tried to raise his children free of the Vibe influence, which runs deep. Webb's three sons and daughter don't want to spend their lives fighting the power; two older ones, Frank and Reef, consider working for Vibe, and the youngest, Kit, an electrical engineering prodigy, risks permanent estrangement from his father by accepting a full-ride Vibe-sponsored scholarship to Princeton. Webb's wild child daughter, Lake, aims for a better life by leaving home. With Webb's death, the Traverse children are left with a legacy of guilt, denial and ultimately vengeance -- thus setting off the main plot, the clothesline on which most of what happens will hang. While Kit tries to balance a bright future against the slow awareness of his benefactor's evil, Frank and Reef plot the deaths of Vibe, Sloat and Deuce; Reef also takes up the presumed legacy of his father by occasional bombing. Lake, off on her own, unknowingly marries Deuce, who shares her with Sloat, both of whom get off on defiling the daughter of their victim, which Pynchon for no obvious reason finds gratuitously, pornographically funny. Meanwhile, up in the sky, the Chums get a new mission, which is to find the Sfinculo Itinerary, a mysterious 13th Century map which actually predicts the geography of the future, and which seems to have come from another dimension into this one, as its author "imagined the earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface..." and which in turn may lead to Shambhala, which besides being a Three Dog Night song is either Inner Asia, inner contentment or the point of infinity; views differ. The Chums, these "fictional" characters who often seem to be invading and manipulating the finite world of the novel, also learn that their course isn't strictly set in this world, and that they themselves are being manipulated by forces from the future. Characters spin like pin-balls from one international locale to the next, crossing paths along the way: the Traverse sons looking for the killers, Lake slowly waking up to the realization of who she married, Dally leaving Merle to head to New York to find her mother and having a series of adventures as an actress, the Chums in the sky with the map. Somewhere in the midst of this, Pynchon drops another story, a clinker, which involves a bi-sexual Russian spy (or something) named Yashmeen Halfcourt, who prefers women but who is also the object of desire of the homosexual Cyprian Latewood, who becomes her sex slave against his orientation if not his will. Both are connected to a mystical London-based counter-terrorist group called TWIT (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys; ha ha, Pynchon make joke) which uses Tarot cards and seances to detect and root out its presumed enemies. This is where the novel starts chasing its tail, as the leaders of TWIT have this grand theory of an international plot where the two main coordinates appear to be doubles. To make a too-long story short -- a story which misses no opportunity to get side-tracked -- Yashmeen and Kit both enter each other's orbit at Gottingen, Germany. Kit, who considers himself a pronounced vectorist, committed to the proposition of three-dimensional reality, is here because Gottingen has become something of an international headquarters for the quaternionists, whose commitment to the idea of a fourth dimension has made them the outcasts, the "Jews" of mathematics. Gottingen is also the former home of the late G. Riemann, the mathematician who became famous for a mathematical problem which I do not understand, but which has obsessed Yashmeen all her life. Kit and Yashmeen's specific obsessions aren't clear to me, and likely won't be clear to many, but their larger goal, and Pynchon's larger interest, is skirting reality altogether. Both use numbers as a haven of rest from real-world problems, not unlike the character of David in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, so brilliantly played by Dustin Hoffman; the mathematician who would rather drift into the pure reality of numbers than face the violent reality of human life. Debates rage over the possibility of "bi-location," in which a person can simultaneously be in two places at once, and about getting out of the trap of time altogether; off the track of history, which seems predestined for the kind of exploitation and destruction set in place by capitalism and commerce, or at the very least thwarting it. Shambhala represents the goal, conscious or unconscious, of getting back to the past, to a pure, Edenic state prior to the fallen world of the 20th Century. Just as the Chums are in search of the map, and finally come into possession of it, Kit dreams of a "set of directions, an itinerary, a map to a hidden space," that can take him back to "the beginning, the nameless station before the first, in the lightless uncreated, where salvation does not yet exist." They yearn for a time before the fall, a world where there are no laws and no blind determinism. Pynchon takes the ideas of Karl Marx (history is predetermined and free will is an illusion) and Friedrich Nietzsche (any set of events is bound to repeat itself) and sets them against the dawn of a new century, where capitalism has run amok, wars and revolution are rumbling in the distance, and new breakthroughs in physics, science and religion are offering the means to either exploit people further, to jam the gears of history, or to defy time altogether -- to get out of three-dimensional reality before it eats you alive. Pynchon's novels generally involve a search of some kind, usually for a missing document or a key piece of information, and Pynchon himself is on an imaginative every-direction-at-once search of his own: where did it all go wrong in American life? The historical backgrounds of his novels are rife with possibility: there's the Renaissance-era back story to The Crying of Lot 49, where a secret mail system dating from the Elizabethan age carries over into mid-1960s America, and serves as a reaction against government interference. Among the many threads of Gravity's Rainbow is a focus on the way behaviorism and psychological conditioning help create and sustain war. The two real-life surveyors of Mason & Dixon are astrologers who find themselves doing the devil's work: working for the secretive and exploitative East India Company, which trafficks in drugs and which will lead to creating the line dividing slave and free. Pynchon, once again taking a generous slice of American history and giving it not just a big-picture approach but one that is both cosmic and complicated, is on the same search in Against the Day, and the late 19th and early 20th century gives him more than enough to work with. It's the Gilded Age and the last gasp of the American Enlightenment, where new advances in science hold the keys to both rampant capitalist exploitation and liberation. It's the Age of Time, where physicists are debating the meaning of time, the speed of light, the possibility of other dimensions and parallel universes, and in Pynchon's world, the possibility of avoiding a violent world to come by going back to before the whole idea of time began. Hard-headed rationalism grades into the realms of the mystical and the unexplained, linear gives way to abstract, and the novel itself operates as if in a time-warp: a piece of dime-store fiction that seems to have been overtaken by a visitor from elsewhere -- a shaman perhaps who, as one explanation has it, sees time "spread out not in a single dimension but over many, which all exist in a single, timeless instant," not unlike the way Futurist painters would see in 1910, and we meet a couple of those, too. Hovering over it all is the spirit of someone who is not a character in the book at all: the great historian Henry Adams. The Exposition occupied much of the time and thought of Adams, who saw in it one of the signal events of his age and education: the dynamo, which become for him "a symbol of infinity" and "a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross." Just as Medieval France once worshiped the Virgin, so did America now worship an energy that would operate independently of the means to control it. Pynchon's novels are all, in one way or another, about this kind of unchecked energy and exploitation, where the industrial world has become a force subject only to its own natural laws. His heroes, such as they are, want to jam the gears, to become, as Henry David Thoreau would put it, as a "counter-friction to stop the machine," and he holds out here a kind of dim prospect for success. The thing of it is, Against the Day is a lot more interesting when it's over than when you're actually reading it. It's maybe not a great, transcendent novel that breaks the formal boundaries of literature, but the plot makes a rather bold transcendent leap, and when I finally closed it for the last time -- when a long journey that begins in one world finally ends in another, possibly purgatory -- I couldn't help but think that it had gained perspective, that it had really gone somewhere. There's something fiercely smart, imaginative, sympathetic, deeply humane and -- despite the fact that it misses no opportunity to point out the terrors of religion -- almost weirdly Christian about it; a sense that even in the next world we take the sins of this one with us, along with the possibility of grace.

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