Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Passage to Infinity, Part III

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.

No comments: