Thursday 13 March 2008

From Anarchy to Grace

Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon

Someplace around page 822, the rhythm of the close-printed pages having taken over like the rocking of a train along the new-laid tracks going ever westward, as if the weighty tome itself was quite literally pulling her into the future hour by hour, week by week, the reviewer felt the thick texture of the writing start to smother her, like layers of felt, impregnated with exotic perfume by the yabanci kelimeler and ausländischer Ausdrucker slipped self-consciously between the voluptuous swathes of storyline, and wondered whether all this logodaedaly was anything more than an elaborate joke.

Yes, it’s a long book. Outrageously, extravagantly long. And many of the sentences are as long as the one above, rich as a Christmas pudding with terms like ‘ovoöleaginous’ whose meaning may only be guessed from the context (in this case, a mayonnaise factory). Liberally scattered with words from dozens of languages, it reads at times like an old-fashioned travelogue, coyly name-dropping cultural titbits from places we’ve never seen and probably never will. Other times it’s more like a Victorian adventure story.

In fact, that’s how it starts out, the boys’ own fantasy, sci-fi world of the Chums of Chance, who inhabit a world close to the real one but, airborne in their dirigible airship the Inconvenience, explicitly fictional. The Chums arrive at the Chicago World Fair of 1893 full of innocent wonder at its exotic marvels. But already there’s an assignment – watching from above for signs of dangerous Anarchist activity.

Don’t be fooled by the borrowings of detective-story or transcontinental epic style. Pynchon sets up many mysteries in Against the Day, and most of them remain mysteries. If you’re going to be frustrated by reading all those pages and never finding out what happens to all the characters, what caused the earth-shaking phenomena, or who turns out to be on the side of dark or light, better not start. There is plot, and plenty of it, but this book is more like a long, exhausting, dream, dredging up the preoccupations of the age, mixing them with historical fact and obscure theory, and plaiting them together with a startling thread of sexual perversity.

And it’s well worth the read. The precocious pleasure in language, in obscure mathematical fields and unlikely pseudo-scientific theories, is infectious. Though the characters may lose sight of their own purposes, there is always something happening, or about to happen, that keeps the pages turning. In fact, the inchoate dread that gradually spreads through the book after the clean optimism of the World Fair adds a suspense that never quite goes away. Hindsight adds to the sense of growing evil as the first World War draws nearer in time and place.

Mixed in with the metaphors of light and dark that draw on half-science, on mythological and mystical quests for meaning, there’s real history in Against the Day. And one strand of that history follows Anarchism that springs from the labour unions. Private eye Lew Basnight, commissioned to infiltrate the threatening, bomb-throwing conspirators of Chicago, discovers he has sympathy for them and so, clearly, does the book. In fact, it’s unequivocally on the side of those who use dynamite not only as a tool of the mining trade but also a weapon and a symbolic explosion of human spirit against machine.

Does this mean the Pynchon is commenting on the current obsession with Terror? Well, yes, but not in any simplistic way. Though there’s a strong sense of identification with people the authorities call terrorists and assassins, these are no nihilists bent on self-immolation. Their targets are clear: the exploiters of working people, and the hired thugs who work for them. True, there is an anti-modern streak in the anarchists’ reaction against the encroaching railroads, ‘Farmers, stockmen, buffalo-hunting Indians, track-laying Chinamen, passengers in train wrecks, whoever you were out here, sooner or later you had some bad history with the railroad’. But this is a minor current, to be read in the context of capitalism expanding across the American continent.

If anything, the story of anarchist Webb Traverse and his heirs is steeped in the defeat of the working class. Though the book ends shortly after the Russian revolution of 1917, those who Basnight finds gathered in California and recognises as ‘the folks… he’d spent his life chasing’ are already the defeated. ‘He ... understood that what everybody here had in common was having survived some cataclysm none of them spoke about directly – a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the US government.’

More deeply and subtly, the book draws out the society on which terror feeds. In a world of covert persecution and buying-off, everyone is looking for something elusive and intangible. Lost and buried civilisations are a recurring goal, alongside moral maps based on the Tarot, and the absolutes of mathematics. But unexplained cataclysms and horrific visions of the future haunt the book, threatening ‘nervous collapse’.

Is it a pessimistic book? Not entirely. The Traverse family and assorted characters do more than survive as they travel the globe. Their bonds of love and family may be stretched, but they hold in spite of the blows of history. The fantastical science keeps coming back to two themes – moving through time, and the splitting of reality by splitting light. Taken together, they seem to promise that history is not a closed book. People split into two and take different paths through the same universe. There is more than one possible future. And at the end, the Inconvenience flies on, expanded, updated, improved, ‘toward grace’.


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