“Far away, down by the police station, a dog was howling at a moon no one could see, perhaps imagining that, summoned repeatedly enough, it would appear with food of some kind.”
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
I’ve been reading Pynchon’s book, Against the Day, and it has been challenging. There are about a million characters – some real, many legendary; some ghosts, many disturbing; some parodies, many composites. Many characters have memorable Pynchon names - like arch-villain industrialist and robber baron Scarsdale Vibe; or Lake Traverse, daughter of legendary martyred bomb-making anarchist Webb Traverse. There’s a guy named “Sloat.” You know what a loser he is the minute you meet him.
I got some “white wheat malt” at the home brew store last week. I ground about a half cup in my Kitchenaid mixer’s mill attachment. It’s not as adjustable as using my coffee burr grinder, but I was going for rustic: some of the grain ended up like delicate flour, some stayed in relatively large chunks. The night before baking, I took a little sourdough starter from the fridge, and refreshed it by adding about ¼ cup of the milled grain and ¼ cup of water. The next morning I had a puffy, bubbly, sour-smelling levain.
The trans continental stories unfold on top of each other, giving a philo-thin concurrency to some of the layered threads. Characters move in and out of place and plot, connecting and disconnecting over time. As if that wasn’t enough to confuse a Mensa Lit Crit with Tenure, there’s this thing about time travel and parallel worlds, and people who can do either or both. A couple of the major plots occur not on the reader’s world, but in a parallel universe, perhaps where WWI didn’t happen.
The book begins with a story of the five Chums of Chance, a Hardy Boys precursor from the Antebellum age, at the White Palace at the World Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and their exceptionally advanced faithful canine companion, Pugnax. The Chums of Chance is apparently a world-wide fraternal organization operating as a sort of Thunderbirds of the Victorian Age. The writing style is a delightfully fluffy confection (even down to repeated references to other “episodes” and adventures of the Chums). For example, consider the almost magical high-tech way the Chums travel: on an airship powered by steam.
Just when I’m settling in for a delightful period piece written in the most fluent “thrilling days of yesteryear” prose – weirdness starts to creep in. Wait. Did I just read that the Chums, another successful mission accomplished, took a shortcut home through a hole in the earth’s crust, encountered an entire civilization at war, and oh by the way, intervened decisively on the side of the “good guys”?
I almost started writing down names and the pages first encountered, to be able to pick up the thread pages/years/parallel universes away. I’ve doubtless dropped several stitches, but I think I’m getting the general idea.
Here it is. Pynchon clearly prefers the company of anarchists, magicians, charlatans, Marxists, Commies, con-men, crooks, grad students, theosophists, coal and silver miners, mathematicians and drug dealers/smugglers, to that of the tycoons, privileged children of nouveau riche posers, industrial giants, and dozens of other versions of The Man appearing before/after WWI as capitalist swine wearing clean clothes, miscellaneous “uncleansably rich,” dilettantes, hired guns, war profiteers, weapons dealers/smugglers. For example, one classic pair of adversaries are Edison and Tesla. Edison: bad. Tesla: good
Before you sit down to crack this book open, have a dictionary handy. For me, some new words were encountered, learned, and used before absquatulating. Some expressions with cosmic and/or microcosmic meaning are discovered (like the flashlight brand: Apotheosis Sparkless Torch). There’s a quest for Shambala, perhaps a map that leads there, perhaps not. Also, I think there may, or may not be, a weapon of mass destruction, and it may or may not be in my own world. I could be wrong.
I know I’m missing a lot of the jokes, but my favorite part about this book is that I often encounter such brilliant phrases, and such elegantly crafted sentences that they delight, without the need to understand whether they advance one of the zillion plots. Pynchon puts words together like flowers in a bouquet. There’s a group in London called T.W.I.T, or True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys, made up of various “devotees of the nut cutlet.” He often over-stuffs sentences frequently with conflicting metaphorical meanings. He is the master of the run-on sentence that stands on its own as a delightful complete sub-plot.*
His sentences drip with meaning like bloody limbs on a battlefield, painting more and more shades in the sinister shadows, and throwing in the occasional actual vengeful ghost flickering at the edge of the picture. For example, one man’s rage is described as “a fluorescence of vindictiveness.” Elsewhere, he paints the sky in “almost familiar” shades of yellow:
“It was the light kept reminding him, yellow darkening to red to bitter blackness of the whirlwind brought among the sunlit, wildflowered meadows, thunder that began like the rumbling of sash-weights locked with old death-secrets of some ancient house back behind the sky’s nearly carpentered casementing and soon rocking like artillery.”
He carefully catches dialog that adds a layered richness to conversations: “Hope you ain’t having too many of those second thoughts that stop a fellow just as dead is if it was him down in the sawdust.”
When I baked the bread, I used the starter in place of yeast, and added the rest of the ground white wheat malt (about ¼ cup) in place of some of the flour. The bread has a gorgeous texture, and thanks to the white wheat malt, a tangy sourdough flavor. Now, if I could just persuade it to rise a bit more…
Pynchon’s book rewards careful study and contemplation of the rich pageant of life that he has either created, or discovered by traveling there himself and simply returned to report on. I have a feeling I’ll be re-visiting it again over the years – if I can just get through Moby Dick for the first time.
*Here’s one of those run-on sentences that condense an entire un-written novel:
“Because for all her winters got through and returns to valley and creekside in the spring, for all the day-and-night hard riding through the artemisia setting off sage grouse like thunderclaps to right and left, with the once-perfect rhythms of the horse beneath her gone faltering and mortal, yet she couldn’t see her luck as other than purchased in the worn, unlucky coin of all those girls who hadn’t kept coming back, who’d gone down before their time, Dixies and Fans and Mignonettes, too fair to be alone, too crazy for town, ending their days too soon in barrelhouses, in shelters dug not quite deep enough into the unyielding freeze of the hillside, for the sake of boys too stupefied with their own love of exploding in the dark, with girl-sized hands clasped, too tight to pry loose, around a locket, holding a picture of a mother, of a child, left back the other side of a watershed, birth names lost as well behind aliases taken for reasons of commerce or plain safety, out in some blighted corner too far from God’s notice to matter much what she had done or would have to do to outride those onto whose list of chores the right to judge had found its way seemed…Stray was here, and they were gone, and Reef was God knew where – Franks’ wishful family look-alike, Jesse’s father and Webb’s uncertain avenger and her own sad story, her dream, recurring, bad, broken, never come true.”