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25/01/2007

Roller coaster in the dark

Denis Scheck maintains that in spite of what his American critics say, Thomas Pynchon's "Against the Day" is a masterpiece

"Against the Day" is a unique book, in the sense of being utterly original. At its best moments emotionally electrifying and intellectually brilliant, moving but never sentimental, sometimes terribly sad, sometimes side-splittingly funny, and to the very last page as unforeseeable as a roller coaster ride in the dark.

It is no coincidence that the plot is so unpredictable. Like the famous "Oxen of the Sun" chapter in "Ulysses", where James Joyce retells the history and evolution of the English language from its beginnings to the present day of 1906 Dublin, Pynchon’s new novel also includes a literary development sped up to whizz past the reader's eye. Among other things, "Against the Day" is a potted history of genre literature – science fiction and fantasy, adventure, horror, western and detective novels. Pynchon imitates and caricatures the great masters of these genres – Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack Williamson, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Zane Grey – outbids and overtrumps them in fantastic invention and masterfully subverts every sensible expectation of a historical novel whose story largely takes place between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Anyone who has read the first American reviews of "Against the Day" would probably be expecting something else. For New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani (who Philip Roth ridiculed ten years ago in "Sabbath’s Theater" for her often moralising misjudgements), the new Pynchon is "a bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, … complicated without being rewardingly complex." Louis Menand opens his slating in the The New Yorker with the question: "What was he thinking?" And Adam Kirsch's hatchet job in the New York Sun massacres not just the novel ("stuffed to bursting with oddities"), but the author himself too: "Thomas Pynchon is no longer the novelist we need."

The odd thing is that the earlier a verdict on the new Pynchon was published, the harsher and worse-tempered it was. And the earlier it was published, the greater the pressure of time on the reviewer, who received the proofs from Penguin just a fortnight before the book officially came out on November 20, 2006.

With 1,085 close-printed pages, hundreds of characters, a plot that even the most experienced reader could not predict (and which sets off on page-length wanderings through seldom-visited realms of knowledge such as quaternions as an extension of complex numbers or the optical properties of the calcite known as Iceland spar) the book certainly has the potential to provoke ill temper in the hectic life of a literature critic. In the meantime, eight weeks have passed since publication, the dinners and family rituals of the holiday season have been digested (Pynchon readers might remember from "Mason & Dixon" how the atmosphere of the Christmas season promotes all kinds of storytelling) and the smoke begins to clear from the American clashes over "Against the Day." To reveal much of interest.

The first American reviews of the new Pynchon spoke with an astonishingly aggressive anti-intellectualism and a tangible weariness with literature that experiments with language itself and ventures to try out more complex forms than we are familiar with from the annual crop of late works by the likes of Philip Roth and John Updike. More generally, the American zeitgeist currently seems to have little time for any kind of innovation in literature – if it ever did. "The Corrections," Jonathan Franzen’s spectacular family novel, and also one of the most commercially successful novels of recent years, is – in comparison with the work of the likes of William Gaddis, Don DeLillo or our Thomas Pynchon – one thing above all else: absolutely conventionally narrated.

Franzen himself has described his fall from faith in American postmodernism and its patron saints like William Gaddis ("Mr. Difficult," Franzen calls him) in a remarkably lucid essay. In their reviews, Pynchon’s adversaries are now copying that conversion: one fall for all.

Certainly, "Against the Day" has the spirit of the quasi-Olympic challenge of pushing literary superlatives to the very limits of the possible. Or to put it a tad less pompously: the puerile game of "who can piss highest on the wall." James Joyce's "Ulysses" breathed that spirit, as did Arno Schmidt's "Zettels Traum" (Zettel's Dream) – as well as countless epigonous works that became a torment to their overstretched authors and readers.

Three things save Pynchon's "Against the Day" from that fate. Firstly the political commitment of the novel, which can be read as a swan song for anarchism as a political alternative, and as an astonishingly coolly told story about terrorism. Pynchon has never written more up-to-the-minute than here. I for one can think of no literary response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 more convincing than Pynchon's poetically penetrating description of New York taken by a mountain spirit run amok. On page 1,076 a boy is asked to write an essay on "What It Means To Be An American." The student, who personally experienced the defeat of the Colorado miners' strike, answers with a single sentence: "It means doing what you're told, taking what you're offered and not striking so that you don't get shot by its soldiers." Not an easy insight for an American.

Secondly, Thomas Pynchon has, in his own way, actually written a family novel in "Against the Day." Even if the plot leads in great leaps to the interior of Asia, to Mexico and Albania, London, Paris and Venice, to a madhouse in Göttingen, to the winged dragons of the Swiss Alps and to a ship sailing under, yes really, under the desert, ultimately Pynchon tells us the story of the four children of the American anarchist Webb Traverse, the dynamiting Wild West "Kieselguhr Kid" who takes from the rich to give to the poor – and in the process gets into the sights of arch-capitalist Scarsdale Vibe, who has him killed by two paid assassins. Never since the "Count of Monte Christo" has a story of vengeance been told so gleefully.

Thirdly – and this unfortunately gets a bit forgotten among all the fuss about how dreadfully demanding he is of his readers – Pynchon's perhaps greatest strength is his humour. Certainly, not everyone will slap their thighs over quaternionists as "the Jews of mathematics," and a German-speaking reader may be a little disappointed in the passages set in Göttingen, in the "Land of Lederhosen," as Pynchon calls it. But the likes of Pugnax the Henry-James-reading dog, communicating ball lightning and a repeating tornado called Thorvald, as well as the magnificently silly songs, carry the reader through the drier passages.

But the most spectacular party piece of all in this novel whose groaning feast brings to mind a fantastical curiosity cabinet is Thomas Pynchon's tribute to the technological adventure literature of the turn of the twentieth century: the "Chums of Chance," five aeronauts on board the "Inconvenience". Pynchon grants them perhaps the loveliest happy end in modern literature. "They fly toward grace," is the last sentence of the novel. A flight no reader should miss.

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This article originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel on January 11, 2007.

Denis Scheck, born 1964 in Stuttgart, is a literature critic, literary agent and translator.

Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day. The Penguin Press, New York 2006. 1,085 pages, US$ 35 (list price).


Translation: Meredith Dale
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