Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reading Thomas Pynchon - Against The Day

I initially thought of writing about 'Against The Day', but put if off for 2 reasons. One being that it requires a hell a lot of preparatory work and I didn't when I would get around to do that. The second being that I personally feel that a Pynchon novel is best experienced by the reader solely on his own experience of reading it, without any pre-defined notions on the story etc. As Pynchon himself states in the synopsis about this novel
If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.

To tell something briefly about the novel, it spans a period of 25 odd years and in Pynchon's own words

moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York City, to London and Göttingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

So I thought of writing a post with some pointers on the novel which I hope will act as faciliating factors for readers still trying to get into Pynchon and are apprehensive about it. The good news on this novel is that, of all the Pynchon novels I have read, this seems the most accessible and the not so good news is that it is the lengthiest of all his novels at over 1000 pages. 

Any Pynchon work is going to dazzle you with it's narrative style, imagination, that's a given. So looking at this work from that point of view, the main USP of this novel is that it is  composed of several genres of fiction. You  get the boys adventure genre (something like say the Willard Price novels), the genre of explorers stumbling upon long lost secrets (H.G Wells), the spy genre, the western and the genre of general fiction too. So what's so big about it, one may ask, you just write multiple narrative threads in various genre and put them as one single novel right? But it's not as easy as it seems. Each genre has the capacity for invoking different emotions in us and it is indeed a tough ask to get all these emotions in a single novel and that too when each narrative genre is fragmented, when you get 50 pages of one genre and another 50 pages of another. For e.g. when you read the boys adventure genre part, you feel sub-consiously happy, you somehow seem to know that nothing bad is going to happen and that things are going to turn out well at the end. The explorer genre thrills you more, for instance the part about the slab brought from the Artic and the ancient evil that seems to be present in it are truly chilling. During these two narrative types, you are always aware of a disassociation from reality while reading them. The spy genre is semi-realistic in that, it gives an idea of the paranoia prevalent in the spy circles, but Pynchon overlaps it with his brand of quirky scenarios which make it seem almost like a parody.  The western genre and the general fiction part are more realistic and accordingly more worse things happen in these narratives. Just think about this, every 50 odd pages, the narrative tone, style changes and you get a subtle shift in your emotional mood, imagine how difficult it is to achieve this over a period of 1000 pages. The best part about it is that these shifts are not in your face. It is something that does not jump at you, but is so subtly weaved into the fabric of the novel that you get a sense of what Pynchon is doing only after the 100 pages or so. Before that you could get confused about the various shifts in tone. Do not give up, it does make sense and all the narratives are connected as much it is possible in a Pynchon novel :)

One main critisicm of Pynchon is that there is no coherent plot, characters are not well developed etc. The thing to remember while reading a pynchon novel is that it is not going to be plot or character driven. It is going to be driven by events and imagination of the author. There is not going to be any main character, rather the novel is going to encompass many characters each of whom could be seen as equally important to the overall narrative, the objective of which is give an insight, feel of the locations, time period covered in the novel and let the reader reach his own conclusion about the underlying concept of the novel. This is going to vary from reader to reader. For me, 'Against The Day' speaks about the the rise of capitalism and is at the same time the tragic story of a family (The 'Traverse' family). This could be completely different for someone else. Modernist writing does not give so much amount of leeway, even if there are multiple interpretations of a modernist text they are bound to be part of a closed loop, as the characters are more or less well defined and as a reader you would need to fill in the blanks. In the case of Pynchon, it is a case of actually constructing the character from the scratch to a flesh and bones one.This freedom given to the user is to be remembered when you read Pynchon. Actually this is not specific to Pynchon when you think of it, lets take Murakami the other modern master. What would be the unforgettable, well defined character in his novels. The talking cat or the old man in 'Kafka on the Shore', is it Noboru or Toru or Kumiko? Aren't they all like half finished paintings splattered with multiple colours. Do any of them make complete sense, inspite of that don't the readers get the thread of Murakami's concerns (lifein modern urban Japan, the lonlineness and stress). Now, one could very well dislike these sort of narratives and he is perfectly right to feel so. But I just hope that this pointer may make someone look at these narratives in a slightly different light and make them more accessible. You may still dislike them fine, but then your critisicm should be based on the failings in what the author tried to do and not in what he did not attempt at all. Expecting a Alice Munro or Deborah Eisenberg when you read Pynchon is not going to help the reader.

So is this novel vacuous, does it try to exist solely on the basis of it's narrative strength? Not really, there are several characters who could have become unforgettable ones, but lose out in the flow of the overall narrative. Lets take the family  of 'Frank Traverse' a anarchist/communist at the turn of the 20th century fighting a losing battle against the corporations. He is killed by 2 men hired by the corporations. In a twist of fate his daughter 'Lake' ends up marrying one of them (Deuce). Lake knows that Duece murdered her father and Duece knows that Lake knows. So why did she marry him, what made her do so? The unspoken issue of her father's death keeps hanging like a sword over both, both of them not wanting to talk about it to the other, till little by little they try to come to terms with it. This has all the trappings of a Greek tragedy, but Pynchon does not milk it to the maximum extent possible. He just gives a peek into their life, their circling each other like vary animals waiting for the other to make a slip, but that's all we get.  All other things are left completely to our interpretation. It is the same with several other characters too. As I mentioned earlier, yes, Pynchon characters are not clearly delineated, but just remember that it's not the objective of the novel in any case.

The other thing that could be off putting about Pynchon is the usage of scientific/mathematical concepts in his novel. Reading about vectors etc in his novels are the only occasions that make me feel that I could have paid as much attention to Science as I did to History :). Does it interrupt the main thread of the novels. Not much as far as I can tell (agreed that my grasp of these concepts are basic), other than that you don't get to understand how much the scientific concepts are appropriate to the novel. But for me it's not a bother, as his novels are always about the Journey for me where I reach the destination I want.

So, is this a difficult book? I would say it is a demanding book, demanding of your patience, perseverance and concentration, not to mention the strength in your wrists to keep carrying around a 1000 page book for long periods. :)  If not for it's length, I would suggest this as the best place to start Pynchon. If anything, I just hope that this post clears some misapprehensions about Pynchon and someone gets started on any work of Pynchon.


  1. Great post. I first began to read Pynchon over 40 years ago. To me his most accesible book is The Crying of Lot 49. I would recommend neophytes to first read that then to just dive into Gravity's Rainbow. I totally agree with your view that one should experience Pynchon with your own mind. I have read Against The Day only once and I profited well from your insights

  2. Thanks Mel. Pynchon is kind of an acquired taste where the reader has put in a bit more effort than is normal, but the rewards are aplenty. Good to know that you have enjoyed his works.