- “The Exact Degree of Fictitiousness”: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day
With Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon has given us his sixth novel in the forty-three years since V. was published in 1963. With that auspicious beginning (V. won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of 1963), Pynchon set a high bar for his fiction, one he raised with his next two novels The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). The latter remains, arguably, Pynchon’s masterpiece, and if he were ever to give an interview, I think he would concede it has been a tough act to follow. In 1984 he collected his early short fiction in Slow Learner (including an Introduction in which he reveals some aspects of his early writing process), but it wasn’t until 1990 that his fourth novel Vineland was published. Because of its focus on the topical issues of the 1980s, most critics thought Vineland reflected Pynchon’s concern with the direction America was heading during the Reagan presidency, and therefore not the novel that had been occupying him since 1973. With Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon regained his stride and produced a text that, for some critics, gives Gravity’s Rainbow a run for the label “Pynchon’s masterpiece.” Having now read Against the Day twice, I would put it in the running with Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon—time will tell where it places.
We need to recall Pynchon’s publishing history for any assessment of Against the Day because in this new novel Pynchon is particularly aware of his earlier texts. We have come to expect so-called “Pynchonesque” features in his work, such as thematic concerns with paranoia, the role of technology in controlling human lives, and more importantly, the role of governments and corporations (the line between them becoming ever thinner) in guiding those technologies for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. We expect wacky character names (Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Dr. Coombs de Bottle, Alonzo Meatman, for instance) and organizations with wacky acronyms (T.W.I.T., I.G.L.O.O., and L.A.H.D.I.D.A., for instance). We expect the text to display a general encyclopedic quality, and it is worth noting that on the day of publication, there was already up and running a Wiki site (ThomasPynchon.com, managed by Tim Ware) to begin cataloging and annotating Pynchon’s deep research for this novel.
Likewise, we expect healthy doses of scientific information (mainly mathematics and physics this time) woven into the text to function at both literal and figurative levels in the plot. Against the Day focuses on issues of time and space, and its narrative time overlaps with the emergence of Einstein’s theories of relativity. In this way the novel concentrates our attention on the new ontologies of the planet that emerged at the turn of the century—a reflection that probably occupied Pynchon during his composition of the text as our own turn of the century passed. Lastly, we expect a “plot” that is loose at best and certainly multiple in focus, and a “plot” that will not be limited to the elucidation of the moral and social evolution of individual characters as one finds in classic “big” novels such as Tolstoy’s. That said, Against the Day is in many ways a character-driven novel.
For many readers, patient re-reading is also required to grasp Pynchon’s style in Against the Day. Pynchon’s styles have always caused readers initial difficulty. Pynchon has from V. onwards demonstrated a proclivity for dialogic interplay among his narrative voices. Some critics have proposed that there is never a single narrator in a Pynchon novel, while others delight in his devotion to parody and pastiche both as a means of character revelation and as stylistic pyrotechnics. Although it is fair to say that Pynchon’s approach to style is not every reader’s cup of tea, a Pynchon novel always challenges and unsettles our habitual strategies of reading; the reader must be ready...