The Perfect Book For A Long, Long Blimp Ride: “Against The Day” by Thomas Pynchon

Copyright © 2006 by Thomas Pynchon.

If you followed my blog posts back before I reinvented myself as The Rhapsodist, then you might know about the post I’ve written about Thomas Pynchon and what I enjoy about his writing (if not, here’s the link).  Suffice it to say that, in spite of his epically long novels and convoluted plots, I’m a fan of Pynchon’s style and ideas, so I feel I might as well review at least one novel with a sci-fi/fantasy bent to it.

So here, then, is his longest work to date, the 1,085-page tome entitled Against The Day.

The Story: The Times, They Are A-Changin’

There are any number of storylines taking place in this novel, including:

  • The crew of the airship Inconvenience visiting places all over the world, getting into various hijinks, secret missions, and existential quandaries.
  • The various members of the Traverse family of Colorado, who in some fashion or another get caught up in the hunt for their father’s killers, while also trying to find a general purpose to their lives beyond their father’s Anarchist legacy.
  • A Chicago detective trying to overcome a bout of amnesia and do penance for things he can’t remember.
  • An Englishman getting embroiled in various diplomatic affairs on the eve of World War I (not to mention several love affairs).

Beyond the individual subplots and character arcs, what’s really at the heart is a silent struggle between the Haves and the Have-Nots, between Plutocrats and Anarchists, between the Cold-Hearted and the Compassionate.  The protagonists all display, in one form or another, a kind of basic human decency that runs counter to the status quo, especially as all the “Great Powers” prepare for the inevitable war that will upset everything about the then-modern world.

The Cast: “Yeeah A-And Who Says We’re ‘Innocent’?”

The cast is about as numerous as the storylines, if not more so, and here follows only a tip of the character-heavy iceberg in Pynchon’s story:

  • The Chums of Chance, who crew the airship Inconvenience and act as a kind of Greek chorus to the whole plot, while also capturing the spirit of the time that we of the modern era view as more “innocent.”
  • Lew Basnight, a detective from Chicago who’s doing penance for a life of debauchery he never remembers having, and who gets caught up in the affairs of the British mystics’ society known as the T.W.I.T.
  • Merle and Dally Rideout, a traveling photographer and his young but sharp daughter, who must leave home and try to make her way through very unusual times.
  • Webb, Frank, Reef, Kit, and Lake Traverse, a man and his children, all born of the same hard Colorado stock, and all involved to one degree or another in the ongoing cause of Anarchism.
  • Yashmeen Halfcourt, an enchanting but mystical young woman who finds herself at the heart of several plots, both spiritual and political, and who is the object of desire for men and women all throughout the story.
  • Cyprian Latewood, one of Miss Halfcourt’s most earnest admirers and an equally valid cog in many an European diplomatic affair as the story progresses on toward the breakout of the “Great War.”

What’s important to note about these characters, collectively, is that they all embody, to one degree or another, Pynchon’s penchant for paranoia: that sense of imminent danger by unseen oppressors and a need to keep moving and accept whatever changes occur along the way if there’s to be any chance of survival, let alone success.  And considering the likes of antagonists such as the industrialist Scarsdale Vibe or the opportunistic Foreign Office agent Derrick Theign, they’d best be moving quick.

The Setting: Sometimes Four Dimensions Just Won’t Cut It

In a nutshell, while the story does deal with a lot of issues appropriate to the Victorian/Edwardian era, there’s also a lot that’s very fantastic, if not downright supernatural: a quest for the lost city of Shambhala, a weapon based on light and the mathematical system once known as quaternions, people communicating by gases, and potential breakthroughs in time travel.

And because it’s Pynchon, there’s a lot of subtext for the era housed within discussions of optics, theories about time, and mathematics–at least according to Yashmeen Halfcourt:

“The political crisis in Europe maps into the crisis in mathematics.  Weierstrass functions, Cantor‘s continuum, Russell‘s equally inexhaustible capacity for mischief–once, among nations, as in chess, suicide was illegal.  Once, among mathematicians, ‘the infinite‘ was all but a conjuror’s convenience.  The connections lie there, Kit–hidden and poisonous.  Those of us who must creep among them do so at our peril” (Pynchon 594).

This story is full of everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the world on the eve of the First World War (along with things you might never have wanted to know about, depending on how you feel about human sexuality).  It’s even written in a style that mimics the adventure novels and spy thrillers of the time, along with frequent breaks for a quick, completely fabricated song (perhaps just to see if we’re still paying attention?).

Final Verdict: Still More Comprehensible Than Joyce (And Twice As Entertaining, Too)

For many, this book will be incomprehensible and you might never get past the first ten pages before giving up.  This is a perfectly understandable reaction, but even so, this story requires a patient and open-minded reader.  I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it, but feel I should give you fair warning.  This book will challenge you with subplots within subplots, characters coming and going at a moment’s notice, and run-on sentences that threaten to break your sanity.

But in spite of that, this story is still rather good.  The characters all suffer and carry on beautifully, even while knowing that the future is about to take a most climatic turn, and there’s plenty of comedy, romance, and intrigue to enjoy.

If you’re reading this for the first time, I’d suggest consulting with this fan-made wiki as you read.  The site contains page-by-page annotations to help readers appreciate every name-drop, ever carefully-layered pun, metaphor, and quote that the author will throw at you without ceasing.

Bibliography: Pynchon, Thomas.  Against The Day.  New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

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