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Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind | The Nation

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Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

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What were they doing out here this late in history? --Thomas Pynchon
Against the Day

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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From, roughly, the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 to, roughly, the silent movies and the Palmer Raids of the early postwar 1920s, nobody in this novel is ever home. Instead--flyboys and magicians, anarchists and Pinkertons, alchemists and pilgrims, mathematicians and spies, fugitives, refugees, nomads, bandits, ghosts--they are on the road and on the lam. Or up in a hot-air balloon, looking down on volcanoes and the Paris Commune. Or burrowing underground like a Frank Herbert sandworm, in search of Shambhala, the earthly paradise of Tibetan Buddhism, or Aztlan, the mythical home of the original Mexicans. And no matter how hard they run in Outer Europe, Inner Asia, Deep Germany or the wild American West, something sinister keeps gaining on them--"polar darkness," "ancient purpose," "mad disorder," "ruin and sorrow," "the stripped and dismal metonymies of the dead" and/or a fourth dimension.

"Gravity pulls along the third dimension, up to down," says one of the many mad scientists we meet in these feverish pages; "time pulls along the fourth, birth to death."

We hear a lot about the fourth dimension in Against the Day, as well as double refraction, bilocation, perfect mirrors, imaginary numbers and lateral world-sets. We hear equally about US labor history, including Haymarket, Homestead, Coeur d'Alene, Cripple Creek, Ludlow and Mother Jones; and the Mexican Un-Revolution, that strut-and-fret of Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza, Obregón, Villa and Zapata; and ethnic seething in the Balkans, before Rebecca West, Marshal Tito or Richard Holbrooke got a chance to do their fiddles; and turn-of-the-century parapsychology, with its mountain-misted tommyknockers and dreamworld Tenochtitlans. But because Against the Day is a full-blown and full-fledged Pynchon novel--and thus not only an occasion of joy in every nook of American culture except The New Republic but also a phantasmagoria whose only conceivable analogue is another Pynchon novel, Gravity's Rainbow--we hear almost as much about mayonnaise, Futurism, landmines, poison gas and the ancient Albanian honor code of Kanuni Lekë Dukagjinit.

"Inspect your shoes, Mrs. Kindred, it's gettin deep around here."

As usual, there are dozens of characters with silly names (Mia Culpepper, an astrologist, is my favorite, but Pleiade Lafrisee's hard to beat). And dozens of words we have to look up (absquatulated, fulgurescence, xanthocroid, cataplexy). And geography-drops to shame Bruce Chatwin (Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, Domodossola). And snacks to sate velociraptors (brain tacos, Meat Olaf). And, though nothing is quite as addictive as a blood vendetta, enough mind-altering substances to kill the White Rabbit (opium beer, cactus peyote, chloral hydrate, cigarettes soaked in absinthe, "cocainized brain tonics" and somewhere on the Silk Road between Turfan and Novosibirsk a flowering hemp twelve feet tall and fungomaniacs who drink each other's urine). Plus a speaking in tongues that ranges, according to its narrative needs and whimsies, from Gulliver's Travels and The Book of Urizen to The Labyrinth of Solitude and The Tin Drum; from Herman Melville to Nathanael West to John Dos Passos to Joseph Heller to Carlos Castaneda, by way of extreme Kerouac; from Mark Twain, Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett to S.J. Perelman, P.G. Wodehouse, Umberto Eco and Monty Python; from such boys' adventure books as Tom Swift in the Caves of Ice to such '40s radio serials as Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons to such '40s flicks as Casablanca and The Third Man. (And yet, and yet--always the jaunty, cheeky, demotic, katzenjammer Tom, joshing us through what Don DeLillo calls the "whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness," as if Huck Finn surfed a Mississippi wave of dread.)

As in Rainbow and Vineland, vampire capitalism and the Western death wish are alive and kicking. As in Mason & Dixon, the earth is hollow and a geometry of violence "more permissive than Euclid" wrings profit from oppression. As always, a Bodine appears, here an American stoker on an Austrian battleship. If entropy and the second law of thermodynamics aren't mentioned until a thousand pages in, we feel their shadow presence and tidal pull from the first mention of electromagnetism. (Anyhow, this time around, Newton's third law of motion is more important.) The biggest surprise, not counting the space devoted to Lake Baikal, white slavery, Tamerlane's tomb and Jonah and the whale, is an astonishing excess of ukuleles. I mean, they show up more often than doggerel and puns. There is even a ukulele version of Chopin's Nocturne in E minor.

"It isn't only the difficult terrain," says a Kashgar prophet to an American student about the Chinese desert; "the vipers and sandstorms and raiding parties. The journey itself is a kind of conscious being, a living deity who does not wish to engage with the foolish or the weak, and hence will try to dissuade you. It insists on the furthest degree of respect." He might be talking about this grand, unruly novel in which, by a sort of reverse ghostliness, the future will "trespass" on the past: Indiana Tom Beyond the Speed of Light.

Within the mirror, within the scalar term, within the daylit and obvious and taken-for-granted has always lain, as if in wait, the dark itinerary, the corrupted pilgrim's guide, the nameless Station before the first, in the lightless uncreated, where salvation does not yet exist.   --Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

*

"Your mother's a Pinkerton!"    --Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

It's a Perils of Pauline plot as pulpy and fibrous, as gnarly and pantophagic, as a thicket of bamboo. Everything ends up polarized, because we are working our way through ideas of light as thickening as they are wavy; and everybody ends up paired, as if for Noah's Ark. Meanwhile, under these covers, in what may be a narrative riff on William Rowan Hamilton's quaternion-based algebra of vector and tensor spaces, four different stories compete for our attention:

1. The Chums of Chance. These are the balloon boys, the Tom Swifts, Frank Merriwells and Dink Stovers in the gondola of the hydrogen ship Inconvenience, "ascensionaries" into the blue yonder and characters in their own series of adventure books, pure of heart and brave of bone, with their "dual citizenship in the realms of the quotidian and the ghostly" and their loyal sky-dog, Pugnax.

Ordered about by authorities they never see, the balloon boys spy from above on World's Fair riffraff, looking for bomb-throwers; monitor the man-made lightning experiments of Nikola Tesla in Colorado in 1900 from a volcano in the Indian Ocean; witness the disinterring from Arctic ice of a sacred, serpent-figured odalisque, an incendiary "consciousness" that burns down a city much like New York; scour the "ancient sepia" of Venice in search of "the fabled Sfinciuno Itinerary, a map or chart of post-Polo routes into Asia, believed by many to lead to the hidden city of Shambhala itself"; confound their shadowy enemies by disguising themselves as a harmonica band at Candlebrow University in Iowa, among "Russian nihilists with peculiar notions about the laws of history and reversible processes, Indian swamis concerned with the effect of time travel on the laws of Karma, [and] Sicilians with equal apprehensions for the principle of vendetta"; float their gassy boat all the way to Bukhara, where it turns out the people in charge are more interested in oil than in Shambhala; and somehow sense, in the sky above Flanders, on the road from Ypres, a tearing open of Time's fabric, and themselves "swept through, with no way back, orphans and exiles" who find they will do what they must, "however shameful, to get from end to end of each corroded day."

Although the Charter of the Chums of Chance, like the Federation's Prime Directive to the starship Enterprise, prohibits interference with the legal customs of any locality they touch down upon, of course they step in it. Think of them as America, meaning well with a boyish grin. It is the business of history and Pynchon to debauch their innocence. That such Peter Pans wind up pairing off with Tinkerbells--a Sodality of Aetheronauts "like a flock of February chaffinch," with metallic wings, machined feathers, black kidskin and nickel plating--is a Neverland of dime-novel wishful thinking.

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