Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is actually four stories, each replete with brilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a plaintive ukulele.


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

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.

2. Mathematicians, Magicians and Parapsychologists. These children of Hamilton, Tesla, Houdini and Blavatsky are all over the novel’s world, from Cleveland, Colorado, Iowa and Yale to London, Iceland, Göttingen and Sarajevo. “Water falls, electricity flows–one flow becomes another, and thence into light,” whose “revealed mysteries” drive mathematicians as mad as the Venetian mirror-makers. (“I want to know light,” says one; “I want to reach inside light and find its heart, touch its soul, take some in my hands.”) They imagine a map, somewhere in Riemann space-time, in which a linear axis becomes curvilinear, linear time thus becomes circular and eternal return is achieved. In the same way, the parapsychologists of T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys) seek in Orphic and Pythagorean mysticism, in Tarot cards, magic crystals and nut cutlets, a Golden Dawn of telekinesis and “a gateway to the Ulterior.” Whereas magicians like Luca Zombini, with his “perfect mirrors” and Nicol prisms, wish merely to trick us into a disappearing cabinet.

Where Quaternion meets Tetractys and Zombini is at the nexus of Iceland spar, a doubly refracting crystal that multiplies images so exactly as to unleash twinship and “the mysterious shamanic power known as bilocation” on an already schizzy situation. For mathematicians, magicians and mystagogues alike, not to mention double agents in all the information ministries, this refraction is a portal into an icy elsewhere–“pulses of color, dense sheets and billows and colonnades of light and current, in transfiguration unceasing”; “induced paramorphism,” “ever-more-polycrystalline luminosities of meaning” and a “doubling of Creation.” But also, much less cheerfully–“sinister unknowability,” “unholy radiance,” “nocturnal ghostways,” “axes of sorrow and loss” and “a lethal impedance in the air, as if something malevolent were making every exertion to take form and be released upon the world in long, dry, cracking percussions, as if jarring the fabric of four-space itself.”

I will not pretend to grasp all this. In a Richard Powers novel, I am almost persuaded that I could crack the genetic code myself, given his elegant instructions. In a Pynchon, I just go with the metaphoric flow, which turns out to be a long way. At least none of it is contradicted by the latest string theories, with their “extra” dimensions and “supersymmetry.” It is suggested here that such fraught light, converted maybe into lasers, was somehow responsible for the Tunguska Event in Siberia in June 1908, where an explosion in the nuclear range, equivalent to ten to twenty megatons of TNT, felled 60 million trees over 830 square miles. Instead of comets, asteroids, earthquakes or ball lightning, why not Chernobyl–“the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation,” after which, for a while, reindeer flew, clocks ran backward and wolves walked into churches to quote Scripture. But “we of the futurity” are not required to take this suggestion seriously. We know what really happened when atomic physicists went into the Los Alamos desert, took light in their hands and broke it like a pencil. And a lot of good it did us to quote Sanskrit.

3. Anarchists and Those Who Love Them. Instead of up in the air or abstractions, they are down in caves, tunneling for railroads, mining metals. Our hero here is Webb Traverse, who, as a hoistman, singlejacker and even assistant foreman in the Colorado silver mines, “never saw a minute that didn’t belong to somebody else”; whose membership card in the Western Federation of Miners reads, as if auditioning for a part in the nostalgia craze, “Labor produces all the wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof”; whose clandestine identity is the Kieselguhr Kid, a dynamiter of anything owned by those “Plutonic powers” who “daily sent their legions of gnomes underground to hollow out as much of that broken domain as they could before the overburden collapsed, often as not on top of their heads”; who is murdered by thugs in the employ of the railroad tycoon Scarsdale Vibe; who must be avenged by his three sons, who are likewise stalked by assassins–Reef, a gambling man who leaves the country when the heat turns up, to tunnel in the Alps; Kit, a mathematician who goes first to Yale, then Göttingen and finally Tibet; and Frank, who spends most of this book fighting on the losing side in the Mexican Revolution.

As Vineland reminded us of a lost history of radical politics on the West Coast; of union organizing in mines, logging camps and canneries; of strikes against San Joaquin cotton, Ventura beets and Venice lettuce; of Tom Mooney, Harry Bridges and the ’50s blacklists, so Against the Day gives us a remarkable sense of a working-class culture with “a shared dream of what a city might at its best prove to be,” under permanent siege; of stockmen, gunsmiths, drovers, barkeeps, remittance men and pharmacy drummers “with giant sample valises full of nerve tonics and mange pills”; meat-packing scars, needlework squints, drift, squat, fatigue, foreclosure, unemployment and dispossession; scabs, militias, vigilantes, the National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan; bullpens and bayonets, Bakunin and Kropotkin, Joe Hill and Viva Zapata.

All that needs to be said of Yashmeen Halfcourt, girl mathematician; Wren Provenance, girl anthropologist; Dahlia Rideout, girl stage personality; and Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, girl trampoline, is that women get in the way of vengeance. Already, from Gravity’s Rainbow, you should know about Pynchon and kinky sex. What happens here belongs more to the sociology of Weimar Republic fetish clubs than to the political science of class war.

4. Bad Guys. They are capitalists, Pinkertons, diplomats and double agents. “Smite early and often,” says Scarsdale Vibe. Since they have hollowed out the earth with their technologies of desire, we root for a hard fall and reciprocal sucking. But they almost always get away with it, so why give them any more time of day? Instead, I hold out a forlorn hope for the Tatzelwurm we meet in the tunnels between Switzerland and Italy, a snake with paws, a serpent of resentment, a “primordial plasm of hate and punishment at the center of the Earth.” If Reef, Kit and Frank fail to avenge their father, maybe the Tatzelwurm will.

But as if, too, there might exist a place of refuge, up in the fresh air, out over the sea, someplace all the Anarchists could escape to, now with the danger so overwhelming, a place readily found even on cheap maps of the World, some group of green volcanic islands, each with its own dialect, too far from the sea-lanes to be of use as a coaling station, lacking nitrate sources, fuel deposits, desirable ores either precious or practical, and so left forever immune to the bad luck and worse judgment infesting the politics of the Continents–a place promised them, not by God, which’d be asking too much of the average Anarchist, but by certain hidden geometries of History, which must include, somewhere, at least at a single point, a safe conjugate to all the spill of accursed meridians, passing daily, desolate, one upon the next. –Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Pynchon actually imagines an Anarchist spa, Yz-Les-Bains, a Big Rock Candy Mountain for resting-up Wobblies, hidden in the foothills of the Pyrenees. To which he adds sprinkles–an Anarchist golf game, like croquet with flamingos in Alice in Wonderland, like the Mad Hatter’s high tea. Another mirror heard from.

I mentioned Newton’s third law of motion, which assures us that for every force acting on a body, the body exerts a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction along the same line as the original. It would be comforting to think that something so straightforward applied as well to human behavior; that we could count on a balancing of the ethical books at the end of every bloody day; that there was some sort of entropic jurisprudence, according to which a pissed-off moral universe insisted on recovering its equilibrium; that the return of the repressed is a sure thing. On the one hand, as Ruperta explains to her London friends: “I can never claim forgiveness from anyone. Somehow, I alone, for every single wrong act in my life, must find a right one to balance it. I may not have that much time left.” On the other, the Red Reverend Moss Gatlin can’t be clearer: “If you are not devoting every breath of every day waking and sleeping to destroying those who slaughter the innocent as easy as signing a check, then how innocent are you willing to call yourself? It must be negotiated with the day, from those absolute terms.” Pynchon himself suggests that somewhere below ground, or buried at either pole, or waiting in ambush on the other side of a portal, a membrane or a looking glass, invisible forces mass to motion like an angry Wormwood, for payback time. In his Mexico, the gringos can’t sleep at night in their grand villas for fear of the bolero and fandango to come.

There were tunnels, channels, sewers, trollfolk and a polar redoubt in V as well. In The Crying of Lot 49 there was Tristero, a subterranean signal system for the dispossessed in “a separate, silent, unsuspected world” of squatters “living in the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication.” Underground in Gravity’s Rainbow there was Dora, the prison camp and Mittelkwerke city of rockets and salt; and “the invisible kingdom” of crematoria ghosts on the other side of Pökler’s vacuums; and the Schwarzkommandos who believed that the unappeased souls of their dead were waiting in the Arctic. In Vineland, besides Thanatoids and Indian spirits, there were the dolphinlike woge who hid beneath the ocean to see what we did with their world. In Mason & Dixon, to avenge the shadow-land shapes of the shamefully martyred and nameless dead against such puppet masters as the Royal Society and the British East India Company, there were dream-bodies, ghost-fish, black dogs, werewolves and Gnostic remnants. Remember the “luminous Phantoms” Mason saw, carrying bowls, bones, drums and incense, “flowing by thick as Eels,” “ever and implacably cruel, hiding, haunting, waiting,–known only to the blood-scented deserts of the Night.”

Now consult again the wonderful quotation in Vineland from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience:

Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monopolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forever more the ponderous equator to its line, and man and mote, and star and sun, must range to it, or be pulverized by the recoil.

Except that in Vineland, just as the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll failed to survive government repression in the ’60s, so Zoyd Wheeler’s “harbor of refuge” in the California redwoods fell in the ’80s to narcs, RICOs, Reaganauts, tree-killers, earth-rapers, television anchorfaces, yuppie greedheads and the death-loving Wasteland thought police, in spite of the best efforts of kickass woman warrior DL Chastain, whose martial artistry included the Vibrating Palm, the Hidden Foot, the Enraged Sparrow and the “truly unspeakable” Gojira no Chimopira. And in our own brave new twenty-first century it’s not only hard to find a spare Wobbly, but where did all the liberals go? If the gringos in their villas dream at all, it’s of sugar-plum stock options. Never mind social justice, what happened to habeas corpus? Faith-based globocops police the words in our mouths and the behaviors in our bed while sorehead cable blabbercasters rant them on. Blood lust, wet dreams, collateral damage and extraordinary rendition; Halliburton and Abu Ghraib; an erotics of property, a theology of greed and a holy war on the poor, the old, the sick, the odd and the other–when oh when will the Tatzelwurm turn? None of this, of course, is news to Pynchon, which is why we’re left with brilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a plaintive ukulele.

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