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.)