Against The Day

By Thomas Pynchon

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When I was little and had just started reading books for grown-ups, I asked my father if he had ever encountered a book so difficult that he had not been able to finish it. There was one, he answered, a book called ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, which was so long and hard that he had given up part-way through.

I asked him what was so hard about it, and he told me that he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t make any sense to him. It was just impossible to get through. I asked why he had tried to read it in the first place (he never was a great one for novels) and he told me that it was considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. I told him I bet that I would be able to get through it, and he bet me I would not. He bet me $50 dollars (a huge amount of money to me at that age, when my allowance was $8 per week) that I would not be able to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ all the way through.

I won that $50, some years later, with the help of a companion gloss, but it was reading by brute force. My father was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense, and, to this day, I don’t really know what ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was about. But I was left with an impression of greatness which I am still unable to justify: I didn’t understand it, at all, but I liked it.

And so, over the years, I have come back again and again to Pynchon, reading a number of his books. In his defense, none have had quite the zany incoherence of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, though they are all clearly products of the same mind. Nor have any had the length.

Until now: ‘Against the Day‘, which was published in 2006, clocks in at almost 1100 pages. It is a historical epic, following dozens of named characters from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the global eruption of World War I. The gravitational center of the novel is the three sons of the anarchist bomber Webb Traverse. Traverse is tortured and killed by two assassins in the hire of anti-union interests; his death will torment and mutilate his offspring, will pursue them in their flight over the surface of the planet.

As so often with Pynchon, there is no plot, per se, uniting these characters and episodes; rather, they are united by a moral and stylistic point of view. ‘Against the Day‘ is a long fever dream laboring under a cloud of foreboding: World War I, the death of innocence, the blood and machines which will devour and destroy mankind’s ability to believe in its own civility, is coming, bearing down on Pynchon’s mind and clouding his world with unnameable, or maybe just unnamed, fear. ‘Against the Day’ is a novel about a civilization, a whole world, gone mad, and the creeping evils, capitalism, greed, technological progress, which drove it there.

In my years of making attempts on his novels, I have learned that one doesn’t read Pynchon’s books so much as one experiences them. There is a trick to this, a sort of mental relaxation which is counter-intuitive to all one’s instincts as a responsible reader. You have to relinquish your need to understand what’s happening, to remember details and to track events, and just let the novel happen to you. I believe, and I may be wrong about this, that the point of Pynchon’s novels happens in a sort of gestalt-absorption of the prose-tone, which I recognize doesn’t make any sense, but, then again, neither does he.

If you can let go of the idea that prose is supposed to make sense, you begin to understand that Pynchon’s writing is totally fucking sublime, I mean really, really good. And it’s not incoherent in the Joycean way of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, not gibberish – that would make me furious – it’s world-class writing, but it’s not being deployed to communicate a story to you. And so reading him is not like taking in a story at all – it is like taking in a busy scene: chaotic, overwhelming at first, but punctuated by moments in which your eye comes to rest on something beautiful, small points of lovely focus:

“Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes. Just at the peak of the evening rush-hour, electric power failed everywhere throughout the city, and as the gas mains began to ignite and the thousand local winds, distinct at every street-corner, to confound prediction, cobblestones erupted skyward, to descend blocks away in seldom observed yet beautiful patterns. All attempts to counter-attack or even avoid the Figure would be defeated. Later, fire alarms would go unanswered, and the firemen on the front lines would find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be horrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the willfully careless that there was no refuge…

There was debate in the aftermath about what had happened to the Mayor. Fled, dead, not right in the head, the theories proliferated in his absence. His face appeared on bills posted all over the wood fences around vacant lots, the rear ends of streetcars, its all-too-familiar bone structure shining with the unforgiving simplicity of a skull. “Remain indoors,” warned bulletins posted on the carbonized walls over his signature. “This night you will not be welcome in my streets, whether there be too many of you or too few.” (p. 152).

Thomas Pynchon

This is breathtakingly good writing, but understand: it is an aside. The Figure wreaking havoc on this town is never explained, and not mentioned again. It is a small piece of madness in a swirling world, important the way everything is important, meaningless the way everything is meaningless.

Pynchon isn’t incoherent because he’s garbled, he’s incoherent because he never pauses for breathe, doesn’t resolve loose ends, doesn’t resolve anything. Because his worlds are magical and he never explains them, because he doesn’t give context or backstory or rationale. He makes no sacrifices for you, makes no gestures at you, doesn’t even seem to realize that you exist.

Oh, and he’s funny. Funny, and rude, and crude. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ launched him into the pantheon of the unread Greats, the Postmodern Masters, but because no one can read him and everyone knows that he is Important, no one supposes that Thomas Pynchon is fucking hysterical, that he’s obsessed with sex, and gutter-minded, and slapstick.

I suppose that maybe that I love Pynchon, but not as an author. I love him as writer, if that makes any sense. I don’t love his books, but I love the lucid moments in his incredible prose, the those moments of blinding skill. I love the lens through which he looks out upon the world, the mischief, the chaos, the evil and the love and the humor which provide respite from it. The great human forces which pull us all along, and how strange and unreasonable it all looks to him. How alien and small we are all, and how lovingly he draws us. I don’t understand him at all, but I’ll read him, I think, forever.

A Handful of Dust

By Evelyn Waugh

All posts contain spoilers.

Waugh Collection
My Waughs

Evelyn Waugh has always epitomized, for me, the kind of arch, precise English literature which I love most in the world.  His best books, ‘Brideshead Revisited‘, ‘Scoop‘, or ‘The Loved One‘, are masterpieces of dry, unsparing social observation.  ‘Scoop‘, for example, is satire, dark and snide, but ‘Brideshead‘ is more complicated, and more melancholy, a story about love and its slow dissolution.

It’s my opinion that ‘A Handful of Dust‘ is not one of Waugh’s best, but Waugh is like sex, or Graham Greene: even when he’s mediocre, he’s still the best thing going.  It’s the story of the happy but boring marriage of Tony and Brenda Last, which becomes disrupted when Brenda begins an affair with the deeply ordinary and romantically unconvincing John Beaver (who lives with his ghastly mother).A Handful of Dust

A Handful of Dust‘ is a novel of social and moral derangement.  Set after the First World War, the population of this novel have lost an essential decency, and so, under their lovely English manners, they act with complete ethical incoherence.  Waugh often imbues his novels with this sense of polite dissonance, which, when it works, makes them bleak and devastating in the best possible way, but, when it doesn’t work, makes me feel vaguely panicky.

My sense of foreboding is learned, because in many (most?) Waugh novels, people meet terrible ends, and they meet them unremarked and unmourned.  Waugh, better than anyone else, captures for me the sense of unreality which must have characterized life in Europe after World War I: all the daily motions, the little rituals of life, undercut by a sense that you might be swallowed up at any time by a chaos unimaginable by your father’s father.  People pretended to get back to normal, but how can you be normal when you know that life is meaningless?  And how can life be anything but meaningless, when you have watched most of the young men of your generation ground into muddy, disintegrating death by the machine of total war?

Waugh communicates this meaninglessness by the juxtaposition of his fine manners with the complete amorality of his universe, all of which is explicated in his punctilious prose.  His characters inflict grave injury on each other in the calmest manner, and I think it is this calm which makes me so anxious when it goes awry.  I’m not sure that the characters in ‘A Handful of Dust‘ are well-elaborated enough to carry his nihilism, so their bad behavior simply feels unrelenting.

However, at the end of the day, I don’t read Waugh for his characters; the point of Waugh is his beautiful language, and he can always be counted on to serve up some consummate prose.  And, in fact, the same emotionlessness which makes his characters hard to bear makes his writing effective and funny; his flat affect is what makes him so droll.

For example:

“Aunt Francis, with acid mind, quickly discerned the trouble and attempted to reassure her, saying, ‘Dear child, all these feelings of delicacy are valueless; only the rich realize the gulf that separates them from the poor.'” (p. 71)

Or:

“The fourth weekend after Brenda’s departure from Hetton was fixed for Tony’s infidelity.  A suite was engaged at a seaside hotel (“We always send our clients there.  The servants are well accustomed to giving evidence”) and private detectives were notified.  “It only remains to select a partner,” said the solicitor; no hint of naughtiness lightened his gloom.  “We have on occasions been instrumental in accommodating our clients but there have been frequent complaints, so we find it best to leave the choice to them.'” (p. 157)

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Evelyn Waugh: It would be difficult to look more English.

Or, in what is my favorite sentence from the novel:

“All over England, people were waking up, queasy and despondent.” (p. 16)

Sentences like that, presented almost entirely without context and yet elegantly encapsulating an entire worldview, are why I love Waugh, why I will always read him, and re-read him.  For dismal precision, he has no equal.