The most recent Thomas Pynchon novel, Against the Day (AD), is his longest and least focused. This is saying a lot, as he has several works that are as labyrinthine and extended as any in literature. Indeed, his masterpiece of the 70’s, Gravity’s Rainbow (GR), which everyone should read, set the post-modern standard for such works, much as Ulysses did for modernist works in the early 20th century. GR is a masterpiece because its tightly integrated themes and allusions are illustrated by characters who, however sprawling the canvas on which they play out their stories, “come alive” for readers in the focused way that we expect all great novelistic creations (and their internal novelistic relationships) to hold our sympathy and/or interest.
But since GR, Pynchon’s works have been increasingly less successful. Like Faulkner, Pynchon works in only one style—instantly recognizable as his own, though influencing many others, often to their detriment. This style has two main parts: one is mannered, artificial, and often pastiche-oriented, in which dry, sardonic, black comedy, rich with minutely documented social incident, dominates. (Unfortunately, his humor has grown increasingly arch—often witty, but not very funny.) Mixed and/or alternating with this is a quasi-mystical, portentous and ominous magical-realism, often verging on a vague sort of science fiction, in which his interest in larger questions of the “meaning” of life can play out. This latter part allows Pynchon to gain the force of “religious” import for his otherwise very secular imaginative world, and is largely responsible for the eerily original “voice” with which Pynchon swept the literary world in the 60’s and 70’s.
Unfortunately, both techniques have begun to wear—particularly the magical realism. Though Pynchon remains endlessly inventive, in order to be successful while no longer “original”, his style must be put to work in the service of an actual story and characters that dramatically illustrate and draw the reader into the author’s take on his larger socio-political themes. And this is what Pynchon has been increasingly unable to accomplish, to the point in AD where, frankly, the book simply became (for me) an irritating and almost endless exercise in “virtuoso” verbiage. And though Pynchon can still on occasion produce writing of tremendous skill and beauty, the verbiage is increasingly slack as well—the novel would have been better at two-thirds its size, as sentences and paragraphs have far too much useless internal “filler”.
There are literally hundreds of characters in Against the Day. We see any one (or subset) of them only at widely spaced intervals, many make only token appearances, and even the main ones wander the globe so haphazardly as to vitiate any sustained interest in them. Virtually no internal psychology is presented for them by the author, and the external incident that could possibly define them more clearly is so multifarious and bewilderingly scattershot that it, too, fails to create any lasting impressions. Segment after segment starts promisingly with characters and incidents that might develop into something—then soon disappears, as a different segment begins.
This is a shame, as Pynchon remains one of the few American novelists, especially now that William Gaddis is dead, who has a serious critique of capitalism and its role in the ongoing crumbling of American society and culture. To its credit, AD is close to unique in presenting a sympathetic take on the factors that cause terrorism—by focusing (in part) on the American–born dynamiters of the early 20th century, as mine workers fought bosses in murderous class war. Our current mainstream political/media take on terrorists has no room for such notions, and suppresses our own labor history to avoid engaging the subject. Pynchon courageously (at first) lays out conditions that might make a normal worker turn to terrorism, when the owners’ power is so repressive as to be “terrifying” in its own right.
But this promising set of themes is soon lost in a thicket of others that are unrelated; connections and implications are imposed but rarely dramatized or fleshed out; and the emotional force and weight of any critique dissipates as characterizations are thin or non-existent. Pynchon’s “erudition” remains, as always, but is itself less impressive in these days of Google and Wikepedia. He vividly portrays aspects of the world of the early 20th century, particularly swirling around technology and World War I, that readers with his socio-political take will recognize as analogously evil to our own current world. But he fails to focus sufficiently on any particular human part of that world, giving readers no reason to care about reading his own book about it. AD should be the last Pynchon book anyone reads. (Though it won’t be the last one I read, as he has another (much shorter) one coming out soon, and hope springs eternal…)