Inside the Time Machine

Against the Day is a baggy monster of a book, sphinxlike and intimidating in its white wrappers, which are decorated with nothing but a seal containing an unintelligible glyph. It is appreciably longer than even Pynchon’s longest previous books—nearly half again as big as Gravity’s Rainbow (760 pages) or Mason & Dixon (773). Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, it does not have an easily describable subject, or one to which the average literary consumer is already attuned. Unlike Mason & Dixon it is not borne along by a couple of strong and affecting main characters. Its subject is slippery, mercurial, multifaceted, hard to explain, and nowhere near fashionable territory. Six or seven of its major characters are strong and affecting, but there are dozens of others here, and the story has so many branches and extensions, trunk lines and switchbacks and yards and sidings that characters regularly drop out for a few hundred pages at a stretch. It isn’t always easy to remember who they are when they reappear.

Pynchon’s novels always have their own peculiar rhythm and logic, setting the reader in terrain that is continually shifting and thus requires an athletic suppleness of attention and mood. Digression is the constant, not the exception. Sequences that seem to follow the traditional order of novelistic development tend to fade into extended prose poems, which turn into pages of abstruse speculation, which then, just as the reader’s eyes begin to glow with a semblance of comprehension, tumble into slapstick, sometimes involving song-and-dance routines. Ideas powerful enough to drive whole books are prodigally thrown away, while the most gratuitous passing notions are taken up and pursued to the point of exhaustion. Some sequential and organizational decisions may have been made with the use of dice, or yarrow stalks, or tea leaves. Very occasionally, Homer nods.

All of these characteristics, which have figured in Pynchon’s work since the beginning, are in Against the Day taken to unprecedented lengths. The overall impression is of a vast piece of architecture, something with wings and turrets and redoubts and flying buttresses, that has been entirely constructed by hand and without blueprints. It may appear titanic and overwhelming from a distance, but close up it is oddly homespun, friendly, accommodating, and free of such oppressions as symmetry and hierarchy.

Like one of those blockbusters that used to clog the best-seller lists a few decades ago, Against the Day is a multigenerational saga, unfolding over nearly thirty years, spanning the globe from the Rockies to the Himalayas and from pole to pole. Its action is framed, more or less, by the adventures of the Chums of Chance, a crew of permanently youthful balloonists, something like the Rover Boys, who dart around the world on missions that are serially recorded in numbered volumes (The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa, The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis). At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the book starts, they encounter Merle Rideout, a photographer and sometime alchemist, whose wife has left him to care for their precocious young daughter, Dahlia, known as Dally. The story then follows Merle and Dally to Colorado, where they in turn meet Webb Traverse, a mine foreman who pursues a secret career as the Kielselguhr Kid, anarchist dynamiter of power lines and railroad bridges.

Most of those utilities are owned by a sinister plutocrat, Scarsdale Vibe, who, jealous of J.P. Morgan’s relationship with Thomas Edison and frustrated by the insistence of the brilliant Serb-American scientist Nikola Tesla on inventing technologies that cannot readily be exploited for capital gain, has decided to finance the education of Webb’s youngest son, Kit, who seems promising. Eventually he also hires a couple of rounders to kill Webb and they do so. Although Webb’s daughter takes up with one of the killers, his other two sons, Frank and Reef, swear vengeance. The remainder of the novel follows the exceedingly tortuous paths of Dally Rideout and the three Traverse boys, with occasional visits from the Chums of Chance.

That’s about as much of a synopsis as can be undertaken in a reasonably short space—a more detailed account could reach book length on its own. There are a few other major characters, whose trajectories are even harder to summarize: Yashmeen Halfcourt, a Russian orphan who grows up to become a mathematician, a femme fatale, and eventually a Traverse matriarch—although that isn’t the half of it; Cyprian Latewood, whose appearances make up an entire bildungsroman, as he progresses from student to spy to bumboy to flâneur to adventure hero to anchorite; and the perennial outsider Lew Basnight, who shows up just about everywhere, from page 36 to page 1,061, in the process enacting the history of the romantic detective from the dime novel to Black Mask by way of S.S. Van Dine, Edgar Wallace, and John Buchan. These are all fully inhabited characters, emotionally involving even as the places and incidents and jokes and allusions carom around them. There are also dozens of secondary figures who leave indelible footprints on the page.

But the size and sprawl of Pynchon’s canvas proceed from an impatience with the limits of the novel form, and an ambition to hunt bigger game than the mere symbolic enactment of epochs and ideas through the collision of a handful of lives. The unstoppable proliferation of every kind of situation comes in part from a compulsion to keep himself and the reader entertained, but it is also wolfsbane nailed up against the possibility of reductive interpretation. At the book’s heart is a cluster of motifs—ideas, notions, hunches, feelings, analogies—kept in constant, shape-shifting motion. The most obvious is the era itself, from 1893 to the eve of World War I (with a brief postwar coda): the birth of modern society and a crucial historical pivot, when things might have gone some other way. As in Mason & Dixon, where the eponymous line is seen as a kind of original sin, there is an urgent wish to go back and somehow magically throw the switch and send the engine of history down a different track. As in V., there is a great deal of speculation about the permeability of time and space. As in Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a preoccupation with the machinery of war and the momentum toward apocalypse. And as in Vineland, there is a flickering-candle, optimism-of-the-will belief in resistance against the forces of power and money and death. Each of these makes the book’s title resonate in a different key.

Here as in his other books, Pynchon is writing a sort of parahistorical fiction, extrapolating from the known the way science fiction writers do with science. He can evoke the texture of the past as vividly as anyone, as in this evocation of the Midwest:

…The extravagantly kept promises of island girls, found riding the electric trolley-lines that linked each cozy city to each, or serenely dealing cards in the riverside saloons, slinging hash in cafeterias you walked downstairs into out of redbrick streets, gazing through doorscreens in Cedar Rapids, girls at fences in front of long fields in yellow light, Lizas and Christinas, girls of the plains and of profusely-flowered seasons that may never quite have been, cooking for threshers far into and sometimes all through the nights of harvest, watching the streetcars come and go, dreaming of cavalry boys ridden off down the pikes, sipping the local brain tonic, tending steaming washtubs full of corn ears at the street corners with radiant eyes ever on the move, out in the yard in Ottumwa beating a rug, waiting in the mosquito-thick evenings of downstate Illinois, waiting by the fencepost where the bluebirds were nesting for a footloose brother to come back home after all, looking out a window in Albert Lea as the trains went choiring by.

But for the most part the book’s action unrolls in a kind of parallel realm where, while certain aspects of 1905 or 1914 match what we know or think we know, other matters are subject to whimsical revision. Since this is where satire traditionally lives, it sets up some good jokes, such as when Pynchon has Archduke Franz Ferdinand, visiting the World’s Fair, slip away to the South Side of Chicago so he can practice the dozens (a ritualized insult match) on flummoxed locals:

Something about…your…wait… deine Mutti, as you would say, your…your mama, she plays third base for the Chicago White Stockings, nicht wahr?…a quite unappealing woman, indeed she is so fat, that to get from her tits to her ass, one has to take the “El”! Tried once to get into the Exposition, they say, no, no, lady, this is the World’s Fair, not the World’s Ugly!

Anyway, anachronism is slightly off the point, since it seems that time may possess elastic properties. This is a point of furious debate between the Quaternionists and the Vectorists, two rival groups of mathematicians who actually existed, although perhaps not quite as the outlandish sects described here. (Quaternions, first described by Sir William Hamilton in 1843, were, according to Wikipedia, “a non-commutative extension of complex numbers,” which allowed for four dimensions: the three of space plus the one of time. The concept has apparently been mothballed, and vectors have won the day.) Here the Quaternionists are “the Jews of mathematics,” the “anarchists,” “defining the axes of space as imaginary and leaving Time to be the realterm,” as opposed to the Vectorist “Bolsheviks,” who could not “allow space to be compromised by impossible numbers, earthly space they had fought over uncounted generations to penetrate, to occupy, to defend.”

Then there is the matter of Iceland spar, a clear crystalline form of the mineral calcite that allows for perfect double refraction, which here can be put to a variety of uses, such as seeing through and outside of time, maybe into alternate realities. It can, for example, be used to read the fourteenth-century Sfinciuno Itinerary, whose author “imagined the Earth not only as a three-dimensional sphere but, beyond that, as an imaginary surface, the optical arrangements for whose eventual projection onto the two-dimensional page proved to be very queer indeed,” and which provides the only recorded set of directions to the lost city of Shambhala. (Eventually an expedition will be mounted to go there, via the “subdesertine frigate Saksaul,” which literally dives through the underground sands.)

Time has apparently become frangible. The expedition sent to gather Iceland spar in the Arctic brings home a nunatak, a living mountain, under the impression that it is a meteorite, and this unleashes disaster in New York City when the ship docks. While “fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes,” “everyone in town seemed to know what the creature was—to have known all along.” At the Explorers’ Club a member declares, “Time itself was disrupted, a thoroughgoing and merciless forswearing of Time as we had known it.” The cataclysmic event itself seems to drop through the text, as if a hole had been cut in the scant seven pages allotted to it—but then a character calls it “the bad dream I still try to wake from, the great city brought to sorrow and ruin,” and you begin to get the drift without further prompting. One member of the Arctic expedition, a painter named Hunter Penhallow, is afforded an unexpected escape, aboard “a curious mass conveyance…. The longer they traveled, the more ‘futuristic’ would the scenery grow.” Is he headed for the future, then, or for the past? When he reappears in Venice, more than four hundred pages later, he meets Dally:

There was a war? Where?”

Europe. Everywhere. But no one seems to know of it…here…” he hesitated, with a wary look—“yet.”

Why not? It’s so far away the news hasn’t reached here ‘yet’?” She let a breath go by, then—“Or it hasn’t happened ‘yet’?”

He gazed back, not in distress so much as a queer forgiveness, as if reluctant to blame her for not knowing. How could any of them know?

He’s not the only time-traveler. During a sojourn at Candlebrow University, somewhere in the Midwest, the Chums of Chance meet a disturbing figure—maybe a revenant, maybe not entirely human or at least not entirely present—named Mr. Ace, who declares:

We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.

The Chums don’t quite believe him, or at least not the part about Mr. Ace and his people seeking refuge—the time-travel bit they can accept, but they are certain that these are raiders out to harvest some commodity or other. And it does seem that Mr. Ace and his Trespassers—as they are soon known—are running some sort of confidence game, ensnaring the Chums in something unsavory—but what?—in exchange for the promise of eternal youth. Later one of the Chums meets one of the Trespassers in Belgium, on the road between Ypres and Menin. The Trespasser says,

Damn you all. You have no idea what you’re heading into. This world you take to be ‘the’ world will die, and descend into Hell, and all history after that will belong properly to the history of Hell.”

Here,” says Miles, looking up and down the tranquil Menin road.

Flanders will be the mass grave of History.”


A few pages later, an arms dealer comes into possession of a “weapon based on Time,” a small, discreet thing with half-silvered calcite mirrors. Two hundred–odd pages after that, the gun goes off, putatively at least, in the form of the Tunguska Event in central Siberia. (On June 30, 1908, an explosion occurred there, some five to ten kilometers above the earth’s surface, with the force of ten to twenty megatons of TNT—equivalent to the most powerful nuclear weapon the United States has ever detonated—felling 60 million trees over an area of 830 square miles in a butterfly-shaped pattern. It has never been successfully explained; an asteroid, a comet, a black hole have all been proposed, but there are strong arguments against all of them.)

Kit Traverse, who happens to be traveling through Siberia on assignment from an agency that sounds like a cross between British Intelligence and the Theosophical Society (don’t ask), believes the explosion to have been caused by the Quaternion weapon. One of the Russian counterparts of the Chums of Chance says, “Time-travel isn’t free, it takes energy. This was an artifact of repeated visits from the future.” Meanwhile, “Crazed Raskol’niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation.”

There are so many roads through Against the Day that to isolate one or five or ten of them in a brief account is inevitably to distort its meaning. It is possible, for example, to make it sound like an allegory of the present day. The flap copy (written, as such things usually are, by the book’s author) could make you think so:

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places.

Which is presumably why, in the press release that accompanied the galleys, he added a caution: “No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.”

But while nothing as crude as simple transposition is going on, the caution is both understandable and mildly disingenuous. Historical fiction of any stripe is always primarily about the time in which it was written, and this one is no exception. Insofar as it concerns the two decades before World War I, it homes in on those aspects of the time that produce the longest echoes in the present. The Chums of Chance, eternal lost boys, are at least based on stock figures of the period, but some of the other major characters (Kit, Dally, the Russian mathematician Yashmeen, and Cyprian in particular) sound very much like citizens of our own time, with recognizable attitudes and expectations, who happen to be living back then. While that sort of thing might be a flaw in a more conventional book, with Pynchon it cannot be anything but deliberate. It is much more true, however partial and unsatisfactory, to say that the book concerns a hybrid experience of time: the past in the present and the present in the past.

It is equally possible to isolate the book’s preoccupation with duality. The theme certainly runs obsessively through its pages. Iceland spar, as noted, produces a double refraction, but often one image differs pointedly from its twin. The Chums of Chance at one point stumble upon the counter-Earth proposed by Plato, which remains invisible to us because it performs the exact same rotation on the other side of the sun. A British scientist named Renfrew is locked in bitter struggle with his German opposite number, Werfner, although they may be the same person (which somehow reminds me of one of my grandmother’s more enigmatic aphorisms: “Cut an Englishman in half and you get two Germans”).

Other characters have doubles; the Chums of Chance have both Russian and female counterparts. A luxury liner, the Stupendica, is also the Austro-Hungarian battleship SMS Emperor Maximilian—the two identities somehow manage to separate, as the battleship appears to start fighting World War I several years early. A map of the Belgian Congo is used as a coded map of the Balkans (“Remember, everything on this map stands for something else…. ‘Katanga,’ here, could be Greece. ‘Germans’ could as well be the Austrians”). Some of our heroes visit a convent in the Balkans with a pronounced Manichaean tendency (“Part of the discipline for a postulant was to remain acutely conscious, at every moment of the day, of the nearly unbearable conditions of cosmic struggle between darkness and light proceeding, inescapably, behind the presented world”). Within a few pages they learn of a weapon based on light that is planned for use in the Balkans during the coming war:

From military experience with searchlights, it was widely known how effectively light at that candle-power could produce helplessness and fear. The next step was to find a way to project it as a stream of destructive energy.

This conjunction, too, gives the book’s title an additional spin.

What gives the era immediately preceding 1914 its particular poignancy is the sense shared by many people at the time that the world was on the verge of changing for the better, that modern society and its technological innovations would bring about a new harmony, with redress of injustices and redistribution of wealth. Many were the lost causes that flourished then, and were meant to assist in creating this new world or furnish its arts and sciences, and they are evoked here: the Quaternionists, the Esperantists—and the anarchists. This coming dawn is notional, of course, hazy even to its believers. The political climate is in many ways strikingly familiar. “What you always have to be listening for is the opposite of what they say,” says Webb Traverse. “‘Freedom,’ then’s the time to watch your back in particular…. ‘Compassion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump.” Another character notes a recent legal refinement:

Ape evolves to man, well, what’s the next step?—human to what? Some compound organism, the American Corporation, for instance, in which even the Supreme Court has recognized legal personhood—a new living species, one that can out-perform most anything an individual can do by himself.

The anarchists are as beleaguered as they are numerous—jailed, tortured, shot. Some of them work on the railroad tunnels through the Alps, where they find “‘neutral ground,’ exempt not only from political jurisdictions but from Time itself.” But doom inexorably approaches. “In a general war among nations,” a character says,

every small victory Anarchism has struggled to win so far would simply turn to dust. Today even the dimmest of capitalists can see that the centralized nation-state, so promising an idea a generation ago, has lost all credibility with the population. Anarchism now is the idea that has seized hearts everywhere…. A general European war, with every striking worker a traitor, flags threatened,…would be just the ticket to wipe Anarchism off the political map. The national idea would be reborn. One trembles at the pestilent forms that would rise up afterward, from the swamp of the ruined Europe.

Or, as the arch-capitalist Scarsdale Vibe succinctly puts it, “Anarchism will pass, its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.” Even so, hope—or will, or at least imagination—is a strict daily necessity. Yashmeen, while enjoying a brief respite at an “anarchist spa” in the Pyrenees, delivers what may be the closest thing to a thesis statement in the novel:

This is our own age of exploration,” she declared, “into that unmapped country waiting beyond the frontiers and seas of Time. We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we’ve seen. What are any of these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time-travel?”

It is quite possible to read Against the Day as the fruit of a protracted effort not to lapse into despair, by recalling among other things that other times have looked nearly as bleak.

And it is crucial to keep in mind the things that make life worth living. Pynchon is, as usual, very good on food and mind-altering substances and sex—hilarious on the former two and vivid on the latter, as well as extraordinarily wide-ranging. Few sexual inclinations go unmentioned, and all are entered into wholeheartedly. The equable polysexual relationship among Yashmeen, Reef Traverse, and Cyprian Latewood is exemplary, a truly revolutionary state of affairs (although, as such, it can’t last). Model utopias are thin on the ground, of course, since would-be utopians are too busy trying to stay alive and out of jail. At most there are transitory breathers here and there—and in New Orleans, an object lesson:

Your own Benjamin Tucker wrote of the Land League,” a young man was saying in an unmistakably Irish voice, “in such glowing terms—the closest the world has ever come to perfect Anarchist organization.”

Were the phrase not self-contradictory,” commented “Dope” Breedlove.

Yet I’ve noticed the same thing when your band plays—the most amazing social coherence, as if you all shared the same brain.”

Sure,” agreed “Dope,” “but you can’t call that organization.”

What do you call it?”


At the anarchist spa of Yz-les-Bains, where refugees from all struggles find shelter while awaiting the doom everyone can feel in the air, the recreation is Anarchists’ Golf, “in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number—of holes, with distances flexible as well, some holes being only putter-distance apart, others uncounted hundreds of yards and requiring a map and compass to locate.”

The fact that doom and hijinks can nestle side by side gives a fair indication of Pynchon’s method. His jokes are as funny as any to be found in High Lit, now or ever, with a lunatic free-associative glee that links him to the Marx Brothers (a very young Groucho appears fleetingly), the L.A. comedy troupe called The Firesign Theater, and the creators of the children’s cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle. You can just about hear the narrator’s rapid-fire voice from that series reading:

It was the current fashion to disrespect the painting skills of the famed Paduan collector and impresario himself, so any actual Squarciones kicking around… would be going for a song. In fact, Scarsdale had already picked up a minor angel just by singing “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” to a sacristan who might have been insane.

At one point Pynchon inserts Kit Traverse into a Göttingen insane asylum apparently just so he can set up the story of a patient there who “has come to believe that he is a certain well-known pastry of Berlin—similar to your own American, as you would say, Jelly-doughnut.” The patient, who enjoys being powdered with Puderzucker and placed on a shelf, declares, naturally, “ICH BIN EIN BERLINER!

The book does have its longueurs, but for a dictionary-size slab it has rather few. My own eyelids drooped when the subject was mathematics, for example, but that is something I am profoundly ignorant about. (Previous acquaintance with matters that come up, on the other hand, tends to reveal flurries of tiny, well-aimed inside jokes that may pass right by anyone unfamiliar with the relevant literature—to no great loss.) The sheer mass of the book will probably frighten many readers away, who might perhaps appreciate it if they were fed it in serial installments. More of a problem is the fact that length invariably becomes the primary subject of criticism; a number of early reviews seemed to focus on little else and it didn’t help, either, that the publication schedule only gave critics about two weeks to digest the thing. But Pynchon’s work is dense as well as huge—like a linebacker, it has an exceptionally low percentage of flab—and his best books have been his longest ones.

Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists, to the point where you’d almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon’s work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities. He also thinks big because he is extremely American (like many of his fellow citizens, he is never so American as when traveling abroad). In this way he is reminiscent of the “millionaire ascetic” in Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of a whole planet.” Here, in Against the Day,by his own admission, he has made what “with a minor adjustment or two [is] what the world might be.”

Which is not what the world oughtto be, mind you. Thinking big is not necessarily megalomania, and fiction-writing is not exactly voodoo. Against the Day is a flawed time machine, trying without much luck to find a version of history where iniquity failed to triumph, but in the process coming up with many reasons why it should continue to be resisted.