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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:

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