Inside the Time Machine

Against the Day

by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 1,085 pp., $35.00

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…

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