The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


In some ways it's appropriate that I was in the home stretch (the last 400 pages...) of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, AGAINST THE DAY, when I heard that David Foster Wallace killed himself. Wallace, of course, was heavily influenced by Pynchon, and in my last post I noted that his first novel was almost a rewriting of THE CRYING OF LOT 49. A lot of us are still processing Wallace's death, starting to re-read his novels and such. I was tempted to drop Pynchon for some Wallace I haven't read yet (BROOM OF THE SYSTEM is staring at me) but I really had to finish the Pynchon before I move on to the mini-autodidactic-course on copyright I need to complete before my November conference.

I'm glad I chose to finish AGAINST THE DAY. I don't know how many people have read it; it sold a bunch when it first came out, of course, but it's one of those 1000+ page doorstops that people buy and don't read. Then, of course, when one picks it up, it's not strictly speaking an easy read, or, in fact, in any manner of speaking an easy read. Fortunately, it's not MASON AND DIXON, which I found almost unreadable.

MASON AND DIXON's problem was also one of its great strengths, and is in my opinion the greatest strength of AGAINST THE DAY; that is, both novels (and here I am attempting to channel both Pynchon and Wallace's style) are masterful reconstructions of the prose styles and vocabularies of their time periods. Eighteenth-century prose is for most of us difficult to wade through, and even its great masters (and here I'm thinking of Johnson, Boswell, Addison, Steele, etc.) at times grate on modern readers because it's just hard to give them the attention they require. Pynchon is a great mimic but not a master, and so reading MASON AND DIXON was like listening to endless recordings of average musicians playing great jazz tunes: I'd rather have the originals.

Probably because the late 19th century and early 20th century are closer to us in sensibility, AGAINST THE DAY is a much easier slog, although it is a slog at times. I'm also much more familiar with the vocabulary and typical sentence constructions of the time, and I found myself consistently amazed at just how deeply Pynchon must have immersed himself in those voices. He's always had a reputation for being almost TOO knowledgeable about whatever he's writing about--some people suspect that these are collaboratively written, because no one person could know so much detail about so many diverse things--and this novel, or at least its use of 19th century prose style, isn't going to put those doubts to rest. I think, though, that Pynchon is actually one of the great stylists (unlike Wallace, whose style I don't particularly like, and who I think just got sloppy and undisciplined at times) but in a high-postmodern mode. I loved the voices of the Traverse family, the frontier anarchist bombers who all speak in a kind of laconic, Hollywood Western-speak that's at the same time KNOWING about the fact that it sounds like Gary Cooper or John Wayne.

It's probably not of any use to describe the plot. I couldn't, anyway. It's even more complicated and overpopulated than GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, and is held together primarily by its scope and by the few characters--the Traverse family--who are at the center. As always with Pynchon, there's a physics plot, this time involving light, "phosgene," and dimensions beyond the fourth; there's also a truly global setting moving from the Mexican revolution to pre-WWI central Asia to Venice to Colorado to the stratosphere. And of course there is the deep knowledge of strange, generally forgotten bits of world history, generally involving colonial encounters and clashes of national groups. I guess the plot, if any, centers on the Traverses. Webb, the father, is involved with the anarchist faction of the unionization movement among Colorado miners in the 1890s, and eventually Scarsdale Vibe, a sort of Carnegie/Gould/Morgan/Frick figure, has him murdered. Two of Traverse's children set out to avenge his death; another child, who showed talent in theoretical mathematics, has been sent by Vibe first to Yale and then to Germany to study and eventually to work for Vibe; and Traverse's daughter ends up living with one of the murderers. There are over a hundred major characters, of course, so this only begins to describe the book.

Although I found it difficult to follow, at times infuriating in its aimlessness and shapelessness, and aggravating because of Pynchon's inability, rivalling Larry McMurtry's, to write a convincing female character, I enjoyed almost every moment of reading this novel. In his old age Pynchon has, as I mentioned before, taken his always impressive talent with sentence-level style and become in my opinion one of the great stylists, able to operate in several different registers (including, always, the postmodern and ironic) simultaneously. And as much as I love Wallace, this is where I'm saddest that he's gone. Seeing Pynchon's evolution, I want to be able to see if Wallace could do this, because of his one register--the postmodern and ironic, the self-aware and encyclopedic and fearful and sad--he may be the greatest master of all. I think he could have done that well with others.


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