Thursday, December 14, 2006

THE STORY SO FAR...

So far I've read into the second section of Pynchon's Against the Day and, as the Prankquean might say, "Am liking it." Listing things seems a good way to proceed, so here's some things I've noted:

1. DeLillo and Pynchon both published big books in 1997. DeLillo's Underworld was in many ways a summation of his career -- and kind of a summation of the Cold War era. Pynchon's Mason & Dixon wasn't at all valedictory, moving into a narrative voice and historical era radically different from his previous work. AtD seems much more like the summation that Underworld was for DeLillo. The tone of certain passages takes the reader back to many previous moments in the Pynchon universe, so this does read somewhat like a retrospect at times.

2. Part of that "retrospect" has to do with details here and there: elements that recall earlier books (faked postage stamps, for instance), names -- like Roswell Bounce (in GR there's a Hilary Bounce) -- that seem meant to indicate relations of earlier characters. The Traverses in this book are clearly ancestors of the Traverses in Vineland and, indeed, the section on Webb and his sons is a very Vineland-like section. There are also names that simply seem to recall other Pynchon-type monikers in their stylized absurdity: Otto Ghloix, Professor Vanderjuice. Then there's the dog who reads Henry James and Eugene Sue, to compare to the talking dog in M&D. The other feature, like M&D, is the tendency to use anachronistic bits of description that reference something from our time -- in this case the game Tetris and Japanese anime, or an MTV-like "video" in M&D -- to create that texture of double entendre or double voir that Pynchon exploits very entertainingly.

3. If, like me, you've read GR innumerable times (ok, 6 or 7 in its entirety but some parts lots more), then you have long ago assimilated "the Pynchon view" (or some version of it that you can live with), and if you've tried "teaching" the book (or writing about it), then you know that it's almost impossible to keep in play all the bits that are relevant to whatever point you want to make. AtD seems to me, besides offering its own arcana that is fun and informative to track down, to offer an easier take on Pynchon's grand obsessions. In other words, it's not that it's "Pynchon-lite," it's that it's Pynchon made more accessible. And, given that GR, but for its devoted acolytes, seems still to enjoy the status of "unreadable" as far as the uninitiated are concerned, that's actually good news. It's not so much that this is a more accessible Pynchon, but it is a Pynchon who we might imagine has had to explain things to his kid, at least now and then, and, well, that makes teachers of us all, doesn't it? Pynchon, may the force be with him, doesn't seem tired or merely playing by numbers, but, whereas Pynchon once wrote as the wise(guy) adolescent, now he seems to write from adolescence-loving wisdom. There's a lot of "kidstuff" in the early going of this book -- because the Chums of Chance are enterprising, adventurous kids and behave accordingly, and because the young Traverses are clearly a new generation to take note of. Then too, on the note of explaining things to the kid, we have Merle Rideout trying to tell it like it was to his daughter Dahlia (or Dally) which has more than a few shades of Zoyd, Prairie and Frenesi in its intonation.

4. He can still pull out all the stops and do things with prose that no one else even tries. In fact I'm beginning to see that what we call "Pynchon" is, in writing, a sum of three main parts: 1) a tone that is capable of utter silliness, outright hokeyness, dalliances with bathos, and arch, know-it-all informativeness, but is generally that of a good faith yarn-spinner with a lot of ground to cover; 2) a style that is capable of layering clauses to cover not only the image or scene to be depicted, but also to include harmonizing details or asides that connect with larger thematic interests -- and it is this "sleight-of-hand" style that makes him "difficult" because, even though the narrator is telling you things you should notice, the style makes those "things" open onto wider vistas rather than focus down on some little bit of info; 3) thematics that try to sweep all possibly relevant associations into the fiction's frame of reference, so that the same ideas keep being explained with different metaphors, or different facts or slightly skewered facts; by now, the arsenal of Pynchon themes are fairly familiar -- the metaphor's tenor, let's say -- but the vehicles run into ever-new areas. AtD picks up the attempt to understand the actual status of the planet Earth -- offered by way of the paranoid fixation on gravity in GR, and by way of the mapping of terrestial space in M&D -- and moves it into the Aether, and the way that time and space itself are measured with, its seems so far, light being the common denominator of both: how much light does the earth (and any object on it) attract, and for how long, and what does that tell us about our place in the cosmos?

5. The other common denominator theme, which has been prevalent in Pynchon from the time of the Whole Sick Crew, to the aficionados of the muted post-horn, to the various Black Market types in GR, to the dispersed malcontents of Vineland, to the idiosyncratic oddities of M&D -- all through our crippl'd Zone -- is the love of the renegade operation and the various states of zeal, secrecy, community and bitterness of the amateur enthusiast in a world of specialized, vested, controlling and regulating interests. To enter the Pynchon universe is to step outside the door of your safe and predictable associates and walk into the waiting arms of the lunatic fringe -- not something Those Who Know and Are Known seem to like doing too much...

155 pages in, 930 to go...

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

When I first read Sebald's "Austerlitz," I stopped after the first *sentence* and write about 1000 words on it in an email to a friend. I ended up writing an essay based on that email and others to the same friend: "Neun S├Ątze aus Austerlitz."

At this rate, you'll end up with about 35 points to make by the time you're done. :-)