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Michael Silverblatt on Against The Day

Michael Silverblatt on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.


If you read that Against the Day is about the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 18931 and the years just after World War I, be forewarned: it isn't that kind of historical novel at all. This is a book in which the dreams of fiction come true. You will travel by sandship under the desert wastes and find Shambhala, the earthly paradise. And you will be taken as far as you can imagine from the "Go dog, go!2" writing of elementary school minimalism, to a maximalist vision where everything you know is wrong, and you can never know or imagine enough.In Surrealist dream-painter Giorgio de Chirico's great novel Hebdomeros, a valuable vase smashes to the floor-its pieces land to form a trapezoid that happens to align with the shape of one of the constellations; suddenly the convergence precipitates a flight into the night cosmos. In Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, convergences, refractions, and congruencies of every sort open a metaphysical door to allow travel through time and space.In Iceland, the ice floes mimic in miniature the layout of the canals in Venice, and suddenly a young Icelandic painter finds himself transported to Italy. Visitors from the future, called Trespassers, arrive to warn that the Future has become Hell, and they wish to find refuge in the Past. An inventor creates a machine which can manipulate a photograph to move forward and backward in time (the gizmo is incapable of differentiating actual futures from potential ones, so it can take you down the fork in the road you failed to travel.)More: On the other side of the sun there is a Counter Earth3, "the same as this one only different." On this Counter Earth, it appears, the creatures of our imagination have lives of their own.And furthermore: A sheet made of a transparent crystal called Iceland Spar4 can diffract light so that an object viewed through it is seen doubly-and immediately characters divide and double (a professor divides into two, Werfner and Renfrew, and lives simultaneously in Germany and England). A shamanic procedure called Bilocation allows the adept to meditate in his community and also appear in another hemisphere to dispense warnings and prophecies.For all of the extraordinary research he has done, the geopolitics, the maths and sciences, the languages, Pynchon seems to be traveling back in time to look for an escape route. He wants to find the turning point on time's axis that will prevent the world from turning into the materialistic and ignorant Hell it is today. He is exploring the past to take refuge in the memory of what could have been. Reader, beware!These poetic inventions, all of them, were the turn of the century's science. As mathematicians discovered and explored the world created by the square root of negative one, the realm of imaginary numbers (in fact called i, for imaginary), scientists began to explore the fourth dimension, and writers began to invent imaginary places, like Oz, and to project travel in time machines and Journeys to the Center of the Earth.Imaginary numbers double the terrain of mathematics, imaginary places double the surface area of the earth, and there are the realms inside the earth as well. (Dorthy reaches Oz by cyclone in the first book by Baum, but via earthquake in the fourth.) As more and more of the surface of the earth was mapped, and as more and more mathematics became the fodder for economics, the imagination needed to escape the material and materialistic world and invent realms whose resources were inexhaustible. As Melville5 says of an island whose customs defy his wildest dreams, "It is not down on any map. The true places never are."Though these dreams of another world-a second world, a double world-are tempting, yesterday's faulty science is today's pseudo-science, and Pynchon is looking at the world through eyes that have seen the reawakening of creationism and the threatening concoction of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.Pynchon, ever the dualist, knows that fantasy can mask deception, fantasy camouflages the real. In Against the Day, every time a scientist has a hypothesis, a capitalist smells the possibility of a merchandisable weapon and potential ownership of the world's future.Pynchon also knows that there's a sucker still being born every minute (every second according to the most recent statistics), and that terror and gullibility make taking refuge in a happier past particularly seductive. What happens to people who do not know their own history? They're not only condemned to relive it, they're forced to buy the same bill of goods, swallow the same malarkey over and over again. The book is filled with the marvelous and the uncanny, true, but also with a deep understanding that the innocent mistakes of yesterday turn into the cant and demagoguery of tomorrow.As charming and hilarious as Pynchon's boy adventurers seem (a troupe of airship-borne child explorers, the Chums of Chance, touch ground in the book's crisis zones to effect derring-do rescues but they also create calamities as they battle rival nation's airships), they are the forerunners of today's post-national geopolitical capitalists and their world of unrestrictable international contracts and corporate imperialism.The Chums of Chance soar over Against the Day in their ever-expanding flying machine marshalling the technological sophistication of their instruments of detection. Like the book's private detectives, you will have to negotiate the tricky topography (and topology-if ever a world was a Moebius strip, it's this one) without the benefit of a bird's eye view, word by magical word, sentence by incandescent sentence. Reader, beware! Every dream masks a dangerous dreamer, and every wonder cabinet conceals a chamber of horrors.The wary reader finds the comforts of genre fiction (Westerns, mysteries, sci-fi, Horatio Alger rags-to-riches sagas, even a Yellow Book exotic tale of bisexual decadence) exposed as a series of carefully manipulated shell-games. The Western tale of family vengeance covers the war of the Anarchists against the capitalists and the "Christers." The hidden pockets of erotic fiction contain the most precious possessions of all-the dangerous treasure of self-knowledge, the deeper-down virtues of self-sacrifice and surrender.Pynchon's original title for his earlier work Gravity's Rainbow was "Mindless Pleasures." It could stand as an alternate title for any of his books. Here in Against the Day the author explores the temptation to escape into the extravaganzas of mindless pleasure, but he gets to the heart of the matter. His fiction invites you to suspend disbelief in order to return you to reality as a disbeliever, a mindful visionary with clearer eyes.
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