Tuesday, January 29, 2008

AGAINST THE DAY by Thomas Pynchon (part IV)

Well, Pynchon pulled it off... Against the Day ends brilliantly, with images of hope (imagination, love) juxtaposed against intimations of the fascism to come. Pynchon's satirical inventiveness is indeed downshifted after page 700, to be replaced with something more unexpected, a dramatic seriousness that's as close as Pynchon comes to earnestness. Is the book too long? Perhaps. But given its ambition--nothing less than a radical re-imagining of modern history, perhaps Pynchon's lifetime project--I wouldn't want it a page shorter. It belongs on that short (but reinforced) shelf of great, big, bloated comic masterpieces, a shelf that constitutes a counter-history of the novel as an essentially comic and satirical form: Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones, Bleak House, Ulysses, Finnegans Wake, The Satanic Verses, and of course Gravity's Rainbow. There are small gems of satirical imagination in AtD (the Vormance expedition as a satire of Sept. 11; the gasophilia satire of mass media addiction; the harmonica school as a satire of the academicization of American radicalism; the German mental hospital, and so on), and there are also scenes of such brilliant, tragic power that they will haunt me for the rest of my life (the bicycle jaunt over the future WWI battlefields and one character's prophecy there; the mining camp massacre; the transformation of a passenger liner into a battleship). This is an overwhelming novel, one of the truly great ones, and now that I've finished it I have that feeling familiar from my readings of other great books (The Master and Margarita, Blood Meridian): I'm wandering around the bomb crater of the book's being, still feeling aftershocks...Against the Day cuts deep; it's one of those rare works of art that possesses the power to change us, to set up a branch office in our brains (to paraphrase Gravity's Rainbow), to turn our thoughts and imaginations in its direction... This could conceivably be dangerous for me, as I plot my own next novel, but instead of seeing AtD as something to hold at arm's length and guard myself against, I want to embrace it as inspiration, as a license to do my thing as wildly as Pynchon does his.

And my immediate response upon completion of the novel wouldn't be complete without a few niggling criticisms: the 'British idiots' Neville and Nigel are too annoyingly one-dimensional; the silly names and acronyms do tend to get on one's nerves after 800 pages or so (though I loved The Burgher King and L.A.H.D.I.D.A.); and do we really need two harrowing walking tours of the Balkans in the last 400 pages; also, the novel's anti-British stuff seemed gratuitous and wasn't always funny. (I find myself wondering now if all these Brit twits are versions of Tony Blair, as Scarsdale Vibe is a monstrously imagined G.W. Bush figure). But these are all rather minor beefs (as the Burgher King might say). The novel's most serious flaw is a loss of narrative momentum between pages 700 and 900 (due, I think, to too much Cyprian Latewood). Something like this is inevitable, however, in a work of this size. All long novels sag somewhere. Consistency is probably unattainable in a literary work of more than 400 pages. (Unless it's a negative consistency; it's easy to write 600 equally bad pages.)

Bottom line: Pynchon has raised the bar for American fiction so high that most American writers won't be able to see it anymore. WOW!

No comments: