Beauty durch technik

<strong>Against the Day</strong>

Thomas Pynchon <em>Jonathan Cape, 1,085pp, £20</em>

ISBN 022408

Who wrote this?:

"You are scared of love and all that means is somebody else," she said. "As long as you don't have to give anything, be held to anything, sure: you can talk about love."

When I put the question to friends, the answers came back: "Patrick Marber", "Richard Curtis", "Isn't it from The OC?". No one guessed correctly; straight-up weepie scenes are not what many people associate with the monolith- of-American-letters Thomas Pynchon, whose writing is most often described as "difficult", "opaque", or even "inhuman". It made sense that it was produced by an anti-person: America's most famous recluse, who for the past 40-plus years has avoided all publicity and whose cartoon avatar appeared in The Simpsons with a brown paper bag over his head. A 2001 "anti- biographical" film was titled Thomas Pynchon: a journey into the mind of [P] - as if his books had been written by a mathematical function.

And sometimes it seems as if they have. Part of the problem is the scale - of place, of time and of ideas - on which Pynchon's novels operate. And, more simply, how big they are. With the exception of the novella The Crying of Lot 49, they weigh in at 496pp (V, 1963), 768pp (Gravity's Rainbow, 1973), 400pp (Vineland, 1990) and 773pp (Mason & Dixon, 1997). At 1,085pp Against the Day is bigger than any of them, and correspondingly capacious in scope. It ranges in time from the Chicago World's Fair of summer 1893 to the early 1920s; in space from Colorado to London, New Haven, Venice, Mexico, Paris, Novosibirsk, Iceland, the Balkans, Lake Baikal and Tierra del Fuego; not to mention the hidden Buddhist city of Shambhala and a mysterious passage through the centre of the earth. It also covers a survey of American labour history from the Haymarket bombing to the miners' strike at Cripple Creek, Colorado; tracts on turn-of-the-century parapsychology and spiritualism; and disquisitions on Gibbsian vector analysis and aether theory. And that's just the start.

Against the Day is not only the longest of Pynchon's works, it's the largest of the super-sized books written over the past half-century by a loose cluster of American novelists - Pynchon, William Gaddis, John Barth, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. These are the Great Big American Novels - sprawling postmodern epics apparently limitless in their political, technical, formal and comic aspirations. Their greatest ambition, however, is to talk to America about itself. "Every American writer of ambition," Martin Amis once suggested, "is trying to write a novel called USA." Their tool of choice is metaphor - even, sometimes, allegory - though the way in which they map reality is usually less than clear. In Gaddis's The Recognitions (1955), a tormented painter forges Old Masters; in Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966), a goat becomes Grand Tutor of the New Tammany College; in DeLillo's Underworld (1997), a single baseball is sold, stolen and pursued over 50 years; and in Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) a fatally addictive video does the rounds among tennis prodigies and substance abusers - narratives that suggest all sorts of (largely unflattering) things about 20th- century America.

But quantity, as Chinese-buffet patrons know, tends to do for quality, and these all-you-can-eat feasts come padded out with unappetising in gredients. Following their narrative digressions, switchbacks and caprices can be a thankless task (if you are thinking of tackling Barth's lethally tedious mock epic about the colonisation of Maryland, The Sot-Weed Factor, don't). They are mesmerised - sometimes to no obvious purpose - by arcana. Their humour could generously be called whimsical: Foster Wallace's top gags are a political entity known as the Organisation of North American Nations - Onan for short - and a sponsored year called "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment".

Pynchon can seem particularly hard on his readers. His demands on your time, attention, patience and humility can outweigh his returns (by way of, say, recognisable plot or sympathetic characters). The critic James Wood railed against the type of novel that "knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being". Coincidentally, Against the Day's competitor for American Novel of 2006 is Philip Roth's Everyman, a savagely concentrated (192pp) account of the life and death of a single man. So what can Pynchon's messy, self-indulgent, confusing book possibly offer us that Roth's clarity and discipline can't? Should we bother with it, or any of these monster American novels, at all?

One way of answering is to look at what Against the Day is up to. On one level, this is simple: raised on Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, jazz, marijuana and the Bomb, all Pynchon's books are counter-cultural tales of the underdog mano a mano with The Man. In Against the Day this most often means the union man versus the capitalist "plutes", embodied here by the industrialist Scarsdale Vibe, who arranges the murder of bomb-planting miner Webb Traverse. The vengeful wanderings of Webb's four children - Reef, a rugged cowboy wastrel with a taste for dynamite, Frank, a decent type who gets mixed up in the Mexican revolution, Lane, who marries one of her father's killers, and Kit, a lost-boy mathematician - anchor the narrative, in so far as it is anchored at all.

As with Mason & Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow, Against the Day is a "counter-factual" historical novel that sides against "Christer Republicans" and with the "prophesiers who had seen America as it might be in visions America's wardens could not tolerate". Set a school essay on "What It Means To Be An American", Reef's son Jesse writes: "It means do what they tell you and take what they give you and don't go on strike or their soldiers will shoot you down." However fenced round with postmodern antics, Pynchon's sympathy for his bomb-throwing anarchists is, in the current climate, rabble-rousing stuff.

Pynchon's novels aren't, however, just wild-eyed, good-hearted rants against the system. They're also repositories of ideas - both historical and imagined - and this is where the difficulties set in. Against the Day is set amid the intellectual tumult of the first years of the 20th century - more particularly, the revolutions that occurred in maths and physics with the advent of relativity. Pynchon pursues the blind alleys, mirages and fantasias that didn't make it into modern science at a ferocious intellectual pitch, buffeting his readers with, inter alia, the Riemann zeta function, Minkowskian space-time, quaternions and multidimensional vector-space. The deluge of science can blind us to the fact that he is, temperamentally, a mystic rather than a technician. He writes Against the Day, but seeks what lies beyond or under or above the quotidian. As he writes of his girl mathematician Yashmeen Halfcourt, "It was her old need for some kind of transcendence - the fourth dimension, the Riemann problem, complex analysis, all had presented themselves as routes of escape from a world whose terms she could not accept." The theories are most important as mechanisms for creating - or perhaps more accurately uncovering - meaning, pattern or beauty.

Unlike the talk of vector systems in prime-numbered dimensions, this is pretty friendly stuff. Pynchon also wrote "get too conceptual, too cute and remote, and your characters die on the page", and the brief glimpses of "transcendence" that do emerge from his novel's chaos are human rather than theoretical. Against the Day is frustrating, tedious, selfish, bullying, demanding. But it also, by the occasionally miraculous beauty of its prose and the seriousness of its intent, stands up to Roth's flyweight masterpiece. By this sign, what Henry James called "large loose baggy monsters" - and their authors - have some way to run. "He was a virtuous kid, like all these fucking artists," one of Pynchon's new characters says of another. And so he is.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Nation of fools