We're pleased to have Jim Ruland return to offer his parting Pynchon perspective. And if you want to express your thanks to Jim directly, you can stop by Sunday night's Vermin on the Mount (of which more anon). We're also pleased to announce that Stephen Elliott will be stopping by here on Thursday to take the reins as we head off to NYC, and he's got a very interesting announcement to make. Stay tuned.
GUEST ESSAY BY JIM RULAND
Against the Day is a book of terrorists.
Bomb huckers, outlaws and anarchists lurk everywhere and—surprise, surprise—nearly all of them are likable. Against the Day is like a Louis L’Amour novel in reverse but instead of the saga of the Sackett family moving westward, endlessly crossing the frontier, Pynchon’s Traverse’s travel from West to East, hurling themselves against the tide of history and humanity and into the teeth of American enterprise during the time when her fortunes were being made.
These are not basement anarchists building bombs with English dynamite but mavericks employing the very tools used to extract wealth from countless mines with little or no thought to the human cost. Yet in recent reviews by Kirsch and Kakutani, we’re led to believe that the Traverse family’s relationship to violence makes them morally inferior, as if the gears of Capitalism weren’t leaving a trail of corpses in its wake, as if violence was an instrument to be used only as a last resort, as if bombs don’t make sense, as if life wasn’t cheap and getting cheaper by the minute.
This is why some people hate Pynchon: because his history of the world reads like an English explorer’s lifeboat story—A terrible end is a foregone conclusion so let’s get on with the atrocities shall we?—but he’ll make you labor over the most groaningly awful puns and then break into song, usually featuring a ukulele or a kazoo.
After reading Kirsch’s asinine assessment and Kakutani’s predictable dismissal, I have reached the conclusion that neither is equipped to consider the counterfactual reality at work in Against the Day. One thing is clear from Kirsch’s review is that they don’t know how to read Pynchon. So many of Kirsch’s proclamations about Against the Day could easily apply to any of Pynchon’s novels, which makes one wonder what Kirsch is doing reviewing this book in the first place.
For example, he has no appreciation of Pynchon’s scope. When we open a novel we expect to be presented with a narrative. Even if the subject matter is long or short, familiar or foreign, compact or unruly, the expectation is that the writer will manage the material in a way that allows a story to be expressed. Pynchon does not follow these rules. If most novels are like nature narratives on the Discovery channel, Pynchon’s are like long shots of ants scurrying about in an ant farm; at first their antics seem utterly random, but the more one watches, the deeper the suspicion that the participants in the drama are communicating with one another in meaningful ways. To put it another way, the organizing principle of the modern novel is the family; Pynchon is interested in systems.
Pynchon challenges the reader to think about the novel is different ways. That should be a given. It was, at least for a while, but not anymore. This is puzzling because hasn’t it always been the hallmark of great writers to change the form? One could even say their greatness is measured by the extent to which they succeed. Melville was a washed up travel writer before he shattered the boundaries of classification with Moby Dick. Joyce seemed doomed to repeat the story of his adolescence until Leopold Bloom emerged in the fourth chapter of Ulysses. Their struggle/progress is immaterial because they not only wrote great novels, but they changed the way we think about and respond to them.
Strangely, Kirsch and Kakutani don’t cut Pynchon any slack even though Pynchon has always written like Pynchon. His novels have been dizzyingly dazzling from the get-go. His first novel V. has all the earmarks of his mature work. His early stories, his self-proclaimed juvenilia, were celebrated for his astonishing maturity to the same degree that his most recent work is being castigated for its outrageous silliness. Embedded in Kirsch’s and Kakutani’s criticisms are their disappointment at Pynchon’s refusal to come around to the fluorescent side of the moon and commit to hyper-realism; Pynchon cultivates such extreme fandom because his readers understand that they have to come him.
Take this line from Kirsch’s review: “The gaudy names Mr. Pynchon gives his characters are like pink slips, announcing their dismissal from the realm of human sympathy and concern.” This is the equivalent of saying One Hundred Years of Solitude is trite and banal because so many of the characters have the same name. Still, one can’t help but wonder where Mr. Kirsch has been all these years. This has been Pynchon’s shtick since before 1962 when he opened his O. Henry prize-winning story “Entropy” with the appearance of one Meatball Mulligan. When a certain stoker by the name of “O.I.C. Bodine” appeared five hundred and seventeen pages into Against the Day, I all but stood up and cheered. (O.I.C. stands for Officer in Charge, interpolate the “n” and O.I.C. becomes “oink.”)
Kirsch is also at a loss for how to make sense of Pynchon’s now-you-see-‘em, now-you-don’t cast of thousands, which tells me the man has never waded through the Slothrop-less sections of Gravity’s Rainbow or the Zoyd Wheelerless patches of Vineland. It’s a penchant of Pynchon’s that makes experienced readers wary of latching onto characters because their time in the novel is bound to be short-lived. I think this is something Pynchon picked up from his travels in the U.S. Navy. Most war movies would have you believe that when you enlist in the armed services you bond with your buddies in boot camp, you serve together, fight together and die in each other’s arms as the credits roll. In reality, the average soldier/sailor/airman/marine comes into contact with more people in their first three months of duty then in the sum of all of their previous experience on the planet. People are constantly coming and going, signing on, shipping out, moving along on orders to the next duty station—to say nothing of disappearing, deserting, going AWOL or getting killed. It’s a cyclone of human activity that is so puzzling that there are people in the Pentagon whose jobs are to predict how many people they need to enlist today to meet the needs of the armed services tomorrow. In other words, an impossible system to base a narrative around; but that’s precisely how Pynchon operates.
Veterans of the military enjoy Pynchon on an entirely other level than ordinary civilians. There’s an entire plateau of understanding that veterans, particularly naval veterans, intuitively inhabit. For example, when I first picked up V. and encountered the barmaid with the propeller’s tattooed on her buttocks I felt like someone was speaking directly to me through the novel, someone who’d walked in my boondockers, for embedded in this mundane reference is an even more profane pun: the propeller, as any sailor will tell you is also known as the ship’s screw. This knowledge is not essential to understanding Pynchon’s work any more than one needs to be Irish Catholic to read Joyce, but it’s the place where Pynchon revels in revealing himself. Perhaps gleefully so.
Nowhere in all of Pynchon’s work is this more true than in the Chums of Chance sequences that open Against the Day and stitch many of the disparate episodes together. The Chums of Chance are simultaneously characters within the novel and characters in a series of boy’s adventure books called The Chums of Chance (the first of literally dozens of doubles at work in the novel). Both appear to be modeled after the Frank Merriwell series—an early precursor to the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys narratives that were used for intellectual entertainment and moral instruction.
The Chums fly around onboard airships filled with an assortment of impossible gadgetry. Each of the five Chums is defined by their role on the ship and Pynchon seems to delight in applying every idiomatic expression of his two-year stint in the Navy. From singling up all lines to the brightwork that always needs polishing, the Chums are proof that not even Pynchon can refrain from romanticizing his time at sea. Like a modern-day Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Pynchon abandoned his studies at college for “two years before the mast.”
But as the years wear on and the Chums become salty old vets in their own right they come to question where their orders are coming from, and why they should carry them out the way they’ve always carried them out when their work seems not to make a bit of difference on the ball of confusion below. Like the Flying Dutchman, they become the stuff of storybook fantasy while the world erupts in total war.
Perhaps in some way Kirsch and Kakutani see their own situation here: assigned a tiresome chore, they carry it out without relish or zeal because the results fail to register an impact on the landscape.
Critics: abandon ship; Pynchon fans: full speed ahead.