A former Boeing employee in the early ’60s, Thomas Pynchon smuggled his knowledge of missile systems into his novels V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and lambasted the depravity of air warfare in Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Now, as the elusive writer enters his 70s, America's most insistently playful-but-serious novelist aside from Kurt Vonnegut has unveiled a supersized tale in which, for once, the air might be our very salvation. Unless, of course, it is bought and controlled by industrialists—or aliens, for that matter.
Welcome back to Pynchonland, where wormholes to other dimensions are as common as potholes, and the real world overlaps with the imaginary in a colorful weave. Against the Day opens somewhere between the two in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair, where a group of verse-happy balloonists named the Chums of Chance (tidier cousins of the Whole Sick Crew of V) alight to discover a city bathed in light—a hallmark of the arrival of the Second Industrial Revolution, which would electrify the nation's factories. "Vagabonds of the void," their purpose in the Windy City is to keep an eye on some anarchists on the street below for a shadowy employer.
Thus begins this novel's tug of war between industry and entropy, a perpetual theme in Pynchon's work but one drawn even more vividly here. In Against the Day, Pynchon is squarely on the side of the people, whom he sees as manipulated and used by corporations in their ruthless quest for power and profit.
The book stretches from San Antonio to Corfu with stopovers in Iceland, using all of that landscape to plot and re-plot its characters' treachery. In one main strand, a Colorado anarchist named Webb Traverse is murdered for his activities on behalf of overworked miners, bequeathing to his children—Lake, a prostitute; Kit, a Yale physics student; Frank, an engineer; and Reef, an anarchist, like his father—a complicated legacy of regret and vengeance.
There are scores of other characters, many hilariously named, some of questionable importance to the plot. There's a sinister gangster named Scarsdale Vibe who wants to control the Earth's electromagnetic field—“colonize the sky," as one character puts it. Vibe might just be the money behind hit men Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred, and his reach seems to stretch all the way to Germany, where Kit goes to study vector theory and falls for the comely Yashmeen Halfcourt.
Keeping these characters straight can feel next to impossible at times. Would it have been too much for Pynchon to give us dramatis personae? Or even a glossary for the dozens of invented and real technological wonders, let alone mathematical formulas contained therein?
Indeed, Against the Day doesn't feel written to human scale. The sentences, as always, run to dizzying lengths; the typeface is alarmingly small. One can spend 20, 30 hours of a weekend reading it and barely make a dent. It's like dropping a penny into an open manhole.
Yet Pynchon does reward the effort. Who else would think to stuff a book this rambunctiously intellectual with gags like a talking lightning bolt or a dog who reads French? Where did he dig up exclamations like "ring-tailed rutabagas!" or "Gravy, a man could get killed out there!"
So much attention is paid to Pynchon's vaudevillian humor it's easy to forget how breathtakingly beautiful a writer he can be. Trains go "choiring by," while land below the balloonists is "perforated with lakes." Watching a Yale track meet, Kit sees his classmates "striving toward the day's offers of simulated immortality."
Like Pieter Bruegel's Fall of Icarus, this is a portrait of mankind's attempt to transcend our morality—or at least push up against its very edge. The Chums of Chance believe Iceland spar—or calcite crystals—shows them the key to other dimensions. Meanwhile, Kit's mathematics have a distinctly mystical bent. "It could have been religion," he thinks at one point. "Here was the god of Current, bearing light, promising death."
Ruthless, greedy, Scarsdale Vibe is that angel of death. He squashes labor throughout the book, crushes individuals, and appropriately rides a personal train called "The Juggernaut." Like many tycoons, he controls invention by underwriting it, making creative minds beholden to him. He buys up the inventions of Nikola Tesla, who makes a cameo appearance, and then makes sure they don't work. "Don't thank me," he barks at Kit, whose education he springs for. "Become the next Edison."
Electricity, as Pynchon has noted before about technology, is a conduit for power. In the wrong hands, it becomes dangerous—lethal—or simply a vehicle for making more money. Remarkably, and with a whiff of optimism that is new for Pynchon, Against the Day proceeds as if the verdict is still out on which way our ability to light up the skies and obscure the heavens might go.