Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Back to the Future

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Back to the Future

Article excerpt

Back to the Future WILLIAM LOCAN Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon. Penguin, November 2006. $35

Thomas Pynchon's sprawling, untidy new novel, Against the Day, is only as frustrating as most of his fiction. It starts in the air, high-minded as a kite, and gradually flutters groundward, dragged down by subplots galore and characters thrown in willy-nilly, as if a novel's only virtue were how many characters it could stuff into a phone booth (no doubt Pynchon, who has loaded the book with more Victorian mathematics than Carter had pills, has an algorithm up his sleeve).

The Chums of Chance

Against the Day opens aboard the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, sailing in stately fashion toward the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The year is 1893. The crew belong to a "celebrated aeronautics club" called the Chums of Chance, which dispatches its fleet of dirigibles on heroic exploits. The narrator quietly identifies himself as the author of the dime novels that record these deeds of daring. This sidling revelation complicates the authorial voice; but, as so often in Pynchon, revelation has no relevance. It's only an arpeggio from an author who specializes in red herrings and dead ends.

Behind the Chums, whose wanderings form the first thread of the tangled plot, lies a droll homage to boys' fiction-to the technology of Verne, the allegorical futures of Wells (though Pynchon loves allegorical pasts even more), the manic improvisations of the Uncle Scrooge comics, and the hackwork of Tom Swift tales and Hardy Boys mysteries (Tom Swift and the Boys often referred to their friends as "chums"). Titles like Tom Swift and His Aerial Warship and Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible suggest that Pynchon is not alone in his fascination with giant gasbags, while Tom Swift and His Big Tunnel; or, The Hidden City of the Andes and Tom Swift in the Land of Wonders; or, The Underground Search for the Idol of Gold prefigure, or rather postfigure, those in the Chums of Chance series. The Chums are the Tom Swift books rewritten by James Clerk Maxwell and Buster Keaton.

Deviant History

Because Pynchon writes neither counterfactual history nor historical fiction, perhaps "deviant" should be "deviated," like a septum-or, as his advance statement warned, "what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two" (if there are alternative universes, there are alternative Pynchons in them). Counterfactual history begins with a striking premise-Caesar surviving the knives on the Ides of March, Lincoln dying of pneumonia after his first inaugural, the Nazis winning World War II. Historical fiction, on the other hand, devotes itself to recreating the small details of dress and dinner, reproducing the archaeological to speculate on the biographical (historical fiction often aspires to be history-plus-dialogue). Although he introduces elements of fantasy, such as airships far in advance of their day, Pynchon bends his narratives around historical events (the Exposition, the collapse of the Campanile in Venice, the Galveston hurricane), which provide the backdrop for his comic-book characters, esoteric conspiracies, and zany inventions. These absurdist romps, ensnaring common men in the machinations of government and shadow government, show a fidelity to the past even historians might admire. In his almost seamless integration of history into the fictional world (which, to the reader, gives the illusion of the reverse), the story gets pried this way and that to accommodate whatever lumps of fact the past requires; but the leverage is so obvious it contributes to the maniac comedy. The verisimilitude that licenses Pynchon's flights of fancy may corrupt (may even intend to corrupt) a reader's faith in any chronicle, whether of antiquity or the day before yesterday.

Pynchon is fanatical about trivia; and you'd be wise not to engage him in a bar bet on Edwardian insurance trends, Russian crew nomenclature, the use of pneumatic tubes in London, or the international language of Idiom Neutral. …

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