Thomas Pynchon Against the Day: the play of surfaces

I’ve decided to read Against the Day as a multi-dimensional inter-narrative of coinciding realities in differentiated time and space. There are simply too many references to the Big Bang, to altered states of consciousness, alternate realities, to versions of history that could have been, to the inaccuracies, refractions, distortions, and bias introdcced by instruments of mediation, observation, recording, and communication. The tales told are themselves shadowed by events but in light refracted so that we can see them as multiplications and complexifications. Shadows and light, shadows of light.

There is a deep “anthropic principle” behind the cosmology of Pynchon’s Against the Day, a presence of ghosts and memories, a tracing of some kind of weak subjectivity (a post-modern position if there ever was one) whose agency is as erroneous, silly, and misguided as it is also passion-bound to defend liberty and freedom, if not also joy. There is, to cite Deleuze, “A Life” lived, as if behind the backs of our characters. A Reality realized, an Agency actualized, and a Virtual whose vectors suggest that for Pynchon, what could have or might have been are as compelling as what was. Though nothing matters in the end, there’s nothing the matter in the matter that matters to us, so what is the matter with us, since we’re all what matters and what matters to us is the matter of it all?

Constructed out of conceptual, political, social, literary, scientific, and historical plateaus, each a field of research and discovery (indeed, light, crystals, tarot, ghosts, gunpowder, flight, and the earth herself are all planes on which concepts are extended, Beings becoming), connected by lines drawn by families, as threads of a narrative, arcs of a plot, or roped together like the drum kit badly beaten by John Bonham of Led Zeppelin (himself a balloonist and ungainly Chum of Chance whose Chance was ended when he choked on his own chum), Against the Day itself blurs the line between fact and fiction. To Zeppelin’s lead balloon, it’s a Spinal Tap, a mockudocumentary of a work as much pictured in the style of color-by-numbers as written in series of connecting dots and ellipses….

There are many ways to play with surfaces, as there are ways to plumb depths. There is the conventional and proven fact that our ability to perceive reality depends on the reflection (minus absorption) of light off a surface. Without light as a medium (read: Mcluhan, for whom the lightbulb was a medium, and Pynchon, for whom Byron the bulb stole the limelight in a well-lit and lengthy but ultimately finite filmament in Gravity’s Regenbogen), we could not see anything. But if an author is to shed light on history, and if his interest involves the play of surface and depth (a theme of post modernism as well as of linguistics, semiotics, and hermeneutics), he may disassemble his own sight, may use his peripheral vision to catch things seen only when looked at from askance, might employ a prism and separate his light into its component colors. But Pynchon is an artist of the gonzo and it can be hard to tell a kaleidoscope from a prism when you’re looking at it from the other side. Clarity arrives when you set the book down.

Each of the plateaus on which Pynchon has written Against the Day has its own internal consistency. The planes intersect as the novel’s characters pass through them, across them, drift over them, break through them or become lost beneath them. It might be that our balloonists, the Chums of Chance, are like Super Mario and his pals in some strange Rube Goldberg-esque time machine video game, bouncing from level to level and gathering or chucking lives like ballast from a dirigible, their passage around the globe threading its way through the skies, but fading more like the contrails of a modern airplane marking where it has been, than projecting its destiny forward as if threading the eye of a needle whose very point could seal its fate. Pop.

Culture and art, literature, psychology, philosophy, music, and science are the perspectives from which Pynchon sees his subject as well as his craft. If one dominates, it might in fact be film, for Pynchon’s versions are much like visions. Pynchon sees, as Proust smells, and where readers might suffer his editorial style, it is an editing as montage, not as the drifting and lapsing of consciousness it might suggest. I read Against the Day sometimes with the feeling that I’m looking through a Viewmaster, each click bringing a new scene into view, and each seemingly unrelated to the next but for the round circle of time to which they all belong: a surface of infinite depths. For each is a perspective, and in each, we see what we are looking for. And I for one am looking forward to the rest of it!

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