March 27th, 2014 | thinking
Thomas Pynchon’s AGAINST THE DAY is a book that is almost impossible to finish. In many ways, it defeats the point of finishing it. It’s more than a thousand pages long, and each individual scene is pretty much the size of a novella. It’s a novel that you can dip into like an encyclopedia. It’s set between 1893 and World War I, and it came out in 2006. It’s in no way current. But I’m sitting down and writing this because it’s about everything. It might even be the defining novel of the 21st Century.
It is, as was much post-modernism, about settling the outstanding sociocultural business of the 20th Century. It was the first century bright and loud enough to make the mimetic novel’s tendency to want to tie up all loose ends into a joke. We live now in a century where the CTO of the CIA can proudly announce at a security conference that we can now know everything that happens everywhere in real time, but, as we have since discovered, being able to record everything is not the same as knowing and understanding everything. Every phone call in America is committed to storage for thirty days, but only the tiniest fraction are ever listened to by the state or anyone else. There are hundreds of characters in motion in AGAINST THE DAY. Even the mighty human swarm action of Wikipedia broke against the task of even tracking their action in chapters. In telling a story about the disconnected 20th Century, Pynchon’s omniscient view conjures the blare of the 21st, a world in which the number of people we can invest in and follow the lives of has been calculated by anthropologists. (It’s called the Dunbar Number. A hundred and fifty people.)
AGAINST THE DAY cycles through genres like a long-running television show entering its decadent phase. (And AGAINST THE DAY is certainly a decadent book.) There are sections written in the style of the weird boy’s-own adventures of the period, the “Edisonades” of young scientists romping through fantasy scenarios like demented Scouts. There’s a period detective story, featuring a PI who eats sub-toxic doses of dynamite in order to become immune to explosions. There’s a Western about anarchists, and a subplot about rare crystals that can split a person into two. Doubling is an important theme in the book, and sometimes I think that Pynchon is telling us that there is here: that that time is this time. For all its Zeppelins, Hollow Earth passages and psychics, there’s nothing more strange than the days we live in now.
The world of AGAINST THE DAY is as awash with scientific marvels as ours. Nikola Tesla even makes an appearance. A constant surges of wonders technological and mythical, just as ours: because we live in a world of myths too, the myths of other universes creating cold spots in the sky where they bump against ours, as in the theories of Laura Mersini-Houghton, and the ordinary technological marvels of satellites that speak to the slivers of glass in our pockets and the machines that print new human organs.
What I want to say about it is this: it’s a book about being on the brink. More so than CABARET, not least because CABARET has been defanged by the years and is now nothing more than a dumb receptacle for Weimar chic. CABARET is about being blind to the brink. AGAINST THE DAY casts the brink as an oncoming storm, the biggest one in history, the one that nobody could be prepared for. It’s the story of being in the eye of it. There were a few such eyes in the 20th Century. There will be none in the 21st, the era of what the tech community is pleased to call “disruption.” This is how we’re going to live from now on – surrounded by the swirl of strange and terrible weather, never quite knowing when the great black wall of it will shift and slam into us. AGAINST THE DAY will remain relevant, because it’s the picture of every minute of every day from now on. Amazing things, every single different kind of story we can imagine, and the altitude thrill of constantly being on the edge of bubbling fatal chaos.
AGAINST THE DAY is the double of the modern world. It’s the book we never want to finish.