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Against the Day - Thomas Pynchon The early reviews I read of Against the Day were all a little bewildered, and gave me the distinct impression that a lot of reviewers had tried to skim-read this huge novel so they could get their articles written in time. It's not an easy one to write up at all. It's very long, very busy, and you come to it with all kinds of preconceptions, just because it's Pynchon and although he's only written a few novels they all seem to be masterpieces.

For people who have been following him over the years, it's something of a change of direction. His last two books, Vineland and Mason & Dixon, seemed to show a new concern with characters, personalities and intimacy compared to the unreconstructed craziness of his earlier work. But Against the Day has much more in common with his earlier books – it most closely resembles Gravity's Rainbow (the hipster's long novel of choice), although there is a weariness, a kind of ironic distance at work here which points to an older author.

If it seems like I'm putting off the business of actually trying to explain what this novel's about, it's because I am. Ostensibly we are looking at a timeframe moving from the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to the years immediately after the First World War. Pynchon has always been much more interested than his compatriot writers in the world outside America, and here we get wonderful sketches of everywhere from Colorado, New York and Chicago to Siberia, London, Yugoslavia, Morocco, revolutionary Mexico, Constantinople, Venice and plenty more besides. The cast of characters is huge, though not as disorienting as some reviewers have made out. The main plot strand concerns three brothers from Colorado trying to avenge their father's murder, though there is also a boy's-own spy story involving British agents and unrest in the Balkans, not to mention a whole subplot about characters who are at least partly fictional even within the world of the novel.

It's not even entirely certain whether or not these events are taking place precisely in our world. In the novel, not only do we have the new force of electricity changing the face of society, but we also have mathematicians and scientists devising machines which can make photographs move or allow for the possibility of time-travel. In many ways it's written not as a historical novel but as a sci-fi novel might have looked written by someone in the 1880s. ‘By now,’ someone remarks at one point, ‘I know that your most deranged utterances are only conventional history prematurely blurted.’

At first that just seems like a cute conceit, but as the novel goes on it assumes a greater importance. There is always a suggestion that the world of possibilities shown in here somehow became our own world after some cataclysmic event, which is especially associated with the War. ‘This world you take to be “the” world will die,’ says one character, ‘and descend into Hell, and all history after that will belong properly to the history of Hell.’

The upcoming war looms over everything, just as the Second World War did over Gravity's Rainbow. It is conceived as being so awful that it has stained time itself, affecting events long before it happened with an air of sinister disaster. It is the darkness behind everyday events, which is sensed preternaturally by almost every character in the book, and which allows Pynchon to give free rein to his delight in finding mystery and paranoia in otherwise normal events. Who else would, or could, describe a sunrise like this:

The sun came up a baleful smear in the sky, not quite shapeless, in fact able to assume the appearance of a device immediately recognizable yet unnameable, so widely familiar that the inability to name it passed from simple frustration to a felt dread, whose intricacy deepened almost moment to moment – its name a word of power, not to be spoken aloud, not even to be remembered in silence.

Here you can see all Pynchon's trademarks – the long sentences, stacks of clauses skirting round some inexplicable sensation of mystery, a general feeling that you're never totally sure what he's going on about. It is this mood, rather than any event-based plot, which Pynchon is concerned with describing. And the writing is everything you'd hope for – I think he's the best writer of sentences since Nabokov. Some of the turns of phrase stop you dead: a view from a hotel window of ‘long, moon-stung waves’; a rough night for someone who ‘didn't so much sleep as become intermittently conscious of time’; or an emotional parting at a railway station, of which we are told: ‘though their kiss went on for what could have been hours, so little did it have to do with clock time, she was already miles away down those rails before their lips even touched.’

Looking back through my copy to pick out these passages, it's telling that I can hardly remember now which characters are even being written about here. They seem less important than what he uses them to say. Some people might even call them types; you could certainly be forgiven for getting a bit suspicious about the way every single female character is a submissive nymphomaniac – though that certainly allows for a lot of fun along the way. The verisimilitude is also not helped much by the outrageous names everyone seems to have, like Professor Heino Vanderjuice or a musician called Chester LeStreet (hee-hee). It's definitely a little disappointing after where he seemed to be going with the last couple of books, but still, there's no doubt that by the end there are a core group of people who you really do care about.

And they can be fun too. One of the many pleasures of the book comes from the incongruence of people and places, like the grizzled American detective who finds himself working for a tarot cult among the upper classes in London. The Colorado boys in particular generate some fantastically gruff dialogue, including one of my favourite remarks: ‘Tengo que get el fuck out of aquí.’ The women are intelligent and funny and, as I mentioned, permanently horny. He does sexy rather well. ‘Just can't stay away,’ whispers one respectable girl who has ended up all corrupted in a brothel out west, ‘…you've simply ruined me for everyday bourgeois sexuality. Whatever am I to do?’

The proliferation of characters is partly down to one of the book's most important themes, that of doubling. Two of the cast, Renfrew and Werfner, are mirror-images of each other in more than just name; someone else finds himself wondering if he could be his own ghost. We hear much of the shamanic practice of bilocation, by which someone can be literally in two places at once, and there is also a preoccupation with Iceland spar, a kind of crystal which creates a doubling of light – and, by implication, of the world itself. Pynchon seems to have taken the advice of one of his characters: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

Like a lot of Pynchon's books, it starts off being a whole lot of fun with crazy jokes and weird sex and unnecessary songs, and yet again by the time you're sucked in you can't help feeling that something very important is going on. It seems to have to do with understanding what kind of person you might have been if some choices had been made differently, and what kind of world there could have been if some choices had been made differently. With some aliens, threesomes, tommyknockers, cowboys and meteorites thrown in.Have we been here before? Oh…maybe. Still, it seems a bit harsh to criticise him for producing more of the same when the same is so brilliant, so rich, and so full of complex and fascinating pleasures. Above all I was left feeling the sadness and the wonder of all the potential worlds I and everyone else could be creating, if we only had more time to stop and work out how. As one of the many walk-on reprobates points out:

…isn't it the curse of the drifter, this desolation of heart we feel each evening at sundown, with the slow loop of the river out there just for half a minute, catching the last light, pregnant with the city in all its density and wonder, the possibilities never to be counted, much less lived into, by the likes of us, don't you see, for we're only passing through, we're already ghosts.

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