Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Reading "Against the Day" against "The Years"!

I finally have the book, and my 120-day reading project begins!

Building on my comments about the historical period Pynchon covers, and Woolf’s coverage of the same period, I am going to be using Woolf as a lens; in other words, I am reading Against the Day against Woolf’s novel, The Years. Woolf has an advantage though—she lived through the period, where Pynchon was born about the time this book ends.

Pynchon begins the novel with a quotation from one of his beloved Jazz musicians. “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light,” comes from the mouth of Thelonious Monk. Of course light is a favorite metaphor of many writers, particularly Shakespeare, who used the formulation light=truth. In her short story “Kew Gardens,” as well as in The Years, Woolf uses light as a marker for significance, for meaning, for knowledge. As Todd Rundgren sings, “I Saw the Light!” Pynchon is always searching for truth and knowledge, for God’s word to emerge from the sky. He is a notorious skeptic about our ability to find such truth—especially truth about each other. Like the spectators at the end of GR, we are strangers in the theatre.

Interesting too, that where Gravity’s Rainbow (GR) begins with sound (“A screaming comes across the sky”) this novel begins with another sense—not sound, but sight.

I haven’t figured what the little red seal on the cover refers to yet. Like the Columbian Exposition (world’s fair) of 1993 medal above, it is round. Book One is titled “The Light Over the Ranges” and the narrative begins with the line, “Now single up all lines.” Already Pynchon’s aesthetic of connectedness is beginning to work on this reader. As ex- Navy, I recognize the naval terminology, which harkens back to Pynchon’s first novel, V. Ships are moored with ropes which are “doubled” to adequately secure the ship to the pier. All sailors recognize the command to “single lines,” as the preliminary to “casting off,” at which point the ship is underway. Pynchon is taking us on a voyage, a voyage through perhaps the most tumultuous period of American and world history, certainly a period which is central to understanding our relationship with technology and modernity.

In this case, our “ship” is the hydrogen airship, Inconvenience, on its way to the 1893 Columbian Exposition (world’s fair) in Chicago. If you can’t deal with Pynchon’s portentous aesthetic of connectedness, you are really annoyed by now. Inconvenience is a wonderfully humorous name for the ship, an abstract noun that harkens back to the use of such nouns for ship names during the Revolutionary War. In this case the ship is a product of the techno-scientific revolution, but a technology we will recognize as a failure, a technology abandoned after the Hindenburg disaster, one of the first spectacles in an age of spectacles. Al Gore is another who has noted the "inconvenience" of technological progress and scientific truth!

Spectacles—technology for seeing? You’re probably really annoyed by now!

Pynchon is famously skeptical about the promise of technology, and has been even been called a Luddite. I’m not sure it’s technology itself he is skeptical about, but rather the human beings behind the technology. That skepticism about humans, the realization that you cannot overestimate in ability of human beings to commit atrocities, is one of the reasons I particularly love Pynchon’s voice.

Interesting enough, he uses a voice reminiscent of the adolescent novels of this period (in describing the airship crew, the Chums of Chance his style reminds me of the Hardy Boy’s, whose friends were chums; writers of these serial novels often use language like Pynchon’s “as my faithful readers will remember”). On my own bookshelf you will find books like this—think Tom Swift and His Big Dirigible; or, Adventures Over the Forest of Fire by Victor Appleton (actually Edward and Harriet Stratmeyer, who also created the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Swift). The Swift novels always focused on technology, and in some ways helped create an audience for Science Fiction, the literary genre was built around the aesthetic of both worshipping and questioning science and technology. Like Science Fiction, the Swift novels approached technology with what critic Damon Knight has called a “sense of wonder.”

Another connection: I remember a Columbian Exposition medal like the one above that my grandfather, Zay Barnum, used to keep in his desk. I inherited the desk (though I destroyed it by moving it one too many times—a story of my life) but don’t remember what happened to the medal.

Character names so far: Darby Suckling (one of the crew), Randolph St. Cosmo (the commander of the ship).

Words I had to look up:
(1) Darby’s “tow colored locks.” Very light hair, perhaps the color of twine, of the ropes that were cast-off. Yet another connection.
(2) Leeward: the side away from the wind. More naval terminology.
(3) Factotum: a jack-of-all trades (Darby)
(4) Mascotte: French, for mascot. (Darby). Since St. Cosmo is a French name, I’m wondering if Pynchon is making connections to Antoine Sainte Exupery, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_de_Saint-Exupé) French aviator and author of The Little Prince.

They are following a southerly wind to Chicago, “the fabled White City.” Can’t help but remembering Count Blicero and Enzain, and GR which spends a great deal of time dealing with Pynchon’s favorite themes of Colonialism, race (whiteness, associated with the occupying North; blackness associated with the Colonial south, and Africa). Of course, calling a city with a historically large population of African-Americans the “White City” is another one of Pynchon’s ironic little verbal jabs.

Some last thoughts: more naval references: scuttlebut for slang, the Chums like sailors have “summer” uniforms. The paragraph on the top of page four leaves us with Darby speaking an adolescent double-negative: “I can’t hardly wait.” I guess the grammar deficiencies of youth are not entirely a marker of the 20th Century’s so-called “failed” educational system.
I’ve finished page three, and I’ve written three pages. If I keep up this pace, the project will take me longer than 120 days, and my commentary will be as long or longer than the 1084 page novel!

The critics continue weighing in (http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/popus/pynchon.htm. ) Amazing how negative they are. Or not! Is it really surprising that a media which loves sound bites can't deal with a text that asks its readers to luxuriate and indulge in a rich tapestry of prose and ideas. Is Pynchon indulgent- yeah! Is that bad--only in the ways that single malt Scotch and Swiss chocolcolate are bad. We need to learn a little patience, we need to learn how to indulge again!


Blogger Booters said...

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8:27 AM  
Blogger Booters said...

Am reading Against the Day and stumbled upon your blog. Absolutely loving the book. I had a much harder time with Gravity's Rainbow, so your comparisons are helpful - I'm realizing I may have absorbed more from Gravity's Rainbow than I thought I did!

8:28 AM  

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