Against the Day

I first read Pynchon when I was twenty-two, I think, between a B.A. and an M.A. The only reason I read him, too, was because I’d hit up a professor I trusted for a list of books I’d need to have read if I didn’t want to get laughed out of grad school. She of course gave me an excellent list — Nabokov, Heller, etc — but, when guiding me through the highs and the lows of all these titles, that professor stopped at Gravity’s Rainbow, said I wanted to stay far away from that one, as it had 500 characters and a storyline for each. Which, I mean, I’d just inhaled all of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky I could, and had a bachelor’s in philosophy in my pocket. So I accepted the challenge, went to the library, dug up a Gravity’s Rainbow and went swirling down into it, taking notes and making marginalia as I went, like I always do (more below), but doing it this time on a slip of paper, as I was going to have to turn this book back in. Years down the road, I’d of course pick up my own copies of GR, and, for a while even, remember which version my little slip of notes went with. But it’s gone now, so I don’t have any record of my first (and, so far, only) read of GR. The experience, though: it did twist my head, lose me, make me grin and leave me laughing, wanting more. So I found V., The Crying of Lot 49 — and this one I have read I don’t know how-many-times — then fell deeper into that hole, hit Vineland and the short stories and every scrap of Pynchonalia I could find, by, about, whatever. I was hooked, a convert, an acolyte. But. To know something about me that first summer I read Pynchon: all I knew then, I think, were sentences. I mean, I’d stumble onto a decent story-ending every now and again, or a nice hook, a nice shuffle between scenes or whatever, but by and large I was having some big romantic affair with language; I read Cormac McCarthy not for the stories, but, first, the vocabulary, and, second, the prose rhythm. And of course Pynchon’s sentences, while not quite as stacked as McCarthy’s when he’s really rolling, still, there’s a different, maybe even more permanent kind of magic there. Because he moves things back and forth at . . . I’ve yet to figure it out, I guess. But it’s a level just above the words.

Since that summer, though, I like to think, anyway, that I’ve come to accept that beautiful prose in and of itself isn’t enough to make a story. That oftentimes, even, it can be just ornamentation. Which is to say that, when word of Against the Day first started getting around, I was pretty terrified. Not because it was 1100 pages — I love the long novels, the Ludlums and Stands and Cryptonomicons and the fantasy epics– but because I was afraid my literary constellations might be, gulp, in danger of getting shaken like a snow globe (I still haven’t learned how not to mix metaphors, it would seem, though I will sometimes fail to split an infinitive). In short, I was kind of scared I wasn’t going to like Pynchon at thirty-four. That, like existentialism and southern gothic stuff, he was going to have been just attractive to whoever I used to be, before I turned the unimaginable age of thirty-four.

And, to be honest, though I was there November 21st to buy the thing, and was into that night, it didn’t hook me at first. I remember saying to a friend that reading ATD was like walking through one of those houses where the blueprint was only drawn after the thing was cobbled together over the last twenty years: there were surprising rooms, sure, but no real sense of order, no ‘structure.’ Which is to say no plot, yeah. But then, finally — I think this was around p.160 — my mind clicked over (back?) and remembered how to navigate a Pynchon sentence, a Pynchon scene, a Pynchon story: it’s never about plot, never about dramatic tension. Rather, it’s like a history unfolding, in the most meandering way possible. And, I mean, sure, I suspect the thing could have been done in 950 pages (the math-stuff still and always feels like an indulgence on the author’s part rather than a flight on the narrative’s part), and it drags some about two-thirds of the way through (uncoincidentally, when the math stuff’s getting top billing), but those last two hundred or so pages, man: they’re magic. The contrivances all kind of come together in some comical choreography until I’m just, in spite of that this is Pynchon and the characters are all kind of fake, holding my breath, wanting the best for them, no longer having to think to navigate the sentences or the scenes or the unlikely and unlikelier segues.

And, yeah, Mason & Dixon, I inhaled that the same week I sucked down Infinite Jest — I was tougher then — but still, it did take me nearly five weeks for ATD. One reason for that, of course, would be that that’s about how fast plotless novels make you read them (another would be that I was on the road a lot, and writing a screenplay, but that’s no real excuse, as juggling’s what it’s all and always about). Another would be that I’m not just wholly positive or even that suspicious that we’re going to be getting another 1000-pager from Pynchon. This may be the last time I get to read him for the first time, I mean, grim as that has to sound, and barring any amnesiacal episodes. But then, yeah, who knows: maybe he rigged ATD together just since M&D. For my fortieth birthday, somebody might be getting me the ‘new’ Pynchon.

As for comparing ATD with the rest of Pynchon’s stuff, as comparing his stuff to everything else out there’s just apples and some other fruit1, ATD, to me, seems even parts V. and M&D. I mean, yeah, it’s ‘encyclopedic’ like GR, and wanders all over war-torn landscapes, but GR always feels to me like this grand cartoon, whereas V. feels a lot more intentional, like it’s trying to do something, but, in the case of ATD, trying to do it with some of the ‘heart’ of M&D. Which isn’t to say there’s not some parts you don’t want to read aloud in mixed company, but that there’s some parts — [ >>– this is going to be a spoiler –> ] I’m thinking particularly of when Jesse hugs Frank — that I really don’t think Pynchon could have pulled off in the GR days. And the end, too, it’s very un-V.-like. Almost optimistic, even.

So, yeah, ATD, it pretty much just fried my December reading schedule. I’m many books behind where I’d planned on being. Too, though, just in ‘reading,’ I feel kind of like I’m ahead now. Because I wouldn’t have missed ATD. It’s worth it.

And, just because I have a bad habit of losing or giving away books I’ve already read — I think shelves are book cemeteries — down below, instead of any kind of cogent review, are what I kept writing down in the endpapers, like I do all the books I read. It probably needs a legend of some kind, but that’s assuming it’s even legible in the first place, or remotely interesting. So, as a final nod to ATD, I’ll just leave it somewhat coded, pretty confusing — the textual record of some kind of real experience, anyway.

©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006




[ click this to go the FULL-size image. and I don’t even know how big that is, but it’s ridiculous. as for the colors here, yeah, to make my scratchings close to legible, I had to jack with the hue/saturation a bit ]  

1okay, the one book that kept rising while reading ATD was Only Revolutions. Mainly because, in OR, the historical ticker is over to the side of the page. In ATD, though, that historical ticker, of equally inconsequential stuff, almost like Pynchon is doing his reciting history books thing, it’s been sucked into the main body of the text. Which is pretty cool, I think, that OR and ATD might be doing a similar thing, and each were evidently so long in the making, and each were then published in the same season.