18 December 2007

Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day

As a freshman in college, I was blown away by Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow(1973). His deft use of scientific lore and legend helped shape my interest in the history of science and technology. His connection to Cornell University -- he began as an engineer (similar to Kurt Vonnegut, who studied biochem, and was at Cornell a decade or two prior to Pynchon), discovered creative writing, and perhaps heard Henry Guerlac's lectures on the history of science -- also shaped my decision to take the PhD in the history of science from Cornell's L. Pearce Williams (a Guerlac student who, like Pynchon and Vonnegut, took some time off from college to serve in the US military).

Despite my abiding love for Gravity's Rainbow and V., I was deeply disappointed by Pynchon's novel Vineland (1990). I turned to Cormac McCarthy and other (lessor) writers, and totally missed the publication of Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (1997). It's at the top of my winter reading list, however.

Against the Day is a great novel and embodies the very best of Pynchon's writing skills. The story is solidly grounded in historical details such as the labor struggles of the western mining camps, there are fantastic myths based on real phenomena such as the double refraction of Iceland spar, strong believable characters such as Dally Rideout and Kit Traverse work their way into your heart, and there is plenty of outrageous goofiness such as the crew (the Chums of Chance) manning a sci-fi version of a zeppelin (the Inconvenience). While there are also a lot of pesky loose ends that seem to get lost along the way, no one ever accused of Pynchon of writing in a tight Hemingwayesque style.

As a fantastic literary device, the Chums of Chance are delightful. They get to use super sci-fi devices to transport through the center of the earth and to communicate with other times. Their Dickensonian names -- ranging from the youngest crew member, Darby Suckling, to the second in command, Lindsay Noseworth -- are a good clue of what this crew is all about. And, given that they self-referentially speak of a series of dime novels about their adventures, they are solidly out of the Cervantes Don Quixote tradition.

I especially love this novel for its focus on the optimistic, global labor movement of the late 19th/early 20 the century, and the way that optimism was dashed on the rocks of The Great War (WWI) and the emergence of international corporate control over society/economics/politics. Much of the action centers on the mining camps of the American West, and the brutal suppression of the movement by the Rockefeller or Carnegie-like Scarsdale Vibe. Although many of the characters spend time in Mexico or Europe, they are there as emigres from the American labor movement, and their actions draw out parallels to and connections with the Zapatistas and World Anarchy.

In the novel, many of the Western Federation of Miners ("Miners Union") struggles take place during the silver boom and in places such as Leadville and Telluride, Colorado (historically known as the "Colorado Labor Wars"). The struggles and the mythology, ranging from Joe Hill of the IWW "Wobblies" to the tommyknockers that haunted the underground, are common to the mining history of Butte, Montana. Butte gets a few mentions in the book--mainly as another mining camp where union activists and company thugs (Pinkertons, etc) have met. And of course, the WFM was founded in Butte in 1893.

Pynchon readers will like this book, as will all those who have the patience for an 1100 page novel, the wit to follow the twists and turns of several interwoven plots, and a keen appreciation for fine American literature.

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