If I tell you that Thomas Pynchon’s gloriously fizzy Against the Day is a 1,000-plus-page novel containing multiple subplots about multiple grand plottings to achieve power all over the globe, and that it’s set at the turn of the 20th century with alternative versions of world history, mathematics crossed with mysticism, radical politics, and funny names and songs — well, you may react like one of the main characters, Lew Basnight, a detective and ”anarchist-hunter,” who asks his friend Cohen, ”Could you get specific?”
But as Cohen responds, ”Metaphorical will have to do.” Because metaphor-making and general mind-blowing is what Pynchon is up to. In Day, ”owing to the unnaturally shakey quality of present-day ‘reality,”’ Thomas Edison is friends with the fictional boy-scientist Tom Swift, ”maps begin as dreams,” and the rich are the enemy: All ”lovers of might…want to preside over the end of the world.” Thus Kit Traverse, another one of Day’s many chief characters, is on a hunt to locate and obliterate one of these rich white men, Scarsdale Vibe, a prime tiller in ”the murderous fields of capitalist endeavor” and de facto killer of Kit’s father.
Against the Day is not as conventionally plotted as Pynchon’s previous novel, 1997’s Mason & Dixon, nor as urgent as his World War II phantasmagoria, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Nonetheless, it’s chock-full of as many jokes, romances, and arcane scientific concepts (the ”fourth dimension… was enjoying a certain vogue, or should I say vague?”) as you can absorb. Pynchon remains, 43 years after his first novel, V., a novelist who keeps things moving. If you don’t dig the anti-capitalist screeds or get hooked on Kit’s revenge, no worries — a few pages later you might enjoy the concept of Anarchist Golf, ”in which there is no fixed sequence — in fact, no fixed number — of holes… Many players had been known to come [to the course] at night and dig new ones.” And you’re bound to like tagging along with the Chums of Chance, a doughty band of explorers who hop continents having adventures that make them the subjects of books like The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis.
Beyond his literary accomplishments, this wily 69-year-old’s work has influenced, consciously or unconsciously, much of our pop culture, from Lost to The Matrix to Arrested Development to Lemony Snicket (for what are the Baudelaire children but grimmer Chums of Chance?). As the author himself says in a press release: ”Let the reader decide; let the reader beware. Good luck.”