Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

_Against the Day_ (III)

I DID NOT read Against the Day with the slack-jawed wonder at its thematic architecture that I felt in reading Gravity's Rainbow way back when, more than thirty years ago. How much of that is simply due to my own aging? Would I be agog at the complexity of Gravity's Rainbow if I read it now, would I have been astonished by Against the Day had I read it at 25?

No way to answer that, is there?

At the same time, I don't remember being much smitten with the prose style of Gravity's Rainbow. It seemed a convincing pastiche of several pulp-fiction styles of the 1940s and 1950s to me, but neither comely nor graceful, hardly to be savored for its own sake. The pastiche of 18th century prose in Mason & Dixon, however, I often found myself relishing, probably simply because I found the source of the pastiche congenial.

And now -- I don't know whether Pynchon learned a few tricks following the subtle volutes of Gibbon and Johnson or what, but I think the prose of Against the Day is frequently gorgeous. Pynchon is still a pasticheur -- a master, the master pasticheur of our time, greatest since Beerbohm perhaps -- and the source of the pastiche is an unpromising territory bounded by H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Robert Louis Stevenson, "Frank Richards," and a touch of Zane Grey whenever we're in Colorado. But even while indulging in the winding circumlocutions of turn-of-the-20th-century adventure prose, Pynchon can sound great.

She dreamed, the night she knew for certain, of a hunter arrived at last, a trainer of desert eagles, to unmask against her soul the predatory descent that would seize her, fetch her away, fetch her back, held fast in talons of communion, blood, destiny, to be plucked off the defective Riemann sphere she had been taking for everything that was, and borne in some nearly vertical angle of ascent into realms of eternal wind, to hover at altitude that made the Eurasian continent a map of itself, above the glimmering of the rivers, the peaks of snow, the Tian Shan and Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga. (891)

"Lake Baikal and the great inextinguishable taiga." Sigh. All right, I know, not for everybody, awfully high in cholesterol compared to, say, Beckett. But one or another Pynchon sentence walks across some such Niagara on a tightrope on almost every page of Against the Day. The prose had me slack-jawed this time.

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