Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Scientist's take on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day

Thomas Pynchon is an author that scientists should love. No other first-rate novelist has engaged more deeply with the actual content of our civilization's scientific discoveries, especially math and physics. His latest book, Against The Day, is no exception, and in fact incorporates even more scientific content than the rocketry-obsessed Gravity's Rainbow. This is because Against the Day spans the scientifically rich years around the start of the 20th century. Although a lot of my colleagues seem to have never heard of the guy, at least one physicist shares my taste for contemporary fiction and love for Pynchon's books.

What's great about the science in Pynchon's novels is that he knows his material well enough to purposely and very effectively blur the lines between what we'd call serious science and crank science. Ambiguity is a hallmark of Pynchon's writing, and the late (and not-so-late) 19th century advances in math and physics are fertile ground for Pynchon to plow: Grassman algebra, Maxwell's equations on electromagnetic theory, Hamilton's quarternions (there is even a crazy quarternion song at a Quarterionist party that begins: "O, the, Quizzical, queer Quarter-nioneer, that creature of i-j-k"!), Riemann surfaces, the Michelson-Morely experiment, etc. Throughout the book, Pynchon features fanatical crank devotees of various scientific ideas right alongside legitimate scientists. For example, various more or less nutty groups show up in Ohio for the Michelson-Morely experiment, which takes place early in the book.

Louis Menand, in a review of Against the Day for the New Yorker put it this way:

"We [today] know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes."

Yet Pynchon is by no means anti-science. His books are about forces that shape and drive people's lives, and how people respond to them - to the personal, societal, and physical forces that leave us uncertain about what's true and what control we have over our own lives. Science and technology have been major forces acting on all of our lives, and Pynchon handles this theme better (and with more complexity and nuance) than any novelist I've come accross, including great science fiction novelists like Asimov and Dick.

This is why I think Laura Miller is seriously wrong, reviewing Against the Day for Salon (under the ridiculously portentous title "The Fall of the House of Pynchon") when she writes that younger writers now have a "grasp of the systems that fascinate Pynchon -- science, capitalism, religion, politics, technology -- [that] is surer, more nuanced, more adult and inevitably yields more insight into how those systems work than Pynchon offers here." While I love the writers Miller mentions (David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephenson), nobody can do what Pynchon does as well as he does it. Maybe you need to have some basic literacy in math and science (and the aid of Wikipedia or Penrose's The Road to Reality) to really appreciate it, and as many professional reviewers of Against the Day admitted, 7th grade math is enough to confuse most people. (Pynchon started out as a physics or engineering major at Cornell before swtiching to English, and he worked as a technical writer for Boeing, so he has some background. But for most of it, I imagine he has to be self-taught, something he obviously has a great capacity for.)

Which leads me on to the subject of the high-profile negative reviews the book has received. (If you're bored by literary dust-ups, here is a good place to stop reading this post!) There were several prominent, early negative reviews that overshadowed the many positive ones. Kakutani, in the NY Times, trashed the book, but it's not surprising - she has a long history of hating this kind of fiction, and I doubt she really spent the necessary time with the 1,100 page novel - her mind was made up before the book was even published. For scientists, it's like having the guy who is philosophically opposed to your work review your manuscript submission - that's the kind of guy you ask editors to exclude from lists of potential reviewers. Incidentally, the NY Times also published a longer, very positive review by someone else. (For a positive review, and a ton of links to other reviews, check out the Literary Saloon.)

The common theme in most of the negative reviews (and a common complaint made by critics of Pynchon in general) is that his characters are flat and devoid of humanity. I find Pynchon's books to be some of the most human books I've read. The best way to make this clear is by a comparison with modern art: Some people think that characters in a novel are inhuman unless they are fully fleshed out, filled with rich and undistorted detail that allows us to know all about them, much like a Delacroix painting (like this or this.) But in great modern art, artists can capture the essential humanity of a character in more sparse, angular strokes, without the flood of realistic detail - like Picasso here and here. If Pynchon's character's are cold and inhuman, than so are Picasso's.

If you're tempted to read Against the Day, don't let the high-profile negative reviews scare you away. Pynchon's books are complex, but in a good way - the way wine is complex compared with Coke, or a good coffee compared with Nesquick. His prose is stunning, and I, for one, can't get enough of it.


Slothrop said...


Yours is a voice that seriously needs to be heard in the general, maybe even widespread now, misunderstanding of Thomas Pynchon's magnificent creative achievements, especially with regard to AGAINST THE DAY.

I've taken up this flag myself many times in recent weeks, arguing lately with a reviewer in Phoenix who failed in every way to see, or even believe in, the emotional depth and psychological verisimilitude of the lives of so many of Pynchon's characters -- as they are clearly, tenderly, observantly conveyed to anyone actually reading his books.

What you've written here is quite indispensable to people unfamiliar with Pynchon's work, as well being as an informed retort to critics so dishonest about having read, let alone understood, Pynchon's masterful new work, as to constitute a crime against the education of youth or the betterment of mankind.

I wish you would post some version of what you've written here at, in a "customer's reviews" for AGAINST THE DAY, so potential readers can have at least a hope of engaging with this new and astonishing novel (or any of his previous books) without the bilious meddling of critics bearing dull axes to favored grindstones. I've been so disheartenment to read so many unfavorable reviews, when simply reading the book confirms that Pynchon is at the height of his form (which is really saying a something); amazingly youthful and also fully experienced in life; maybe even surpassing all his previous work's quality and significance.

I've much more to say, or share, but I mustn't take up the space that this would necessitate. I'm very glad to be aware of you now, thanks to Google Alerts, and I'll stop by again...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful, constructive and illuminating words. Please try to get it out there more, to more people, more readers, or would-be readers. Your message is knowledgeably asserted, confidently defended, and extremely important, in my humble opinion.


Slothrop said...

What, no other comments? Geez, what's a scientist gotta DO fer cryin out loud?

Like I said: maybe put this on say, Amazon, so more folks can see it. They really should, ya' know...

Mike said...

Thanks for visiting slothrop! I'm sorry I didn't comment until today - yesterday was a little crazy for me. As far as other comments go, this is still a fairly young blog, my posts are not frequent enough yet, and I haven't garned a sizeable readership - so there really aren't too many comments around this place for now. It's not exactly the most fast-moving place on the net.

Thanks for your suggestion about the Amazon review - I'm a little more than halfway through right now, so when I'm done (soon, hopefully) I'll definitely post an Amazon review. And a larger post here - my hope is to put together a more full-blown essay about the reamrkable role of science in Against the Day. In the meantime, I might try to put this post into a few blog carnivals.

Pynchon is my all-time favorite novelist, but I didn't discover him until about 3 years ago - surprisingly late, given my addiction to books. If he hadn't been snubbed by the Modern Library in their list of the 100 best works of fiction, I would would have discovered him earlier, because I really dug into that list.

I was outraged at the lame reviews, by people who should have known better (such as Laura Miller, who really took James Wood to task for his attacks on 'hysterical realist' writers like Zadie Smith). She made it sound like AtD was a less-than relevant countercultural rant by an aging hipster, and Kakutani made it sound like the book was some crude allegory about Bush, the war on terrorism, and liberals. Pynchon does have something to say about that, but not in such a crude form.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and feel free to post some longer thoughts in the comments.

Mike (aka Roger Mexico in some contexts - my wife's name is Jessica.)

Slothrop said...

Thanks for making this a colloquy. I've finally managed to get over my rage about so many poor, uniformed and pedantic reviews (this last part: the pedantry, directed at a consciousness and talent so extravagantly exceeding the critic's ability to even recognize this primary fact, yet going on to being pedantic anyway for some reason -- has been the most infuriating and disheartening part) but I got over this by, 1.) just stopping reading them, and 2.) recognizing (again) that the culture we now live in just doesn't engage art anymore... all that's gone; it's just fads and bad manners and people hired to do work they're in no way enlightened enough to perform.
Forget the reviews, except for a few, here and there. John Leonard's in The Nation being one worth reading... The important critical response will be when other writers, the great and important ones and the young and eager ones, start weighing in, in one way or other.

As for your being new to Pynchon, what of it? As long as you arrived. I've been reading him for 30 years, and can never forget the first encounter. A life-altering one. I've gone on to follow his work closely, and to read his books many times over (eleven times for GR by now! Is that "nutz"?) and inviting many Highly Unusual Events into my life as a result. (When I met my future ex-wife, back in the late '70's, the 2nd question I asked her on our first date was, "Have you ever heard of Thomas Pynchon?" -- which also indicates how unusual it was to even know about Pynchon back then... and it turns out her mother was actually writing a dissertation on GR... things HAVE changed).

My own thought about AtD are as follows (sorry for the length) though I admit this is an initial response. The book will have to stew in my head for a while -- and I mean to read it again right away.)

I'll check back (sorry again for the length - please advise on what's appropriate...)

"The ancient Manichaeans out here worshipped light, loved it the way Crusaders claimed to love God, for its own sake, and in whose service no crime was too extreme. This was their counter-Crusade. No matter what transformations might occur [...] Along with that went a refusal of all forms of what they defined as 'darkness.'
"Everything you appreciate with your senses, all there is in the given world to hold dear, the faces of your children, sunsets, rain, fragrances of earth, a good laugh, the touch of a lover, the blood of an enemy, your mother's cooking, wine, music, athletic triumphs, desirable strangers, the body you feel at home in, a sea-breeze flowing over unclothed skin - all these for the devout Manichaean are evil, creations of an evil deity, phantoms and masks that have always belonged to time and excrement and darkness."

"But it's everything that matters," protested Chick Counterfly.

-- from Against the Day

Indeed, "everything that matters", is right here, alive and luminous, in the most scintillating prose and pitch-perfect dialogue ever produced by an American author. This is Thomas Pynchon's sprawling, exhilarating, confounding, demented, hysterical and profound epic of "Light" and "Darkness"; and of electricity, or might be it's mysticism, that's perhaps the "interface", to use an earlier and familiar Pynchonian term.
What reviewers, and critics too quick to quip, usually fail to tell you about Thomas Pynchon's novels is just how entertaining they are; how rich in incident, character and description... and also that Pynchon's "voice" is THE modern American literary voice, par excellence and sans comparison.

There are worlds and worlds, and worlds within those worlds -- exotic, erotic, esoteric, eclectic, exhaustive... Grand and comic and profound... captured or conjured by a creative imagination seemingly beyond mortal imagining... brilliant and challenging and yet requiring what of readers, really? Maybe the three Oz-ian desires: "a brain, a heart, some courage".
For at the end of Pynchon's green-and-magenta-brick road comes this bustling, bristling, bursting book... lively and shining with "all that matters". Truly a kind of culmination of everything that's preceded it.

For over 30 years a consensus has prevailed that "Gravity's Rainbow", that extravaganza of 1973 vintage, is Thomas Pynchon's Magnum Opus (I've called it that myself, elsewhere on this site); but Against the Day may yet promote a rearrangement to the collective critique. There's serious wisdom and a generous maturity in this new book that feels, I dunno, different... a new and different kind of "gravity"... So, will Against the Day prove to be Pynchon's True Masterwork after all? I reckon time, if we get to have more of it, will sort things out. But personally, I'm persuaded by this novel's unusual scope, and breadth of enlightenment, to start believing it is.

Slothrop said...

BTW: forgot to mention that my "thoughts" on AtD, above, are from my little "customer reviews" on Amazon, thus not so personally addressed to you. I'll come back to that another time maybe?

Mike said...

Don't worry about the length of your comments - I like the conversation, and too many comments isn't exactly a problem here on this blog.

Reading GR over and over certainly isn't nuts. I don't know how anyone who likes the book can feel satisfied with only a single reading - Pynchon's novels have a depth and complexity that make multiple readings pay off. Going back to the wine analogy - to really learn to appreciate the complex and subtle flavors of good wine, it takes a lot of experience. Most people who try wine for the first time are overwhelmed and maybe turned off by the strong taste, and they certainly can't pick up on the subtle effects on the palate.

AtD seems to be, in some ways, a cross between Mason and Dixon and GR in terms of tone, the characters, and what's going on. The writing style is more like M&D, but many of the themes of war, technology, and wealth are similar to what's in GR. And it's not, as Louis Menand suggested in his review, just a remake of M&D set in the 20th century. AtD more directly tackles issues that seem especially relevant to our time now, such as the effects of wealth on society and individual lives and the relationship of science to weaponry, corporations, and the state. If it weren't for the length, I'd recommend this one as the first Pynchon novel to start with - it's more conventionally 'readable', and features many of what best about Pynchon. (I have a thing for long books, but I guess most readers trying out a new novelist might be turned off by a very long book.)

Thanks for your comments (I figured that they were originally posted on Amazon or some similar place) and the tip about The Nation's review. I'm also waiting for the more in-depth assessments that will come out over the long run. To pick just one subject, there is so much that could be said about how Pynchon weaves turn-of-the-century thinking about non-Euclidean geometry into the structure of his novel - it's not just shallow word-play and intentionally bad puns. I'd never expect an early reviewer on a deadline to fully explore that aspect of the book, but that's just one instance of many possibilities for exploration.

Slothrop said...

Couple of things quickly, and then I'll return with more time and clarity.
1.) I agree with you entirely about Menand's M&D comment, which struck me as quite obviously wrong. It seemed almost that he was looking for an easy device by which to dismiss AtD, possibly obviating his need to read the whole thing; for I do question very seriously whether reviewers and even our better critics are reading this book -- not scanning, dipping, jumping around to get some flavor some quotes some sense of it. But not reading it.
Menand said something like AtD had already been done in M&D, and that is just, stinkin' wrong.

2.)A "cross between" M&D and GR sounds about right to me. What I was thinking of actually, as I was sounding off about new "maturity" in this book...
However, the modern idiom... Man, this really is the novel I've been waiting 30+ years for, and my immediate reaction to reading Pynchon's tantalizing description, was that this could be some kind of bookend to GR -- in ways I can't yet begin to articulate, I think my intuition was on, or near, the money. Oboy, what a joy.

3.) I saw an early review, and then later, John Leonard ventured this as well, that there's possibly a mathematical formula to the book's structure. I'll see if I can find that first early review, for the writer's guess about WHICH formula was different than Leonard's.
But, this part of it is frankly over my head; as far above my dome as The Inconvenience's altitude above our sad Destiny below... Quite impossible. My Left Brain is like a walnut most times: small, impenetrable.

3.) At some point I'd like to get back to your initial post, and how you can help say, ME, understand some aspects of the book...
Oh, and yes, I might now say to readers new to Pynchon: Lot 49, then AtD. At 1100 pages, AtD offers enough "story" for any four books. So, I agree it's tempting to invite new readers into this one... but I've known soooo many disappointments in my long life of trying to get people to read Pynchon. Breaks my heart really.
More later...

Slothrop said...

p.s. A secret: my actual name is Michael, too.
A-and honestly, the Bilocational ramifications of this are, you know, starting to, um...
Well, I'll be off then. Just 'round the corner for a quick nip...

Mike said...

Michal, eh? Eerie...

If you haven't already discovered it, you might enjoy this this and this, by real physicists/astronomers on the blog cosmic variance. Those guys know what they're talking about when it comes to the kind of math you find in Pynchon; I hope they eventually put up some thoughts on AtD. I'm just a biochemist - the math I use doesn't get quite that abstract.

Slothrop said...

Yes, I had seen this guy's Blog. (and say, how come he's got all these here FANS writing to him, a-and not to you? Seems unfair -- however the quality of the "comments" are, well... let me put it this way: it's like leaving the screen door open during August in Louisiana -- ANYthing that can fly, crawl, or slither is likely to, as John Wayne'd say, "be in your lap in a minute, sonny..."

I think Blogging must be kind of horrible, or it's a gamble at least. I'd be very sorry if I'd made YOUR Blog-life unpleasant somehow. Still, there're so many, many, many comments at Cosmic Variance that're just depressing. Like: "Pynchon is strong on ideas, but such deadly prose…" or, "I got started with Pynchon with Vineland, which didn’t make me a fan. Lot 49 was better, but still left me wondering why. Perhaps I should have gone right to Gravity’s Rainbow."

I think I may have to "go away" for a while. I'm afraid we'll just end up agreeing ourselves into some fatal awkwardness... If we could exchange email addresses, I'd be happy to go on with a conversation about Pynchon, probably testing even YOUR enthusiasm. I'm sure daffy for the guy's work; got a lot of strange stories (as I've noted before) about what that's lead to.
You're the scientist (I'm an artist). If you can think of a way to swap addresses without everyone in the world noticing, let me in on it, and we can carry on, off-line.

If that can't be, I'll just check back again in the future to say hey.
Meantime, thank you for the conversation, it's been a lot of smart fun. You've been a very courteous host; I just don't wanna be like Friday's fish, come Monday, as Ben Franklin once cautioned about. I look forward to you posting more on Pynchon maybe?
(And do please get your thoughts out to more folks; I won't mention it again.)

AtD is some damn fine book, all right. Incidentally, I did have some brief communication with a fellow who knew a fellow who knows Pynchon, and this fellow made some kinda remark to Tom about AtD maybe being his "War & Peace". Apparently, Mr. Pynchon did not argue the point. It's something to sort of mull over, nicht wahr?

I'll look for your reply, lemme know if we can continue without actually publishing all this stuff. I guess that's contrary to the whole Blog-thing, but I feel like we're hollerin' across a stadium after the game's over and everyone's gone home...

Very glad to've met you. Maybe sometime I'll tell you why I don't share your enthusiasm for Joyce. Ha! That'll git ya' mad!

Cheers, Michael. Lemme know...

Mike said...

Yeah, comments are kind of a mixed bag. I've really enjoyed meeting you online, and I'm glad that the comments here so far have been from thoughtful readers, including some fellow science bloggers. However, I'm not really pining for a ton of random comments of the kind that often come creeping out of the cyber-wilderness, like those you see on high-profile blogs.

My reasons for starting this blog were fairly selfish - I just wanted to start writing about science, no matter who was reading. In the past year, I've started a new job, moved from NY to St. Louis, and have had to deal with infant twins, so I haven't quite given the blog the attention it needs.

Here's my email: I don't post it on my profile simply because of the spambots out there. I'd love to talk more about Pynchon and literature in general - I'm a relative novice. Only in the last few years have I started reading serious fiction again. In 2004 I decided, just for the hell of it, to read some of the National Book Award fiction nominees. It just happened to be the year of some controversial nominations, and I read Madeline is Sleeping, which led me to Cloud Atlas, which finally led me to GR, my first crack at Pynchon. I've been devouring this stuff at an unsustainable rate ever since, but I don't know any other people personally who even partially share my enthusiasm for contemporary, 'experimental' literature.

Anyway, I hope to hear from you some time if you get a chance to drop me a line.


Slothrop said...

"Infant twins"!
Holy... well, "Wow", in a word. There's some "bilocation" for ya'. Congratulations!

Thanx for your latest post. I will contact you soon.

I've been having some new thoughts about AtD: it's many presences of absences, of voids, of loss. There's a whole lot of "nothing" goin' on in AtD; many, many references to all the opposites of being "present and accounted for".
Also of Pynchon's apparent (well to me) debate with, and resistance to, the Terms and Conditions of the Narrative, let's say. But more of this later.
Thanks for your trust. I'll see you backstage...