There is a striking moment in Thomas Pynchon’s enormous new novel that threatens to get lost, like many of the striking moments in his novels, in all the other moments: of overly wrought prose, of names so memorable that you can’t remember them, and of quasi-historical accounts of science and politics that the diligent book reviewer and his fact checker would like to substantiate but that are mainly unsubstantiable. One would need to sit Pynchon down and demand to know what he’s been reading, but we don’t even know what he looks like. In any case, in Against the Day, the time is the late-nineteenth century, in the American Wild West, and anarchist bomber Webb Traverse has been murdered by a pair of hired guns. His son, Frank, has set off to avenge him. The trouble is, while the murderers know approximately what Frank looks like, having observed his father while they tortured him, Frank doesn’t know the same of them. But sitting in a bar, he is spotted by an old dear friend of his father’s, who does him a great favor: Rather than a gun or money or even information, he slips Frank a pair of photos that show the murderers en face.
Photography, for Pynchon, is a metaphor for the power of modernity. His refusal to participate in it has led with the publication of this new book to some grotesqueries. The New York Times published with its daily review a photo from his high-school yearbook. Another paper printed an artist’s projection, based on the same yearbook photo, of what Pynchon might look like now, at age 69. On The Simpsons, of course, he occasionally appears with a paper bag over his head, and every decade or so someone claims to have met him in a bar on the Upper West Side. But Pynchon knows what he knows: Photographs are what they take so they’ll know what you look like when they want to kill you.
Against the Day describes other ways as well. There are hot-air balloons, and sub-Pinkerton detectives who keep large files, and even telepathy. Surveillance has always been on Pynchon’s mind, but these days even more so. A decade ago, he wrote an essay in which he described seeing a New York cop use his megaphone to tell a car to move over, “all the while addressing the driver of the car personally, by name.” The italics are Pynchon’s. In the essay, he notes the indifference he met with on the part of his friends when he described the event to them. They merely explained how it was done. Naturally, they added, the cops had the driver’s photo, too. Pynchon was very disturbed—and this was before the Pentagon armed its Predator drones with Hellfire missiles after September 11.
The fun of Pynchon’s books—and they are in fact more fun than not, and this is for better and worse one of the key differences between Pynchon and the major novelists who preceded him—has always been to read them into the present. Gravity’s Rainbow, while ostensibly about World War II, was actually about American Cold War hegemony and Vietnam; Against the Day likewise works with what feels like contemporary material, though its subject is ostensibly the turn of the twentieth century. The route of railroad tracks determined political arrangements then, just as oil pipelines do now; anarchists (or terrorists) blew them up; and all of this was watched from above by capitalists and air-balloon enthusiasts. The great invention of the mid-nineteenth century was dynamite, used by miners to blow railroad tunnels through mountains, then by anarchists to blow the railroad tracks into the sky. By the end of the century, the latest invention was wireless, and everyone was in a race to use it, for profit and for glory.
Part of the reason Pynchon is a more important writer than his successors William Vollmann and Richard Powers is that he’s politically more radical and more committed (he can also construct sentences, and sometimes even edit them)—and his view of power is tirelessly grim, if also cartoonish. Against the Day is very much against the present day. At the same time, it holds out a kind of hope, in the very technologies it knows are being used to destroy human freedom. Frank, for example, finds something bewitching in the photograph of the two killers, something in the eyes, which are “rendered with that same curious crazed radiance which once was an artifact of having to blink a couple of hundred times during the exposure, but in this more modern form due to something authentically ghostly, for which these emulsions were acting as agents, revealing what no other record up till then could’ve.”
Photography actually catches the human ghost, and traps it. But also reveals it—that’s the word he uses. Maybe Pynchon will sit for one. Maybe he won’t. It doesn’t actually matter anymore. Thomas Pynchon has always been paranoid, but now, finally, the world has caught up.
Against the Day
By Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press. 1,085 pages.