Today, for the second time in my life, I finished a Thomas Pynchon novel. Now the hard part: how to convey the dizzying nature of this journey when all I have are snapshot memories and fragments of awoken dreams staggering around the underworld of my consciousness. I read most of Against the Day in twenty page segments, and so it took me quite a while, but I don’t think there was a single sitting that went down without my crashing headlong into a delectable passage of prose that resulted in my hopping up out of my seat immediately– (thump! as the mouth of the book chomps down on its mark)– taking a few deep breaths, and bouncing gaily on the balls of my feet.
(Wow… Holy @#$%~! Shake it off… Breathe…)
Well no, dammit, not just because. Because.
There are times in our lives when the meaning behind the moment is a fairly abstract concept at best, and yet I sense that when we reach the end and look back, the incredibly complex pageantry of cloud-like feelings that arises will prove to be the smoke from one, irrefutable, perpetually exploded grenade of knowing: something happened. Something happened, because someone was transformed– us included– and that transformation was always and forever the meaning of our lives. Everything else was just shadowy movements.
Was it planned? Was it ad hoc? Was it worth it? Does it even matter now?
This realization is initially nothing but an inexplicable feeling. You’re not sure what it is, but for better or worse you have it. It has you. Like all good art, reading Pynchon is depth-plumbing and evocative, an encounter riddled with cracks and with spaces in between the lines you are drawn to reach out and fill with the marrow of your own living. Reading Pynchon is like piloting a horse-drawn carriage with oblong and wobbly wheels through a mine field of half-buried pinatas. They burst open with impact, filling the air with the ticker tape innards of ten thousand fortune cookie fortunes, all of them hastily dashed onto flimsy papers just one week prior by a whole country full of unemployed prophets. You grab hold of one, and are reminded the reason you have any response at all is because you know It– this concoction of symbols you have confronted– and It knows you.
The last paragraph in the book contains this passage: “For every wish to come true would mean that in the known Creation, good unsought and uncompensated would have evolved somehow, to become at least more accessible to us. No one aboard Inconvenience has yet observed any sign of this. They know– Miles is certain– it is there, like an approaching rainstorm, but invisible. Soon they will see the pressure-gauge begin to fall. They will feel the turn in the wind. They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace.”
Our lives, too, will end in a flight towards Grace. If Against the Day was nothing but a roundabout reminder of this truth, it was well worth it. The journey was effulgent with symbol and scene, mayhem and mechanism– some real, some dreamt, some both at once. Pynchon’s parallel but interwoven worlds would not have resonated with me had I not been able to understand his allusions to birefringent crystals, radionics, Hamiltonians and quaternions, vectors and imaginary numbers, or had I been unable to read lightly enough to simultaneously render the curious admixture of comedy, sarcasm, tragedy, and debauchery in a common light. But that’s just me. I suspect that if there were these hidden, esoteric gems that twinkled as I walked by, there were that many more that I missed, that lie in dormant wait for the passage of another. To say I should have read the book twice before trying to write about it is an understatement.
The challenge of reading this novel is to simply be present with the passage in front of you. That is also, I think, where lie the richest rewards. Is it not the same with living our lives? It is tempting to want to understand the overall arc of the story, and we are accustomed in reading novels to at least think we are able to connect each scene to the characters’ desires and trajectories, but I find with Pynchon I have to eschew these common conventions more often than not, and embrace the indeterminate moment. Only in the end, after it is over and I look up and look back, do I realize… everything has been made new. Something has been safely and miraculously birthed in between the lines, lines that were oh so distracting with their anarchist bombardiers, Mexican brujo-shamans, the love child of a vigorous menage a trois, cornucopias of ethnic dishes and rare distillations, civilization-liquefying mathematical weapons, the ghosts of dead fathers, the doppelgangers of robber tycoons, and forays into the minds of mercury-infused alchemical tinkerers.
Despite all of that, Something… has happened. It was never discussed, never obvious, never plain to the casual viewer, (which is what you had to be to take this ride at all), but it has emerged in the end, and has left me that much more aware of the meaning behind the moment, that much more dumbfounded at the paraphernalia of existence.