Writing on a high

Against the Day

by Thomas Pynchon

(Random House)

Yes, it’s all starting to make sense to me now. I think I’ve figured it out. I’ve finally hit on the crucial clue which might unlock this singular man and his strange style. You see, Thomas Pynchon, I suspect, is a rooker (smoker).

Now that I think about it, it’s surprising that it’s taken me so long to work it out, since it’s been staring me in the face for so long. When first trying to unravel his labyrinthine syntax, I should have remembered that, in the introduction to the collection of his first short stories, Slow Learner (1984), Pynchon refers to marijuana as “that useful substance”.

That’s the first indication which backs up my theory. Secondly, Against the Day is littered with references to an “illicit weed”. Many a character in this 1890s world is wont to light up a “hemp and tobacco cigarette”, or some “grifa”. And mention is even made in a South African section of the narrative, of a “dagga rooker [marijuana smoker]”.

Also, if Pynchon has been a lifelong user, this might partially explain his legendary shyness, and why he hasn’t been seen in public since the Sixties. Could this be an indication of dope paranoia? This might explain the suspicions nurtured by some of the characters in his books, from the band The Paranoids in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) to his latest narrator, who points out that: “It was the USA, after all, and fear was in the air.”

Most significantly, there is the question of Pynchon’s style. He has always wielded the most intense sentences, indicative of a total preoccupation with the minutiae of the moment, and yet, in his books there’s sometimes an overall drift, a lack of coherence in terms of the larger plot structures. So every individual sentence is a beauty, and he creates very strange ways of phrasing, but the impetus of the storyline tends to follow a momentum not easily discernible objectively.

Also, lines can change direction midstream, such as references to “gesticulations which could easily be — well were — taken the wrong way” and there seems to be a perpetual self-reflexivity that creeps into every phrase. This form of consciousness (I put it to the members of the jury) is an all too telling sign of the stoned mind at play, a mind which tends to become obsessed with the machinations of its own workings, a mind which perpetually marvels at the wonders of its processes of enunciation.

Be that as it may, it is certainly not only lovers of the holy herb who would enjoy this prose, because there’s also much to be learnt from the man. Every page is coloured with references to interesting people and places which I was eager to wiki. As I soon discovered, however, not all of the unusual references the man weaves into his text actually exist.

Along with his vast learning, Pynchon also maintains a playful disrespect of knowledge, and his book is a bricolage of actual facts and nonsense. The novel involves snippets from various histories (epistemological, mythical and spiritual) as well as a bouquet of sciences (physical, technological and noetic), obscure references to languages (Sanskrit, Arabic and unknown tongues), a plethora of political philosophies (from republicans to communards to anarchists) and various arcane and mysterious taxonomies which might allude to profound secret knowledge, or which might as easily turn out to be gibberish.

If the loose ragtag of strange endeavours running pell-mell over the page can be referred to as a plot, it might be referred to as “globular” rather than “global”. The mammoth text is divided less into chapters than a series of interlocking chunks which eventually splice the lives of the hundred-odd characters together. Needless to say, it is sometimes hard to maintain the thread.

And yet, one of the most redeeming features of what can be a very confusing read is the persistently astonishing humour. As in all of his books, crazy character names persist, and we encounter the likes of Mia Culpepper, Blinky Morgan, Morty Vicker and Dr Chick Counterfly, as well as the Chums of Chance, the TWIT (True Worshipers of the Ineffable Tetractys) and so on.

Some of the humour is similar to that of the late Douglas Adams (“The Book of Iceland Spar [is] commonly described as ‘like the Ynglingasaga only different'”) and in other places it’s distinctly Goonish, such as the part which refers to “the unfortunate affair of the McTaggarite, the neo-Augustinian and the fatal steamed pudding”. And then there are lines that are simply pure Pynchon: “Young men in striped mufflers knitted by sweethearts who had dutifully included rows of flask-size pockets ran clanking to and fro.”

The novel clocks in at a knee-trembling 1 085 pages, which works out to about 40c a page — probably the cheapest pay-per-page product on the market at the moment. Also, if you’ve never been high, then one advantage of reading Pynchon is that, after battling through a few hundred of these pages, one is rewarded with a simulated experience of what it is like to be stoned. If you’re intending to read only one book this year, you might want to make it this peculiar adventure, because it might take you the year to get through it.

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