Against the Day

I’m more than halfway through Pynchon’s Against the Day, and so far, like most of his books, it is by turns enthralling, excruciating, beautiful, and boring. I’ll wait until I finish the book to talk about the story and thematic elements, but I just wanted to put in a quick note about something that I keep thinking about it as I read it. Probably because Against the Day was published around the same time as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, those books have always been linked in my mind. Unemployed Negativity wrote a fine post about how The Road “gesture[s] to the limits of our own imagination…. It is easy for us to imagine society collapsing [but] much more difficult to imagine the creation of a new world.” Rather than devising some Looking Backward-style envisioning of a new world, McCarthy’s book continually “draws the limits of our ability to imagine it,” a threshold it runs into but never passes through. Pynchon, in many ways, agrees with McCarthy about the insufficiency of our imagination: the characters in Against the Day are unable to conceive of another world and rarely reject or even question the lives laid out for them by fathers, employers, nations, and enemies, just as the world is unable to arrest its headlong rush into World War I. No one in the novel, so far, can envisage an existence that is formed by their actions; the world is always something that happens to them.

Nonetheless — and perhaps at the peril of lapsing into idealism — I think there should be a distinction drawn between imagining and creating, a distinction that Pynchon keeps alive and that McCarthy emphatically closes. McCarthy’s assemblage is one in which the characters and the book constantly affirm the poverty of imagination and the complete inability to create a difference in the world, which are captured not just by the characters’ monotonous, reactive existence but also by the book’s austere prose and blank naturalism. Similarly, Pynchon presents characters and history that can’t imagine their lives differently, but he does so within a book that prizes and continually enacts invention and creation. In this context, Pynchon’s moments of what sometimes get called the fantastical decidedly contrast with the arc of the characters and the story (which, for him, is so far pretty linear): not just the Pynchonian moments of narrative departure — the airship that navigates under the earth’s surface, or the bilocated characters, to name a couple — but the intricate, at times grasping sentences and the wide range of affective modulation strain against the barriers obeyed by the characters and suggest that things can be other than they are. While McCarthy’s book is syncretic, in that both its content and expression are resigned to collapse, Pynchon’s, with its proliferation of inventions, even failed ones, affirms contingency and, thus, the possibility of other creations.

Another difference between The Road and Against the Day, though one closely related to the above, is their notion of events. The Road takes place after an apocalypse, and this event absolutely defines the horizon of the book’s action. McCarthy’s event is, to put it in a different language, Badiouan. For Badiou, events are rare occurrences that define epochs and whose corresponding subjectivity is charged with naming and being loyal to that event. Badiouan events are noisy: Paul’s intervention in Christianity, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, 1968. In The Road, the characters live the void created by the noisiest event, the apocalypse, and the book’s refusal to consider or invent other events suggests not only the limits of imagination but the impossibility of creation. Against the Day, on the other hand, is filled with events engendered by Pynchon’s refusal to collapse the distinction between content and expression. That gap ensures both that the book’s elements are constantly in mutual presupposition and that no hierarchies can be developed between them. More importantly, the proliferation of events keeps open the potential for the creation of new virtualities and possibilities–in other words, new worlds.

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