Much like Nigel Tufnel's amplifier in the movie "Spinal Tap," Thomas Pynchon's books go all the way to 11. Everything's bigger: the cast of characters, their names, their drug use, the distances they travel, the tangents they get lost in, the number of pages, the number of words per sentence, the numbers of syllables per word. When people talk about Pynchon as America's greatest living writer, I assume they're grading by the pound.
His new novel, Against the Day, represents one of the few cases in which I'd recommend judging a book by its cover. A casual examination will reveal that (a) it's massive (1,085 pages) and (b) if you stare at the blurry title for more than a second, it makes you feel dizzy and your head starts to hurt. This is not unlike the experience of reading the novel. There's no question that the book is written by an exceedingly intelligent, talented writer; there's also no question that it's indulgent and maniacally out of control.
Trying to sum up the "plot" is about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a tree, but here goes. An anarchist bomber, Webb Traverse, has been brutally murdered on the orders of robber baron Scarsdale Vibe. Webb's sons, Reef, Frank, and Kit (a mathematician whose Yale education was financed by Vibe), are determined to get revenge for their father. In one of the more repugnant subplots, his daughter, Lake, marries one of the men who tortured and murdered her father; he then shares her with the other killer.
Flying in periodically on their airship are the eternally youthful Chums of Chance, heroes of a boys adventure series ("The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin"), and their literate dog, Pugnax. Also on hand are photographer-philosopher Merle Rideout and his adopted daughter, Dahlia, as well as her mother, Erlys, who ran off when Dahlia was a baby to marry a magician. Popping up pointlessly every couple hundred pages is Lew Basnight, a private detective assigned to investigate the anarchists.
Then there are brief turns by inventor Nikola Tesla; a British secret society code-named T.W.I.T; a Midwestern university charged with making time travel possible; the 1893 Chicago World's Fair; a mariachi band called Gaston Villa and his Bughouse Bandeleros; submarines that travel under desert sands; copious amounts of absinthe, opium, and other mind-altering substances; and a partridge in a pear tree.
Seriously, even Cecil B. DeMille would have thrown up his hands in despair.
In addition to the quest to find Webb's killers, the characters are involved, to varying degrees, in a debate regarding spiritual math, the existence of the luminiferous Aether (which sounds like it escaped from Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series), translocation, and the search for the hidden city of Shambhala.
But I'm making it sound like more fun than it actually is.
This is not to say that longtime fans won't love the novel. It is nothing if not Pynchonian. But if you value narrative coherence and deeply thought-out characters, you're out of luck. Admittedly, there are some highly entertaining stretches. But just when a reader is settling in to enjoy one, someone will nearly drown in a sea of mayonnaise. Sadly, I'm not being metaphorical.
Part of the problem is that Pynchon seems to take great glee in pointless tangents and to believe that a novel dealing in anarchy should use that as a structural model. He keeps interrupting his tale so that, say, the Chums of Chance can journey to the center of the Earth and help out inhabitants being attacked by hordes of hostile gnomes with electric crossbows (leaving me to wonder if Pynchon has read Eoin Colfer as well Jules Verne).
"For a detailed account of their subsequent narrow escapes from the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia ... readers are referred to 'The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth' – for some reason one of the less appealing of this series, letters having come in from as far away as Tunbridge Wells, England, expressing displeasure, often quite intense, with my harmless little intraterrestrial scherzo." Plant me firmly in the Tunbridge Wells camp.
But if "Against the Day" is the most infuriating novel I've read in a year, it's also among the most imaginative. The intellectual curiosity that created some truly inventive flights of fancy could have used a little rigor in shaping a story that would serve the spiritual, philosophical, and technological connections to which it keeps alluding. Instead, they remain glimmers awash in a sea of monumental – and often monumentally irritating – prose.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.