[ because the Roanoke Times doesn't review "those kinds of books"... ]
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's most ambitious production since 1973's Gravity's Rainbow, finds its nearest twin in Tape from California, a 1968 sound recording by folksinger Phil Ochs. On that particular occasion, Ochs managed to combine two disparate threads of popular music: the unreconstructed Leftist folk tradition (abandoned by Bob Dylan rather early on) and the innovative, albeit short-lived, outbreak of "baroque pop" (as practiced by Van Dyke Parks among others). Both works share a preoccupation with the tragedies of history and fate, viewing them through a satiric lens.
For the critic Northrop Frye, satire works the intersection of fantasy and morality. This perhaps classical understanding of satire, more so than any devotion to the stuffy confines of novelistic tradition, marks Pynchon's turf. In the sense that all extended works of prose fiction are marketed and digested as novels, Against the Day is hardly exceptional. As a massive, time-spanning saga involving families and continents, the book can be seen as Pynchon's answer to James Michener. Unlike Michener, however, a variety of styles are employed: juvenile adventure, hard-boiled detective, early science fiction and the Western.
The novel's central conflict arises in the Colorado mining towns of the late 1800's. The actions of labor agitator Webb Traverse have come to the attention of Scarsdale Vibe, ruthless representative of the "boss class." With Webb's inevitable elimination by hired guns, the action shifts to the internal struggles of his three sons. Operating as a Western, revenge figures prominently in the novel. More broadly, the motif of the three brothers partakes of a literary tradition extending from Dostoevsky to David Foster Wallace. One brother, Kit, will accept an engineering scholarship financed by Vibe.
As in Gravity's Rainbow, the private concerns of individual characters will be overshadowed by the spectre of war. Through a variety of narrative threads we find ourselves in London, Venice, Central Asia and the Balkans. It is the Balkans, ground zero for the First World War and site of the worst European atrocities since the Holocaust, where themes of multigenerational revenge are further explored. The Balkan chapters likewise take up the "Great Game" politics that put Russia, Britain, and the Austrian and Ottoman empires at odds. In archly political tones reminiscent of the film Matewan, one effect of this new global war is revealed to be the quashing of the international labor movement by the divisive forces of nationalism.
If Against the Day were a pure historical novel with a leftward slant, it would easily join the ranks of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy. Pynchon's work, however, always features a strong fantastic element, often brushing against the grain of history's official narrative. The world of earthbound love, intrigue and toil is, for example, surveyed by an airship crew known as "the Chums of Chance." Like something out of a comic book (or Star Trek), their missions range from rescue to spying to discovering the lost city of Shambhala. These "balloon boys" are also like the angels of ancient lore, answerable to mysterious powers whose orders they don't always understand. Highlighting the limits of their knowledge is a horrific experience with a primitive, nearly lethal, time machine. We gather that they glimpse a corpse strewn field in Europe during the Great War and come away not knowing the substance or reality of what they've seen. Whatever the case, they are powerless to stop it. From the world of geopolitics to the personal lives of its characters, Against the Day is foremost a meditation on fate.
As literature Against the Day deftly negotiates the great themes of love and death while drawing from genres usually dismissed by highbrows (i.e., late-modernist middlebrows). It is this last fact that enables Pynchon to capture the tenor of popular writing circa 1900. With his periodic forays into higher mathematics as well as the intimacies of couples (trios, etc), the author provides a comprehensive view of human society. The elegiac tone, if not entirely hopeful, manages to avoid the despair of H.G. Wells in his final days ("the pattern of things to come faded away").