Did Pynchon write this book for me or did I live my life to be prepared to read this book? We might not ever know but his greatest talent is writing such richly layered works that it feels like he made it just for you.
The story descends into the Columbian Exposition to start, though there are threads of background for a number of characters reaching into the near past like the Wild West which was rapidly being tamed by industry as the century turned.
A few topics dominate the sociological landscape in the early stages of the story such as:
- Domestic terrorism & anarchism
- War theater
- Domestic fear theater
Man creates intangible and symbolic self-inflicted horrors, some even emerge into the collective human conscious as a result of having no natural predator or external threats. An utter scene of destruction lays waste to New York City as a result of man’s hubris, Pynchon’s nod to H.P. Lovecraft as well as a catharsis for 9/11.
Against the Day illustrates how this cycle creates opportunity, and how the extremely capitalistic barons of those times learned to profit off these themes. Implying that the technique was mastered in this age, culminating with the first World War. The folly of populist movements is that they exacerbate the effect and guide policy to enable the capitalists to push their operations to be more efficient at exploiting that momentum.
An analog is Spain at the turn of the 19th century, who was pulled into physical war by the explosion of the USS Maine and eventually a Civil War on the Iberian peninsula in the 1930’s. The land also served as an economic laboratory in the 30’s as other nations took various sides of the combatants, sending support and supplies. Notably both Orwell & Hemingway went to Spain during the War to participate and report. The outcome was dictatorial at the time, though ultimately Francisco Franco relinquished power to the people and monarchy — the only fascist leader I can recall to have transitioned the government successfully.
A more modern example is fading England of the turn of the millennium which has been the target of sustained psychological war and an economic laboratory caught between the West and the compromises of continental Europe. I do see a symbolic connection between Dominic Cummings’ Brexit push (the film starring Benedict Cumberbatch had the subtitle “The Uncivil War” dropped for its American release) and the selection of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister to 1930's Spain.
The The 20th Century is the transition from American mythos and tall tales into neuroses and paranoia. Dark symbols emerge from within when exterior wonders run out of frontier, the psyche turns inward or worse to others.
I never realized how much Pynchon loves listing things. Definitely noticed during the previous audiobooks but became particularly aware as my eyes physically passed over the words in Against the Day. It’s how he builds the scenes of his worlds. With terms and activities lifted right from the days he is writing about in his stories. The research is impressive and he dares his readers to follow along with his references laden with double and triple entendres in every paragraph.
As the book settles in, time gaps shrink dialing into a few remaining Traverse men and the ostensible events of the early 20th Century are paired with their entanglements which are, of course, less historically canonical. That’s the fun of his writing, laterally slipping the lives of his characters right into the timeline we inhabit.
Against the Day is the most insightful of the four Thomas Pynchon books I have read so far, it is tapped into the human experience. At the end of things here, I believe he is making a statement regarding the tribalism of humans and how that can be exploited by those that don’t have a tribe and don’t care for chiefs.