Light reading

Thomas Pynchon’s up Against the Day
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 14, 2006

BUGGED BUT UNDAUNTED: Pynchon takes on all the big questions.
Maybe writers should avoid the light, whether describing its effect or analyzing its nature, and instead leave it to experts like painters and physicists to worry about. On the other hand, as the Bible points out, it was the Word that turned on the light in the first place, and perhaps that’s why Thomas Pynchon has written a Bible-length book on that and many other subjects. Undaunted in the past by the big questions that bug a guy, he here takes on, in addition to the elusive quality of light (or perhaps these are all just variations on the same), time travel, multiple universes, the death struggle between anarchism and capitalism, the dance of order and chaos.

Heavy going? Not for the Chums of Chance, the quintet of aeronautical adventurers navigating the airship Inconvenience through the trouble spots of world history, some real, all fanciful, from the Chicago World Fair of 1893 to the aftermath of World War I. Among the book’s dozen or so narrative threads the Chums come off as the most lighthearted, the most representative perhaps of the medium of fiction itself, detached and secure in their own fictitiousness but also, like angels or gods, occasionally interceding in the events of the world.

They hover over more earthbound characters, most of whom have family issues — being orphaned, abandoned, estranged. Some compensate for this with metaphysical obsessions about identity, being, space, time, and, inevitably, light. Others fill the void with political activism that runs mostly to the left of Bakunin.

The latter include Webb Traverse, dedicated dynamiter of scabs and plutocrats in defense of union miners in Colorado in the 1890s. He leaves an anarchist legacy unevenly distributed among his three sons. Frank takes up the bombing craft, sort of. Reef flirts with it while roving as a gambler. Kit betrays it by taking up an invitation from his father’s nemesis the capitalist Scarsdale Vibe to study mathematics at Yale and Göttingen.

Here is where some familiarity with pre-Einsteinian theories of light (the discredited concept of Æther is vindicated) and mathematical controversies around the turn of the last century pays off. Kit, for example is a Vectorist. He will later get cozy with Yashmeen, herself an exotic orphan. She’s a Quarternionist (cf. William Rowan Hamilton’s formula i² = j² = k² = ijk = -1, which somehow, I suspect, relates to the structure of the book, each term in the equation applicable to each of the novel’s five sections) obsessed with the Zeta function of G.F.B. Riemann. In addition, she has ties to the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tertactys (T.W.I.T.), a covert London group fighting the powers of darkness through Pythagorean beliefs and the tarot.

The paranoid systems, as is Pynchon’s wont, multiply and overlap, mostly with delightful absurdity, sometimes with numbing (for the uninitiated such as myself) opacity, as in this meditation from Yashmeen: “Though the members of a Hermitian may be complex, the eigenvalues are real. The ζ–function zeroes which lie along the Real part = 1/2, are symmetrical about the real axis, and so . . . ” Pynchon adds, “And the idea itself would evolve into the celebrated Hilbert-Pólya Conjecture.”

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