Drawing the Line

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (The Penguin Press, 1120 pages)

Thomas Pynchon's characters in Against the Day worry about America's "capitalist Christer Republicans" as only the inhabitants of a thoroughly Protestant universe can. It's easy to mistake Pynchon's jittery, inventive monologues and his resentment of social order for the ramblings of a stoner hippie. But if Pynchon is a hippie he also drank his Protestantism deeply, and his sense of ineffable divinity sits uneasily alongside the certainty Christianity Americans often profess.

From his Puritan ancestors Pynchon learned that grace comes to some of us and not others according to God's inscrutable wishes. What we do does not affect our salvation. We who believe in a gospel of success cannot easily imagine a people convinced of its irrelevance. But suppose corruption had thoroughly rotted a society: a God indifferent to worldly opinion might grow in popularity. If officially virtuous people were really villains, maybe publicly despised people were really saints. If everything you heard was a lie, perhaps only God could winnow truth.

Early in Against the Day Pynchon reminds us of this idea and expresses it graphically: "Many people believe that there is a mathematical correlation between sin, penance, and redemption. More sin, more penance, and so forth... [But t]here is no connection.... You are redeemed not through doing penance but because it happens. Or doesn't happen." The salvation story we might like -- we do good and we get rewarded -- implies a line whose equation we could plot. But the arbitrary Puritan God robs us of plottable lines. Grace comes when He pleases and at no predictable moment.

And if the story of salvation resists such plotting, so do Pynchon's own stories, which often seek to escape plottable trajectories. V and its sequel, V2 -- er, Gravity's Rainbow -- borrowed the idea of a mathematically predictable arc of history from Henry Adams. The plottable curves do murder: the V2's fly from Germany up to the stratosphere and down to bomb London, just as humanity races up from barbarism to civilization and then, all force (vis) spent, hurtles down at increasing speed to decadence and destruction. If the imposition of order, the reduction of experience to Cartesian coordinates and determined paths, leads to this certain Hell, wouldn't you prefer uncertainty -- even at the cost of forsaking the conventional plot curve of Freitag's triangle? Pynchon's characters do, yo-yo-ing back and forth or even apparently dissolving, they avoid any ending.

Or, as in Against the Day, they abide by a different narrative convention: that of the adventure serial. Pynchon tells his "dear readers" on the first page we are in the company of serial characters, the "Chums of Chance," who fly their airship from one adventure to the next (previous installments include "The Chums of Chance and the Big Kahuna" and "The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit"). Adventure heroes need not succumb to Freitag's triangle -- they can last beyond the end of the book, essentially unchanged and ready for the next. So with the ageless Chums, who float above the sinister system of nineteenth-century civilization:

during the Sieges of Paris [in 1871].... it became clear to certain of these balloonists, observing from above... how much the modern State depended for its survival on maintaining a condition of permanent siege -- through the systematic encirclement of populations, the starvation of bodies and spirits, the relentless degradation of civility until citizen was turned against citizen, even to the point of committing atrocities.... When the Sieges ended, these balloonists chose to fly on, free now of the political delusions that reigned more than ever on the ground, pledged solemnly only to one another....

The Chums' ship is named Inconvenience (as in "we apologize for the," another whimsical author's idea of God's last message to his creation) in contrast to their Russian counterparts aboard the better organized, but less trustworthy, Great Game. The Europeans stand for empire, for drawing lines and taking possession; the all-American boys resist all that.

Or at least, they think they're being all-American by resisting that line-drawing. But the line-drawers are taking over what it means to be American, running railroads through the West:

the railroad.... penetrated, it broke apart cities and wild herds and watersheds, it created economic panics and armies of jobless men and women, and generations of hard, bleak city-dwellers with no principles who ruled with unchecked power, it took away everything indiscriminately, to be sold, to be slaughtered, to be led beyond the reach of love.

The bulk of the book plots a terrestrial narrative of conflict between the line-drawers and those who resist them, personified in two families: the plutocrat Vibes and the miner-anarchist Traverses. For this part of the tale, Pynchon controls his language and keeps it conventional, almost subdued: because the line-drawers must win, even against love. In Pynchon's history you can plot a vector from the accumulation of capital and colonies to the Great War and the clash with Islam. It is inexorable: as in the Puritan drama, the larger part of humanity is Hellbound, and even the Chums can't save them.

In a universe of such sure damnation, what hope abides? Perhaps an effort to resist the vector of inevitability, to cooperate instead with the ineffable logic of salvation (maybe allied to a Quaternion mathematics defined against "the traditional triangle") can save -- not humanity, but a few individual people, and can even maybe save a country. If only the U.S. could recall its stand for freedom! But for now the country exists uneasily with its alternate self: "the boys could almost believe some days that they were safely back home.... on others they found an American Republic whose welfare they believed they were sworn to advance passed so irrevocably into the control of they evil and moronic that it seemed the could not, after all, have escaped....." Meanwhile they fly, chaotically, toward grace.

Eric Rauchway is the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America. He teaches history at the University of California, Davis.

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