Against the Day
Pynchon crafts superb Colorado novel
by Paul Kennebeck
Who would’ve thought the inestimable Thomas Pynchon would turn his attention to Colorado? Is it possible Pynchon’s Colorado will become as memorable as James Joyce’s Dublin?
The book, Against The Day (The Penguin Press), tells a story of Colorado’s mining communities at the turn of the century — about the silver and gold from Telluride, Leadville, Silverton — and offers up a view of the labor struggles that accompanied the gold and silver. In Pynchon’s West, it’s not exactly "Cowboys and Indians," more like anarchists versus capitalists. Colorado’s mining called for dynamite and men who knew how to use it. Miners and dynamite become combustible when mixed with unholy working conditions and uncaring mine-owners. Dynamite and anarchy weave through the novel.
For those of us familiar with Telluride, Ouray, Denver and the Colorado mountains, it is a pleasure to read Pynchon’s take on these sites. Telluride is a "simple narrow grid of a town that seemed to’ve been slipped in all at the same time and squeezed onto the valley floor." Exactly right. It is that way now and was that way at the turn of the 19th Century, the setting for Pynchon’s novel. The train that takes Pynchon’s questers, dynamiters and rebels in and out of "To-hell-u-ride" goes straight up the narrow valley and, to leave, must back out down the valley.
Telluride is "Creede, but with only the one way in and out."
Turn-of-the-century Denver is background for Pynchon’s characters plotting in saloons, performing their private-eyeing, hanging out until they head back up into the perilous mountains. One character is "running tabs at every bar along 17th Street" and is paying "off his losses at Ed’s Arcade to stay friendly with associates of Ed Chase, the boss of the red-light district" and has a meeting where "at the Albany the mirror was legendary, 110 feet long." These details may sound mundane, but for a Pynchon fan it’s a delight to see his interest in our environs.
The story doesn’t always follow a straight plot line, where effect is the result of cause. Or rather, there is effect that results from cause, but the two are separated by several hundred pages. Or, to be truthful, maybe there’s plenty of
cause and effect, but this reader was too dense to see it.
Pynchon — surprise — can be obscure at times.
This isn’t a Western quite like those written by Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Louis L’Amour. (Something tells me Pynchon won’t be standing in the White House to receive a medal like L’Amour.) Pynchon’s Colorado is different from the one depicted in Michener’s Centennial. Neither Michener nor L’amour, nor anyone else for that matter, would people their novels with the wonderful Pynchon oddities — a ball of lighting that becomes chatty and friendly with a lightning rod salesman, a parrot who talks (gives opinions, gets into arguments, possesses a nasty vocabulary) and a dog who apparently enjoys reading Henry James.
Pynchon’s imagination is different from yours or mine. His is better. Someone someday is going to put together the Pynchon songbook (his lyrics are irresistible) and the Pynchon fashion guide (he dresses his characters, especially the ones who seem to make a single appearance in the book, in colors and cuttings not seen in Vogue). No review can capture Pynchon’s language, humor, or his profusion of odd characters.
There is much perfidy, adventure, misadventure, revenge, love, war, capitalism and lawlessness occurring in turn-of-the-century Colorado. (Maybe it’s still occurring.)
To be fair, there are three things you should know.
One: Pynchon’s 1,085-page Colorado book also takes place in the Arctic (also maybe in parts beneath the Arctic — I’m not sure), Germany, New York, Chicago, Asia, Mexico, and also maybe in parts beneath Mexico — I’m not sure. As Chekhov said, the pistol hanging on the wall in the first act of a play must be fired by the third act, so too any mention of the Archduke Ferdinand in the first part of the book can lead the reader to legitimately expect there might be a scene or two that occurs in the Balkans by the end of the book. Pynchon has read his Chekov. Not to mention everything else ever printed. Maybe Pynchon is the hero of this book: his wit, humor, inventiveness, paranoia, madness, hope and hopelessness are on display in abundance. One thing you’d never say about Pynchon: A mind is a terrible thing to W.A.S.T.E.
Two: Don’t ever try to review a Pynchon novel in fewer than 800 words.
Three: Maybe this isn’t a Colorado novel.