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Inspired chaos

A skyship, 'Anarchism,' and characters from robber baron to rebel blaze in the reflection of Pynchon's pyrotechnics

Against the Day
By Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 1,085 pp., $35

In May, Thomas Pynchon turns 70. Our mightiest, and most elusive, novelist reaches his biblically appointed three score and 10. It would be cause for alarm, the aging of such a perpetually youthful sensibility, except that Pynchon celebrates this momentous birthday early, presenting a gift rather than receiving one: his first novel in nine years -- and best in 33 (speaking of biblical numbers).

Any time Pynchon publishes a new book it's a literary event. "Pynchon, more than any other writer, has set the standard," Don DeLillo once said. "He's raised the stakes." Not that raising the stakes always results in winnings. Pynchon's two most recent novels, "Vineland" (1990) and "Mason and Dixon" (1997), were disappointments -- full of wonders, yes, but clearly lesser things than the novel that preceded them, "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973) , its author's masterpiece and one of the indispensable books of the 20th century.

For sheer imaginative fecundity, Pynchon has no rival in our literature. A reader who doesn't like or admire his novels still can't help but be awed by them: their scope and ambition, range of reference, seemingly endless capacity to summon up the fantastic and surreal. Doesn't every novel open, as "Against the Day" does, with a "hydrogen skyship" floating over the Chicago World's Fair of 1893?

The world in Pynchon's pages is alert and luminous with meaning and implication. More often than not, those conditions menace and condemn rather than sustain and redeem. Pynchon is the patron saint of literary paranoia. If anything, though, that makes them all the more overwhelming. "Vertigo was somehow designed into the place, a condition of residence," a character realizes in "Against the Day." She's thinking of a long-lost convent. The words apply equally well to Pynchon's fiction.

"Against the Day" is Pynchon's longest novel -- a not-unterrifying 300 pages longer than "Gravity's Rainbow." It's as much genre-bending as mind-bending, with elements of epic (of course), sci-fi, Western, historical novel, paranoid thriller, comedy, adventure story, young adult novel (that skyship), picaresque novel, political novel, and musical comedy.

All the usual Pynchon features are here. Goofy names. Whitmanesque catalogs. Extravagant, and often extravagantly perverse, sex. Snatches of silly song ("Vege-tariano / No ifs ands or buts -- / Eggs and dairy? Ah no, / More like roots, and nuts"). Puns. A happy haze of drug references. (Who knew so much "hemp" was smoked in turn-of-the-century America?) Pynchon devotees will be pleased to hear there's a Pig Bodine reference.

The novel covers some three decades, from the 1893 fair (readers of Henry Adams take note ) to an indeterminate point in the early '20s. Its armature is the struggle between "the intricacies of greed as then being practiced under global capitalism" and Anarchism. Anyone who's read Pynchon doesn't need an upper-case "a" to know which side he favors. Looming over everything is "the mass-grave-to-be of Europe," World War I.

Pynchon, with his "compass fatally sensitive to anomaly," fills "Against the Day" with his standard vaudeville of oddities. Cheerfully obscure references to history, science, culture, upholster the novel. Count Basie's "Harvard Blues" pops up. Jack Benny's most famous joke gets retold. The Michelson-Morley experiment figures as a minor plot device. Then there's the even more outlandish stuff he actually makes up: a dog that reads Henry James, for instance, or the craze for "Anarchists' Golf" ("Parties were likely to ask, 'Do you mind if we don't play through?' ").

Pynchon's playfulness extends to himself. During a Fourth of July fireworks display, one of the skyship's crew gets carried away describing how a skyrocket's trajectory looks -- a description, in other words, of gravity's rainbow. "Stop, stop ," a comrade moans, covering his ears, "it sounds like Chinese!"

Well, maybe it does. "Chinese music" is what Cab Calloway , admonishing Dizzy Gillespie , called bebop. The epigraph for "Against the Day" comes from Thelonious Monk: "It's always night, or we wouldn't need light." Although several real-life figures crop up in the novel -- Archduke Franz Ferdinand , Bela Lugosi , Mother Jones , Nikola Tesla -- Monk's not one of them. Still, his presence, and Gillespie's and Charlie Parker's , can be felt. There's a bop electricity to Pynchon: the furious tempos and difficult harmonies, the maverick stance and hipster attitude.

The most important thing Pynchon shares with Monk and the rest is an astonishing lyrical gift. All the paranoia and silliness and vast workings out of history make it easy to overlook the sheer beauty of Pynchon's prose. He describes Chicago, seen from afar, as "contradicting the prairie." A woman's freckles are "like a reverse glittering across her flesh." Flight "is no longer a matter of gravity -- it is an acceptance of sky."

Pynchon uses his prose to accelerate a madly turning world. The closest thing to a still point in it is the Traverse family . Webb , the father, is a Colorado miner and secret Anarchist: a man "intimate with the deepest arcana of dynamite." He and his wife, Mayva , have three sons: Reef , a professional gambler; Frank , a geologist; and Kit , whose aptitude for physics earns him a scholarship to Yale. (The site of Kit's matriculation gives Pynchon a chance to note the arrival of pizza in New Haven.)

A daughter, Lake, may be the most rebellious member of a notably rebellious clan. The identity of her husband is the one true outrage among the constant stream of outrageous coincidences with which Pynchon propels his novel. In one way, "Against the Day" is stupendously untidy, rolling out many subplots, only to abandon most of them, like so many sticks of dud dynamite. In another, it's ludicrously neat: a stringing together of coincidences as complex, and elemental, as an electron lattice.

At any given moment, continents separate characters -- but never for long. Besides Chicago, the plot takes in Colorado, Iceland, Mexico, New York, London, Venice, Central Asia, Vienna, the Balkans, Los Angeles, Paris. And it's not just the Traverse brothers who crisscross the planet, but their various partners, as well: Dally Rideout , Estrella ("Stray") Briggs , Yashmeen Halfcourt , Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin , Wren Provenance , Cyprian Latewood . (See what I mean about the names?)

Against the Traverses, Pynchon poses another family, the Vibes (the bad Vibes, as even he doesn't have the shamelessness to say). Their patriarch, Scarsdale Vibe , is a robber baron to end all robbery, a monopolist so monstrous as to justify even the wildest excesses of Anarchist violence. Bestriding "the secret backlands of wealth," he stands in the dark, reductive tradition of such Pynchon villains as Lyle Bland and Brock Vond .

One reason Pynchon's advanced age seems so startling is that he remains such a creature of the '60s. So long as he writes, that decade endures. His fealty takes clearest form in his burning-bright radicalism. There is no conceivable doubt as to where Pynchon comes down on "the terrible American divide between hunter and prey." Like his Anarchist characters, he hungers for a "return to daylit America, its practical affairs, its steadfast denial of night."

Pynchon's too smart not to know that isn't about to happen. But aren't lost causes always more attractive (authorially, at least)? He's also too smart not to realize there's an unmistakable parallel between anarchism then and terrorism now. He doesn't square the contradiction between past promise and current threat, except to make the anarchist bombings as unbloody as they are frequent.

Novelists being novelists, Pynchon's politics owe far more to sentiment than ideology. And, it must be said, "Against the Day" exhibits strong sentimental tendencies. Only one good guy dies, albeit his death is played out with Old Testament ferocity. And the novel ends in a rush of reconciliation and reunion, marriage and parenthood.

It's a rush that feels right, though, inevitable even, as the coming of sunset against the day does. Always dawn follows . . . And, who knows -- ask any actuary, 70 isn't that old anymore -- maybe another Pynchon novel? If one comes, let it be as rich and sweeping, wild and thrilling, as this one.

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