Books: Pynchon vs. the Toaster

The literary master's dazzling, dizzying 1,085-page new novel is not for those looking for a snack

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Correction Appended November 14, 2006

Ordinary novelists have readers. Thomas Pynchon has decoders. Anyone who has ventured into the manic densities of Gravity's Rainbow or Mason & Dixon knows the drill. You comb through his superabundance of historical data and scientific arcana. You adjust your nerve endings to operate at his mad frequencies. Day after day you resume the steep ascent of his achievement and just hope to make camp before nightfall.

In the late 1960s I encountered Pynchon's first novel, V. Duly enchanted, I swore that eventually I would decipher every one of his enigmas. That Pynchon himself was one of them, that he never gave interviews or permitted his photograph to be published, only made him more irresistible. To this day his only public "appearances" have been two guest spots on The Simpsons. Both times he was wearing a bag over his head.

Nearly four decades and many rereadings later, I know better than to suppose that anyone fully penetrates Pynchon's intentions, not in V., not in his short masterpiece The Crying of Lot 49 and certainly not in his mammoth new book, Against the Day (Penguin Press; 1,085 pages). Of course this makes me not just a Pynchon reader but practically a Pynchon character, another of his comically put-upon quest figures who journey into mysteries that engulf them. Even that is part of Pynchon's grand scheme, which is to make the experience of reading his work a demonstration of his most forceful intuition, or one of them: that history is a monstrously deceptive puzzle and the world is a shower of clues, most of them false.

At 3 lbs. 6 oz., Against the Day weighs just 3 oz. less than my toaster. But my toaster doesn't offer the tantalizing music of Pynchon's voice, with its shifts from comic shtick to heartbroken threnody, its mordant Faulkneresque interludes, its gusts of lyric melancholy blown in by way of F. Scott Fitzgerald, its ecstatic perorations from Jack Kerouac. And my toaster will never lay before me a vision of a world in which technology is stripping away all the ancient, vital magic while shepherding mankind to the brink of destruction. On the other hand, my toaster makes toast, and nothing quite so graspable ever pops out of this predictably bewitching, predictably bewildering book.

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