Vectoral Characterisation and Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Against the Day’

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The problem with making generalisations about the oeuvre of any novelist, particularly when you haven’t read all of their novels, is that one just might find that one of their major works is an extended allegory of your wrongness. I once wrote that Thomas Pynchon’s characters are little more than clockwork automata as they are subservient to the satirical burlesque in which they exist; Pynchon being more interested in mounting his extravagant Mennipean satires in prose than intricate character studies.

But Chris, objects one, how could you make such a myopic statement, when you have read that other major work of Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, which is positively heaving with rich characters &c? Yes, well firstly, Mason & Dixon is some eight hundred pages in length, secondly, it is written in a pastiche of early modern English, and thirdly, while I was reading it I was in a foreign country strung out on tetrahydrocannabinol and heartbreak. At many stages in my ‘reading’ of Mason & Dixon, I might aswell have been moving my eyes along repetitive linear pathways on a blank surface. It’s one thing to wonder who a character is halfway through a novel, it’s an entirely different matter to find yourself asking ‘why are they in China all of a sudden?’

But Chris, a possibly the same, possibly different objector voices, Why are you pointing this out when that Don De Lillo post had nine views tops? Do you expect that some sort of furore has erupted for which you are now pledging a mea culpa rather than playing out an imaginative contrivance? To which I say that I am starting this off with a sort of rhetorical gesture to introduce a bit of personal drama. I’ll take a step back and talk about characterisation in general for a second before I push into Against the Day.

E.M. Forster is probably among the only writers of serious literature who you might get cited at you in an evening course on screenwriting, based on a text he wrote entitled Aspects of the Novel, in which he sets out some rather direct and uncomplicated theories of novelistic architecture. The one I’ve heard most often is the distinction Forster makes between ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. I might not need to delimit the difference, but Forster’s rule of thumb is that a flat character’s whole being can be delimited in a sentence. If flat characters are not being used to service a punchline, they’re probably boring. A round character, as Forster writes:

“has further dimensions to their personality, which are revealed as events demand them. A flat character never surprises us with their behaviour, but a round character may well surprise us with these unsuspected aspects of their nature; and the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”

Forster is saying a lot of things in the above quotation, but I think one should ask why character comes to be framed in such terms, what is the cause for the spatiality metaphors haunting Forster’s notion of character, revealed in words such as ’flat,’ ‘round’ and ‘dimensions.’ If we think about the fields and discourses that these words conjure up, geometry, physics, mathematics and all the things I disregard out of hand because I’m not good at them, we begin to sense how inadequate they are when looked at at length, particularly in a literary context, when dimensionality doesn’t intuitively seem like something a writer should be aiming for, seeing as they are writing for a flattened, textual medium.

Calling Pynchon’s characters ‘clockwork’ would be to confine them to the realm of a two-dimensional, or flat character. They exist to carry out a pre-determined function, and serve as a representation of something beyond what they merely ‘are.’ But what if Pynchon was to expand the absurdity of these spatial notions of fictional Being, to plot the fullness of a protagonist’s dimensions with more of a verisimilitudinous gesture, rather than making them just convincingly contradictory, as one would do if one belonged to the Forster school of novel-writing. Which would be fine, by the bye; most novelists do.

Against the Day opens in the year 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair. The reader is introduced to a number of young boys, and a dog who reads Henry James, aboard the airship Inconvenience. These are The Chums of Chance. The writing style is initially, that of a jocular dime-store adventure novel for pre-teens, albeit with a healthy influx of heightened literary verbiage. This sets the tone for Against the Day’s remainder, which utilises the Western, the road trip and a number of science fiction set-pieces, in a mode that honours the ‘lower’ genres that they appropriate, while keeping them at arm’s length via irony.

It is in the precise modulation of this irony that Pynchon’s art resides, manipulating these genres, refusing to commit to any one of them for very long, and thereby constructing a rambling picaresque constructed of a panoply of voices and styles. Even when Pynchon could be seen as lowering the mask and having lengthy reflections on how a particular character ‘feels’ one can see them being rendered with lines perhaps more reminiscent of those who populate nineteenth-century novels, where an individual’s agglutinated mass of feeling is far more legible to the reader, the observer-narrator, than they are to the characters themselves. Pynchon certainly manages to explain (if not explain away) Lake Webb’s reasons for entering into an effective ménage à trois with Sloat Fresno and Deuce Kindred, the men who murdered her father Webb Traverse on the instructions of the nefarious capitalist Scarsdale Vibe, far more articulately and at greater length than she ever attempt to articulate, either to herself or anyone else.

Webb is an anarchist, union leader, miner and the different ways in which Webb’s children, Frank, Reef, Kit and Lake process their grief over their father’s murder, or do not, forms the novel’s essential dramatic arc. There’s the spatial metaphor again, and it brings us back to characterisation, the notion that all characters, especially the round ones, are on a journey of some sort, and must undergo a change as they move along their individual character arc, or, as I might suggest, character vector.

Pynchon, being one of those polymaths with a flair not just for prose fiction, often makes use of mathematical or scientific concepts in his work, which can offer tempting silhouettes of skeleton keys to any would-be understander of a Pynchon novel. Kit Traverse offers one such potential source of meaning, as he is a theorist of quaternion vectors, a system of thought which extends complex numbers beyond two dimensions into four. For example, 1, 2, 3, 4, all follow a straightforward, linear path. However, we can map the figure in a different way by extending a number along a vertical axis, and map it in physical space. Why stop there? Instead of just x and y, we could add i, j and k, to solve problems that would only arise in three-dimensional space. As Kit puts it: “Up and down…left and right, to and fro, the three axes…But someone might have command of Quaternion space – three imaginary axes plus a fourth scalar term.”

The possibilities that the introduction of algebra, complex numbers and then quaternion theory takes mathematics in eludes my understanding entirely, but its placement in a novel that is, at times when it is less numerate, dealing with human longing, difficult and multifarious sexual identities and whether what it is possible to live in the world and not be deeply, ethically compromised in some way, (a world which “generation after generation, has been absorbing…labour, accepting…corpses this labor produces, along with obscene profits, which is left to other and usually whiter men to gather”) begs the question as to what the vector theme is there to establish. Looking for a single answer may be wrong-headed, but my own sense is that Pynchon is showing the ways in which the normative ways of creating characters on the page are always open to development and extension. Cyprian Latewood may enter the novel as an apparent punchline around page 900, subject to engaging in clandestine BDSM rendezvouses with closeted military men, falling laughably in love with the improbably beautiful and unattainable mathematical prodigy, Yashmeen Halfcourt, but somehow as the chapters continue, as he engages in an affair with Yashmeen, which develops in turn into the novel’s other ménage with the at first homophobic Reef Traverse, their picaresque sexual adventures develop into something far more complex. See also, his interactions with Yashmeen and Reef’s daughter. When Cyprian enters into a monastery and makes the trio a duo, the double heartbreak that his departure occasions is some of the most simultaneously affecting and underplayed I can recall encountering in a while:

“One evening Reef came in to find Yashmeen sitting distraught by a pile of Cyprian’s discarded clothing, picking up item after item. “I could pretend to be him for you,” she cried…the hopefulness in her voice more than he knew how to respond to…

“Darlin…please…That ain’t gonna do it…”

For a novelist marketed on his brashness, he knows when to turn the volume down and let the pathos seep through his half-journalese, half-objective screed of language.

Plot-wise, arc-wise or vector-wise, however you wish to construe it, the novel is always at war with the symmetry that narrative promises us, that is ingrained in its DNA. The wedding of two love interests who have long been circling one another, the murder of the wrongdoer; these are all things we are programmed to expect, and even in Against the Day, we expect Kit to couple up with Dally, and for the Webbs to gang up together to take down the Vibe enterprise. But this symmetry is always denied us. Revenge, when it happens, is never carried out by who you would expect or when. The romantic interests established early in the plot as apparently star-crossed burn themselves out, re-ignite before fading away again and both parties beginning to regularly engage in intercourse with someone else. Always for undramatic, credible reasons, that two humans getting along is difficult. The three-ways that evoke the quaternion schema and repudiate the happy-ending marriage tend not to last either, but they do seem less bourgeois, and that’s always good.

It’s always good also when in a novel’s closing pages, an apparently throwaway sentence seems to justify the possibly mad theory you’ve developed as to what the novel ‘means,’ and in the following quotation, we have a line of that nature, suggesting that Against the Day aims to “transcend the old political space, the map-space of two dimensions, by climbing into the third.”

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