Against the Day: Pynchon’s Journey Into the Real


One of the hallmarks of postmodern authors is their treatment of time as imaginary.  Postmodern novelists such David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, Jonathan Foer in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don Delillo in Falling Man treat time as a purely human construct—something that can be broken, bent, manipulated, and twisted on a whim.  Postmodern literature is rife with segmented, meandering, or divergent timelines—in postmodern narratives, time is an illusion.     

At first glance, it appears that Pynchon is up to the same narrative tricks in Against the Day.  He seems to begin in the present, take halting steps forward in the narrative and chronology, and then rewind the world several years back with narrative threads like the one that follows Merle Rideout and Erlys Zomboni.  Likewise, when Pynchon describes Reef Traverse and Yashmeen Halfcourt’s romance or Frank Traverse’s first encounter with his eventual lover Stray, Pynchon is fond of beginning paragraphs with “years later” as he seems to leap forward chronologically, even while the narrative stands still.  This apparent time-travelling technique is nothing new to postmodern fiction, but Pynchon is actually very though subtly different mechanism to manipulate the narrative.  In fact, far from using the postmodern model of time as a merely human idea to be played with, Against the Day is Pynchon’s illustration that time is the only one of the four dimensions that is not a construct.  

Pynchon does not manipulate time, at least not in what his character Kitt Traverse would call the imaginary fourth term in vector mathematics and indeed what most readers would call the imaginary term in postmodern fiction.  Pynchon manipulates everything else instead by changing the reader’s frame of reference.  Pynchon does not leave the reader in the familiar and comfortable world bounded by an x,y, and z axis of three dimensional matter, free to play with time as if it were an imaginary construct.  Instead, Pynchon approaches the world as a Quaternionist, a devotee of an obscure branch of turn-of-the-century pure mathematics.  He approaches time as the constant instead of the variable, and the rest of the physical universe being imaginary axes i, j, and k.  Time, in Against the Day, is unchanging and unchangeable—instead it is the rest of the world that changes.  Quaternionist Umeki Tsurigane explains Pynchon’s conceit to the reader when she explains Quaternionism to Kitt:

Actually, Quaternions failed because they perverted what the Vectorists thought they know of God’s intention—that space be simple, three-dimensional, and real, and if there must be a fourth term, an imaginary, that it be assigned to Time.  But Quaternions came in and turned that all end for end, defining the axes of space as imaginary and leaving Time to be the real term, and a scalar as well—simply inadmissible.  Of course the Vectorists went to war.  Nothing they knew of Time allowed it to be that simple, any more than they could allow space to be comprised of impossible numbers… (351)

Pynchon urges his readers to make a cognitive switch away viewing the world through the traditional Vectorist lenses where time is something to be manipulated around what we understand to be the “real.”  Pynchon asks his readers to see the world as a Quaternion would, with time as the only real value—a world where everything else is imaginary.  Pynchon then proceeds to take his readers across constant unwavering time, all the while changing the imaginary world of the physical.  Time, so commonly stretched, bent, and broken in postmodern narratives, becomes a solid line, Pynchon’s Archimedean lever large enough to move the world. Although perhaps are not immediately intuitive, Pynchon gives his readers plenty of clues to understanding his narrative technique.  

While time never changes, the physical world of the novel, which is the truly imaginary one, starts, stops, and transforms.  The transient and ethereal nature of the physical is a consistent theme in Against the Day.  

Pynchon’s most obvious clues that the physical world is imaginary come when he writes about the Chums of Chance, the novel’s perennial teenage boys.   Fittingly, they give the simplest and most obvious clues to Pynchon’s Quaternion mindset.  The Chums fly through the center of a hollow earth through the poles (Pynchon 117).  The Chums search for a mysterious and strangely mobile mystical city of Shambhala while traveling underground and literally walking through the earth (Pynchon 437).  To erase all doubt of the transmutability of the physical, Pynchon sends the Chums of Chance from earth to Antichthon, the other earth, by flying their airship through the sun (1021).    

Elsewhere in the novel, Pynchon has Kit Traverse ponder the difference between those ashore and those leaving on a boat with the sad acknowledgement that those leaving “would never be here, never exactly here, again” (747).  Kit understands that “here” in the sense that it is a place, is also a time, and that time will never come again.  Later, Pynchon gives what is perhaps the best metaphor for Against the Day’s Quaternion worldview:  Kit Traverse travels through the Asian great rock arch called Tushuk Tash.  As Kit’s companion Lieutenant Prance explains, “This great Archway known as Tushuk Tash.  Which means ‘a rock with a hole in it’” (Pynchon 764).

Pynchon asks his reader to see the hole in the physical universe that many suppose to be solid and real.  Fittingly, it is the passage of time that causes rock formations like arches and columns—it is time that creates these gates that are holes in what ought to be solid.  Without this knowledge, Pynchon seems to tell readers, the world cannot truly be understood for what it is.  Lieutenant Prance warns Kit that “Unless we enter by way of it, we shall always be on the wrong journey.” (Pynchon 764)  It is not the rock that is real and permanent, but the hole in it.   

He continues this theme of the physical as illusionary when Reef, Yashmeen, and Cyprian travel across Europe at the dawn of the First Balkan War.  Pynchon takes his readers through a dizzying number of towns, valleys, passes, and hamlets, each one given scant attention aside from being defined as someplace on the way to someplace else.  Some of these places, such as the Macedonian cities of Prilep and Veles, exist.  Others, such a mountain cult monastery, do not.  To the vast majority of his readers without an atlas handy to check whether all those Balkan towns and passes are real, one is just as real as another; this is Pynchon’s point.  If the reader cannot recognize what places are real and what places are created, he seems to say, who is to say that any place is real at all?

When Against the Day’s narrative thread returns to the Americas, Pynchon uses a relentless motif of holes and the physical impermanence of what the reader thinks of as the real to push his readers to embrace the Quaternion.  His Mexico is a place of caves, holes, and ancient cities long destroyed while the American West of Against the Day is full of mines in Colorado.  Again, Pynchon uses the imagery of rock as an illustration of the physical world.  His mines betray the idea that the earth is solid, that everything is what it seems.  Revolutionaries Webb Traverse, Frank Traverse, and Ewball Oust consistently use dynamite to blast holes in the very matter that frames their world.  Pynchon’s characters remake with ease what the unenlightened reader takes to be eternal.    

Even New York City, with all its physically imposing buildings, is nothing but “the Cabinet of Ultimate Illusion.” ( Pynchon 353)  Everywhere he takes the reader, Pynchon points out the inescapable truth of the Quaternion concept of the world:  time is the only constant, the only real value in what we can appreciate in space-time.  Those who say otherwise are charlatans, tricksters, or worse.

When Miles Blundell confronts the mysterious Trespasser Thorn who claims to have travelled through time to warn the pre-World War world, Miles has a sudden revelation:  “…in fact no ‘time travel’ at all—the presence in this world of Thorn and his people had been owing only to some chance blundering upon a shortcut… by whatever terrible singularity in the smooth flow of Time had opened to them.” (Pynchon 555)  Time is real, Pynchon tells his readers, and nothing can change that fact.  Indeed, a few paragraphs later, Miles tells his friend Chick Counterfly, “There is nothing immortal about them, Chick.  They have lied to all of us, including those… fool enough to work for them, in exchange for ‘eternal youth.’  They cannot provide that.  They never could” (Pynchon, 555).  With depressing finality, Miles tells readers what they intuitively already know about attempts to manipulate time:  “I simply knew, the minute I saw him, that it was all false, the promise was nothing but a cruel confidence game” (Pynchon 555).  

Pynchon rejects the concept of time as a human illusion and in doing so rejects the human hope against hope to somehow escape time and its consequences:

“Time,” explained Dr. Rao, “is the Further Term, you see, transcending and conditioning i, j, and k—the dark visitor from the Exterior, the Destroyer, the fulfiller of the Trinity.  It is the merciless clock-beat we all seek to escape, into the pulselessness of salvation.  It is all this and more.”  

“A weapon based on Time…” mused Viktor Mulciber.  “Well, why not?  The one force no one knows how to defeat, resist, or reverse.  It kills all forms of life sooner or later…” [bold in original text] (558)

When the reader finally embraces Pynchon’s Quaternionist worldview that time is the only real value it begs the question “is there any point to anything?”  If only time is real, and the physical universe the reader inhabits an imaginary one, does anything matter?  Pynchon, while rejecting the idea that the physical world is real, has his characters expressly reject nihilism (Pynchon 922).  Instead, Pynchon uses mathematics to prove that real things can come out of the junction of the one real dimension and the three imaginary ones.  

Yashmeen Halfcourt explains this to turn-of-the-century mathematics genius Dr. David Hilbert in an attempt to prove the Reimann hypothesis:  “There is also this… spine of reality… Though the members of a Hermitian may be complex, the eigenvalues are real.” (Pynchon 604)  These eigenvalues are based on the interplay of the imaginary ijk with the “spine of reality” that is, time, but are still real themselves.  An eigenvalue is a mathematical term used in matrix mathematics, but a very telling a literal reading of the German word would be “own values” or “innate values.”  This reading implies that not only is time real, but some innate value, some “self” is real, and by extension others’ “selves” as well—Pynchon uses eigenvalues, not just a singular eiegenvalue.  

With time and his characters’ “innate values” being the only real things in the world, Pynchon pushes his worldview to its narrative limit and turns the world “end for end” (351).  Understanding this Quaternion perspective explains the novel’s focus on light and the bifurcating properties of lenses—refraction can literally skew the imaginary physical world and rotate it about its axis.  This allows Pynchon to turn the physical world into a place where the cruise liner the Stupendica is also the battleship Emperor Maximilian (515).  It lets Pynchon’s characters build fanciful technology to use photographs to see the world as it might have been—still the same, but slightly altered—the world as rotated about Yashmeen’s “spine of reality” (1061).  Tellingly, this technology works by following a person in a photograph forward or backwards through time; the eigenvalues, being the core identities of Pynchon’s characters, retain their identity even as the imaginary physical world shifts and distorts around them.  Pynchon even bifurcates his characters:  the professors Renfrew and Werfner are mirror images of each other in their temperament and interest in Balkan politics.  As one Pynchon scholar puts it, “their obsession reveals how much they are alike” (Aghoro, 44).  Indeed, they are the same person, because their essential nature—the eigenvalueremains the same.  In the novel, detective Lew Basnight even comes “to accept the professors as a single person” (Pynchon 771).     

The underlying theme of Against the Day—that self and time are all the only “real” things in an imaginary world, is one that it seems many critics and scholars seem to have missed.  Tom LeClair makes mention of Pynchon’s frequent use of bifurcation as a theme and his use of lenses, particularly the double refracting Iceland spar, but seems at a loss as to why, ending his review by hoping “some future scholar will read the novel twenty times and either illustrate how it recapitulates the whole history of narrative or demonstrate how every piece fits together into a fourfold design that will replace four-base genetics as a model of all life” (Leclair “Lead Zeppelin”).  Lewis Menand also sees the math—even going so far as to title his piece “Do the Math”—but misses the point, citing a character’s discourses on Quaternion mathematics but then dismissing it with “And on into the night” (“Do the Math”).  Others point to its sprawling plot and seemingly strange spatial manipulations and write them off as Pynchon being Pynchon (Rankin “’Reader Beware…’,” Peck “Heresy of Truth”) or, like Liesl Schillinger, spend pages writing about Against the Day’s author and various different sections of the book without really addressing the book as a whole (“Dream Maps”).  Peck quotes from one the novel’s repudiated Trespassers to explain the novel (“Heresy of Truth”) and Shillinger confuses the novel’s Quaternion travel through three dimensional space with travel through time (“Dream Maps”).  Scott Borchert takes the book’s title quite literally and links “the Day” of the novel’s title to references in Mason & Dixon to present Pynchon’s novel as a stand against “capitalist modernity” (80).  

Critical confusion notwithstanding, Against the Day is not merely a meandering genre pastiche, nor is it merely a novel about technological change at the dawn of the 20th Century (Menand “Do the Math).  Borchert’s reading of it as an anti-capitalist manifesto is not wholly incorrect given the book’s treatment of anarchist revolutionaries and unrestrained capitalists, but such a reading misses the fundamental reason why Pynchon is frustrated by naked capitalism and its materialistic trappings:  because materialism is not merely empty, but the materials themselves are illusionary.  Instead, the novel is Pynchon’s plea for his readers to acknowledge what he sees as the only reality left in a modern era of uncertainty and change—that things change and disappear, but time and the self remain.



Works Cited

Aghoro, Natalie.  “Bilocated Identities: Taking the Fork in the Road in Against the Day,”  AS Peers. 2. 2009 (33-52).  Web.   

Borchert, Scott.  “Against Accumulation: Moby Dick, Mason & Dixon, and Atlantic Capitalism.” English Honors Papers.  Connecticut College, 2008.  Web.     

LeClair, Tom.  “Lead Zeppelin.”  Bookforum.  Rev. of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. Dec/Jan 2007.  Web.  12 February 2011.

Menand, Lewis.  “Do the Math.”  The New Yorker.  Rev. of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.   27 November 2006.  Web.  13 February 2011.  

Peck, Dale.  “Heresy of Truth:  Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.”  National Book Critics Circle.  Rev. of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.  10 December 2010.  Web.  13 February 2011.

Pynchon, Thomas.  Against the Day.  New York:  The Penguin Press, 2006.  Print.

Rankin, Ian.  “’Reader Beware…’.”  The Guardian.  Rev. of Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.  18 November 2006.  Web.  14 February 2011.   

Shillinger, Liesl.  “Dream Maps.”  New York Times.  Rev. of Against the Day by Thomas
Pynchon.  26 November 2006 Sunday edition.  Web.  14 February 2011.


1 Comment on Against the Day: Pynchon’s Journey Into the Real

  1. Nice piece. A couple of academic sources you might find more illuminating than the press reviews:

    De Bourcier, Simon. Pynchon and Relativity: Narrative Time in Thomas Pynchon’s Later Novels. A&C Black, 2012.
    Engelhardt, Nina. “Mathematics, Reality, and Fiction in Pynchon’s Against the Day” in Thomas Pynchon and the (De)vices of Global (Post)modernity, ed. Zofia Kolbuszewska, Lublin: Wydawnictow KUL (2013).
    Harris, Michael. “An automorphic reading of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.” in Mathematics Without Apology Princeton University Press (2015).

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