Modern Parallels

Despite Mr. Pynchon's insistence to the contrary in the original dust jacket copy -- "No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred" -- the reader of Against the Day cannot, of course, help but draw parallels between its text and the events, political philosophies, and social inequalities of the present day.

With the introduction of the Webb Traverse storyline, the reader begins to encounter strong, direct references to modern time. Webb considers the possibility that doing physical harm to the infrastructure of wealth might backfire, thinking, "Not that any owner ever cared rat shit about the lives of workers, of course, except to define them as Innocent Victims in whose name uniformed goons could then go out and hunt down the Monsters That Did the Deed" (p85). September 11, 2001 and the United States of America's response -- more specifically, the response of the "owners"/plutocrats -- to the events of that day lurk within this sentence. A paragraph later, the reader encounters a reference to that darkest of conspiracy theories concerning September 11: "...some of these explosions, the more deadly of them, in fact, were really set off to begin with not by Anarchists but by the owners themselves" (p85). Webb is philosophically sickened by the prospect of the owners/government as agent provocateur, spreading destruction from within, using his sacred truth medium, "nitro", to slander his cause. Soon, we find Webb advising his children against the disingenuous semantics of the plutocrats (p93). Webb chooses "Freedom", "Reform", and "Compassion" as prime examples of their euphemisms, which echo Operation Iraqi Freedom, "Freedom's on the march", immigration reform, and compassionate conservatism.

Perhaps what makes the presence of these parallels especially uncomforable to an American reader is the fact that the story, at this point at least, is focused on domestic terrorists. That "darker thing", "the desire, the desperate need to create a radius of annihilation that, if it could not include the ones who deserved it, might as well include himself" (p95) might first be identified as the thought of a September 11 hijacker or a suicide bomber of any foreign stripe. But, here, we are dealing with the dark thoughts of an American boy, Reef Traverse...

April 5, 2007
I suggest this page would be better titled Contemporary Parallels; the early 20th century is not last week, but it is pretty modern.

To take an artist's work as an immediate reference to something outside the text—to argue, for example, "This paragraph claims to be about the icy North, but it's really about the space race in 1957-69"—is quite a different thing from noticing how the work, as we read it, reflects and refracts events and ideas. It is to the point to see parallels between plutocrats in 1900 and neoconservatives in 2003, but it's perilous to try making AtD be a book about present-day America.

By pinning the work down, trying to define it in terms other than its own, we risk denying its value at some future time when readers might see new patterns of relevance. To put that another way, if parallels to the United States in 2006 drive the book, then we have to despair of its lasting even a short decade—hell, lasting until the 2008 elections—let alone becoming an acknowledged milestone of fiction.

I'm not ready to give up on AtD yet. I know the work has depth and power, and I suspect it has greatness. But that means I have to resist forcing it into a category such as "political novel," "roman à clef" or even "Jeremiad." Parallels (or allusions or apt metaphors or acute insights or jokey references), yes; those parallels as the main attraction, no, I don't think so.

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