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To reward the meta-generation faithful and, I suspect, to test reviewers' persistence, Thomas Pynchon has inserted on page 853 of his new novel a lightly coded, only slightly tongue-in-cheek abstract of Against the Day, a passage that pleads to be quoted:

The Book of the Masked . . . [was] filled with encrypted field-notes and occult scientific passages of a dangerousness one could at least appreciate, though more perhaps for what it promised than for what it presented in such impenetrable code, its sketch of a mindscape whose layers emerged one on another as from a mist, a distant country of painful complexity, an all but unmappable flow of letters and numbers that passed into and out of the guise of the other, not to mention images, from faint and spidery sketches to a full spectrum of inks and pastels . . . visions of the unsuspected, breaches in the Creation where something else had had a chance to be luminously glimpsed. Ways in which God chose to hide within the light of day, not a full list, for the list was probably endless, but chance encounters with details of God's unseen world.

More concretely, Against the Day is a family saga, set between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the early 1920s, that traces the adventures of American miner Webb Traverse's four children, Frank, Lake, Reef, and Kit, in the still-wild West, in revolutionary Mexico, in London, Göttingen, and the Balkans, in "Inner Asia" and outer Siberia. Early on, union activist Webb is murdered in Colorado by the hired guns of plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. Mine engineer Frank goes after the two killers, one of whom marries Frank's sister, Lake. Cardsharp Reef pursues Vibe, who attempts to co-opt brother Kit by financing his mathematical education at Yale and in Germany. With its initial Western setting, hard-bitten, colloquial characters, labor sympathies, and violence, Against the Day could have been an old-fashioned naturalistic novel by Norris or Dreiser, or maybe a more newfangled proletarian fiction by Dos Passos or Steinbeck, a Book of the Masked that discloses the human faces behind the roles that American capitalism foists on wage slaves.

Except Against the Day is a Pynchon Production, which means the Traverse clan meets all manner of scientists, anarchists, erotic explorers, and spiritual crackpots—and then, coincidentally, keeps running into them on three continents. At Yale, Kit studies with the physicist Willard Gibbs, whose work is preparing the way for twentieth-century thermodynamics. In Göttingen, Kit meets the beautiful Yashmeen Halfcourt, a disciple of the mathematician Georg Riemann, another precursor of Einstein.

The more mundane Reef has a son with a con woman named Estrella, then abandons them for Europe, where he blunders into Balkan politics, the "distant country of painful complexity." Reef falls in with Yashmeen and Cyprian Lightwood, a young British spy. They wander around in or are chased out of Venice, various parts of Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and what used to be Yugoslavia, never staying in one place long enough to understand much about it. In the language of geometry, which is pervasive in the novel, Pynchon is plotting the prewar "unmappable"—radical new science and tangled old politics—on two overlapping planes, "layers [that] emerged one on another."

Or three planes, if one considers the quirky permutations of sexual relations among the Traverses and the characters they meet. The bisexual Yashmeen, the homosexual Cyprian, and Reef form a decadent triangle similar to that depicted in Pynchon's first novel, V. (1963). Lake engages in a threesome with the two men who killed her father. When Reef brings Yashmeen to the US after the war, they find that Frank and Reef's Estrella are now a couple. Soon after meeting, Yashmeen and Estrella have sex. No accident, of course, that all this takes place just around the time Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams.

Then there is the fourth dimension, which some characters identify as time, but which others associate with the spiritual, the "invisible," or "God's unseen world." God said, "Let there be light"; Against the Day collects ways our ancestors attempted to track light back to its source and replaced religion with alternative lights. There is the light of relativity, the odd light of electromagnetic storms, the light of the mysterious Tunguska event of 1908, when a meteorite struck Siberia or God announced a coming apocalypse. (The presumed source of Pynchon's title is the verse in the Second Epistle of Peter, which states the heavens and earth are now "reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.") For turn-of-the-century unbelievers, there is the dynamite flash, the diffracted light of Iceland spar, the reflected light of magicians' mirrors, the "light writing" of photography and movies, the cities' new electric lighting that makes the heavens invisible at night.

Of these four dimensions, the science is occasionally fascinating, the political plotting painfully coincidental, the sex generally gratuitous, and the spiritual possibly profound. But despite its partial achievements, the novel as a whole resembles the zeppelin that appears in its first pages, a giant bag of imaginative hot air, as the inflated language of the abstract implies. The Traverse family and social circumstances frequently are mere ballast that keeps the fiction from floating out into the ether of pure invention. Pynchon cheerfully admits the antigravity quality of his novel by way of the "Chums of Chance," five youthful balloonists who go on Tom Swift–like exotic expeditions that are described in a series of "boys books," the titles of which Pynchon supplies. The Chums appear in various locales, have counterfactual experiences (such as touring the desert in a sand submarine), and become somewhat more pessimistic about twentieth-century life as the novel proceeds. Scrupulously apolitical at the outset, by the end the Chums are giving aid to wartime refugees. Finally, though, they meet five female "Ætheronauts" and settle into banal middle-class life.

Too much like the Chums' balloon, the novel is a vehicle of tourism, repetition, and entertainment. As always, Pynchon is a master purveyor of compressed atmospherics, the "spidery sketches" of the abstract: the minute, webbed details of physical setting, what people are eating, drinking, smoking, wearing, and hearing—and the feelings his characters project upon their surroundings. He has to do atmosphere well because his characters frantically change locations (they are the Traverses, after all) and his narrative rapidly shifts focus among the four siblings, their lovers, the acquaintances of the lovers, the sidekicks of the acquaintances, the crazed people met in bars, the voices of their dreams, and so on. Sympathy is expressed for members of the underclass wherever they are found—in Chicago slaughterhouses, Colorado mines, Italian tunnels, Mexican fields—but Pynchon rarely lingers long enough in a scene to dramatize the cause and effect the naturalists unmasked. American political life is thus rendered with a boys'-book Manichaeanism; Europe may be treated with more complexity, but characters who behave like distracted tourists never really inhabit their exotic destinations. In V., Pynchon mocked "Baedekerland," but that's what he gives us now.

Although Against the Day reuses only one Pynchon character name I recognize, O. I. C. Bodine, a seaman, it redeploys numerous types, situations, and references from earlier Pynchon novels. He has a character say, "Steal from the best," and the author does. The prewar intrigue from Vienna to Venice is similar to the political machinations in V. Characters who distrust the London postal system communicate through gas connections, even more dangerous than The Tristero in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). The Euro-wandering, mostly done by the clueless Traverses, especially the Yale-bought Kit, is like that of the Harvard-conditioned Slothrop of Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Against the Day also brings back the word entropy from all of Pynchon's work. Maybe in its recycling, this new novel is supposed to be literary "negentropy," but the reuse is too cutely self-chummy, a Pynchon Revue that treats readers who don't recognize the old songs and dances like chumps.

At the end of the novel, "Psychical Detective" Lew Basnight complains about the movies turning "wild ancient days into harmless packages of flickering entertainment." The abstract refers to "dangerousness," but the characters' occasional, rather cheap foretellings of trench warfare and poison gas cause few shivers, particularly since the war itself is passed over in a few pages. Perhaps an episode of haunting explains why this tale seems safe: The Chums find themselves visited by "Trespassers," spirits from the Chums' future, our present, beings "so fallen, so corrupted," one of the Chums says, "that we—even we—seem to them pure as lambs." The spokesman for the Trespassers is a Mr. Ace, who sounds suspiciously like the Mr. Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow. He tells the Chums that those who "came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth's resources were limited . . . were denounced as heretics," and that's why the Trespassers have become "seekers of refuge" in the past. Instead of time-traveling into our dangerous future, as Cormac McCarthy has done in his new novel, The Road, heretic Pynchon has trespassed back a hundred years to an era he has rendered harmless by his mode of representation.

Perhaps I should have said this earlier: Gravity's Rainbow is the most important novel I've ever read. I've taught nearly all of Pynchon's novels to unwilling undergrads and grads. And I once wrote, "Nothing succeeds like excess." That is to say, I'm not James Wood, waiting to gouge anything by Pynchon (or DeLillo or just about any postmodern writer). But Against the Day lacks the ferocity and fear of Gravity's Rainbow, the long-developed characters and the comedy of Mason & Dixon (1997). The only readers (besides responsible reviewers) I can imagine finishing Against the Day are the Pynchonists, the fetishizing collectors of P-trivia. I hope I'm wrong. I hope 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. As the author himself says in his abstract, "visions of the unsuspected."

Tom LeClair is Nathaniel Ropes Professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.