There is something nomadic about Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006). While the novel, so far Pynchon’s longest, takes place in a specific context—the Progressive Era in America up to the chaos of World War I—it nonetheless moves back and forth across space—across America, the globe, and beyond, including in the earth—covering a period of time that spans multiple generations, e.g. from Webb Traverse to Jesse, his grandson. Wandering through the novel’s reaches are characters that come from all walks of life, are of all propensities and persuasions, bearing all kinds of agendas and purposes, some of whom become the narration’s focal point only to disappear at chapter’s end, not appearing again until after hundreds of pages.
There is, I would go so far as to argue, no major plot and no central character/s in Against the Day. There are, rather, only character-specific plots, i.e. events that involve particular characters as their respective lives unfold but which do not, at least in a significant way, have anything to do with characters only tangentially related to them (these other characters, usually also featured in the novel, are involved in their own plots). Likewise, there is a vast and diverse array of characters in the novel. While some of these characters are indeed more important than others (principal v. supporting and peripheral characters), no one—not even the Traverse brothers (which one?) or the evil, rich, and masterful Scarsdale Vibe—is, as protagonist, the sole or main focus of the narration or, perhaps as antagonist, the agent that transcendentally links them all.
This is not to say that there is nothing that functions as a link in the novel. While a (set of) character(s), as I mentioned, has his/her/their own respective plot, a plot at times would have some relation to, even some effect, on another, even as there is no overarching plot that, as transcendent plan or outline, envelops and determines all. Similarly, the characters, while they are not all related to each other—in fact, most do not even get to know each other, even if only by way of hearsay (the capitalist Vibe and, to a lesser extent, the Kieselguhr Kid, whose identity is never explicitly divulged, are the closest the novel has as exceptions to this, but even they do not serve as linchpin)—are connected in a complex web in which one character is linked to or, more often, has come across another, who in turn is linked to another, who in turn . . . The connections, in other words, are limited (not global because not transcendent; not always significant, sometimes not as significant as the further connections they occasion) and rhizomatic (with no general framework or plan in which they all fit, with relations even seeming to be tangential).
One (type of) relation that acts as a recurring link (almost like a motif) in the novel, a relation that is certainly significant to the principal characters and that may be their common denominator, is the (nuclear) family, either as a context from which a character comes, an entangling relation that characterizes a character’s present situation, or/and a potential that is desired or is likely to result. Coal miner Webb Traverse, for example, ran away from his feuding family and (after falling in love with Teresa) ends up forming a family of his own with Mayva, who bears him Reef, Frank, Lake, and Kit, all of whom would likewise be entangled in relations that resemble or could lead to a family. Alchemist/photographer Merle Rideout offers the pregnant Erlys a home, ending up taking care of Dally, her daughter, when she runs off with a magician who would later provide for her another family. The finance mogul Scarsdale Vibe is surrounded not only by money but also, if more distantly, by his family, none of whom are as interested in the family wealth, especially for its own sake. Even Chick Counterfly, the newest of the Chums of Chance, adventurers in the sky, the high seas, and the earth, is shown toward the end reuniting with his father. In similar, if reverse, fashion, Lew Basnight is led to a career as a detective by an event that he doesn’t remember, an event that leads to his wife, Troth, not wanting anymore to have anything to do with him.
The family is a relatively stable, even permanent and rigidifying, organization of relations. Thus as common denominator, as a theme, as it were, that links the different plots and characters, it would seem to contradict the spirit of movement evoked and called for by the novel’s nomadic layout, i.e. the different spaces/locations that the characters traverse; its nomadic organization, i.e. the passing of time that finds the characters at different places and changes their states; and its nomadic style, i.e. the shifts in narrative focus that go from one character to another (perhaps because no one character, no one family member, can narrate or is part of all the happenings in the novel, precisely because individuals do not always stay in and not everything happens in the family). After all, the attachments imposed by the family, the attachments in which a family consists, in giving an individual additional baggage, as it were, restrain an individual’s ability to move. Similarly, the exclusive nature of the family—the social unit to which an individual comes home at the end of the day, the individual’s priority in more than just financial obligations, a relation supposedly founded upon the vow of two individuals who have chosen each other above all others till death do them part—tends to constrain an individual to that relation, making whatever else that could be brought about by further adventuring—in fact, nomadic wandering itself—less of a priority.
Webb Traverse, mine worker and proud labor union member, articulates this contradiction when he finds himself in a situation in which his desire to participate in anarchist activities is impeded by the consideration of his family. “[I’m] not so sure sometimes I wouldn’t be better off without all these family obligations,” Webb confesses to Reverend Moss (91). “Just to be workin solo,” he wishes, “some room to move” (91). It must be noted that Webb wasn’t forced to marry Mayva, even if the latter used to be a saloon girl. He also really adores his kids; in fact, he teaches them how to operate dynamites, not exactly a typical, wholesome family activity (90). When the Reverend replies that it is actually good that Webb has a family since it makes him look less suspicious to the authorities, Webb clarifies that, indeed, he has much to lose, that “they’d be right,” he would not even think of risking his family (91). The family, in other words—no matter how open, no matter how loved—still, if only for its safety, puts a break on the things that Webb can do. Webb at this moment exemplifies the seeming contradiction in the novel between the impulse for individual pursuit or struggle, which could lead or may force him toward a nomadic lifestyle, and the situatedness in and the demands of the family, which occupies a pride of place in his life and is granted special consideration.
Intuiting the priority of the family, the anarchist Webb nonetheless could not help himself. Right after indicating how important the family is, Webb utters, “But I can’t just—” (91). Webb expresses in this utterance the irresistibility, in fact the necessity, of what as an individual he can, he thinks he must, do. He thinks he can find a way to have it both ways, if by creating a double life: (1). that of the “normal” family man and (2). something else that involves a “safe bedroll someplace,” something “secret” (but he can’t have too many secrets, the Reverend adds, or else he would look suspicious) (91). Webb is well aware of the risks that this involves, the possible consequences of the actions he plans to take. “If dynamite was what it took,” he later reflects, “well, so be it—and if it took growing into a stranger to those kids and looking like some kind of screaming fool whenever he did show up at home, and then someday sooner or later losing them, [. . .] all that there is to break a father’s heart, well, children grow up, and that would have to be reckoned into the price, too, along with jail time, bullpens, beatings, lockouts, and the rest” (95). It is important to note that all these consequences that Webb thinks about are individual consequences, i.e. consequences that have a detrimental effect only, or at least primarily, on him (him being put in prison, him being beaten, etc.). If his family is affected, it is only in an indirect way, i.e. by losing the father of the house, something that would have effects primarily on Webb, who will be estranged from his kids, rather than on the family that could go on, he implies, without him (“children grow up”). This persuades Webb, a family man, to be a full-fledged anarchist bomber, living an unstable, in fact dangerous, private life defiant not only of authority but also of certainties (e.g. the predictable things that a family man is expected to do/be) and boundaries (e.g. lawful v. unlawful), a life characteristic of nomads.
It of course does not work out as neatly as—more precisely, it works out worse than—Webb thought it would. Webb is not put in prison or executed publicly (as an example or a martyr). Instead, Kit, his youngest son, is seduced into going to Yale by the Vibe Corporation, a major controlling entity of the mines, for which Kit, in exchange for a generous scholarship, is later to work. A young man about the age of Kit, Deuce Kindred, is introduced in Webb’s workplace; Webb starts to feel that Deuce is like a son; under the directions of the Vibe Corporation, Deuce kills Webb; with a buddy, Sloat Fresno, Deuce then takes Webb’s body away to hide the evidence and, in fact, any trace of Webb. This sends Webb’s elder sons—Reef, the one who empathizes most with his father, potentially an even better bomber than Webb, and who has just impregnated Stray; Frank, studying in mine school, the most practical of the brothers—into a hunt of their father’s killers, defying the entreaties of Mayva, their mother. Webb did succeed in estranging one of his children, Lake, his daughter, who ends up cohabiting with Deuce (and for a time Sloat), his father’s killer, who does not exactly treat her like a lady. Thus, unforeseen and unexpected, when Webb tried to disentangle himself from the family so that he could do what he thought he must, the actions he thought he was carrying out and would only affect him as an individual ended up implicating his whole family, sending everybody off into their own nomadic wanderings.
What does this plot sequence (and its branches and continuations) say about how Pynchon portrays the family in its context in the novel, i.e. the context of capitalism (its phase in the Progressive Era that has matured into, in fact reflects, the capitalism of today), which, after all, is what motivated Webb to commit the bombings and of which the forces that responded to his actions, notably the Vibe Corporation (at/as its head, Scarsdale Vibe), the forces that made him pay the price, sending his family off to nomadism, are but agents or representatives? Just as, rather than contradicting each other, in the novel the nomad (Webb) turned out to have a family and the family (especially Reef, Frank, and Kit) ended up wandering nomadically, is there something in capitalism that makes nomadism and the family be intertwined? If so, this would make Pynchon’s novel, rather than contradictory, consistent with its age, contrary to an implication of the title Against the Day. If so, what are the possible results of such intertwining? In particular, what happens to the family under capitalism? What does capitalism do to the family as illustrated in Pynchon’s novel? Under what form or with what properties or conditions does the family appear and operate in capitalism?