I've taken to typing up large pieces of this book and posting them on random places on the internet. All are duly quoted and attributed, because credit should be given where it is due, as this story deserves a distribution farther, wider and stranger than more than all but just a few have attained. It deserves imaginary distribution, it needs to be read by the people, yes and yes, as well thru lenses kept hidden by governemnts and secret societies the world over. It needs to be read by people of all times and places. It needs to be praised and misrepresented, taught in schools and left by the bulletin board in bus terminals, kept by lighters outside of airport terminals and substituted for Gideon's Bibles in all the Comfort Inn's across Northern America.If you're not happy with the news these days, read this instead.If you want a story that paralells your life and yet still twists away from the present, just in time, to remind that it is good now and then to throw away the rulebook, then this might be the book to read.Have you ever thought two superficially unrelated occurences were actually deeply connected in some otherwise undocumented way? You think of someone and they call, you have a feeling of dread or sadness and the news reports it, you miss an appointment somewhere and it turns out it was better you weren't there at all . . . these kinds of things happen to characters in this book with such ease, we are left to wonder why everyone doesn't dwell on these things all the time. But then the commercial ends, or the phone rings, the belly rumbles, the sirens go off. We nod and lose our way.the wiki for this is funny, tooDaniel
Like all Pynchon novels I've ever read, this one completely defies encapsulation. I can either wave my arms helplessly and mumble "you should just read it" or I can say "this book was about X and Y" and then feel all dirty, like I have to write to the author and formally apologize. Like most of Pynchon's work, Against the Day doesn't have your typical central plot followed by a small group of protagonists. Instead, there are broad themes embodied by a large cast of irregularly-appearing characters. This really, really works for him, since the themes he writes about are usually too big to fit inside the experience of just a few people. There are other Pynchon hallmarks too: his usual themes of science, anti-establishment sentiment, paranoia, and the unexplored/unexplained are all present. People do crazy drugs and have weird sex. It's a wild, organic novel, and you'll feel right at home if you've read Mason and Dixon or Gravity's Rainbow. (Oh hey, you should read Mason and Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow.)This particular book deals with the general state of the world around the time of the first World War. The thing is, there's almost no space in this 1085-page tome devoted to boys in the trenches - the war itself. The consequences of the war are definitely felt by many of the characters, especially the ones stuck in eastern Europe right around 1914, but this is not quite a novel about World War I. The book deals much more directly with some of the other major landmarks of the turn of the last century. So since talking about themes ends up giving a clearer impression of the book than talking about plot, here are some things Pynchon wants us to think about: The Michelson-Morely experiment was performed in 1877 and fundamentally changed the way people perceived space - no more luminiferous aether. The late 19th century also marked a shift in mathematics from Hamilton's quaternion system to a description of space based on vectors. The first forays into powered aviation (airships, not airplanes) and industrialization were happening in the late 1800s. And finally, this time period saw the beginning of the modern labor movement. Consider the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the 1886 Haymarket Massacre, or the 1892 Homestead Strike.This last subject deserves a few words for itself because this is how the book kicks off. A century ago, labor relations was a deadly serious thing. Workers struck because they were being paid less than nothing to perform life-threatening, back-breaking work. In response to a strike, workers could expect to be beaten or shot by state militias, the national guard, armed pinkertons, or (in the case of the Homestead strike at least) huge government-incited vigilante groups. This is the environment in which the book opens. Webb Traverse is an agitating, anarchist mine engineer working for Scarsdale Vibe, a 1900s-era ultra-capitalist poster boy. To deal with Traverse, Vibe hires a few killers who come for him in the night. A large part of the book is devoted to following the Traverse children as they part ways and grow up, with their lives significantly shaped by this visceral, bloody, and very personal conflict between workers and owners. Another major (and totally great) thrust of the book follows the Chums of Chance, a group of boy adventurers who pilot a powered airship. They never seem to get older but they, like the Traverse family, sort of kind of stay tangentially involved in world events simply by being in certain places at certain times. The Chums of Chance are jointly and severally awesome and a fantastic capstone to the turn-of-the-century aesthetic of the novel.Pynchon has a revolutionary imagination and this book overall was extremely fun to read. The hitch is that this book is 1085 pages of Pynchon. (And I just realized that, as a consequence, this review is huge too...) There really is something to be said for a reading experience so prolonged and intense that the author ends up hollowing out parts of your brain and building his own theme park in there. The tradeoff, of course, is that this is not a book you can read casually. You can't just read five pages every night while you're falling asleep - I tried that for a while and got nowhere. It takes sustained effort. It's corny and cliche to say this, I know, but Against the Day is most definitely one of those books that gives back as much as you're willing to put into it.I loved this book and when I was finished with it I felt really good about everything in general. If you already know you like Pynchon or if you're up for a challenge, I strongly, strongly recommend this book.Tosh
Hardy Boys meets Jack Parsons. I am only half-way through this book, and I have been reading it off and on for a year. If you can bring only one book with you on an extremely dull island - this is it.The beauty of the book is that it is sort of a young boy's adventure story, but mixed in with arcane history of early 20th Century life. I think it is meant to be read slowly. The scene where the girl is lead to the corner where the four states meet up is hysterical and really sexy. It even has good porn in it!Jim
Against the Day is a book of terrorists. Bomb huckers, outlaws and anarchists lurk everywhere and—surprise, surprise—nearly all of them are likable. Against the Day is like a Louis L’Amour novel in reverse but instead of the saga of the Sackett family moving westward, endlessly crossing the frontier, Pynchon’s Traverse’s travel from West to East, hurling themselves against the tide of history and humanity and into the teeth of American enterprise during the time when her fortunes were being made. These are not basement anarchists building bombs with English dynamite but mavericks employing the very tools used to extract wealth from countless mines with little or no thought to the human cost. Yet in recent reviews by Kirsch and Kakutani, we’re led to believe that the Traverse family’s relationship to violence makes them morally inferior, as if the gears of Capitalism weren’t leaving a trail of corpses in its wake, as if violence was an instrument to be used only as a last resort, as if bombs don’t make sense, as if life wasn’t cheap and getting cheaper by the minute. If most novels are like nature narratives on the Discovery channel, Pynchon’s are like long shots of ants scurrying about in an ant farm; at first their antics seem utterly random, but the more one watches, the deeper the suspicion that the participants in the drama are communicating with one another in meaningful ways. To put it another way, the organizing principle of the modern novel is the family; Pynchon is interested in systems. Pynchon's novels have been dizzyingly dazzling from the get-go. His first novel V. has all the earmarks of his mature work. His early stories, his self-proclaimed juvenilia, were celebrated for his astonishing maturity to the same degree that his most recent work is being castigated for its outrageous silliness. Embedded in Kirsch’s and Kakutani’s criticisms are their disappointment at Pynchon’s refusal to come around to the fluorescent side of the moon and commit to hyper-realism; Pynchon cultivates such extreme fandom because his readers understand that they have to come him. The Chums of Chance are simultaneously characters within the novel and characters in a series of boy’s adventure books called The Chums of Chance (the first of literally dozens of doubles at work in the novel). The Chums fly around onboard airships filled with an assortment of impossible gadgetry. But as the years wear on and the Chums become salty old vets in their own right they come to question where their orders are coming from, and why they should carry them out the way they’ve always carried them out when their work seems not to make a bit of difference on the ball of confusion below. Like the Flying Dutchman, they become the stuff of storybook fantasy while the world erupts in total war. Perhaps in some way Kirsch and Kakutani see their own situation here: assigned a tiresome chore, they carry it out without relish or zeal because the results fail to register an impact on the landscape. Critics: abandon ship; Pynchon fans: full speed ahead. (Excerpted from a review that appeared in November 2006 at The Elegant Variation:[http://marksarvas.blogs.com/elegvar/2...])Rayroy
One day I’ll get around to writing a review for this, my favorite book I’ve read, I’m part of small group of people, a group of readers that have read all off Thomas Pynchon’s novels, I should be happy that I reached this accomplishment, and I am, but also depressed about the whole thing, “Against The Day” and all of Thomas Pynchon’s work were the ultimate escape from the soul sucking, bleak, horribly lost, greed filled , over sensationalized media era of time we call now, it’s why I read so much I hate the modern world so much and the only reason I don’t cut my wrist or jump towards a speeding bus is because I know you only have one life. I feel like a MLB pitcher that won Game Seven of the World Series, he knows that no other game he plays from now on will feel as good as pitching in that game, reading that book…oriana
Update the second, March 08Well, well, well [she says, much subdued, pensive; not at all her normal, boistrous, effusive self].Here we are, March 1, 2008, and I have just closed the cover of Against the Day.I suppose it's hard to even talk about a tome like this, a thing of this range and scope and breadth. I'd really like to use all the superlatives I can, and then invent new words to describe Pynchon and what he does, because he really is like nothing else ever. In fact, I've been saying that to all my friends over the months I've been ensconsed in this book, that what Pynchon writes are not novels, in any traditional sense, I think. They just flagrantly ignore the rules of structure, and sense, and momentum. If you'll indulge me, I've come up with a sort-of analogy for this. It's like, instead of reading a book, you're like reading a chunk of a river. (Bear with me here.) Whereas normally a book will progress, go beginning-middle-end, this one is like a million rivulets, each slipping overunderthrough one another, that you follow for a second, or a couple pages, until they go back under and get lost in the general cacophony. Lots of the characters even have names like that -- Stray, Reef, Lake, Heartsease, Ljubica (which means 'love'), Ryder -- that just slip through your fingers as you say them, as the characters go somewhere else and you lose track. There are no beginnings or ends to a river (see? I'm bringing it back), you just watch as different bits of it flit by. I mean, how can I read something else now? This book kind of disassembles your concept of reading, of how to read, of how to go through a book. In a way I feel like I should just keep reading this, over and over, for the rest of my reading life. Also, because of all this, 1,085 pages is really nowhere near enough. There is so much more to the lives of these characters! I mean because the book really encompases the whole world, right? So everyone is still living somewhere, in the world between the pages (because, oddly, I don't know that anyone of note actually dies in this book), and I want to know what they do with the rest of their lives, who they go on to love, how they fight, what cities they stumble through, how they find their circuitous destinies. (This is insanely presumptuous, but I think Pynchon might be fond of that thought, since so much is made in this book of people doubling, and living many lives, in and out of the world, or the 'Counter-Earth', or within photographs, or after having Zombini do some kind of spell, or that thing with the Iceland spar, which I don't know if I really get.)I guess I'm babbling. But I think that's fitting too, for this book. I've gotten a lot of different kinds of shit from different friends for my rapturous devotion to Mr. Pynchon. I don't care. I also don't care that this is probably a sort of frustrating review, which doesn't say much at all about the book. I also don't care that there is obvs so much in this book that I didn't get, and would never get, even if I did spend the rest of my reading life on it. I don't care. I am fiercely in love with Against the Day. I am fanatically devoted to Thomas Pynchon. I am so, so thrilled that I read this book.Update, Jan 08 In case anyone's keeping track, I am just a smidge over halfway through this fucker. And as a diversion, I present you with a few random samples of Pynchonery:"Abruptly, sweeping into the scene like an opera singer with an aria to unload, here came 'Mr. Ace,' as he called himself. Glossy black eyes, presented like weapons in a duel. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring.""It was all he could do not to reach for her, gather her into some kind of perimiter. But the moisture in her eyes was shining like steel, not dew, and nothing about her trembled.""You could hear faint strands of music, crazy stuff, banjos and bugling, trombone glissandi, pianos under the hands of whorehouse professors sounding like they came with keys between the keys.""Dally's voice was hard to pin down to any one American place, more of a trail voice with turns and drops to it, reminders of towns you thought you'd forgotten or should never've rode into, or even promises of ones you might've heard about and were fixing to get to someday."See? See??First entry, Nov 07wooooo hoooooooooo!!!!!(that's me going down the rabbit hole, as it were, into the depths of Pynchonalia)Also, it's so convenient that the folios of this book are such that there are five blank pages at the back. Now I can (with no shame whatsoever) keep a list of all the characters! How the hell else am I going to make it through a 1,085-page monstrosity?Jonfaith
During those simpler, happy times (the Democrats assumed control of the House and matters appeared to be changing)I pre-ordered the novel with my happy local bookseller. It arrived really early, well before its publication date and I was four thousand miles away from home.The bulky block of lore was scooped upon return. My friends had selected Against The Day for our winter read and I read the novel in two lengthy slogs, finding it necessary to reread several sections. Some of my friends weren't as ecstatic. I still found the Chums of Chance an ace device for observing a world spinning out of control: for the first decade of the 21st Century as well as their own. Our expectations will always be thwarted. The system will encircle our most valued motives and commodify such. This will continue until heat death snuffs out the flame. Entropy and Ossification remains Pynchonian archtypes and much of this is explored here through scattered paternity and the menace of mechanization. I bought a copy a few years ago for my wife's sister during a most happy christmas and I have pondered since that the novel certainly DEMANDS a second reading. We shall see.Adam
A cannibal who thinks he and everyone else is a Jelly Donut, a soothsayer who gleans his knowledge from gazing into the depth of toilet bowls, a hydrogen ship, true worshippers of the ineffable tetractys, a lot of sex, a lot of mathematical talk, tesla coils, evil capitalists, anarchists, and a cute dog named Pugnax who likes to read Henry James. This book is long, sprawling, occasionally difficult, and delectable.Lee
I really enjoyed this book, actually more than any of his others. I won't say it's "better" because I've never taken the time to try to understand the complexities that people like so much about Gravity's Rainbow. Maybe Against the Day is just easier. But I don't think so. The tone is lighter, even though it's about the the end of the world, in a sense - the collapse of the old world order in the runup to the first world war, which Pynchon paints as the moment when the window of revolutionary possibility of the Wobblies and free thinkers of all kinds closed, and the 20th century of bureaucratized mass slaughter and hopeless modern realpolitik began. It's very dark. But at the same time he's drawing it as a joyful time, full of a sense of possibility for a different world. By the time our heroes complete their escape from Bosnia all that possibility is gone, but it's not by accident that he's written this detailed, loving portrait of revolutionaries in Chiapas and international anarchist travelers, at the end of the 1990s, if you want to look at it that way. It's about creating possibilities here and now.The women characters are a whole lot more sympathetic and more respectfully written than in the older books. The action and humor are up to his standard. It's lots of fun to read. I don't really get what he's up to with all the different kinds of light, but maybe someone will fill me in.Gus Sanchez
Phew! I started reading this on March 18th, and finished it yesterday afternoon, all the while concentrating on no other books except this one. And I'm glad I did.As a Pynchon fan, my expectations were quite high. Reading Pynchon is not for everyone, and it is very demanding. It's also very rewarding. Simply put, Thomas Pynchon will confuse, startle, impress and infuriate you, and sometime make you groan with his penchant for bad puns, but he'll never bore you.I won't bother you with the details surrounding the plot to this story; I wouldn't be able to bring it any justice. Let's just say all the hallmarks of Pynchon's writing are evident here - a cast of characters that would make Cecil B. DeMille furious with envy, references to historical events both famous and obscure, songs, mathematics, plot twists, time travel, and bad jokes. More or less, Against the Day is something of a detective story, and the detectives are a myriad of characters chasing (or being chased by a) destiny. One can even make the inference that Against the Day is the prequel to Pynchon's most famous work, Gravity's Rainbow.Again, Pynchon is not for everyone, and if you're a beginner reader of his work, you're better off starting with V. or The Crying of Lot 49, and working your way up. As far as Pynchon's work is concerned, I'd put this right next to Gravity's Rainbow as his most accomplished, rewarding, and *GASP!* accessible novel.tim
Against the Day, for me, is pure reading bliss. Pynchon effortlessly conjures up magic and grace, stretching them through a full spectrum of absurdly strange situations. His characters often lack depth, but he more than makes up for that in many other ways, not least of all with the shear beauty of his prose.Of the thousand-and-one topics within this book, my favorite themes dwell on light, time, parallel universes, and dimensional transcendence. Anarchy may be the most prevalent thread found throughout, but an equally prominent theme, if only slightly less obvious, is the search for Shambhala—both the mythological kingdom said to be hidden somewhere in Inner Asia, as well as the invisible spiritual equivalent located within the Self. There are stories, like maps that agree...too consistent among too many languages and histories to be only wishful thinking…. It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.Regarding light, one character sums up Pynchon’s curiosity with it when he says: I want to reach inside light and find its heart, touch its soul, take some in my hands whatever it turns out to be, and bring it back. One distinctly memorable scene involves an encounter with a tree in Mexico full of giant luminous beetles all flashing on and off together in unison. While watching these magnificent creatures, the observer somehow realizes (I won’t pretend I can convey the same magic Pynchon does, so you will just have to take this at face value) one of the illuminated beetles is his soul, and that the other beetles of light on the tree are the souls of everyone he has ever known. All together these synchronized strobing souls make up one complete radiant soul in the same way that light is indivisible. Light is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind.Pynchon has even more fun exploring the nature of time. For what mission have I here, in this perilous segment of space-time, if not somehow to transcend it? Most of the book takes place in the years leading up to WWI. Using the knowledge of the day, Pynchon bombards the reader in mathematical theories on vectors and quaternions in an attempt to push the boundaries of three-dimensional space. All this leads up to his attacks on the so-called ‘forth dimension.’ Even wondering if we can look at the ‘forth dimension’ as if it were time, when it is really something of its own, and ‘Time’ is only our best imperfect approximation.When dissecting and reassembling time, Pynchon seems to place a keen interest in manipulating it for the reader’s benefit and joy. Pynchon is something of a mystic and trickster. Whatever the number of n dimensions it inhabited, an observer would need one extra, n + 1, to see and connect the end points to make a single resultant. Pynchon must somehow reside in, or frequently visit an extra dimension from the norm. How else is he able to bring back to consensus reality seemingly endless accounts from other realms, parallel universes, and multiple dimensions, all while transporting the reader along with him into those very same worlds?F.R.
Some adjectives to describe ‘Against the Day’: Historical; futuristic; fantastical; gritty; witty; epic; adventurous; philosophical; lusty, scientific; learned; surreal; dense; playful; sociological; hallucinogenic; relentless; ambitious; funny, theological and licentious.Some areas touched upon by ‘Against the Day’: Quantum mathematics; European anarchy; American anarchy in the old west; English anarchy of a sort Conrad wouldn’t quite recognise; Boy’s Own Stories; the union movement; families; betrayal; cartography; geology; bilocation; World War I; mayonnaise; time travel; crystals; explosives; art; show business; applied mechanics; The Fourth Dimension; the afterlife; telepathy; The Russian Revolution; The Mexican Revolution; private detectives; the behaviour of Franz Ferdinand; revenge, cricket; Jack the Ripper; Tunguska 1908; secret cities; the Trans-Siberian Express; sex and desire; secret government organisations; talking plants; and the origins of West Ham United.This is an extraordinary book which really does deserve the title ‘Epic’. Sprawling across many years and with a wide range of characters, ‘Against the Day’ feels like a doorway into the wild imagination of a brilliant conjurer. It starts with the heroic crew of the airship Inconvenience, known as ‘The Chums of Chance’, they fly across the world – and sometimes through it and even onto a Counter Earth – performing great deeds of daring-do. (One of the conceits I particularly liked is that their adventures are collected together elsewhere in a different set of books hugely popular in a parallel universe.) In the first hundred pages or so they meet a group of characters whose lives we then follow, as well as some other characters they themselves come in contact with.If I had a criticism it’s that I’m not sure it all pulls together as a whole at the end, but the ride to get there is extremely satisfying. This is a very long book and clearly won’t be to everyone’s tastes. But I never thought that any of the chapters, or characters, or the strange little vignettes spun out with intelligent whimsy, were in anyway dull or tedious or somehow pointless. For all its length and big ideas, this is a genuinely entertaining – if demanding – read.Steve
Against the Day is unlike any other book I have ever read, and one that defies review. Thomas Pynchon’s latest epic tips the scales, packed with 1,086 pages of wonderful characters, marvels, and a tapestry of themes. Ostensibly a novel of revenge, AtD is also (among many other things) an extended rumination on various kinds of light, from the mundane to the esoteric. As the title implies, this is no glorification of spiritual Illuminism so much as a cautionary tale about excesses of light set against the consolations of night. Taking place in the years prior to World War I, depicted as a sort of historical tipping point here, AtD explores many fascinating themes: Orphism, anarchism, espionage, the elusive nature of freedom, Utopian dreams, Shambala, secret societies, Tarahumara shamanism, peyote visions, doppelgangers, sexual escapades, emergent plutocracy, time travel, the 4th dimension, Icelandic spar, intelligent dogs, Gnostic inversions, Tarot trumps, super-weapons, Lovecraftian monstrosity, Bogomils, hollow Earth theories, Nicolai Tesla, Central Asia, the set of all sets that have themselves as a member, rembetica, fezzes, ukeleles… The novel begins with the Chicago Exposition of 1893, and some of the best and funniest writing is devoted to this event. Here we first become aware that although this is a book that begins more than a century ago, it sheds a lot of light on our contemporary world and its problems. Much of Against the Day follows the lives of the Traverse family and their acquaintances. Webb Traverse, the patriarch, is an anarchist dynamiter who is done in by hired guns working for the mining company, the owner of which, Scarsdale Vibe, is the novel’s designated vile plutocrat. The task of vengeance falls to Traverse’s three sons, Kit, Reef and Frank. Traverse’s daughter, Lake, marries Deuce Kindred, the man who shot her pa. This is an incredibly sprawling and tempestuous read. Erudite passages collide with goofy gags, spontaneous musical numbers and puns. Woven throughout the pages is a hilarious parody of juvenile adventure novels and pulps featuring a zeppelin crew of boy adventurers, the Chums of Chance, inspired by the likes of Tom Swift and Doc Savage. Theosophy is also lampooned as T.W.I.T., the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys. Then there are the Visitors, who come from the future or possibly another dimension. “They have been crossing here, crossing over, between the worlds, for generations. Our ancestors knew them. Looking back over a thousand years, here is a time when their trespassings onto our shores at last converge, as in a vanishing-point, with those of the first Norse visitors.”I will admit to my share of bafflement at much of the math, and confusion generated by a multitude of characters that pop in and out of the narrative like prairie dogs. In the beginning, I leaned heavily on the in-progress Pynchon wiki to help decode obscure historical references, foreign phrases and greater context. But in the last few hundred pages, I surrendered to the flow which carried me hither and yon beyond my wildest expectations. One of the interesting things about finishing this book is rereading reviews of it. It seems that more than a few reviewers didn’t finish reading it and covered their retreats with bluster. One or two actually admit to skimming. Malcolm Jones of Newsweek arguably takes the best approach and serializes his review in an attempt to keep pace with the novel: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15771953/...Having lived with this book for three months, I can’t imagine reading it on a deadline. It’s accessible even if one doesn’t run all of the references to ground, but I would recommend savoring it and doing a little bit of reference legwork. If it touches on a subject you happen to relish, you will find plenty of delightful in-jokes and references. But even without a compass, you can appreciate this wild and wide-ranging ride, by turns hilarious and horrifying, intimate and cosmic. For those interested in Pynchon’s meta-fictional innovations, a running theme of doubling is woven through the book, along with the material symbol of doubling, Icelandic spar, which acts as a sort of mystical lens. Toward the end of the novel, the narrative splits off into an alternate fictional “reality,” one in which we discover the destinies of the major characters as they unfold there. Even in this alternate reality, one character makes an escape into yet another reality, where he is informed that he just returned from Shambala. Fans of the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics will find much to enjoy here. As long as Against the Day is, I didn’t find myself wanting to skim pages or eager for it to be over. I savored the experience to the very last page, enjoying Pynchon’s ability to conjure so much in this play of light and darkness. Ultimately, the experience of reading becomes lysergic, phantasmagorical and transcendental. The novel, like Biblical Leviathan, swallows you whole and spits you out, exhausted but happy to be alive, on some strange beach.Adam
Pynchon at his most accessible yet lengthy(so long I kept thinking I was being reminded of another novel and realizing it was an earlier section). A million intersecting ideas, characters, and plots wrapped in ribald humor and paranoid speculation, reading sometimes like H.G. Wells meets Cormac McCarthy tied all together with a flair of Dante, Conrad, and Borges. One of Pynchon's best, up there with M&D, G.R. and V.(all initials...I win). Pynchon parodies and pastiches L.A. noir, gothic western, steampunkery of Pullman,Mieville, and Moorcock, picareques, and an absurd spy story. Pynchon using all the tropes and wonders of pulp,science fiction, and fantasy to kaleidescope all our nightmares and hopes in a monolithic gnostic vision. Is it hell's history from now on?Rob
(Update, 3/23/13: finally plodded my way to the end of this thing. Review still stands.)First things first: I haven't finished Against The Day yet. I'm on page 752, which is more than 300 pages from the end. But 752 of this book's pages, with their tiny print and their relatively homogeneous content, are enough to solidify one's judgment several times over. It's possible that the ending will cause me to reconsider some of what I'm about to say, but given what I've seen so far, I doubt it.I want to like Pynchon. Lots of people I respect are very fond of him (see e.g. this glowing review by Adam Roberts), and he's often mentioned in connection with writers I like (Wallace, Barth, Nabokov, postmodern fiction in general). He certainly seems lovable. His books are bursting with cool esoteric facts and wacky character names. He exudes a boisterous love for material existence in all its particularity. He's obsessed with ukuleles. What a character, right?I dunno. Somehow he's never worked for me. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and, while it didn't strike me as actively bad, it failed to excite any visible activity on my E-Meter. Totally neutral. If there was a point, I missed it. Then I tried Gravity's Rainbow, had a negative visceral response and put it down (with some force) on page 120. But I was determined to finish one of these big Pynchon books in my lifetime, and I had heard that ATD was gentler and more fun than GR, so I said what the hell.200 pages in, I was hopeful. The book seemed just plain good, charming, lyrical, plotty. I thought I was finally on Pynchon's wavelength. 752 pages in, I can report that I was wrong: I'm still as mystified as ever.A saner review would end there. I just don't get Pynchon, and if I try to explain what's "wrong" with him I'll simply annoy people and/or make a fool of myself. Well, here goes.It's the End of the World As We Know ItThe word "day" in ATD's title has at least two meanings: it refers to the time when the sun is up and everything's illuminated, and also to the day in the sense of "the present day." As early as that title and the epigraph -- "it's always night, or we wouldn't need light" -- ATD sets up the core of its thematic edifice. That core is an opposition between "the day" and "the night." "The day" is daytime clarity, logic, consolidation, lack of ambiguity, "official" versions of history, electricity, modernity. It is aligned with the version of America that is quickly being established at the time at which the novel is set -- the turn of the twentieth century -- an America with a relatively homogeneous culture, relatively powerful institutions (private and public), an America that communicates at the speed of electric current and can form nationwide consensuses with relatively little latency."The night" is nighttime haziness, pre-modernity, subjectivity, secret histories, esoteric knowledge, fiction, mad hopes, counterfactuals of all sorts, the subjunctive. The central conceit of ATD is that the day's victory -- the victory of modernity and its official, real-world history -- was not inevitable, and that at the turn of the 20th century the day contended with a vast range of competing possible worlds. On the most mundane level, Pynchon is suggesting that other social arrangements (anarchy rather than consolidation of power) and other scientific ideas (quaternions rather than vectors) fought for precedence with the ones we actually got. But with characteristic zeal for the blurring of the metaphoric bridge, Pynchon also explores wilder interpretations of the phrase "possible worlds." At times the counterfactuals become literal alternate universes in the science fictional sense. Sometimes they are doppelgangers or alternate selves coexisting in one universe, which have some vague connection to the imaginary numbers. Sometimes the counterfactuals are not alternate histories but actual fictions, as when we see the Chums of Chance, the heroes of a 1890s-era boy's adventure serial (Pynchon's invention), acquire real existence in the same world in which the books they star in are published.How much of this is "true"? How much of it is insightful? Surely the modern world we actually got was not quite inevitable. But whether this has any interesting connection to the relationship between written fiction and reality, much less to the relation between imaginary and real numbers, is questionable. It probably doesn't matter -- it seems best to view ATD as an exuberant fantasy, an attempt to envision a version of the pre-WWI era in which nocturnal/counterfactual weirdos of every conceivable kind, from anarchists to time travelers, mount a motley, heroic last stand against the day. That, in the abstract, sounds promising. The problems are all in the details.We Danced Like People in the Hyper-Tight Light of Fried Chicken CommercialsATD's world is made out of the raw material of genre cliche. The characters are boy adventurers, western gunslingers, evil plutocrats, globetrotting spies, bewitching women from the Orient. Reviewers infinitely more well-read than I have charted the way that Pynchon (yet more well-read) derives almost every one of his characters and episodes from the conventions of one 1900-era popular genre or another. The book revels in its own gleeful corniness, or rather the juxtaposition of that corniness with torrents of accurate historical detail and writing that's way beyond anything in the source material. It's the kind of thing I'd want to call "campy" if Sontag hadn't declared that you can't be campy on purpose.Pynchon, evidently, is interested in combining artifice with realism and the serious with the silly. That's something I love too, and a lot of the appeal of this sort of book for me is in the way implausible or impossible things can be made to feel real through the magic act that is good writing. Pynchon's version of this effect, though, is quite different from (say) the version I loved in Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wallace creates a political and social situation that's absurd and cartoonish, but when he zooms in on any of the people living in that situation, they feel real. From afar, the world of Infinite Jest looks like a maniacal child's play set, but if you peer inside the minds of any of the action figures you find fully functional minds with hopes and neuroses, reflecting and deliberating in hyper-realistic detail. Pynchon, by contrast, never delves for more than a fleeting moment into any given character's mind. References to mental states crop up, but usually in the service of getting someone from one place to another, or of depicting the long-time evolution of a relationship or the like -- a textual version of the montage. Moment-to-moment consciousness, not yet edited into time-lapse summaries, is not among his subjects.His version of the artifice/realism two-step is a more third-person, solipsistic one. Put simply, he takes silly things and takes them seriously, or vice versa. This is fundamentally different from making silly characters real by depicting their consciousness. It's a gesture of the writer's own consciousness, a change in writerly stance that need not accompany any shift in the object of that stance. Pynchon's gambit is that his corny subject matter can be elevated by modulations of his own way of speaking about it, by calculated bursts of lyrical, quintessential "good writing."So, for instance, when we first meet the Chums of Chance (pedant repellant: technically, the five-boy crew of the skyship Inconvenience, one unit of the larger Chums of Chance organization), the writing sounds like this:"Oh, boy!" cried Darby Suckling, as he leaned over the lifelines to watch the national heartland deeply swung in a whirling blur of green far below, his tow-colored locks streaming in the wind past the gondola like a banner to leeward. (Darby, as my faithful readers will remember, was the "baby" of the crew, and served as both factotum and mascotte, singing as well the difficult treble parts whenever these adolescent aeronauts found it impossible to contain song of some kind.) "I can't hardly wait!" he exclaimed. (1-2)But the pastiche of boy's adventure stories doesn't follow the Chums everywhere, and sometimes we read things like this:For somehow, the earlier, the great, light had departed, the certitude become broken as ground-dwellers' promises -- time regained its opacity, and one day the boys, translated here to Belgium, as if by evil agency, had begun to lapse earthward through a smell of coal smoke and flowers out of season, toward a beleaguered coast ambiguous as to the disposition of land and sea, down into seaside shadows stretching into the growing dark, shadows that could not always be correlated with actual standing architecture, folding and pleating ever inwardly upon themselves, an entire mapful of unlighted outer neighborhoods sprawled among the dunes and small villages. . . . (551)Neither of these passages blends with character psychology in the way good third-person prose often does. Is the quaint, awkward style of the first quote reflective of how the Chums think? Is the shadowy dread in the second quote the Chums' own, or just the narrator's? We might wonder if the changing style reflects the Chums' growing maturity. But there is no such trajectory in the Chums' own behavior, only in the writing. The tone and style of the second quote has essentially nothing to do with the human subject matter -- it is just Pynchon choosing to relate the experiences of inane characters in a high-flown style, because he can. (The Chums are an extreme case, but most of this carries over to the other major characters.)Just as Pynchon is uninterested in conventional characterization, he is also uninterested in plot. It feels odd to call ATD a plotless novel, since it is a novel in which a great deal happens. These events, however, are not connected by anything resembling cause and effect. Plot devices enter the story, stick around for a scene or two, and then disappear. Different strands of the plot do not interact with one another even when they would be expected to, as though they are taking place in different universes (in some cases, this may literally be true). In one early chapter, the Chums transport to New York City some sort of alien (?) embryo which has been retrieved from the north pole, and it proceeds to wreak havoc in a sort of a pre-image of 9/11. The whole thing is a great little episode of Lovecraftian sci-fi, quite successful on its own, and I was excited to see where Pynchon would take it. The answer, of course, is that he doesn't take it anywhere. The devastation of New York never comes up again. There is probably some multiversal explanation for this, but it is nonetheless a perfectly typical example of the book's acausality.What the book eventually begins to feel like, dispiritingly enough, is a television series. It's televisual in its abundance of period-authentic visual detail ("eye-catching sets") and its paucity of mental detail, its remixing of existing genres (imagine the pitch: "it's a steampunk revenge western sci-fi period piece!"), its seemingly endless and aimless succession of amusing episodes with no lasting consequences, its preference for characterization by means of snappy dialogue. When the plot is allowed to move, it moves in ways that feel like internal compromises on the part of a writing staff. For instance, one chapter culminates in the death of a semi-major villain, but this villain is merely the lesser member of a villainous pair, with little significance of his own, and so the "writer" of that "episode" can happily top off his story with an apparently important plot point without altering the overall situation in any way that might impair the freedom of other staff members to explore the setting in their own ways. Things change, but nothing really changes; you can tune in next week, even if you've missed an episode or two, and be confident that you'll encounter the same kind of adventure you're used to. Pynchon distorts conventional storytelling for artistic purposes, but he ends up in the same place as artistically unambitious TV shows. (What would Wallace say?)Thomas Pynchon vs. The WorldWhere are the day and the night in all of this? Pynchon's fondness for everything he associates with the night (everything he pits against the day) often frames itself as a fondness for human freedom. Pynchon is for the right to go crazy, to disobey conventional canons of taste and decency, to refuse to do what The Man -- or the plot -- tells you to do. Over time, though, Pynchon's enforced entropy begins to feel more oppressive than any strong plot ever could. Behind the string-pulling mastermind villain Scarsdale Vibe is Pynchon himself, pulling strings to make sure nothing ever connects. True freedom, after all, depends on a reliable underlying physics, a logic of cause-and-effect. I could stop writing this review right now and walk outside my apartment -- that's a way in which I am free. I would feel much less free if I, say, did not feel (mostly) sure that in doing so I would not step into an alternate universe (something that actually happens to one ATD character). I am free to choose my actions, but implicit in the notion of "actions" is some sense of consequence; if I don't know how the world will respond, I have no basis on which to choose how to act, and might as well not be free at all. Pynchon's characters seem superficially free -- and utilize that freedom in all the traditional boozy, horny, countercultural ways -- but these dancers in the dark face a world which is less meaningful, less connected, than even our own vale of tears.So the night and the day are strangely mixed in Pynchon's world. Nocturnal chaos reaches, in its statistical limit, a homogeneity indistinguishable from the results of authoritarian, diurnal control. People straight from the light of a flickering television screen in the 21st century flit about among glittering reflective surfaces, outer lives without inner lives. This is freedom? This is the carnival, the night? Is Pynchon trying to tell me that in the end the day and the night are one in the same? But I can simply pick up another, better book and verify that this is not the case: it is easy to find characters both more free and more constrained. Freedom that breaks down this way is not the genuine article.What Pynchon needs sorely in this book is a foil. A staunch representative of the day, an advocate of traditional fiction and the conventional view of modern history. Someone to tell him, when he strays: dammit, Tom, you're getting into pure stoner logic here, there really isn't any connection between historical counterfactuals and imaginary numbers except as a very facile metaphor. This book is lacking in the heat and light that results from genuine conflict. It is drowning in pure gooey Pynchonianness, so suffused with Pynchon's fixation on everything alternative that the mainstream never gets to make its case. Show me the face of coherence, if only so you can reject it. If Pynchon wants to escape into the bland infinity of endless alternatives, I would at least like to see what he is running from.