Is it ok if I get a lil’ pretentious on your asses?(What am I talking about, this is a Pynchon review, it’s almost compulsory! In fact, the above could be P’s tagline- I’ll call his agent and set up an… oh yeah, I forgot.)Reading this book is a lot like travelling along the Riemann zeta function that Pynchon seems so fond of. Locally, we travel small coherent distances, moving round a logical path, but when we zoom out and observe the story globally, we see how convoluted and complex it really is. Cutting a vertical cross-section through the function, we'll see the same sets of characters and storylines sometimes, but a lot of empty space where we're on our own. You can read tens, twenties of pages of this book that are like small packets of story that make sense, but go any further and you’ll get completely lost. Here we see Pynchon older (I didn’t say mature), more relaxed, and off drugs, and so are his characters for the most part. Also they’ve stopped multiplying, in more than one way: there’s only 100+ of them instead of the 400+ of Gravity's Rainbow for eg., and they have significantly less sex (thankfully- TP’s ‘lovemaking’ scenes make Fifty Shades look like marital missionary!) Sometimes, when they make a second, third? What? Fourth appearance? You even remember their names! Great! Those were exactly the changes I wanted from GR, and yet I still like GR more, only because of its more enjoyable settings as well as my own stubbornness and first Pynchon nostalgia (oh, last year! How long ‘twas ago lawl)Still we see his traditional format of writing from a talent tower above all other novelists, but with his mind in the gutter. Also you’ll read familiar themes of predestination, the futility of war, unconventional love, yadda yadda and plenty of silly songs too. Spoiler alert: not a single kazoo this time!Although I did find the ijk, vector, quaternion chat (and Tesla cameo was stoopid) a bit aimless and reminded me of my least favourite Pynchon trait, the interjection of showy-off academic chat that almost deliberately excludes you from having fun with him. Yeah, Joyce’s ideal reader was himself, but that wasn’t a good thing, dude (or wazzit or wizzit I gettit). Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be charmed by big P’s playful genre-hopping neither- boy’s adventure novel runs into hardboiled crime begets… is that supposed to be Henry James? At least this time you can celebrate your own cleverness as well as his. And some sections could even be described as… sweet. Good on you mate. I’ll read the rest, too :Doriana
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?Michael
The imaginative density of this book is truly a marvel. Every page, every chapter, every sentence is filled with humor, humanity, and wacky literary, historical and philosophical ideas. Like all of Pynchon's fiction, one must simply allow the author's immense creativity to take you wherever he feel like, and in this book it is an awful lot of places. Set in the years before World War I, Against the Day is, as near as I can tell, Pynchon's homage to the 19th century dime novel - featuring all manner of popular genre tales from the Deadwood Dick westerns, Pinkerton detective stories of anarchists dynamiters, Ivy League college stories, tales of bold inventors and scientist, Horatio Alger rags to riches tales, and the Chums of Chance - the daring balloonists off on global adventures. This book is not for everyone, especially those who like linearity, focus and realism in their historical fiction. So too should the Pynchon neophyte probably start elsewhere. So, come to think of it, who the hell am I writing this for anyways? If you are down with the TP then you already have a copy and are probably stuck at page 700. If you arent a fan then you'll just be shaking your head. Ah, yet another moment of realization that I am a hopeless dork - its a good thing this book is so funny.Ned
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, tooErik
Thomas Pynchon has always found fiction in the so-called "turning points of history," often satirizing them to the extent that we don't recognize them anymore: 1945 in Gravity's Rainbow and here the end of the 19th century and runup to the disaster that was WWI (from which you can trace most of the twentieth century's woes). ATD is written in the appealing style of a Tom Swift boy's adventure series meets H.G. Wells meets Conrad's Secret Agent. The human characters and their intertwined stories are tossed onto the seas of chance, as we see them in Chicago, New York, Venice, Denver and many other period cities. We have a Western revenge plot, espionage in the Balkans, alternative worlds, possibly invaders of light on Quaternionic 4-vectors from some alternate reality, and several other strands to follow as always with Mr. P. The metaphor throughout ATD is light, history as holography (literally!). Or actually it's the reverse of the usual gnostic light is good, dark is bad metaphor. It's the winners of history that somehow entropically make it into the workaday daylight, to actuality, versus an invisible underworld (alternate universes even) of bizarre outliers and possibilities in the entropic mix that just sort of fall into nether-realms except for bizarre eruptions (which chance also sanctions). In ATD, all of those possibilities are still alive and buzzing, not yet sorted out by brutal entropy into what does happen as opposed to what could or should happen. The whole book is about the 'lovable losers' of this period, like the Anarchists, the Quaternionists, the Aetherists, the (hydrogen!) Balloonists, the Blavatskyians, Tesla, etc. Pynchon even suggests that scientific history might be fluid, in the physical nature of light, polarization and refraction, bilocation, and the history of mathematics. And of course there are conspiracies afoot: what if the whole nationalistic world war was a way to crush internationalism, anarchism, and social progress. (In fact political thought was truly advanced in some quarters of the 19th century and it was scaring the hell out of the powers that be. There is a beautiful description of anarchist community in here toward the end.)I think Mr. P is a kind of wacky demiurge, or reverse Maxwell's demon, bringing chaos to seeming order in his books as he messes with history and the lives of his characters while he breaks into song. He doesn't just interpret his vision of history he embodies it. ATD is not as great, intense or angry as Gravity's Rainbow. This is the book of an older man, a family man, someone who looks at the sweep of history a little more calmly. He may for all that be an old fashioned American pessimist, a la Henry Adams, who believes in inescapable decline on the whole, but he ends ATD on a more optimistic note: who knows? We outliers may win the day yet.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.Emily
Reading this book wasn't quite the experience of slugging through 'Finnegan's Wake,' but it was up there. I've been a Thomas Pynchon fan since reading 'the crying of lot 49' as an undergrad and then working my way through everything else I could get my hands on. I haven't read him in awhile, and picked this up because it featured math, time travel, gambling and explosives. I am so sad that I didn't love it. The book falls short in three big ways. First, there are so many characters and they are so thinly drawn, it was impossible to identify or care for any of them. I started to care about Dally, but then didn't see her for 300 pages more. One of the appeals of a big book is getting attached to the characters and living with them, and here I just watched the parade go by. Secondly, the narrative lacks a clear structure to push the reader forward and support the madcap coincidences and zany adventures along the way. Pynchon has always mastered muddying the waters and then miraculously making the complex seem clear and connected in a way that is beautifully simple. Without structure or discipline, the book rambles willy-nilly. When at page 1045 he introduces yet another new story line and suddenly parodies a Carver-esque gumshoe, I lost patience.Finally, the math / science in this book is one of the biggest themes, and a very weak one. Even if the math deviates a bit from real world math, there should be logic and rules. It's math, after all. 'Cryptonomicon' is a great example of that. But the math here is half-baked; Pynchon never really pans out what vectorism is, how it works, why it is opposed to the quaternionists. This book might be a testament to the lack of true editors in the publishing industry today. I can't help thinking there is a great book somewhere in this mess, but Pynchon needs a disciplined editor to help carve it out.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...])Andy
As always with Pynchon the total lack of an ending or conclusion can be a bit frustrating, but at this point I'm over it. As usual, a sprawling, encyclopedia of a novel, with so many intertextual references the head spins (a short initial list would include: H.G. Wells, Artaud, B. Traven, Hemmingway, Kipling, etc etc.). Loosely structure around the adventures of the Traverse family following the murder of their father, a coal-miner and anarchist militant, in the Colorado Labor Wars of the last decade of the 19th century. If I were to grasp one theme of this book, I suppose, it would be that it grapples with the death of the Victorian era, and with it the era's faith in progress, science and the forward trajectory of mankind, the broad cultural malaise which we still inhabit. Another theme, I think, is the closing of the "frontier" - whether that frontier is the physical one of the American West, the Arctic Circle, and Central Asia; the mental frontier of science, mathematics and physics; or the political frontier of socialist, anarchism and working-class revolution, the book seems to work with the collapse of possibilities in the late 19th century with the end of what, we could perhaps, call the 'heroic era' of Western culture.A joyful and ecstatic clusterfuck to be sure.Justin Evans
If you're reading this, you might want to read the book; if you're sensible, you'll be a bit wary of diving right in, because, as every review is contractually obliged to note, it's a bit long. So here are some books I'm really glad I read before this: i) The World that Never Was, by Alex Butterworthii) Anarchism, by George Woodcockiii) Hobsbawm's Age of Revolution/Capital/Empireiv) Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (American West in the 19th century)v) Henry James, in general (for the American abroad theme)vi) various popular science books, particularly about maths. Here are some books I really wish I'd read: i) The Struggle for Mastery by AJP Taylorii) unpopular, difficult histories of mathsiii) a history of American labor organizationsiv) HG Wells, The Time MachineIf you mix all of that in with previous Pynchon, you get this book. If you've read it all, I bet this thing would be a breeze. Kind of. ***************I put off reviewing this for a long time, because I've been trying to finish the wikipedia plot summaries. But I can't put it off any longer. Those plot summaries take a *long* time. A lot of people read this book as a more or less Manichean tract about the evils of the day/light/people who don't believe in conspiracy theories and the good of the night/darkness/people who do. Thankfully, it's much more and much better than that. There are few hard and fast good guys or bad guys: only one or two people fail to undergo some kind of enlightenment, and nobody who does undergo enlightenment becomes undeniably heroic afterward. The book's structure is surprisingly tight. There's a kind of frame narrative, a pastiche of Boys Own adventure stories; as the novel progresses, the heroes of that story (The Chums of Chance) move from being more or less the unthinking but charming patsies of shadowy higher powers, to being autonomous, married human beings: in other words, they're little boys who grow up, and in so doing become more conscious of their own place in the world. Within this is the main tale: a family of anarchists is being hunted and then hunting the capitalists in turn. On the book's release, much was made of its sympathy for terrorists, so it's worth noting that only *one* non-anarchist is intentionally killed by an anarchist, and that's in direct revenge for the murder of said anarchist's father. Just to complicate matters, it's unclear that the vengeance-taker is much of an anarchist anyway. On the other hand, and with historical accuracy, the capitalists murder or otherwise do away with dozens of people. The point of the book is not that terrorism is okay, it's that small acts of 'terrorism,' like bomb throwing, differ from large acts of destruction, like war or factory lockouts, in a small but important way: the bomb throwers lack the resources to do anything else. The war-makers and factory owners have all the resources they need, but want to squeeze ever more out of the rest of us. In good picaresque fashion, a series of tales branch off from these two main tales. Most of them have in common some sort of opposition to quotidian life, which is either shown to be successful as an alternative, or (more often), unsuccessful. Characters come to realize that they're being used by powers beyond their control, and take it upon themselves to change their lives as best they can. Usually this is by travel (therefore, picaresque). The book shows us two worlds: one that we see every day, and a kind of shadow world set slightly to the side of our own. The shadow world is sometimes good, sometimes not so good; but the moments of good that it holds are very much worth striving for. The trick is to do that without getting co-opted by capitalists or imperialists, which is no easy task at the turn of the nineteenth century. Here the content matches up with Pynchon's form: any time the shadow world breaks through, for better or worse, the generally realistic narrative is also interrupted by surrealism, fantasy, science-fiction, horror, abstract mathematics, mysticism or philosophy. These small breaks in the novel's realistic fabric are often genuinely confusing, and that's precisely the point: thinking of another world is difficult and confusing. There's no need for conspiracy theories to explain this fact, you only need to recognize that the power and money is held in a very few hands. Despite the huge difficulties faced by the various characters, the book ends, beautifully, with the Chums of Chance on their airship, "where any wish that can be made is at least addressed, if not always granted. For every wish to come true would mean that in the known Creation, good unsought and uncompensated would have evolved somehow, to become at least more accessible to us," and there's no sign of that. Nontheless, "they fly towards grace." Even within the book's frame, the Chums of Chance are more or less fictional. It's on board fictions like 'Against the Day' that we, too, can fly towards grace, without pretending that we've already got it.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.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?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…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.Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
One thousand two hundred twenty (1,220) pages in fine print, a high 4.04 average rating in goodreads. Let's see first the metaphors and what-nots it provoked among the brave souls who had read and reviewed it:1. Mikey Stewart (3 stars) - (his first sentence): "Good lord, where to start?"2. Oriana (5 stars) - "It's like, instead of reading a book, you're like reading a chunk of a river...this one is like a million rivulets, each slipping overunderthrough one another, that you follow for a second, or a couple (of) pages, until they go back under and get lost in the general cacophony..."3. Jim Ruland (5 stars) - "...like long shots of ants scurrying about in an ant farm..."4. Marcus Mennes (5 stars) - An "onslaught."5. Guy (4 stars) - It's about LIGHT."6. Lee Worden (5 stars) - "I don't really get what he's up to with all the different kinds of light..."7. Daniel (5 stars) - "(Pynchon) ends up hollowing out parts of your brain and building his own theme park there..."8. Cynthia (5 stars) - "(Pynchon) just keeps on going until, I guess, either he gets exhausted or his publisher makes him turn it in or, I dunno, his printer breaks down."9. Steve Aydt (5 stars) -"...like Biblical Leviathan, swallows you whole and spits you out, exhausted but happy to be alive, on some strange beach."10. Mark (5 stars) - "...I let the words cascade into my brain and realize that no one does it quite like Pynchon."11. Michael (5 stars) - "Pynchon's homage to the 19th century dime novel..."12. Eddie Watkins (5 stars) - "...it's like reading a massive young-adult novel..."13. Nate Dorr (4 stars) - "...full of references that fly straight by me..."14. Andy (5 stars) - "A joyful and ecstatic clusterfuck..."15. Tony (4 stars) - (after writing his review): "This is a mess, I'll have to clean it up a bit..."16. Darrell (5 stars) - "...enjoyable even if much of it goes over your head."17. Phillip (5 stars) - "...in another sense--(this) book never ends..."18. Matt (4 stars) - "This was my summer reading project, and it took most of the summer."19. Geoff Sebesta (4 stars) - "...reading this book reminds me of wading through brains...It's designed to hurt your head..."20. F.R. Jameson (4 stars) - "...feels like a doorway into the wild imagination of a brilliant conjurer."21. Snotchocheez (2 stars) - "... one gigantic headache-inducing mess."22. Will Layman (4 stars) - (after his introductory spiel): "...what follows is impossible to summarize..."23. Cary Barney (3 stars) - "...(while reading it) there are times you wonder why you're doing this to yourself. Pynchon had material for at least four novels here and unfortunately opted to throw it all into a blender."24. Nat (5 stars) - "I am, at heart, a reader of the slow & persistent ilk, so spending 11 months with this tome was almost like fostering a relationship with another person."25. Joe Hunt (3 stars) - "I still haven't finished this book! But I've had for like two years. Hyrum, my brother, gave it to me. I really like it!"If these guys and girls had been paying attention they would not have tortured themselves writing a review of this novel because Thomas Pynchon himself has a review of this, buried practically incognito on page 956 of my copy. Here Vlado gave to Yashmeen a book entitled "The Book of the Masked" and Pynchon describes it like he would have described this novel:"(Its) pages were 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, of what Vlado had been visited by under the assaults of his home wind, of what could not be paraphrased even into the strange holiness of Old Slavonic script, 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."Read it again.For that would be the common experience you'll have in its paragraphs and passages so that with the rereading you'll be doing the novel could very well become like 2,000 pages and not just 1,220.Now, why have I rated this 5 stars? Because of its last seven paragraphs. Seven paragraphs the meaning of which I do not know, which I can't say I understand, full of the usual impossibilities and exaggerations, the simultaneous pregnancies, of the balloon-ship which has grown as big as a city, the talking dogs, the dog who reads Henry James, the scientific mumbo-jumbo, the trips to nowhere, all these--for reasons I do not know--had left me misty-eyed:"One day Heartsease discovers that she's expecting a baby, and then, like a canonical part-song, the other girls one by one announce that they are, too."And on they fly. The ship by now has grown as large as a small city. There are neighborhoods, there are parks. There are slum conditions. It is so big that when people on the ground see it in the sky, they are struck with selective hysterical blindness and end up not seeing it at all."Its corridors will begin to teem with children of all ages and sizes who run up and down the different decks whooping and hollering. The more serious are learning to fly the ship, others, never cut out for the Sky, are only marking time between visits to the surface, understanding that their destinies willl be down in the finite world."'Inconvenience' herself is constantly having her engineering updated. As a result of advances in relativity theory, light is incorporated as a source of motive power--though not exactly fuel--and as a carrying medium--though not exactly a vehicle--occupying, rather, a relation to the skyship much like that of the ocean to a surfer on a surfboard--a design principle borrowed from the AEther units that carry the girls to and fro on missions whose details they do not always share fully with 'High Command.'"As the sails of her destiny can be reefed against too much light, so they may also be spread to catch a favorable darkness. Her ascents are effortless now. It is no longer a matter of gravity--it is an acceptance of sky."The contracts which the crew have been signing lately, under Darby's grim obsessiveness, grow longer and longer, eventually overflowing the edges of the main table in the mess decks, and occasionally they find themselves engaged to journey very far afield indeed. They return to Earth--unless it is Counter-Earth--with a form of 'mnemonic frostbite,' retaining only awed impressions of a ship exceeding the usual three dimensions, docking, each time precariously, at a series of remote stations high in unmeasured outer space, which together form a road to a destination--both ship and dockage hurtling at speeds that no one wishes to imagine, invisible sources of gravity rolling through like storms, making it possible to fall for distances only astronomers are comfortable with--yet, each time, the 'Inconvenience' is brought to safety, in the bright, flowerlike heart of a perfect hyper-hyperboloid that only Miles can see in its entirety."Pugnax and Ksenji's generations--at least in every litter will follow a career as a sky-dog--have been joined by those of other dogs, as well as by cats, birds, rodents, and less-terrestial forms of life. Never sleeping, clamorous as a nonstop feast day, 'Inconvenience,' once a vehicle of sky-pilgrimage, has transformed into its own destination, where any wish that can be made is at least addressed, if not always granted. For every wish to come true would mean that in the known Creation, good unsought and uncompensated would have evolved somehow, to become at least more accessible to us. No one aboard 'Inconvenience' has yet observed any sign of this. They know--Miles is certain--it is there, like an approaching rainstorm, but invisible. Soon they will see the pressure-gauge begin to fall. They will feel the turn in the wind. They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace."