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the complete review - fiction
Against the Day
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B+ : impressive in its parts, but near confounding as a whole
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus whatsoever -- many impressed, but quite a few think it's a bloated mess
From the Reviews:
- "With its initial Western setting, hard-bitten, colloquial characters, labor sympathies, and violence, Against the Day could have been an old-fashioned naturalistic novel by Norris or Dreiser, or maybe a more new-fangled proletarian fiction by Dos Passos or Steinbeck, a Book of the Masked that discloses the human faces behind the roles that American capitalism foists on wage slaves. Except Against the Day is a Pynchon Production (.....) The only readers (besides responsible reviewers) I can imagine finishing Against the Day are the Pynchonists, the fetishizing collectors of P-trivia. I hope I'm wrong. " - Tom LeClair, Bookforum
- "Against the Day is Pynchon's longest novel -- a not-unterrifying 300 pages longer than Gravity's Rainbow. It's as much genre-bending as mind-bending, with elements of epic (of course), sci-fi, Western, historical novel, paranoid thriller, comedy, adventure story, young adult novel (that skyship), picaresque novel, political novel, and musical comedy. All the usual Pynchon features are here. (...) All the paranoia and silliness and vast workings out of history make it easy to overlook the sheer beauty of Pynchon's prose." - Mark Feeney, Boston Globe
- "His new novel, Against the Day, represents one of the few cases in which I'd recommend judging a book by its cover. A casual examination will reveal that (a) it's massive (1,085 pages) and (b) if you stare at the blurry title for more than a second, it makes you feel dizzy and your head starts to hurt. This is not unlike the experience of reading the novel. There's no question that the book is written by an exceedingly intelligent, talented writer; there's also no question that it's indulgent and maniacally out of control. (...) But if Against the Day is the most infuriating novel I've read in a year, it's also among the most imaginative." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "Is it any good ? Baffling, yes. Clever and inventive in a cackling, manic, mad-professor kind of way, yes. Intermittently warmed by paragraph-long sunbeams of iridescent prose-poetry, yes. Rambling, pompous and often completely incomprehensible -- yes to all that too." - The Economist
- "Against the Day is not as conventionally plotted as Pynchon's previous novel, 1997's Mason & Dixon, nor as urgent as his World War II phantasmagoria, Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Nonetheless, it's chock-full of as many jokes, romances, and arcane scientific concepts (the "fourth dimension ... was enjoying a certain vogue, or should I say vague?") as you can absorb." - Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly
- "To read Pynchon is to slalom between incomprehension and sunbursts of illumination unlike any encountered in other novels. Yet I read this one with a degree of sadness. This is partly because its preoccupation with the passage of time suggests that as Pynchon approaches his seventies he is contemplating the final disappearance which awaits us all. But itís also because Against the Day doesnít measure up to the majesty of his early novels." - Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times
- "Against the Day ist deshalb ein Roman, den man nicht einfach lesen oder rezensieren kann. Er stellt einem ständig die Frage, wie man ihn überhaupt lesen soll, wieviel Stoff man im Kopf behalten kann und muß, um der Handlung zu folgen, ohne sich selbst in eine Pynchon-Figur zu verwandeln." - Peter Körte, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung
- "The author knows all about these characters and proceeds as if we already know about them too, far sooner than we do. The major events of the book have already happened or are under way at some remoteness offstage or are looming in the shadowlands ahead. It's a world of mystery and paranoia, of inchoate longing, of disillusionment and anticlimax. Like Pynchon's characters, we wander through a swarm of hints that both promises light and darkens what little day we have. (...) Against the Day is not deliriously exuberant and funny the way Pynchon can be." - Greg Hollingshead, The Globe & Mail
- "Like its predecessor Mason & Dixon, Against the Day is built out of vast amounts of period detail, from ladies' hats to the arcane minutiae of the mathematical squabbles of the day. It has a similar, though less concerted, element of pastiche in its style, expertly spoofing Victorian pulp and western dime novels, as well as paying tribute to more contemporary genres (.....) (I)t's quite a challenge to hold its multitudinous threads together in your head sufficiently clearly to grasp what it is they're being woven together to form." - James Lasdun, The Guardian
- "Against the Day, at more than a thousand pages, is the text that puts the ram back into ramshackle and most assuredly the shag back into the shaggy dog story. This shambling ragbag of prose rattles with more than a hundred characters, multiple settings in this world and others and a multitude of narratives held together by gossamer skeins of plot. (...) I lasted 850 pages before I was reduced to skimming. First, if we're going to play this game, at this length, the jokes need to be funnier, the puns better, the prose tauter. And the songs ? Maybe just lose them altogether." - David Goldblatt, The Independent
- "The prevailing impression is of incremental chaos, of information piling up with no egress in narrative. (...) Amid such confusion, the author's rare talents as a stylist could be easily forgotten. Fortunately, heartstopping felicities of description lurk around every corner. (...) Against the Day is a startlingly discontinuous novel, a work of full-spectrum intelligence and erudition that is at times bafflingly tiresome and ungenerous to the reader." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday
- "All the same, at times, the length and complexity of the book simply get the better of Pynchon. Against the Day isn't really a large, populous novel operating according to a homogeneous system but three or four novels yoked to a set of overarching themes. As startling and revelatory as Pynchon continues to be at his best, there are long stretches where his best doesn't make an appearance. It's hard to shake the occasional feeling that Pynchon is sifting among his dozens of players, searching for those who interest him or trying on situations until something clicks. (...) Whatever the problems with sheer mechanical execution, Pynchon here offers his most successful and cogent articulation of the concerns that have haunted his work from the start." - Christopher Sorrentino, The Los Angeles Times
- "Against the Day is a full-blown and full-fledged Pynchon novel -- and thus not only an occasion of joy in every nook of American culture except The New Republic but also a phantasmagoria whose only conceivable analogue is another Pynchon novel, Gravity's Rainbow (.....) (B)rilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a plaintive ukulele." - John Leonard, The Nation
- "Hätte man sich einen noch stringenteren Umgang mit Strukturmomenten wie Zeit und Doppelung gewŁnscht -- und damit auch eine festere Einbindung der Handlungselemente ? Eine stärkere Akzentsetzung, die etwa den durchs ganze Buch hindurch präludierten Ersten Weltkrieg dann auch präziser als nur in einigen am Rand des Gesichtsfeldes vorbeigleitenden Bildern zur Darstellung gebracht hätte ? Differenziertere Charaktere mit mehr Entwicklungspotenzial -- und da und dort etwas weniger Sentimentalität ? Vielleicht; aber dann hätte man wohl auch keinen typischen Pynchon mehr in der Hand gehabt." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Zu diesem virtuos ausgebauten Binnensystem der Doppelungen tritt das Raffinement, mit dem Pynchon sein Werk in weitere Kontexte stellt. (...) Uneingeschränktes Lob gebührt hier last but not least den Übersetzern Nikolaus Stingl und Dirk van Gunsteren: Sie haben Satzperioden von beträchtlicher Amplitude ebenso wie hart geschnittene Dialoge souverän ins Deutsche gebracht und nicht zuletzt auch Pynchons allgegenwärtigen Witz mit spürbarem Gusto in unser Idiom umgeschliffen." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "So Pynchon is easy to like politically; but this book's will-to-nullification is deeply frustrating. First of all, the farcical mode of the novel makes coherence and the making of serious distinctions profoundly difficult (deliberately, I think). The comic principle throughout is vaudeville -- the circus, the carnival, the musical. (...) Against the Day is a massive novel that never feels spacious, because it so rarely slows down to describe anything properly, never indulges in that rallentando of respect whereby each note is awarded its imperishable thisness. (...) The novel systematically denies the reader any purchase, any Archimedean position, and that is its anarchism of method: not Against the Day so much as Against Method. But 1,100 pages of antic surface is an awfully expensive way to pay for these pretty obvious splashings in skepticism." - James Wood, New Republic
- "The deluge of science can blind us to the fact that he is, temperamentally, a mystic rather than a technician. He writes Against the Day, but seeks what lies beyond or under or above the quotidian." - Rachel Aspden, New Statesman
- "The fun of Pynchonís books -- and they are in fact more fun than not, and this is for better and worse one of the key differences between Pynchon and the major novelists who preceded him -- has always been to read them into the present. Gravityís Rainbow, while ostensibly about World War II, was actually about American Cold War hegemony and Vietnam; Against the Day likewise works with what feels like contemporary material, though its subject is ostensibly the turn of the twentieth century." - Keith Gessen, New York
- "There are so many roads through Against the Day that to isolate one or five or ten of them in a brief account is inevitably to distort its meaning. (...) It is quite possible to read Against the Day as the fruit of a protracted effort not to lapse into despair, by recalling among other things that other times have looked nearly as bleak. And it is crucial to keep in mind the things that make life worth living. Pynchon is, as usual, very good on food and mind-altering substances and sex óhilarious on the former two and vivid on the latter, as well as extraordinarily wide-ranging. (...) The book does have its longueurs, but for a dictionary-size slab it has rather few." - Luc Sante, The New York Review of Books
- "It reads like a list, at times like a list of lists -- for Mr. Pynchon is never unwilling to interrupt the plot, such as it is, with a bravura catalog. (...) (I)t is as parody -- in fact, a whole album of parodies -- that Against the Day is most enjoyable. Mr. Pynchon takes on some of the distinctive genres of his chosen period and reduces them to absurdity (.....) The silliness of Against the Day about the very subjects where we are most urgently in quest of wisdom proves that, whatever he once was, Thomas Pynchon is no longer the novelist we need." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "Thomas Pynchon's new novel, Against the Day reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author's might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex. (...) There are some dazzling set pieces evoking the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and a convocation of airship aficionados, but these passages are sandwiched between reams and reams of pointless, self indulgent vamping that read like Exhibit A in what can only be called a case of the Emperor's New Clothes." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "In Against the Day, his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown. (...) In Against the Day, Pynchon's voice seems uncharacteristically earnest. He interrupts his narrative from time to time to lay down pronouncements that, taken together, probably constitute the fullest elaboration of his philosophy yet seen in print. (...) Pynchon actually seems to be having fun with his characters. Admittedly, it's often rough play." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "(A) very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of "Ambitious but flawed." Imperfect in the sense of "What was he thinking ?" (...) Against the Day is a kind of inventory of the possibilities inherent in a particular moment in the history of the imagination. It is like a work of science fiction written in 1900. (...) (T)here is the feeling that the magician has fallen in love with his own stunts, as though Pynchon were composing a pastiche of a Pynchon novel. Bravura Pynchonian paragraphs sometimes seem to be setups for goofy Pynchonian jokes. (...) There is too much going on among too many characters in too many places. There are also too many tonal shifts, as though Pynchon set out to mimic all the styles of popular fiction -- boysí adventure stories, science fiction, Westerns, comic books, hardboiled crime fiction, spy novels, soft-core porn." - Louis Menand, The New Yorker
- "It is brilliant. It is oblique, and in some ways obtuse. Very few people will finish it. I read the whole thing in a few days, which is not an experience to be recommended. (Sometime around page 800, it felt as if my brain were trying to claw its way out of my skull.) (...) Trying to summarize any Pynchon plot is a fool's errand. It would be fair to describe Against the Day as a cross between: 1. a revisionist Western containing bomb-throwing anarchists and pre-Einsteinian physics; and 2. an Edwardian science-fiction novel involving Balkan politics and bisexual romance." - Scott McLemee, Newsday
- "The text is overwhelming, unstable, encyclopaedic and extravagantly allusive. (...) At times, the author seems burdened with a surfeit of research material and discharges it, at regular intervals, into long, scene-setting paragraphs that simply list the contents of rooms or environments. That these contents are generally exotic does not preclude their coming to resemble, after, say, the eighth time, a hardware catalogue or a set-dresser's checklist. (...) None of this detracts from the unique pleasures of a mighty novel that will delight Pynchonians and seduce newcomers." - David Gale, The Observer
- "It's an acquired taste but once in, there's no turning back." - Heather Thompson, The Observer
- "Simple choice: You want goofy names, kooky groups, multi-claused, roller-coaster, Nabokovian sentences, pop-culture sarcasm, abstruse intellectual arabesques, 10-dollar words, inside jokes, fey attributions, self-parodying guides to interpretation -- buy Against the Day. You want order, coherence, clarity, terseness ? Buy a newspaper. " - Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
- "Against the Day doesn't really start to cohere until a point so far into the book that all but the most fanatical acolyte (and there are plenty of those, of course) will have given up and wandered off. (...) Against the Day eventually wobbles out of focus again, leaving the diligent reader with a grab bag of themes to consider. (...) Which is not to say that there isn't some fine writing in Against the Day (.....) Part of the problem lies in a conflict between Pynchon's would-be populism and the gnomic, smarty-pants style of fiction he practically invented." - Laura Miller, Salon
- "Against the Day is probably the most brilliant book most people will never read. The reason it will probably fail to garner much of an audience is that at almost 1,100 pages it is, to put it bluntly, the novel as literary whirlwind, cryptically dense and unrelenting in its demands on the reader. (...) Strangely enough, despite all the noxious flimflam, the glacial pacing and the self-indulgent and seemingly never-ending prattle, there is actually a remarkably accomplished and worthwhile novel buried in here." - David Hellman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "So the first thing to make clear about Against The Day, his first work of fiction in nine years, is that you don't need a doctorate in literary theory to understand or -- more importantly -- enjoy it. (...) The material may be profoundly pessimistic but, as ever with Pynchon, there is manic hilarity along the way. (...) It is, in places, a raggedy, meandering novel. But that's not the point - its abundance and free-wheeling chaos are all part of its charm. You might as well complain that a Jackson Pollock painting is a bit splattery, or that Miles Davis sounds a little improvised." - Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday
- "Sometimes Pynchon could be accused of surrendering characters to action, which means he is never at risk of over-drawing them. Oddly, this grants them authenticity as modus operandi joining the novel's zillion compass points, but the points are all on the map, and all predictable. Pynchon, in this respect, never takes you unawares. His finest moments -- despite a tendency to overwrite some of his sentences -- come in quiet, lyrical, often entrancing insights. (...) It should be acknowledged, nonetheless, that Against the Day is immensely, if intermittently, funny, an intricate, wheezing shaggy dog joke which characteristically lacks a punchline, yet plays along with our expectation of a punchline -- in a sense, it's the perfect postmodernist, mocking jest." - Tom Adair, The Scotsman
- "Iím far from the first person to point it out, but it bears pointing out again: Pynchonís novels behave much more like jazz than they do like anything else. Themes emerge, are riffed on, returned to, and transfigured. Passages refer to eachother not so much directly as by a sort of sympathetic vibration. You suddenly notice something -- be it as slight as the conjunction of the colours mauve and green -- that clicks in your mind. Iíve seen this earlier. Where the hell was it ? Whatís he getting at ? Accordingly, my notes are as bizarre as those I have made on any book Iíve read for review. (...) What is Against the Day about ? What is it not about ? To try to summarise the plot would be insanity. It is a comedy of ideas with people in it. Describing it as if it were a realist novel would be like trying to transcribe in musical notation the sound of a piano falling down the stairs. (...)
It is virtuoso nonsense; it is a giant shaggy dog story, serious as history; it is by turns mind-crushingly tedious and utterly exhilarating; it is remorselessly facetious and yet deeply moving. It is like watching the European apocalypse as scripted by Looney Toons. It is brilliant, but it is exhaustingly brilliant." - Sam Leith, The Spectator
- "It is an idiosyncratic compendium, however, in which textbook history is all but ignored in favour of forgotten wars or workersí struggles, obscure culs-de-sac in science, overlooked thinkers and daft, ephemeral social trends. What also differentiates it from a conventional encyclopedia is that most of the material is given a comic twist. (...) Sheer amazement is the main response the novel elicits. Pynchonís enthralling ambitiousness and phenomenal imaginative power remain undiminished. But his ability to create stories that grip seems reduced: thereís a weightlessness to the characters that makes them hard to care about, and the point of the proliferating narratives is often elusive" - John Dugdale, The Sunday Times
- "If you are willing to negotiate Against the Day's unwieldy, endlessly ramifying storylines, there's plenty here to keep you busy, particularly the novel's engagement with technology and society." - Anthony Macris, Sydney Morning Herald
- "More than in any of Pynchon's previous books, just what it all means is a problem in Against the Day, where plots and ideas and fantastic developments pile up in exhausting profusion. You've been vouchsafed once again his vision of a bright, beleaguered world, this one with more than its share of resemblances to our realities post-Sept. 11. With another few decades of reading and decoding, you may even get the work's largest intentions to snap into focus. Or maybe not. For all its brilliant passages, this is the book that makes you wonder whether even Pynchon knows what lies behind all those veils he's always urging us to part. But wouldn't you know it ? Even when he jumps the shark, he does it with an agility that can take your breath away." - Richard Lacayo, Time
- "Certainly, Pynchonís new novel displays, for all to see, his "lost in the funhouse" narrative proclivities, his intellectual super-nova fireworks and his delight in the arcane, the base, the idiotic. (...) Against the Day eventually settles down into weirdly compelling reading -- that does not require the reader to assume higher cognitive powers or a love of all things recondite. Enter the book thinking of Pynchon as P.T.Barnum -- a great ringmaster, about to take you on a guided tour of the material, technological, geopolitical and philosophical forces that shaped the early years of the previous century -- and you might just find yourself (as I did) caught up in its circus-like reveries. Pynchon can be totally maddening, but he has a great sense of mischief." - Douglas Kennedy, The Times
- "What is different in Against the Day is the way absence becomes clearer to us at a structural level. Indeed, one criticism that has already been levelled at the book is that it is impossible to hold on to its many characters. This is partly because of the sheer mass of the narrative, but also because so many of them simply drop out of the plot. (...) There is, in the end, something confrontational about Pynchonís approach to questions of what we should pass up, or pass on. His antagonism is present from the first, in the bookís prepositional title." - Sophie Ratcliffe, Times Literary Supplement
- "It's raunchy, funny, digressive, brilliant, exasperating, and defies a simple summary. (...) Falling into a novel can be like enjoying a weekend trip to a place you've never been. Against the Day is more like going away for a month, getting lost on your way there and back, returning exhausted, but with bags full of stories." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today
- "The cloud of foreboding that hangs over this book is a fear, a Pynchonian paranoia, that the martial instincts of capitalism, having already corrupted Tesla's idea of free electricity, will come to control and limit the very act of thinking. (...) Against the Day seems, purposely, to eschew the conventions of novel writing, taking the side of anarchy, both historical and metaphysical. However, the narrative anarchy it luxuriates in serves, more than anything, to recreate the kind of conventionality it is, ostensibly, trying to avoid." - John Haskell, The Village Voice
- "It isnít clear whether Pynchon plots by the seat of his pants or has his own secret and impenetrable designs -- the hither-thither meanderings of character, the appalling songs, the Rube Goldberg contraptions (some not yet invented, some perhaps never to be invented in our time-stream) might all be constituents of some larger, rational order. Such wishful thinking it is criticismís usual duty to propose. (...) Pynchon is more a mechanic of sentences than a stylist, even when the prose doesnít drop into Late Hipster, which may be his default tongue. (...) There are some things Pynchon does superbly well as a novelist and others he does intolerably ill, though his fans can be counted on to call his sins saintliness. He writes like a savant missing significant parts -- a piston here, a gearbox there -- of the necessary machinery." - William Logan, Virginia Quarterly Review
- "Vast erudition and technical savvy are on display, mostly to do with math. The novel is spooked by the occult, enchanted with fairy tales and myth. And the writing is orchestral, in registers ranging from magniloquent set-pieces to sass and puns. (...) Pynchon fans will accept this gift from the author with gratitude, but I'm not so sure about mainstream readers. While Against the Day isn't as difficult as some of Pynchon's other novels, its multiple story lines test the memory, and some folks may be scared off by the heady discussions of vectors, Brownian movements, zeta functions and so forth, not to mention words and phrases from a dozen languages scattered throughout. (...) Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Well into Against the Day, Professor Werfner offers a challenge:
Hundreds, by now thousands, of narratives, all equally valid -- what can this mean ?
By that point the reader -- possibly challenged to a pulp by what certainly feels like thousands of narratives (and characters) -- may well wonder the same.
In this instance a character has the answer -- indeed, they always seem to --, which is: "Multiple worlds !".
That, in turn, is also one of the (many) solutions to the many riddles of Against the Day.
Pynchon does not so much present alternative worlds side by side (though there's a bit of that too), but rather makes the quest to conquer and understand an additional dimension one of the driving forces to the narrative.
Among the conflicts at issue is a basic one between two very different world-views, explained at one point:
Actually Quaternions failed because they perverted what the Vectorists thought they know of God's intention -- that space be simple, three-dimensional, and real, and if there must be a fourth term, an imaginary, it be assigned to Time.
But Quaternions came in and turned that all end for end, defining the axes of space as imaginary and leaving Time to be the real term, and a scalar as well -- simply inadmissible.
Of course the Vectorists went to war.
Nothing they knew of Time allowed it to be that simple, any more than they could allow space to be compromised by impossible numbers
No surprise that Pynchon's affinities tend towards the expansive possibilities of allowing time (and space) to be much more than what is readily perceived -- and Against the Day itself feels very much like yet another effort to challenge the simple dimensions of narrative and go at it from every possible angle.
As with the mathematics he plays around with, however, appearances can be deceptive.
Indeed, despite a bit of time-travel, it's noteworthy that Against the Day is very traditionally chronological; rather than upsetting that continuums too much, Pynchon moves along in time more or less straightforwardly, helping ground the book (and steady the reader).
(He doesn't make it too easy, however: Against the Day is set against an historical backdrop, and readers can generally orient themselves by the events of the day (starting with 1893 Chicago World Fair), but it's noticeable how very rarely Pynchon gives any precise dates -- and when he does it is generally a past-reference ("Doc Emmens has been selling argentaurum ingots to the U.S.Mint since '97 or thereabouts").
While much of the narrative could be fairly precisely dated (by referring to the surrounding events), the general feel of the book has time and its flow much more fuzzy -- one of Pynchon's many effective tricks.)
Against the Day is also a globe-spanning, far-reaching novel, in which the characters travel far and wide.
There's little settling down, and a great deal of movement, to and fro and all about.
Here, too, much is decidedly indistinct, or at least hard to pin down (and bilocation, too, isn't unheard of): typically "Isola degli Specchi appeared on some maps and was absent from others", for example, or:
It was a tall building, taller than any in London, taller than St. Paul's, and yet no one had ever been able to make it out with enough clarity for it to qualify as a "sight" tourists might be impressed by -- more a prism of shadow of a certain solidity, looming forever beyond the farthest street one knew how to get to.
Pynchon suggests a universe where:
Lateral world-sets, other parts of Creation, lie all around us, each with its crossover points or gates of transfer from one to another, and they can be anywhere really ....
An unscheduled Explosion, introduced into the accustomed flow of the day, may easily open, now and then, passages to elsewhere ....
But he doesn't make it too easy, or go overboard in using this idea (though he does like those Explosions), making much of the novel about the struggle against (the accustomed flow of) the day.
Indeed, even with the premise so clearly spelled out, the story unfolds in a way that there's still a surprising power and poignancy to a late scene that eventually finds characters: "in a peculiar corner of a planet that might or might not be their own".
Pynchon also introduces an enormous cast of characters, to go with (or along) several main storylines; bless the first Pynchon-fan who posts a concordance that tracks them all online.
So relentless is Pynchon in constantly presenting outrageously named characters -- among the minor figures alone one finds Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Ellmore Disco, Stilton Gaspereaux, Chevrolette McAdoo, Ewball Oust, Lord and Lady Overlunch, and Eusapia Palladino¹ (and that's just a small sampling) -- that it can only be considered an attempt at achieving a Brechtian alienation effect.
Outright cognomenic wordplay is more limited -- though the palindromic professors, Renfrew and "his opposite number, Werfner" do play a fairly significant role.
(Doubling up of identities also occurs elsewhere, specifically in the case of the 'Twin Vibes', Foley Walker being "the 'other' Scarsdale Vibe" (a nefarious capitalist) -- indeed, arguably "more Scarsdale Vibe than Scarsdale Vibe himself".)
There are also a number of acronymic organisations, including I.G.L.O.O. (Inter-Group Laboratory for Opticomagnetic Observation, "a radiational clearing-house"), I.M.R.O (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization), L.A.H.D.I.D.A. (Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Individual Defense Alliance), and, of course, T.W.I.T. (the True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys).
The most important organisation, however, isn't known in abbreviated form: "that celebrated aeronautics club known as the Chums of Chance".
The novel begins with the Chums of Chance arriving in their hydrogen skyship, the Inconvenience, for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
It's almost out of a boys' adventure story -- and it's fitting enough that the Chums are well-known from supposed previous published accounts, a whole series of books, apparently, recounting such earlier adventures as The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa, The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis, and The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin.
An authorial voice even beckons with familiarity early on: "as my faithful readers will remember", the author teases -- but that doesn't last long, with barely any direct address after the first page.
The Chums are "Aces of the Altitudes / Vagabonds of the Voids", part of a larger organisation (and with international counterparts), and they float through much of the novel.
But the boyish adventures are just a typical Pynchon-feint, part (or, often, not) of something much bigger.
And so the focus of the novel moves -- along with a variety of other characters -- from Chicago to Colorado and all across Europe and even to Shambhala -- the latter a sort of final destination, but the 'sham' in the name surely no coincidence.
Meanwhile the Chums of Chance fly above most of it, and go to even farther reaches, often on mysterious missions that even they're not always clear about.
There are mighty forces at work, too, on all levels.
The first, most basic conflict is among the Anarchists and the capitalists, as dynamite and other explosives are constantly being tossed, generally in the service of labour and political unrest.
There are places of complete lawlessness like Jeshimon ("anything and everything goes here, otherwise the game wouldn't be honest"), and often where there is government it does not protect the interests of all but only of some (the U.S. Secret Service already with a master list "of everybody they think is up to no good" -- and following up on it).
The most immediate power is that of the very wealthy; often as not what they have to confront are other sorts of power which are harder to contend with than mere incited labourers.
Dynamite explosions are annoying, but there's a lot of energy-release on a much grander scale, too (and plans and plots for more).
The threat of a "'World-System', for producing huge amounts of electrical power that anyone can tap in to for free, anywhere in the world" (Nikolai Tesla's project) is among those they have to contend with, but capital (in the form of lack of funding) can keep that down.
Other incredibly powerful energy-ambitions and -releases are also found throughout the book: it's no coincidence that the only precisely dated event is the most significant such release, the "heavenwide blast of light" that was "the Event over the Stony Tunguska":
As of 7:17 A.M. local time on 30 June 1908, Padzhitnoff had been working for nearly a year as a contract employee of the Okhrana, receiving five hundred rubles a month, a sum which hovered at the exorbitant end of spy-budget outlays for those years.
(Remarkably, even here Pynchon can't bring himself to simply pinpoint the time of an event outright, specifying it instead in this roundabout way.
It is typical for his method, which avoids directness, and loads almost everything with additional information that, while often relevant, is, of course, also distracting.)
The Tunguska-event is one of the central intersections of the novel, bringing together several of the strands, even as uncertainty prevails about what it was and means:
Was it Tchernobyl, the star of Revelation ?
An unprecedented harrowing of the steppe by cavalry in untold millions, flooding westward in a simultaneous advance ?
German artillery of a secret design more powerful by orders of magnitude than any military intelligence office had ever suspected ?
Others have other theories:
Time-travel isn't free, it takes energy.
This was an artifact of repeated visits from the future.
It's a theory (but the response is: "Nichevo", along with a more sinister interpretation ...).
But time-travel is integrated into the story, as, for example, "seekers of refuge from our present -- your future -- a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty -- the end of the capitalistic experiment" make an appearance, unsettling Trespassers that are yet another force to contend with.
Pynchons revels in science and maths: from the Transnoctial Discussion Group to the University of Göttingen to the basic scientific enthusiasm of the times (" 'Rays, boys, rays,' chuckled Scientific Officer Counterfly, busy with his photographic calibrations, 'the wonders of our age'").
But he doesn't just leave the Chums to chance: from gambling in Monte Carlo to Tarot cards, there's a prominent element of chance (as well as the super-natural -- as in the Psychical Detectives, yet another take on the transcendental (which is, of course, also what all the dimension-jumping efforts also amount to)) throughout.
Among the most appealing inventions is the use he puts calcite (Iceland spar) to, its properties allowing for fantastic devices:
"So," the Professor had gone on to explain, "if one accepts the idea that maps begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world, and resume as dreams again, we may say that these paramorphoscopes of Iceland spar, which cannot exist in great numbers if at all, reveal the architecture of dream, of all that escapes the net-work of ordinary latitude and longitude.
(Readers may well wish for their own paramorphoscopes to train on the novel itself, as it often seems that there are other layers hidden underneath the plain text, narrative worlds shifted slightly out of focus (which an Explosion may right ...). )
Characters do propel the stories forward, though the extended time-frame (over two decades) and the sheer number Pynchon juggles can make it difficult to readily keep track of them all.
(Among the difficulties is that it's not entirely clear who one should keep track of, as many minor characters are introduced with much the same flair (and peculiar names) that the central ones are.)
The novel relies a great deal on dialogue, and the often curt and elliptical to and fro makes for a feel of almost intimacy, of a deceptive proximity to the characters and knowledge of who these people are.
And yet it also has a feel of overheard (and often professional) chatter, leaving the reader not-quite-in-the-know.
Characters do break into song (but not too often), and there are some essentially screwball comedy elements: Skip, the talking ball-lightning, sand-fleas the size of a camel, Anarchists' Golf ("in which there was no fixed sequence -- in fact, no fixed number -- of holes, with distances flexible as well"), a character who narrowly escapes death by mayonnaise.
But little of this is really comic relief; it simply fits into Pynchon's universe, as well as most everything else.
Pynchon presents his story meticulously, but the underlying vision is of such complexity -- or rather: so difficult to fix in space and time -- that the reader is constantly left in a state of uncertainty.
So much seems so clear, and then it blurs again, a new pattern suggesting itself.
Right at the beginning Pynchon has one character describe it well enough:
"Sometimes," Miles with a strangely apprehensive note in his voice, "these peculiar feelings will surround me, Lindsay ... like the electricity coming on -- as if I can see everything just as clear as day, how ... everything fits together, connects.
It doesn't last long, though.
Pretty soon I'm just back to tripping over my feet again."
It is, presumably, this feeling that Pynchon wants to convey: Miles is far from the only one to experience it, and the reader is obviously meant to as well.
Aside from the larger concepts of time and space Pynchon explores (and/or uses), Against the Day is also a socio-political novel.
Steeped first in the Anarchist-fight (even the dog, Pugnax, has chosen James' The Princess Casamassima for his reading matter) through the Russian revolutions and the crisis precipitated by the Austrian annexation of Bosnia, world history is certainly woven into the book (along with a few global quests and conflicts Pynchon has added and embellished).
Typically, the action touches more peripherally on historical events than one generally finds in fiction -- with Francis Ferdinand (whose 1914 assassination was the trigger for the First World War) here appearing on a different scene (and much earlier) than one might have expected.
The book also spans the robber-baron era, and in Scarsdale Vibe offers a prime exemplar, and Pynchon offers a vivid picture of a changing America in those times.
Certainly, it is not mere historical accident that Pynchon set the book in this period, and that he presents it as a decisive time, when there were crossroads and different paths open.
In the ad-copy for the book Pynchon claims: "No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred" -- making it hard not to.
(And the words of those from the future -- describing their times as: "a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty -- the end of the capitalistic experiment" -- are surely warning not just for the characters but the reader as well.)
But actual history is also no firmer anchor for Pynchon than anything else.
As one of the characters writes:
History has flowed in to surround us all, and I am left adrift without certainty, only conjectures.
Part of the pleasure of the text is that it never gets too bogged down in any one idea or ideal.
Yes, characters and readers are left adrift, but Pynchon handles that -- to the extent he can -- well.
It isn't a book about any specific thing, or meant as some sort of simple lesson.
(If anything, of course, it revels far too much in complexity (of every sort).)
Pynchon may preach, but he does so with a light touch -- and offers a great deal to go with it.
Pynchon is a talent, and the pages of this novel show a remarkable command of craft.
Almost off-hand he piles on the very impressive pieces.
From the attention to detail (bricks soaked in water overnight to put into display cases to keep cigars humidified) to invention (paramorphic encryption that allows cultured pearls to hold secret messages) to the pitch-perfect tone of the many, many speakers in the novel, there's a frequent -- sometimes it seems constant --- sense of wonder.
But it can and does also overwhelm, as he juggles all his characters and adventures and his ideas, and the focus on detail still leaves the novel as a whole, for the most part, as an enormous blur.
(No doubt, the text surely gains from repeated re-reading, and would come into sharper focus (or alternate visions/versions would emerge) but it's a lot to take on in the first place, much less to have a go at more than once.)
Yes, "sometimes a Tatzelwurm is only a Tatzelwurm", but Pynchon never seems to make it that easy or obvious.
To fully enjoy Against the Day one has to accept that the larger picture won't come into sharp relief -- though many of the pieces and stories from it are (or seem) as clear as day.
It isn't really difficult, but in its multiple progressions can be frustrating (especially since the game goes on for so long).
It's not a book for everyone, but Pynchon's writing, and his characters and invention, offer many rewards.
(1) As a reader has pointed out, 'Eusapia Palladino' is in fact a historical figure -- a medium (1854-1918) whose 'talents' were subjected to scientific tests.
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Against the Day:
Other books by Thomas Pynchon under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction
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About the Author:
American author Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937.
He won the 1974 National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow, and among his other books are V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Mason and Dixon.
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© 2006-2011 the complete review
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