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Review: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon

One month and four days after its release, I found myself at the end of Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon's latest (and possibly last) novel.

Why possibly last?

Well, the man's almost eighty now, and it's not uncommon for him to spend a decade or more on a single work...

There's no way of knowing for sure if this is the last missive we'll be sent from Mount Pynchon, but, I have to admit, it's really hard to read this novel without taking the possibility into account.

Suspicious-looking birds, ain't we?Against the Day is probably one of his most accessible works. I'd still say that either The Crying of Lot 49 or Vineland are the best starting-points for a newcomer to Thomas Pynchon, but Against the Day may well be the best of his "big" books to begin with.

It's also the longest. It's nearly 1100 pages, which is about 200 pages longer than the runner-up; that's practically a whole novel's length worth of difference.

So we have a few things here that the novel needs to live up to right off the bat: it's his first published work since 1996, so was it worth waiting for? It's not unlikely to be his last published work, so is it a fitting end to his career? And it's the longest of his novels, so can it justify its own bulk?

All this before cracking the spine, mind you. Which means Against the Day has quite a job ahead of it just to merit its own existence.

And I can say that it's a novel that's ready to handle all of the criticism you can throw at it. It's a strong work. It isn't his best, but it doesn't have to be, and it doesn't pretend to be. It's a novel that exists for its own reasons in its own way, and it stands oddly apart from the rest of Pynchon's books, even as it resembles and pays tribute to them.

The reason I say it stands oddly apart is because it's pretty much straight-ahead through time. All of his previous works (yes, I said all) zip forward and backward through history between pages, sentences, sometimes even words. Against the Day has a steady, swift passage forward, and it never, even for a second, turns back (something metaphorically addressed late in the novel).

Also, the reader will never find himself far from familiar territory. Yes, it's Pynchon, so there are hundreds (easily hundreds) of named characters interacting and crossing paths and swapping lives, but within those hundreds there are small islands of characters that function as the more important in the book, and it is through them that we always have solid literary ground on which to stand. This makes it a much more forgiving (and enticing) novel than the rest of his monster works, and though it may hinder his commonly directionless creativity, it does at least give the book a definite structure. This, in itself, is really no bad thing.

The "islands" of characters are as follows: The Chums of Chance, who are a crew of freelance ballooners, benevolently observing the nations below them while sworn never to interfere (cough Star Trek cough); the Traverse family, which is scattered to the wind and their separate directions when Webb Traverse, the revolutionary anarchist patriarch, is murdered; photographer Merle Rideout and his restlessly expressive daughter Dally; Cyprian Latewood and Yashmeen Halfcourt, whose stories were easily the least comprehensible and therefore impossible (for me) to summarize; and Lew Basnight, a private detective addicted to ingesting dynamite.

Certainly a rich assortment of characters, and though each island had its exceptional moments and its complementary lowpoints, all of them are justified artistically and are riveting in turn. The exceptions I noted above, Cyprian and Yashmeen, were down to the fact, I'm sure, that I lost a thread somewhere that I was never again able to recover. This is not uncommon in reading Pynchon, but it was quite frustrating to me as a reader because it was the only thing in the novel I wasn't getting.

That aside (as I'm sure future readings will make everything more clear to me), the novel was, in all honesty, a work of sheer greatness, and it says a lot that this isn't even Pynchon at his best. A lesser author would (and should) kill to write a novel like this.

It's difficult to say much after a first reading, especially with a work as vast as this one, but I can say that it moved me to tears, vocal laughter, and genuine fear several times apiece. As usual it's difficult to say anything about the plot here because so much of it is subjective (his characters arguably travel through time at several points, but it's never made clear if this is actually what they're doing or even if it matters...), but the moments that ring clear also hit the reader quite deeply. Particularly when one realizes that nearly all of the overt comic moments are shoving the course of human history directly toward the horrors of World War I.

There's a great deal to enjoy here. Its chapters are brief (a real rarity for Pynchon), its characters consistent (on the whole), and it contains references to popular culture second only to Vineland in number (I myself have noticed definite references to The Simpsons, possible references to episodes of both Red Dwarf and South Park, and a character based on the idea behind Tetris--...I'd explain, but it's best if you read it yourself).

Is it perfect? Nah, not by a long shot. Pynchon is capable of better. It's big, it's quirky, it's fun and it's profound, but it's missing just a bit of the magic that pushes some of his novels from Intellectual to Brilliant.

I wouldn't turn anybody away from reading this book. In fact, I can't think of a single good reason not to recommend it outright. I do hope this isn't his final work, though, which I say not because it isn't a worthy finale, but because this book goes a long way toward reminding us of just how uncommon an author Pynchon really is.

4 Stars

About this entry


Well, the man's almost eighty now

But he was born in '37. Shirley that'd make him almost seventy.

And as for the Star Trek references... There's a few of those in Vineland, too, as far as I can remember. You know, in addition to the trillion (yes, trillion) other pop culture references mixed in there.

By Austin Ross
December 27, 2006 @ 6:23 am

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Incidentally, I just read that Against the Day was nominated for a "Bad Sex in Fiction Award," which is given to works that contain simply awful descriptions of the sexual act. The passage apparently involved a spaniel. It lost to Iain Hollingshead's Twenty Something, but I'm intrigued that there is such an award.

I want one.

By Austin Ross
December 27, 2006 @ 6:27 am

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>Shirley that'd make him almost seventy.

Well, that's what I don't get for fact-checking, so well done. And it was entirely appropriate for you to call me Shirley.

>The passage apparently involved a spaniel.

Seems, if that's the passage they chose, that they're grabbing Against the Day because it's a big new book by a big famous author which will get them more attention. I'm not saying it's a great scene, but it's one of the more overtly comic moments in the novel, which dictates a lot of the narration used during the sequence.

It sounds like I'm defending the scene but in reality I'm just taking the logical stance.

In a related note, I happened to see Da Ali G Moviee (or something) last weekend and Pynchon's scene was quite similar to a scene in that film. Specific reference? Possibly, but I wouldn't say probably. Still interesting to see the overlap though, and not entirely out of place with the other references to modern culture.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 27, 2006 @ 12:53 pm

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I just realized that I don't mention plot even fleetingly in this review. That's because this is one of only two Pynchon novels that, really, has no one main narrative drive. (The other is Gravity's Rainbow, natch.) It could be argued (quite easily) that this is a novel about World War I, even though the great majority of the book takes place in the years leading up to it...but that's not quite "plot."

Like Gravity's Rainbow, this is a book whose plot is basically "characters travel around and knock into each other." The fact that Pynchon can pull that off speaks volumes about his skill as an author.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
December 28, 2006 @ 3:46 am

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Adam Roberts has a 25-word review...

By Austin Ross
February 20, 2007 @ 4:10 pm

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To be completely honest, that 25 word review does as good a job as any of summarizing the "plot."

By Philip J Reed, VSc
February 22, 2007 @ 1:00 pm

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I know I'm way late to this party, but can I just note that, notwithstanding your bafflement, I found Cyprian to be the most interesting character in the novel? It seems to me that the (incredibly poignant) relationship among him, Reef, and Yashmeen is really the book's emotional center.

By GeoX
April 04, 2007 @ 6:14 am

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>can I just note that, notwithstanding your bafflement, I found Cyprian to be the most interesting character in the novel?

Oh, of course. In fact, it gives me great heart to hear that from somebody, as I'm sure I'll be re-reading the book before long...and if my prior Pynchon experience means anything, I'll be finding myself invested emotionally in different characters and situations than I was previously.

>It seems to me that the (incredibly poignant) relationship among him, Reef, and Yashmeen is really the book's emotional center.

I admit that once Reef was added to the mix there was a lot happening between them that was quite beautiful. Which speaks volumes about Pynchon's skill as an author, because in lesser hands a lot of those scenes would have seemed pointless, disturbing and perverse.

The great thing about Pynchon is that so many people can love the same book without any reasons for their love necessarily overlap. There's so much in them that there's no way the mind can take it all in at's three or four reads before you're even close to catching it all.

I look forward to reappraising the book when I have time, but yes, please, in the meantime feel free to post your own thoughts and opinions. I get bored of hearing myself talk, sometimes.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
April 04, 2007 @ 12:41 pm

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