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Against the Day Hardcover – November 21, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Knotty, paunchy, nutty, raunchy, Pynchon's first novel since Mason & Dixon (1997) reads like half a dozen books duking it out for his, and the reader's, attention. Most of them shine with a surreal incandescence, but even Pynchon fans may find their fealty tested now and again. Yet just when his recurring themes threaten to become tics, this perennial Nobel bridesmaid engineers another never-before-seen phrase, or effect, and all but the most churlish resistance collapses. It all begins in 1893, with an intrepid crew of young balloonists whose storybook adventures will bookend, interrupt and sometimes even be read by, scores of at least somewhat more realistic characters over the next 30 years. Chief among these figures are Colorado anarchist Webb Traverse and his children: Kit, a Yale- and Göttingen-educated mathematician; Frank, an engineer who joins the Mexican revolution; Reef, a cardsharp turned outlaw bomber who lands in a perversely tender ménage à trois; and daughter Lake, another Pynchon heroine with a weakness for the absolute wrong man. Psychological truth keeps pace with phantasmagorical invention throughout. In a Belgian interlude recalling Pynchon's incomparable Gravity's Rainbow, a refugee from the future conjures a horrific vision of the trench warfare to come: "League on league of filth, corpses by the uncounted thousands." This, scant pages after Kit nearly drowns in mayonnaise at the Regional Mayonnaise Works in West Flanders. Behind it all, linking these tonally divergent subplots and the book's cavalcade of characters, is a shared premonition of the blood-drenched doomsday just about to break above their heads. Ever sympathetic to the weak over the strong, the comradely over the combine (and ever wary of false dichotomies), Pynchon's own aesthetic sometimes works against him. Despite himself, he'll reach for the portentous dream sequence, the exquisitely stage-managed weather, some perhaps not entirely digested historical research, the "invisible," the "unmappable"—when just as often it's the overlooked detail, the "scrawl of scarlet creeper on a bone-white wall," a bed partner's "full rangy nakedness and glow" that leaves a reader gutshot with wonder. Now pushing 70, Pynchon remains the archpoet of death from above, comedy from below and sex from all sides. His new book will be bought and unread by the easily discouraged, read and reread by the cult of the difficult. True, beneath the book's jacket lurks the clamor of several novels clawing to get out. But that rushing you hear is the sound of the world, every banana peel and dynamite stick of it, trying to crowd its way in, and succeeding. (Nov.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine
The Seattle Times sums up critical reaction to Against the Day best: "Like Bruegel's painting 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,' this is a portrait of mankind's attempt to transcend our mortalityor at least push up against its very edge." Thomas Pynchon's previous novels, including V., The Crying of Lot 49,and Gravity's Rainbow, tested boundaries as wellnot only of our own human understanding but of the fiction craft itself. This newest offering contains familiar elementsa whimsical humor, an erudite intellect, leftist ideals, and a sense of historical logic. Despite its magnificence, however, Against the Day tested most reviewers' patience (especially Michiko Kakutani's). The novel's length, digressions, and intellectual complexity will not please everyone, but those who stick with it are, well, probably smarter than the rest of us.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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The book follows several plots from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to post-World War I, all of which interweave and untangle through the book, some of the characters dipping in and out of the realities of the others: The Chums of Chance, aerialist boys who fly a gigantic airship. The children of the Traverse family who follow different paths of anarchism, mathematics, war, love, and hate. Lew Basnight, the lost detective who falls in with a secret society. Cyprian the depraved spy and Yashmeen the math vixen. And the Rideouts, whose activities include engineering impossible machines and just bumming around Europe.
The book is long, more than a thousand pages, but with all of those people, plots, and ideas, I think the man needed every page to write this book. True, there were parts I enjoyed more than others—with a book this long, how could that not be? I tended to relish the more fantastical stuff (e.g., the Chums of Chance drilling through the desert with a sand-invisibility ray to find a long-buried but still-inhabited city) than the stomping-around-Europe-on-the-edge-of-world-war, long stretches where the book turned grim, dirty, and a bit exhausting. The book was a lot less crazy and whimsical than "Mason & Dixon," which went to all sorts of weird places and rarely ever seemed grounded in truth, even though many of its characters were historical. While that book seemed more a celebration of the act of storytelling, this book seemed more concerned with emotion and searching.
But the searching—whether for Shambhala, or one's father's killer, or the solution to a math puzzle, or doors between dimensions, or the meaning of life, or a person's own family—Pynchon always hooked me into the searches, and sometimes I was there, reading a book with Frank by waning light to his dead father, or forwarding a photograph's light in time with Merle to see his daughter all grown up. Pynchon, too, has a way of creating little moments or ideas, just pages long, that seem to hold entire worlds, such as an Aztec girl who commands a tree filled with glowing beetles, each one named after a person she knew.
Although reading this book wasn't as revelatory as "Mason & Dixon," it both entertained and awed equally. The writing does things with ideas, characters, and words I did not know could be done; I don't know if a person could give a book like this higher praise than that.
Positive: Pynchon can write a description as well as anybody else.
On New Orleans:
"It had soon become apparent in this town that what you could see from the street was not only less than "the whole story" but in fact not even the picture on the cover. The real life of this place was secured deep inside the city blocks, behind ornate iron gates and up tiled passages that might as well've run for miles. 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. Voodoo? Voodoo was the least of it, Voodoo was just everywhere. Invisible sentinels were sure to let you know, the thickest of necks being susceptible here to monitory pricklings of the Invisible. The Forbidden. And meantime the smells of the local cuisine, cheurice sausages, gumbo, crawfish étouffé, and shrimp boiled in sassafras, proceeding from noplace you could ever see, went on scrambling what was left of your good sense. Negroes could be observed at every hand, rollicking in the street. " p. 368
"the nacreous swell of daylight. Mussel-gatherers could now be seen out in the water, which came only up to their waists, moving about like harvesters in a field. Produce boats up from the Ponte di Paglia glided by, and small boats loaded with green crabs whose rattling struggles could be heard in the dawn. " p. 253
These descriptions, as well as his sermonizing, are where the book really takes off. At points this philosophy, or history, or editorial style, can really shock and amaze:
"WE LOOK AT the world, at governments, across the spectrum, some with more freedom, some with less. And we observe that the more repressive the State is, the closer life under it resembles Death. If dying is deliverance into a condition of total non-freedom, then the State tends, in the limit, to Death... Any of the prisoners of `93 who weren't Anarchists before going into Montjuich arrived rapidly at the heart of the matter. It was like finding an old religion again, one we'd almost forgotten. The State is evil, its divine right proceeds from Hell, Hell is where we all went. Some came out of Montjuich broken, dying, without working genitals, intimidated into silence. Whips and white-hot irons are certainly effective for that. But all of us, even those who had voted and paid our taxes like good bourgeoisie, came out hating the State. I include in that obscene word the Church, the latifundios, the banks and corporations, of course." p. 372
Pynchon conveys sense of loss, of grief, at this world gone by, at the modern world of identity and status, capital and media ruling our lives. His characters are at their happiest when reunited over a meal and a bottle, sharing the past and in congress of one sort or another. He makes us question the current reality, his own imagined skein of the past, and the time in between. Like any great writer, he stirs up novel thoughts, takes us away to imaginary vistas and asks questions of our souls.