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Against the Dayby Thomas Pynchon
Synopses & Reviews
Spanning the period between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, this novel moves from the labor troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-century New York, to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska Event, Mexico during the Revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.
With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.
The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.
As an era of certainty comes crashing down around their ears and an unpredictable future commences, these folks are mostly just trying to pursue their lives. Sometimes they manage to catch up; sometimes it's their lives that pursue them.
Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they’re doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two.
According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.
— Thomas Pynchon
"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." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"News of an upcoming Pynchon novel has the same effect on the literati that an unscheduled return of Halley's comet would have on astronomers. The Internet started humming with rumors last June, and, after five months of anticipation, the mammoth volume has arrived and is everything a Pynchon fan could hope for. 'Against the Day' is his longest novel, his most international in scope — from the mountains... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) of Colorado to the deserts of Inner Asia — and is perhaps his funniest. All of Pynchon's signature moves are here: As early as page 15, someone picks up a ukulele and sings a silly song; documentary realism morphs into hallucination without warning; loud, tasteless clothing is worn with aplomb; a wide variety of drugs and stimulants is consumed, matched by a wide variety of sex acts, including bestiality (which results in the most hilarious scene in the novel); and Pynchon's old leftist, countercultural ideals shine on. 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. The wonderfully complex plot occupies about 30 years from 1893 to the 1920s, and chiefly concerns the adventures of three brothers (a stock fairy-tale motif) and their efforts to avenge the death of their father, a pro-union engineer named Webb Traverse who was killed by agents of the plutocracy that hijacked the United States after the Civil War. (A good warm-up exercise for reading this is the 'Robber Barons and Rebels' chapter in Howard Zinn's 'People's History of the United States'; Pynchon shares Zinn's populist viewpoint.) A related story line involves a photographer/inventor and his red-haired daughter, Dahlia, who, like the brothers, spends a lot of time in Europe during the tumultuous days before World War I. And hovering above them all are 'The Chums of Chance,' the plucky crew of the airship Inconvenience and the heroes of a series of boys' adventure novels. The spirits presiding over this novel are the Marx brothers — humorless Karl as well as Groucho and the boys. Traverse teaches his sons that 'Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof' (quoting from his union card), and parts of the novel dramatize the strikes and acts of 'anarchy' of Colorado mineworkers in reaction to the inhuman treatment they received at the hands of greedy tycoons. But Pynchon doesn't let this become a dour proletarian tract because of his anarchist bent for doing in fiction what the Marx Brothers did on film. ('Duck Soup' is alluded to early on, and a young Groucho makes a cameo appearance under his real name.) Hence the silly songs, surrealistic pratfalls and Pynchon's tendency to undercut ominous pronouncements with wisecracks. Though he covers the major events of this period in well-researched detail — world politics, technological advances, sociological shifts, artistic experiments — Pynchon is mostly concerned with how decent people of any era cope under repressive regimes, be they political, economic or religious. After drifting through Europe, the Traverse brothers and many other characters develop alternative families, communities, sexual arrangements and envision 'the replacement of governments by other, more practical arrangements ... when possible working across national boundaries.' A countercultural, even utopian alternative is imagined, and the novel ends hopefully on that note, though whether such an alternative could exist outside the pages of a book is doubtful. 'Fine idea while the opium supply lasts,' a female character notes near the end, 'but sooner or later plain personal old meanness gets in the way.' That's what radical novels like his are for, Pynchon implies: to provide the kind of world our leaders would never allow, if only to inhabit for the week or two it takes to read this endlessly inventive work. 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. Politically, this is blue-state fiction: It will not play well in Bush country. 'Capitalist Christer Republicans' are a recurring target of contempt, and bourgeois values are portrayed as essentially totalitarian. As in his last historical novel, 'Mason & Dixon,' Pynchon draws parallels between the past and present — there's a brilliant evocation of the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan, where Pynchon lives — and it's clear that the worldly author doesn't see much difference between the corruption of the late Gilded Age and that of our own era. Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives. History lesson, mystical quest, utopian dream, experimental metafiction, Marxist melodrama, Marxian comedy — 'Against the Day' is all of these things and more. Steven Moore, author of several books on modern fiction, is writing a history of the novel." Reviewed by Steven Moore, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[A] grand Wellsian fantasia...a powerful act of imagination....Brilliant if sometimes exasperating, Pynchon's latest is highly recommended...with the warning that it does not yield easy pleasures and should not be read on deadline." Library Journal
"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
"Although clearly this book was written without the forced-march pace of its reviewers in mind...I'm willing to grant Pynchon the benefit of the doubt. A book this long that amazes even 50% of the time is amazing, and I suspect Pynchon would be the first to suggest we skip the boring parts." Christopher Sorrentino, The Los Angeles Times
"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." Newsday
"It's as much genre-bending as mind-bending....And, who knows — ask any actuary, 70 isn't that old anymore — maybe another Pynchon novel? If one comes, let it be as rich and sweeping, wild and thrilling, as this one." The Boston Globe
"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." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[O]verstuffed with wonders....I remember more about the effort than the scenery I passed along the way." Bloomberg
"[S]logging through the underbrush of the vast and quintessentially Pynchonian new Thomas Pynchon novel...it's hard not to think, almost with the turning of every page, of all the other writers who now do this better." Laura Miller, Salon
"[G]loriously fizzy....[A] novelist who keeps things moving. If you don't dig the anti-capitalist screeds or get hooked on Kit's revenge, no worries — a few pages later you might enjoy the concept of Anarchist Golf... (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
The inimitable Thomas Pynchon has done it again. Hailed as a major work of art by The Wall Street Journal, his first novel in almost ten years spans the era between the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I and moves among locations across the globe (and to a few places not strictly speaking on the map at all). With a phantasmagoria of characters and a kaleidoscopic plot, Against the Day confronts a world of impending disaster, unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places and still manages to be hilarious, moving, profound, and so much more.
The inimitable Thomas Pynchon has done it again. Hailed as "a major work of art" by The Wall Street Journal, his first novel in almost ten years spans the era between the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I and moves among locations across the globe (and to a few places not strictly speaking on the map at all). With a phantasmagoria of characters and a kaleidoscopic plot, Against the Day confronts a world of impending disaster, unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places and still manages to be hilarious, moving, profound, and so much more.
About the Author
Thomas Pynchon is the author of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity's Rainbow, Slow Learner, a collection of short stories, Vineland, and, most recently, Mason and Dixon. He received the National Book Award for Gravity's Rainbow in 1974.
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