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.
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.