Thursday, April 07, 2011

"Against the Day" by Thomas Pynchon

I've spent over a month reading Thomas Pynchon's massive novel "Against the Day." I have lugged it from home, to work, to lunch counter, with little regard to the damage it was causing to my shoulder. I've gotten lost in it and become frustrated with it, I've gone back and forth to reread parts that I'd missed, I've visited Wikipedia to learn about Iceland Spar and the quaternions, I have struggled to stay awake and I have struggled to put it down, and I have thought "I am spending far too much effort on this goddamn book."

Now that I've finished it, I can sum it up by saying...well, it's certainly "Pynchonesque," and it's as complicated and annoying as everybody says it is -- an endless parade of major characters, diversions into dozens of apparently unrelated topics, too much movement from place to place, no real thread to hold it all together -- but it also has a greater proportion of Pynchon-gentleness and enlightenment than I've come to expect. The payoffs -- oblique as they can be -- are so bittersweet and human that you don't mind the coldly scientific obsessions so much.

Unfortunately, these "human" moments are all bundled together during the last 150 pages, and the more interesting and clear-headed moments are in the first 500. The 400 middle pages are somewhat tiresome, when you realize that MORE subplots are being introduced, one of which -- the onset of the first world war -- is a non-stop machine-gun of politics, places, and personages. It's simply too much to handle after the mathematics, strikebreaking, and empire-busting that you've already been through. The characters start to seem like bits of leaves thrown into world events and just blowing around, to Venice and back, to Venice and back, to Venice and back again.

All these criticisms could perhaps be applied to "Gravity's Rainbow," and I'm not sure if my less enthusiastic reception of "Against the Day" is due to the fact that Pynchon "already did it once before," or that "Against the Day" feels like a "Gravity's Rainbow" in which everything -- the paranoia, the dark-mystery-which-cannot-be-comprehended, the sexual escapades, the slapstick -- has been duplicated several times over to fill out an excessive page length, with all these things happening to multiple characters in sequence instead of just to Tyrone Slothrop.

Basically, my impression is that "Against the Day" is five or six novels that Pynchon started writing years ago, all subsequently linked together by unions, WWI, the drift from Victorianism to modernism, explosions, light, and the Tunguska event.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Against the Day" is FULL of wonderful detail and characterization, and -- as I said earlier -- there's a growing gentleness to Pynchon's writing that is absolutely welcome. Whereas "Gravity's Rainbow" culminated in uncertainty and confusion, the characters in "Against the Day" seem to find comfort in companionship, children, and purpose, and the novel doesn't judge them; they did wild things and struggled for noble causes when they were young, and now they're settled down and are raising their children and getting a bit mellower. And that's pretty much The End.

When I was wallowing through 400 Pages of People Just Running Around Europe, I felt like I was reading a really crappy book. Now that I've finished it, however, I look forward to reading it again someday, so I can get a feel for what REALLY matters in the novel: the little moments like Cyprian's trajectory from hedonist to (I won't spoil it for you), the complex interweaving of the Webb and Rideout families, and -- floating high above it all -- the aging airship children who are struggling to find meaning when the "Boys Adventure Story" days are gone.

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