Genius, pure and simple, and I’m fully aware that the concept hasn’t been in fashion for a good long while. Page by page — apparently it’s twice as long as Ulysses — there are more heartbreaking and/or absurd characters with outrageous names, brazen lies, bouts of bizarro sex, obscure mathematical in-jokes, densely textured descriptions of places real and imagined, stoner slapstick, and preposterous theories about history, science and time than I can remember reading anywhere, all rendered in fearless prose that is capable of the dumbest puns and the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous flights of fancy. Reading Pynchon expands the potential of language and makes everything it touches new — and it touches almost everything. To enter his funny, cruel, and endlessly mysterious off kilter world is to re-enchant our own, in order to “to fetch [us] through the night and prepare [us] against the day.”

Seems to me Against the Day is Pynchon’s best book — he keeps getting better at what he does, integrating his ravenously encyclopedic range into a more and more complete whole. His control of sprawling themes has been masterful at least since Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon promised more emotional truth; with this book, that promise has fully flowered: Against the Day is no cold-hearted postmodern brainwankery; it is easy and rewarding to get sucked into the emotional pull of a dozen or so very satisfying stories. The book spans the globe, from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair until just after World War I, and there’s a very large cast of adorable and twisted characters, including card shark Reef Traverse, outcast mathematician Yashmeen Halfcourt, airborne boy adventurers the Chums of Chance, evil tycoon Scarsdale Vibe, and Al Mar-Fuad, the Arabian hunter with the speech impediment. It all comes from an unmistakably counterculture point of view, perhaps slightly less paranoid and wiser than before, but still without illusions about the “capitalist Christers” who subjugate the land and everybody in it for their own dark purposes.

Here’s a paragraph, from page 942, that’s as close to the heart of the matter as anything:

“This is our own age of exploration,” she declared, “into that unmapped country waiting beyond the frontiers and seas of Time. We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we’ve seen. What are any of these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time-travel?”

Against the Day. Thomas Pynchon, 2006. *****

So far, I’ve stayed away from reviews and commentary, but now I’ll delve in and add links below.

Reviews seem to come in two flavors:

  • People throwing up their hands:
    • Louis Menand in The New Yorker: “What was he thinking”
    • John Haskell for the Village Voice: “As I was reading this book I was […] wishing it would have been smaller.”
    • Michiki Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review: “complicated without being rewardingly complex.”
    • Laura Miller, Salon: “It was just bad.”
    • Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor: “the most infuriating novel I’ve read in a year”
  • People engaging the book on its own terms:
    • Liesl Schillinger, New York Times : “Pynchon proves himself […] a matchless fantasist of the real.”
    • John Leonard, The Nation: “brilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a plaintive ukulele.”
    • Mark Feeny, Boston Globe

[tags]thomas pynchon, books, 5 stars, against the day, genius, world war i[/tags]