Against the Day
Penguin Press, 2006, ISBN 159420120X, 1120 Pages, Hardcover $35.00. [Browse/Purchase]
“Review” by Allen Ruch
“Now single up all lines!”
So begins Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Against the Day. Although the lines in question belong to the airship Inconvenience, Pynchon’s opening lines carry a lot of weight in literary tradition, and this one does not disappoint it is simultaneously a self-directive and a call to the reader; suggesting that Against the Day is a culmination of his previous work, and also charging the reader to find meaning within its twisting labyrinth. It may also be a sly, preemptive joke on the book’s initial critics, as the novel begins with the launch of a bloated gasbag bearing a somewhat provocative name.
Or at least that’s my take so far I confess, I am only 300 pages in, hence the scare quotes around the word “review.” However, for this I make no apologies. It’s no secret that Against the Day is a massive book, Pynchon’s longest and largest. Naturally, a book this size is destined for an uneven reception: what reasonable critic, with a full slate and pressing deadlines, can possibly make sense of it within a few short weeks? After all, it took Pynchon ten years to write the damn thing. Like Mason & Dixon before it, Against the Day seems fated to make a big splash up front, throwing up frothy waters (it’s genius! it’s terrible!) before it descends, over time, into the cool depths of more reasoned criticism.
However, Pynchon being Pynchon, 300 pages provides enough material for a dissertation, let alone some informal first impressions. And so I press on, hoping to set a hook that will prove attractive bait for fence-sitters, the Pynch-curious, and good folk scared away by the mainstream media….
Set during the years between the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the end of World War I, Against the Day is the very definition of a sprawling book, one that ranges across time and space with an exhilarating pace and often in unpredictable directions. And, as advertised by Pynchon himself on the dust jacket, the author is up to his usual business, which means the book has dozens of characters and covers hundreds of subjects not to mention the intelligent dogs and spontaneous musical numbers. But for all its epic scope, cast of thousands, and countless bizarre interludes, it’s a surprisingly breezy book in many ways, Pynchon’s most accessible. Maturity has honed his prose into a brilliant clarity, and even when it becomes complex, it rarely becomes obscure. There is a feeling of lightness, of animation, that pervades the novel, and events unfold with lucid detail: nearly every page contains something to savor, from perfectly-crafted gems to extended passages worthy of repeat reading. In short, it is beautifully written.
Fortunately, the subject of the novel is well-matched to its virtuoso prose. Although a Pynchon novel will immediately overflow any genre that tries to contain it, it’s not a stretch to consider Against the Day a scientific and historical romance. To a modern audience receptive to science fiction and grown accustomed to magical realism, the work feels strangely comfortable, confirming our inflated sense of Victorian ingenuity and rewarding our belief in the mysteries of the past. Although not a fantasy per se, the world of Against the Day is certainly not our own. Its skies are populated by airships and flying machines, its cities are fretted with Borgesian secrets, and its caverns and glaciers are home to shadowy beings from myth and legend. This is a time when the promise of electricity borders the miraculous, and the ideals of anarchy are voiced in dynamite. The overall atmosphere is infused with wonder and promise, all the more poignant for being so viciously premature: the reader knows what history has in store for all these noble aspirations.
The tension between harsh reality and naïve idealism builds as the narrative gains momentum, and eventually darker shades gather below the ironic twinkle. Over time, the freewheeling characters become increasingly more aware of the cost exacted by modern living: those baroque airships glide through the smoke of industrial slaughterhouses, and the struggle to advance the scientific frontier is fueled by a capitalism reduced to its rawest form. For the most part, Pynchon maintains his balance between the light and dark, mapping the shadows with his searching prose. Occasionally, his tonal shifts are unexpected and disorienting. During a chapter that begins like a pastiche of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, the gathering clouds of dread burst into a storm of destruction, a metaphorical visitation equal parts Hiroshima, Godzilla, and 9/11. This transforms into an wrathful commentary on 9/11 that is, although masked by historical fiction, almost unbearably trenchant.
As the committed Pynchon fan will have certainly noted, Against the Day continues the author’s life-long obsessions: the border between magic and science, the reduction of commerce to transactions of flesh, the destructive capacity of classification, and the projection of new worlds. All the lines are indeed singled up: Against the Day shares the historical breadth of V., the lyrical clarity that illuminates the enigmas of Lot 49, the lunatic cast and hybrid vigor of Gravity’s Rainbow, the spirit of political inquiry that humanizes Vineland, and the manic, creative density of Mason & Dixon.
Adding to these tropes of wonder, paranoia, and division, Against the Day seems to be developing a set of complex metaphors revolving around altitude, light, and mirror imagery. Again, being less than a quarter of the way through, I’m reluctant to say more on this topic; but there is a signal there, building slowly, like a background noise heard throughout the book: the throbbing of engines humming through the rigging.
After I have finished, I will return and elaborate on this “review.” Undoubtedly for some, Against the Day will remain a bloated gasbag bereft of direction and meaning. But for those willing to suspend disbelief and leave the ground behind, Pynchon’s great Inconvenience proves to be one hell of a ride.
Allen B. Ruch
20 November 2006
Spermatikos Logos The Modern Word’s Thomas Pynchon Web resource.
Counting Down to Against the Day The Modern Word’s “month of Pynchon Updates.” (11/06)
Erik Ketzan’s “Early Thoughts” Associate Editor Erik Ketzan offers his own first impressions.
Against the Day Wiki A growing resource for readers of Against the Day, this amazing wiki is open to contributions.