• Son of Griff

    Avathoir’s last line summarized my reaction to this book: It feels like it’s straining towards masterpiece status and falls just short. i think both of you are on point about its divided intentions. It’s anarchist political leanings seem undermined by its underlying pathos generated by a plethora of lost fathers and corrupt substitutes.

    For me, the underlying weave of the book is the fraying of familial intimacy and the attempt to reconnect to that sense of blood connection through relationships that mirror patriarchy or adapt it to family, and its loss, holds these disparate adventures together. In this light we see Pynchon’s more compassionate conservatism come to the fore. As with VINELAND and INHERENT VICE, he feels sympathy with the communitarian aims of the counterculture, but in this book he seems to locate its origins in patriarchy. He seems to suggest that the materialist origins of anarchism can be defeated by the logic of capitalism, but the dream of human connection begins in the absence of fathers.

    • This is a perfect summary of Against the Day as long as you replace that last period with “and a main character who tries to get his dick sucked by a French poodle.” I acknowledge the cheapness of this joke but also insist on its necessity.

      More expansively, the way you keep using “seems” is right for Against the Day, and also my problem with it: Pynchon keeps switching between impressionistic and didactic, he’s trying both to create a wild, overabundant world and shape it to a clear political point. The problem is (kind of like The Americans) the two approaches undercut each other and we have a work that’s too unclear to work as propaganda and too simplistic to work as world-building. In Vineland and to some extent in Inherent Vice, Pynchon could resolve this contradiction by keeping a close focus on the characters, but for the first time I felt he went so big he lost interest in about half the cast. Last time out, Avathoir said, brilliantly, that Pynchon isn’t just interested in everything, he’s interested in everyone, and I don’t feel that here.

  • John Bruni

    As usual Pynchon sticks the landing: but is the trip really worth it? I think it depends on how much enjoyment you get out of Pynchon’s fun house hall of mirrors: not only is he executing deadly-serious parodies of naturalist writers such as Henry Adams, thus the detached scientific perspectives of the Chums of Chance, the sweeping historical generalizations, and abject morality lessons; but he’s also letting us know right from the start that he’s hip to how he’s been read in the past, and therefore plays with (and against) our expectations.

    The idea of “against the day” he’s been playing around with for a while, and now he’s going to spell it out for us, which involves embracing populist fictions (only recently [at that time] having become of interest to the mainstream academic world), such as melodrama (Scarsdale Vibe is the made-to-order mustache-twirling villain) and boyhood adventure stories.

    At times I marvel at his self-indulgent comic virtuosity, yet I have to conclude that he overplays his hand a few times too often. I mean, I get that you can’t put too much of a positive spin on the slaughterhouse of history, and any attempts to do so can’t help but come off as artistic invention, or worse, escapism. This is a problem that Pynchon tries any number of ways to solve, but every time falls short. I guess this is part of the point he’s trying to make–hence there’s a certain somberness being brought to the party here.

    • “At times I marvel at his self-indulgent comic virtuosity, yet I have to conclude that he overplays his hand a few times too often.”

      That’s the problem, innit? and I find myself wondering why Pynchon was compelled to write this book, to try for something so big and not quite make it. Seen as part of the larger, spiraling (hey, that’s the name of this series!) trajectory of Pynchon’s career, Against the Day comes across as a necessary terminal point. In each phase, he pushes himself to work on bigger and bigger canvases and winds up with massive sprawling works of varying quality (Gravity’s Rainbow and this) and then the next book goes smaller and to my mind, much better (Vineland, Inherent Vice). This one is a mess and I’m glad he wrote it.

  • pico

    Oh hey, I mostly agree with all this: some really high highs in this book, but lots of interminable lows. To put it bluntly, Against the Day felt like a double-album of B-sides. If it weren’t from a band I love, I’d toss it aside, with prejudice.

    Favorite section: Cyprian and Danilo fleeing across the Bosnian mountains. It’s a self-contained story (almost literally: it has so little to do with anything else in the novel), it’s tense and well-plotted, and it ends (like the novel) on a note of tender grace as Cyprian becomes Danilo’s “mother” in nurturing him back to health and safety. There might be something politically icky about him making one of the few “positive” queer characters in any of his works find grace in his “release from desire” (i.e. becoming desexualized), but I’ll take it over Pynchon’s sometimes ickier indulgence in the correlation between sexual perversion and fascism in his earlier works, and definitely over Cyprian’s later (de?)evolution into whatever sub role he has in that Reef-Yashmeen ménage. The whole section, short as it is, feels pulsing with life in a way so much of the book doesn’t otherwise.

    Favorite unintentionally funny line: when Pynchon describes the arrangement of couches in R. Wilshire Vibe’s penthouse as an “anti-wallflower device” and I was thinking that about the whole novel for this discussion, heh.

    Least favorite section: almost everything set in Europe. For some reason, all the English, Austrian, and Italian sections dragged for me in ways that the (crude but appropriately dusty) American West, Mexican, or (implausible but fantastical) Central Asian sections didn’t. Also, it’s a good thing that Pynchon has a way with prose, because the science metaphors are awfully shallow at times. Y’all notice how light disperses through a prism into different colors just like Webb Traverse’s personality traits are dispersed into his children? If you didn’t, there’s a line where Frank says it outright, so… This from the same author who did something so unexpectedly beautiful with photographs and time and rocket arcs in the GR‘s Pokler narrative?

    That said, Pynchon really knocks some of these lines out of the park. “What are any of these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time-travel?” “Yes, well, it’s redemption, isn’t it, you expect chaos, you get order instead. Unmet expectations. Miracles.” The lead-up to world war as “some godless spectacle, a passion play without a Christ.” From Drave, my favorite passage, maybe:

    “Many people believe that there is a mathematical correlation between sin, penance, and redemption. More sin, more penance, and so forth. Our own point has always been that there is no connection. All the variables are independent. You do penance not because you have sinned but because it is your destiny. You are redeemed not through doing penance but because it happens. Or doesn’t happen.”

    I also would have liked the Chums’ sad fate (their realization of being trapped in a mirror world, which turns out to be the real one) more if it wasn’t the ending of another too-long, almost-masterpiece by one of Pynchon’s college professors…

    More than anything, though, I found that when you don’t find Pynchon funny, he drags insufferably. Stuff like the “white slave” theater in Chinatown and the kiddie gangsters didn’t work for me at all, so it was a struggle to pick the book back up when so many other things were calling from my shelf. I finished because it was the only book I brought to my in-laws’ house for Thanksgiving.

    So, I’m glad I read it, it has its moments, but it’s not a book I’m likely to revisit.

    • Against the Day is what you get when you ignore Hemingway’s “take out all the good lines and see if it still works” advice.

      The tone in this one is. . .off. Pynchon has a voice that, at its best, wears its knowledge and morality lightly, never not funny, never not thoughtful. Here it veers off of that; the sentences are as ornate as before but they’re telling us something, they don’t have the fun and fascination with the world that his best books do. Quest narratives suit him well because he feels like he’s learning with his characters, but here he already knows things and too much of this is lecturing, not storytelling.

      • pico

        I dunno… I’m not sure that part bothered me quite as much; after all, one of my favorite moments in Pynchonania is the last lines of Roger Mexico’s Christmas Eve vigil, which is about as forcefully direct as anything he ever wrote. (“For the moment not caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment, anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.”)

        Lack of fun, though, I’m right there with you. I wish I had a more sophisticated answer to this, but the long/short of it was: I was bored. I was bored with what seemed more and more like random pairings of characters visiting random locations to do random things that didn’t seem to have any narrative weight – not necessarily “payoff” since I don’t expect that in his works, but “reason for existing,” which might be a sign of carelessness on my part as a reader, but I rarely connected enough with the material enough to do the extra work of caring. “Weightless” is probably the closest my feelings come. And even that might matter less if I was enjoying myself, and I often wasn’t.

        Like, there’s nothing direct or morally didactic about the scene with the children reenacting noir tropes (that I remember?) other than an all-caps WEIRD DIGRESSION and I wasn’t feeling it at all: a frequent problem in the book, I thought. Maybe it’s fun (funner?) if you’re feeling it, but I had to push to finish that section, among others. I’m also surprised that a Pynchon book about the Great Game could have such dull spycraft – and even if that’s the point, it’s still pretty dull.

        I don’t want to harp on this because there were chunks of the book I liked quite a bit. I loved the stuff south of the border, even if it veers awfully close to Magical Mexican once Frank gets his psychedelic prophesy thing going. The sweat and grime in those scenes didn’t feel any more real than the rest of the book (I’ve just come off reading a bunch of Katherine Anne Porter’s Mexican work, which I didn’t care for but can’t be faulted for not creating an environment so real you could taste the sweat), but something about the plotting, the characters, engaged me more than whatever was happening in the Western Europe chapters.

        • pico

          To add to this a bit: last year I also finished Story of the Stone (aka Dream of Red Mansions/Chambers), which is over twice as long as Against the Day and spends well over a thousand of its pages hanging plotlessly with a bunch of teenagers as they sit around and drink tea and compose poems about the moon or whatever. I was never bored, not even once (I loved it, in fact). I don’t think AtD had to be so draggy and weightless, and I don’t understand how it happened.

          • Son of Griff

            There isn’t much evidence to indicate that AGAINST THE DAY was one of the novels Pynchon was writing alongside MASON AND DIXON and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW in the late 60s and 70s. He seems to have been researching some of it in the early to mid 2000s. I wonder if it was written in a relative sprint or if large sections were grafted onto parts of another manuscript.

          • PCguy

            Am I remembering correctly that the rumor is he has been working on 3 “big” books during his career; WW1, WW2 (GR obviously) and a Civil War novel?

          • Son of Griff

            The Civil War novel was clearly an extrapolation based on Pynchon researching the Mason and Dixon line. The April Fool’s edition of The Sunday Times I believe even ran a fake book review of it. The rumor of the third book that I heard was a Japan set science fiction tome. I haven’t heard of a WWI novel, but if so my supposition that AtD needs modification

        • Son of Griff

          The fundamental difference between this and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW is that, in the former, the forces of war draw characters together from different nationalities and backgrounds, who nevertheless forge relationships that last in the tenuous time restraints of war that will be ultimately re-transformed at Germany’s defeat. To make sense of this world one accepts randomness or sees conspiratorial patterns developing in the soulessness of proliferating data and violence generated by the conflict. Agency is limited, and one makes do with what they have when one is cut off from the past and cannot predict the future.

          In AGAINST THE DAY the characters are questing a resolution to a parental loss, mostly as children but occasionally as parents. There is a sense of volition to their journeys and a karmic logic to their couplings and entanglements. This undercuts the paranoia of the world they inhabit, as they pursue wants and needs independent of power. Paranoia is less a perception than a reality in this as well, which undercuts the mystery associated with the earlier novel. A yearning for familial warmth is an awfully thin thread to hang this really ornate book around.

          I second your opinions of the strongest and weakest parts of the book as well. I took it as evidence that my math skills aren’t up to the task.

          • pico

            Agreed. I think there’s also something to what @disqus_wallflower:disqus says about the theme of “onset of modernity,” although I don’t know if I ever felt that was explored in a satisfying way. Surely the way the Chums find themselves resituated (along with the language used in their sections) speaks to that, too. And the move from classical physics into the unknown due to newly discovered properties of light. All of which sounds tidier than it actually feels in the course of the book.

            The novel I should have compared this to, now that I think of it, is another enormous doorstop that doesn’t quite work for me: John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun. Huge canvas covering much the same period (from the Yukon gold rush to the American invasion of the Philippines) with a grand thematic arc about why the era was so defining (the birth of American Imperialism on the international scale) and tons of subplots about major events and figures that pass through as if it were an E.L. Doctorow novel, but less tight. It does have its strong points, for sure. Sayles is far less experimental a writer than Pynchon (than just about anyone – it’s a fairly conventional book), but even so, the scope far exceeds the execution, and by the end, you wish it were a slim 200 pages or so instead of 1,000+.

            I mean, it’s a hard era to cover both comprehensively and fairly: a lot was going on! But as Čapek said in his last novel, art is about giving shape to shapelessness, to cut, cut again, and cut some more until all that’s left is bone.

        • It’s hard to describe exactly what Pynchon’s secret sauce (as Avathoir calls it) is, but it’s there in Gravity’s Rainbow, definitely in that passage, and it’s largely missing here. What it might be is that when he’s on his game, Pynchon has a clear sense of his characters’ voices, and of his own, and how they differ. (The Christmas Eve Vigil felt like Pynchon’s own voice.) I think in Against the Day he tried to rewrite his own voice and came up with something ponderous, serious, but not sincere, something more concerned with being right and being complex than being true. (See also: most but not all of William Vollmann.) It threw off the tone, and something like this needs a strong tone to hold it all together.

          • pico

            I like the word “alchemy” for explaining why some things work for me and others don’t. It’s a critical cheat, but it feels right. Something in this book just failed to transmute.

          • “No it’s not obvious. If it were obvious everyone would be doing it all the time,” as Buckaroo Banzai always sez, and just why hasn’t Pynchon written the secret history of the Lectroids’ time on Earth yet? He coulda held back on 200 pages here and used his time to write that.

          • thesplitsaber

            I want to live in this paul thomas anderson directed/ pynchon penned buckaroo banzai universe youve opened the possibility of.

  • Agreed

  • mr_apollo

    I wonder if Against The Day is the result of Pynchon deciding to take his favorite ideas, characters and jokes from several years worth of uncompleted and unrelated projects, force them together and call it a novel. At times it certainly reads that way. Yet, going by language alone, it’s probably the most accessible thing he’s written. But the sheer glut of Things Going On can prove tough for the reader. I recall finding something I liked on every page – a quote, an image, something our narrator says – but couldn’t figure out the point while reading the first half of the book. Where was this all going? 500 pages of hairy canine is a lot to take.

    But then it clicked for me. It seemed to come together. I’m not sure how but ironically it was around the time the ship comes apart and splits in two: a battleship and a romantic cruiser. The journey of Cyprian Latewood (a character who doesn’t even appear in the first half of the book) rivals Franz Pokler’s story in Gravity’s Rainbow, which is to say, it’s among my favorite things Pynchon has written.

    As others have said, the tone of the book seems off. Pynchon is trying to marry the empathetic, sentimental approach to characters developed in Vineland and Mason & Dixon with the colder nightmarish worldview of V and Gravity’s Rainbow and I’m not he was able to. But it’s the Pynchon I’ll probably reread next, because my feelings towards it are unresolved.

    • The most enjoyable thing about this entire conversation is that although 1) everyone agrees the Against the Day is a mix of good and bad, 2) no one agrees on what the good and bad parts are. This makes me think your first sentence is dead solid perfect.