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Review of Pynchon's Against the Day in Telegraph

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  • Review of Pynchon's Against the Day in Telegraph

    Here's the full text of the review I sent in to Daily Telegraph:
    POPULAR MECHANIC


    Against the Day
    by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape1085pp
    £20.00

    Michael Moorcock
    __________________________________________________ ________________


    Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.
    --Thomas Pynchon


    FAMILIAR WITH THOMAS Pynchon’s work since the 1960s when we ran his ‘Entropy’ in New Worlds, I originally resisted his major novels. The New Worlds authors shared Pynchon’s interest in urban mythology, entropy as a metaphor, dreams, mathematics, theoretical physics, imperialism, racism. They celebrated his inverventions into earlier fictions via pastiche, but many argued that he lacked Burroughs’s laconic virtues.
    Though he can fairly be considered sui generis like Firbank or Vian, Pynchon was co-opted by some critics into the steampunk movement and has much in common with a favourite of mine, Charles Harness, the Texan who was thrown out of his seminary, became a Washington patent attorney and wrote some of the strangest metaphysical sf of the 1950s. Against the Day‘s opening reminded me of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong graphic novels which drew on late 19th century ‘science hero’ dime novels to examine Edwardian mechanical optimism exemplified by the real Nikola Tesla. The first half of this romance certainly recaptures the prevalent mood of pre-1914 America, when ‘wizards’ such as Edison and Tesla were public legends, but, like Twain before him, Pynchon introduces a questioning, deeply elegaic note into his story of Yankee ‘can-do’ optimism, producing a tall tale entirely serious in intention, if only rarely in tone.
    A massive engine, depending on its size for its aesthetic the way some rock bands depend on loudness, Against the Day takes a while to build momentum and requires a certain amount of patience while its inventor unrolls blueprints, explains the math, polishes a bit of brass here, makes a modest joke there, showing off his purposeful machine pretty much cog by cog, then introducing his passengers and their histories. Representing practically every major 20th century concern, most of his protagonists are connected to the aptly-named Traverse family and its murdered anarchist patriarch, as well as the skyshipmen ‘Chums of Chance’. They drift across the world, in and out of relationships, meeting some strange customers with Marx Bros names, resolving differences.
    Through de-aboriginalised Western badlands and proto-Babbitsvilles we are involved in time, identity, mortality, our attempts to resist the logic of entropy, the extinction of identity, the loss of hope, discovery of the multiverse.
    With eery echoes of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and similar pre-WW2 moral fables, Pynchon creates a visionary tapestry covering the years immediately following the Chicago Worlds Fair of 1893. Embracing the narrative methods of popular fiction, his tales are designed to deceive as well as create expectations. As a parodist he can slip smoothly, almost imperceptibly from Nick Carter to Black Mask and then into 50s movies..
    Having in Mason and Dixon examined the American Enlightenment, Pynchon, perhaps the greatest intellectual showman of our time, turns his attention to post-Civil War idealism and its apparently unstoppable warping into the Crash. There are more talking dogs, daft songs, and a whole slew of nutty professors real and imaginary, working on time machines, undersand (sic) suits, deathrays and beamable electromagnetic power, some opposing big business, others in its employ. Pinkertons, Wall Street grafters, Robber Barons, frontier whores, anarchist dynamiters, gun-fighters, angels, prospectors, gamblers, mad prophets, conventions of time-travellers, Theosophists, international spies, magicians, painters, beautiful adventuresses and secret societies (for a fuller list read the author’s own description at Amazon) are all involved in an increasingly metaphysical Great Game across the multiverse, from Kathmandu to Colorado to Cambridge, Contra-Earth to Contra-Earth. And marvel by marvel, pathetic fallacy becomes art beyond Ruskin’s wildest dreams so that sometimes you simply wonder if you aren’t just reading the smartest stoner in the universe.
    By page 550, when he brings you to the novel’s melancholy heart, Pynchon has you firmly in the palm of his Barnum-like fist. It’s no accident that we are now in Belgium, narrowly missing being drowned in mayonnaise, or that a half-mad time-traveller warns a fellow ukelelist ‘Chum of Chance’ of future trench war. “This world you take to be ‘the’ world will die, and descend into Hell, and all history after that will belong properly to the history of Hell.”
    Soon string theory, of a sort, is used to rationalise time travel (of a sort) and we’re hurtling through a collection of slightly different realities, threatened by phantoms of past, present and future, power-mongers of every kind moving the worlds inevitably towards versions of those massively destructive events which have threatened the remains of our humanity since 1914.
    Noting how our memories fade into folklore before our eyes, Pynchon finds, in quasi-Mandelbrotian optimism, self-similarity contradicting the logic of entropy. He travels not imaginary universes but universes of the imagination. One alternative shifts into another, one reality makes space for the next.
    The best visionary fiction refllects shared realities. Once his barker-persona has lured us in, Pynchon holds before us a whole hall full of mirrors. Some of those reflected images are comic, a few are almost flattering. We’re laughing and crying. Yet what’s the point ? Be assured. The great Ludlow strike looms. Resolutions are offered through Pynchon’s clever use of triplets and his brief finale in future tense. We stagger out of this one man World’s Fair with our hearts and our sides splitting.
    Against the Day is a fine example of successful marriage between the popular and the intellectual, between fiction and science. Many modern writers are rediscovering or taking over sf tropes, as P.D.James did in Children of Men, its subject already treated rather more subtly in Aldiss’s Greybeard (1965). Aldiss, Burroughs, Ballard and Vonnegut predicted, long ago in the 60s, that the arts and sciences would be reunited in speculative fiction, that the novel would not die if it could rediscover vulgarity.
    Gloriously, demandingly, daringly Pynchon has rediscovered vulgarity and continues to prove that the novel has never been more vibrant, more various or better able to represent our complex world. Give this book your time. I think you’ll agree it’s worth it.







    http://www.bigredhair.com/

    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
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    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
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  • #2
    Whoa. I guess you said all I could, Mike (only better), and more. I'm a real sucker for Pynchon, I have to say. I can get totally lost in his work -- I guess I must like being baffled. His output may not be as prolific as your own, but he's certainly worth a read. A writer with some similar qualities, I think, is Don Delillo (who, to my personal and obscure taste, even surpasses Pynchon at times).

    Can't help noticing your mention of P.D.James whom I find an adequate entertainer as a mystery writer, though the hype about her literary qualitites are exaggerated, for sure. Dorothy Sayers still surpasses her. I'll continue to refuse to read Children of Men, though, simply because I have an idea for a novel with a similar title rummaging about in my own brains, and if I ever get it done, I want to be able to say I wasn't influenced by her. What a nuisance.
    Last edited by Jagged; 12-28-2006, 05:44 PM.
    "If the environment were a bank, we would already have saved it." -Graffitti.

    Comment


    • #3
      My two favourite modern authors. Moorcock and Pynchon. Simply the Best.

      It's true.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Pietro_Mercurios
        My two favourite modern authors. Moorcock and Pynchon. Simply the Best.
        I couldn't agree more. You are clearly a person of very fine taste

        As I have mentioned elsewhere on here, it was reading Mike (particularly Jerry Cornelius) that actually allowed me to appreciate Pynchon in the first place.

        Against the Day is sitting on my shelf, but I have not had the opportunity to dive into it yet. I am guessing that it will take me three months to get through it and once I have done so, I will want to start it again, This is what happened with Gravity's Rainbow and Mason and Dixon. In fact, I was planning to re-read Gravity's Rainbow again in 2007, but now I have Against the Day instead. Oh well, there is always 2008...

        Jagged, interesting that you should mention Delillo. I have exactly the same reaction to Delillio that many of my frinds have to Pynchon: I appreciate the fact that he writes very well, but find that I cannot really get really immersed in his work.

        Comment


        • #6
          Originally posted by johneffay
          I have exactly the same reaction to Delillio that many of my frinds have to Pynchon: I appreciate the fact that he writes very well, but find that I cannot really get really immersed in his work.
          I can actually understand both you and your friends well -- Pynchon and Dellillo are both writers that I didn't feel "grab" me right from the start. But (at the risk of sounding trite, yet again) the most rewarding authors in the end aren't always the ones that are easy reads from the start. I remember I felt impressed and indifferent reading "Ratner's Star", and put it aside for a while. Later I read "Mao II" which I found an easier read and sort of opened Dellillo to me. When I returnet to Ratner later, I couldn't understand why i felt so indifferent about it in the first place.
          "If the environment were a bank, we would already have saved it." -Graffitti.

          Comment


          • #7
            I found Mason & Dixon unreadable, or perhaps didn't try hard enough, beacause of the "period" (I wonder how accurate it is) dialouge.

            On my third reading, I found Gravity's Rainbow in parts sublime, purile & corny in others. Without hesitation, I'd still say it's my favorite book though.

            ....Just read the book jacket/amazon description at http://pynchonwiki.com/ (couldn't find it at amazon).

            Meanwhile, the author is up to his usual business. Characters stop what they're doing to sing what are for the most part stupid songs. Strange sexual practices take place. Obscure languages are spoken, not always idiomatically. Contrary-to-the-fact occurrences occur. If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.

            Let the reader decide, let the reader beware.

            From Pynchon's Wikipedia page:

            The novel was nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for 2006, but lost to Iain Hollingshead's Twenty Something. The passage in question involved a sexual act with a spaniel.
            Oh well.

            Comment


            • #8
              Originally posted by Faffin
              I found Mason & Dixon unreadable, or perhaps didn't try hard enough, beacause of the "period" (I wonder how accurate it is) dialouge.
              It is deliberately innacurate and riddled with anachronisms.

              Comment


              • #9
                Excellent overall review of Against the Day that gives an accurate taste of the book. I'd describe it as a metaphysical snapshot of a balls to the wall Edwardian contraption teeming across its surface with a broad cast of lilliputian and not so lilliputian characters. Would love to start a discussion of the themes.

                Since most are not even through AtD yet (moi included) are there any takers on the hollow earth metaphor at the beginning? My preliminary thoughts are that the sealing of the poles constitutes the slow closing of the mind to the spirit (the rush) of creativity to a corporate takeover of wonder for the cash value. Consider that so many of the advances displayed at the Columbian World's Fair are soon subjugated by the rising militarism of Europe. It's as if wonder and surface can no longer co-exist without co-option.

                Comment


                • #10
                  hi..
                  could you please tell me what you really think about the AGAINST THE DAY??
                  is there anything interesting or something that no one understands except you?
                  as i know,there are some binary oppositions such as north and south or riches and the poors.can you add more?

                  Comment


                  • #11
                    I'm not sure I'm being asked a question. I've said what I think of Against the Day in the review. It's interesting to see how Pynchon uses the same sorts of metaphors as I tend to pick -- almost as if we're different versions of the same writer! I was also curious about the way in which he ended in future tense, as I'm inclined to do in various books such as War Amongst the Angels. I think he draws more on existing imagery than maybe I do. It's a very strange thing to discuss, when you come across a writer who seems as obsessed with almost exactly the same ideas and images as you are. Almost a Pynchonesque situation.

                    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                    The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                    Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                    Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                    The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                    Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

                    Comment


                    • #12
                      I enjoy Pynchon. I have read just about everything by him. Of his writings what are your favorites?

                      Comment


                      • #13
                        Not sure. Against the Day had a focus, as I said, which tends to reflect my own obsessions, but in a sense I think we're reading one gigantic novel on specifically American themes. Could be why they come out so long.

                        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in Europe:
                        The Whispering Swarm: Book One of the Sanctuary of the White Friars - The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction
                        Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles - Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - Modem Times 2.0 - The Sunday Books - The Sundered Worlds


                        Pre-order or Buy my latest titles in the USA:
                        The Laughter of Carthage - Byzantium Endures - London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction - The Sunday Books - Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
                        Kizuna: Fiction for Japan - The Sundered Worlds - The Winds of Limbo - Modem Times 2.0 - Elric: Swords and Roses

                        Comment


                        • #14
                          Just finished ''Against the Day''

                          I certainly liked the thing, though it made not one scintilla of sense!

                          Somehow, these books always manage to almost have a plot, the cardboard cut-out characters somehow engage my interest, and the many strange facts alluded to, along with the many arcane objects and situations keep me from putting it down.

                          I especially enjoyed the many references to cockamaimie firearms-it's a violent tale-turn of the century armament was certainly complex.

                          Pyncheon, poet of paranoia.

                          A friend of mine read ''Gravity's Rainbow'', and decided to dedicate himself to the paranoid life, as did the Rocket Man.

                          He died of drink three years later-but he had quite a ride.

                          Comment


                          • #15
                            nothing but resounding praise for against the day

                            Dear Mike:
                            i couldn't read all of your review of Against the Day because I'm still in the middle of the novel. I can't put it down or figure it out. He seems equally devoted to the tale of the dawn of the modern age, which I always thought was just a vague expression, not an actual event, but I sort of got that with the balloonists sweeping the globe like innovations in communications, technology, transportation, etc. That seemed like clear bells, but is the part of the story in western US just a veiled saga of the 60s sort of renaissance? It has that ring with the characters names like Chick Counterfly and Scarsdale Vibe and this whole thing reeks of that footage they play nearly continually on cable of Janis Joplin, The Band and the Dead taking that train through Canada and the journeys of those folks throughout the west and how they won it, I'm sorry to digress, but the part about Colorado and the west isn't the best part, the best parts are overseas and the dialog and the SONGS! which Pynchon himself called "stupid" on the Powells website, i kept rereading them, they were amazing! Again the raging digression, but I found the part about the ominous turn of events with the Russian meteorite (balloonists) on-line and went ohhhhh, do i need to keep looking deeper?

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