Against the Day

by Thomas Pynchon

Published by The Penguin Press

1085 pages, 2006



“Transcendently Splendiferous”

Reviewed by David Abrams


After nearly ten years of hibernation, Thomas Pynchon is back with another heavy book. That's "heavy" in literal weight as well as profundity. 

Against the Day, Pynchon's seventh book, carries on the tradition of purposefully dense writing which induces equal parts exhaustion and exhilaration among readers -- most of whom are faithful fans.  They are the ones who will stay with this book to the end, at times out of sheer loyalty or a perverse sense of stick-to-it-iveness.

For the rest of us mere mortals, Pynchon's writing is often a hit-or-miss experience.  We either like it, tolerate it, or hate it. Against the Day does nothing to break that tradition. This is an "everything, plus the kitchen sink" kind of novel. The author, who will celebrate his 70th birthday this year, throws as much as he can at the wall in the hope that something sticks.

Against the Day is packed with hundreds of characters and sprawls around the globe, spanning the period between the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago to just after World War One.

It's tightly-packed, but it's also 1,085 pages long and on each of those pages the words crawl like battalions of ants.  Some of those words, sentences and paragraphs are funny -- uproariously so -- but many of them are bland. Dead ants on the page.

Shocking, I know.  You don't expect to hear the word "bland" used in conjunction with Pynchon's name.  No, the reclusive author has always delivered books which, to paraphrase the first sentence of his celebrated 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow, scream across the sky like a rocket.

There is simply too much going on in Against the Day for readers to make an emotional connection with anything they encounter.  This could very well be Pynchon's deliberate intent.  Though the book is set a century ago, the Niagara-force torrent of events and characters, jokes and songs, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots, tellingly mirror the information overload which has been roaring at us with exponential fury for the last decade.  Like the daily assault on our senses from television, billboards, radio, the Internet and cereal boxes in the grocery aisle, Against the Day tries to cram so much into our heads all at once, we shut down into a literary stupor.

Where to begin with Against the Day? Perhaps a partial list of characters is as good a place as any.

Darby Suckling. Miles Blundell. Chick Counterfly. Pugnax (a dog that reads, among other things, Henry James). Lindsay Noseworth.  Merle Rideout. Chevrolette McAdoo. Roswell Bounce. Fleetwood Vibe. Dr. Templeton Blope of the University of Outer Hebrides.  Edwarda Beef and her maid, Vaseline. Root Tubsmith. The Reverend Lube Carnal. Nicholas Nookshaft. Ewball Oust.  Oleander Prudge. Ellmore Disco. Viktor Mulciber. In these pages, you'll also meet a talking ball of lightning (yes, talking) named "Skip" and a repeatedly-appearing tornado named "Thorvald."

If you didn't at least chuckle while reading those names, then Against the Day is not going to be your cup of tea and you should move on to other greener literary pastures where you can romp and skip and read books that go down like bon-bons. Pynchon likes to play gymnastics with his names, but unfortunately that's about as deep as many of the characters get -- they're clever names who pop across the page for a nano-second cameo appearance, then they're gone. Only a few of the characters are explored beyond skin-depth.

The novel opens literally in mid-air, aboard the airship Inconvenience which is being navigated by a gang of ruffians-cum-junior scientists named The Chums of Chance. It's as if there was a kindred meeting between Horatio Alger and Tom Swift after they collided with Jules Verne. The Chums of Chance (who, Pynchon tells us, you may remember from such books as The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit, The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa and The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna) fly throughout the novel, hither and yon, from adventure to adventure (which includes time travel and the quest for a crystalline piece of Icelandic spar). They are our eye in the sky for the terrestrial goings-on with which Pynchon populates -- nay, floods -- this book.

Against the Day zigs and zags at random, but at heart it's held together by this basic skeleton of a plot: a dynamite-wielding anarchist who wages his personal war against mining companies and railroad tycoons in the Rocky Mountain West is killed by two hired guns; the anarchist's sons then set out to avenge his murder.  That simple thread of family honor and bloodlust weaves its way throughout the novel, but there are thousands of sidetracks which take us ever deeper into the maze of Pynchon's imagination.

The novel's sweep is epic and broad and rarely stands still long enough for us to get to know any of the cast of hundreds. Pynchon will always take the easy joke which scrapes the surface rather than the deeper character insight which probes the marrow.  Characters are caught in the floodwaters of his prose and we can only watch them swirl around the page.

To be sure, that particular brand of Pynchonesque language is at times heartbreakingly beautiful. The book is an endless delight for those who like their sentences to crackle with energy (like talking balls of lightning):

For years after, there were tales told in Colorado of the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899.  Next day'd be full of rodeos, marching bands, and dynamite explosions -- but that night there was man-made lightning, horses gone crazy for miles out into the prairie, electricity flooding up through the iron of their shoes, shoes that when they finally came off and got saved to use for cowboy-quoits, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or to anything else nearby made of iron or steel, that's when they weren't collecting souvenirs on their way through the air -- gunmen's guns came right up out of their holsters and buck knives out from under pants legs, keys to traveling ladies' hotel rooms and office safes, miners' tags, fence-nails, hairpins, all seeking the magnetic memory of that long-ago visit.  Veterans of the Rebellion fixing to march in parades were unable to get to sleep, metallic elements had so got to humming through their bloodmaps.  Children who drank the milk from the dairy cows who grazed nearby were found leaning against telegraph poles listening to the traffic speeding by through the wire above their heads, or going off to work in stockbrokers' offices where, unsymmetrically intimate with the daily flow of prices, they were able to amass fortunes before anyone noticed.

Or, he can conjure up a dreamy passage like this portrait of middle America:

They pushed out into morning fields that went rolling all the way to every horizon, the Inner American Sea, where the chickens schooled like herring, and the hogs and heifers foraged and browsed like groupers and codfish, and the sharks tended to operate out of Chicago or Kansas City -- the farmhouses and towns rising up along the journey like islands, with girls in every one, Merle couldn't help but notice, the extravagantly kept promises of island girls, found riding the electric trolley-lines that linked each cozy city to each, or serenely dealing cards in the riverside saloons, slinging hash in cafeterias you walked downstairs into out of the redbrick streets, gazing through doorscreens in Cedar Rapids, girls at fences in front of long fields in yellow light, Lizas and Chastinas, girls of the plains and of profusely-flowered seasons that may never quite have been, cooking for threshers far into and sometimes all through the nights of harvest, watching the streetcars come and go, dreaming of cavalry boys ridden off down the pikes, sipping the local brain tonic, tending steaming washtubs full of corn ears at the street corners with radiant eyes ever on the move, out in the yard in Ottumwa beating a rug, waiting in the mosquito-thick evenings of downstate Illinois, waiting by the fencepost where the bluebirds were nesting for a footloose brother to come back home after all, looking out a window in Albert Lea as the trains went choiring by.

If you think Pynchon packs a lot of energy, imagery and exhaustive grammar into that one sentence, wait'll you see the rest of the book.

Against the Day is many things for many people.

It's a dime novel.

It's a Western full of sagebrush, shootouts and bar fights.

It's one long, complex mathematical equation involving vectors, zeros, diagonals, and prime numbers.

It's a Victorian sex novel.

It's a treatise on the wages of anarchy and the moral cost of terrorism ("There are hundreds of these abscesses suppurating in the body of our Republic," says one character).

It's a saga about Colorado mining and labor disputes.

It's an epic war story on the order of Lawrence of Arabia. It even comes complete with cheesy, cinematic dialogue such as this exchange during a battle between ships which are patrolling beneath the desert:

"Gaspereaux, we are in a desperate state.  The moment for which you came aboard has arrived.  Get to the shaft-alley and put on the Hypops gear you find in the locker there along with a canteen of water, the oasis maps, and some meat lozenges.  Make your way to the surface, get back to England at all cost.  They must be told in Whitehall that the balloon is up."

"But you'll need all the men you can -- "

"Go!  Find someone in the F.O. intelligence section.  It is our only hope!"

"Under protest, Captain."

"Complain to the Admiralty.  If I'm still alive, you can have me up on charges."

Another thrilling sequence involves one character narrowly escaping death when he is suddenly engulfed in mayonnaise which is rapidly filling the small room where he's trapped.

In short (or long, as the case may be), to take a page from Pynchon himself describing Edwarda Beef's mezzo-soprano performances, you could call Against the Day "spellbindingly incomparable" and "transcendently splendiferous;" or you could endure what another character calls "sophomoric slogs through endless quagmires of the metaphysical" only to eventually chuck the book across the room (carefully, so as not to break any table lamps or kill small pets), and reach for a bottle of aspirin. 

It's just that good, and bad, of a novel. | January 2007


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.