Monday, November 20, 2006

A review so hostile it makes me want to read Thomas Pynchon's new novel, "Against the Day"

To the extent that my reading is influenced by reviews rather than random, serendipitous encounters with library stacks or bookstore shelves, it's usually the books that get positive reviews I'll seek out. But not always. Sometimes it works the other way around. Sometimes a review will be so hostile it will pique my interest -- apparently on the "where there's smoke, there's fire" principle.

That's the case with Michiko Kakutani's review of Pynchon's "Against the Day" in today's NYT.
Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day,” reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex.
She had me for a moment, there. I figured, "Well, it has been 33 years since "Gravity's Rainbow," and the dude is 69. Maybe his imaginative powers are starting to dwindle -- and, after all, some authors do end up by parodying themselves.
Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning “Mason & Dixon,” demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in “Against the Day” are little more than stick figure cartoons.
But as she keeps piling on, I began to wonder.
The problem is these characters are drawn in such a desultory manner that they might as well be plastic chess pieces, moved hither and yon by the author’s impervious, godlike hand. Sad to say, we really don’t give a damn what happens to them or their kith and kin. Especially when we are treated to pages and pages of them blathering on about things like “the four states associated with one of the four ‘dimensions’ of Minkowskian space-time” or their desire to “reach inside light and find its heart, touch its soul.”

Like “V.” and “Gravity’s Rainbow,” this novel aspires to give us a sort of alternative history of the modern world, to probe the multiple layers of reality people can inhabit. And while its narrative is centered on events leading up to World War I, it reverberates with echoes of the world today. Terrorism (in the form of anarchist bombings) is perceived as a pervasive threat, and surveillance — whether by private detectives or unseen eyes in the sky — has become a constant of day to day life.
Let's see: She mocks "Against the Day" in terms that could also have been applied to "V." and "Gravity's Rainbow," if one were so inclined. She loved "Mason & Dixon," which she gave a rave when it first came out. "Mason & Dixon" is the most conventional of Pynchon's books, apparently her favorite, and the only one of his other books she reviewed -- but one I never really did get into, although I loved "V.," "Gravity's Rainbow," and "The Crying of Lot 49."

That's when I realize -- I'll probably like this book. I think I'll put it on my list for Santa.

1 comment:

Nadine said...

Ian Rankin, author of the Rebus novel’s and the UK’s best-selling crime writer, is far from hostile. Read his splendid review (with an odd Pynchonesque twist) published in The Guardian on Saturday, in which he calls Pynchon “the greatest, wildest and most infuriating author of his generation” and says, “his books are romps and detective stories.” Just the thing to convince those of us who are crime novel readers to grab “Against the Day” and chew on it until the release of the new Hannibal Lector novel.