Thursday, January 04, 2007

À votre santé, Pynchon

Reading a book is a journey. I'm as ready for a quick leap into the unknown as the next guy, but when it comes to major voyages I like to consult with people who've been there before embarking, to get some sense of the lay of the land and what to expect from the locals. Then I run their reactions through my own filter. Sometimes a strong negative response intrigues me more than a positive endorsement. Thus, some of the negative early reviews of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day simply whetted my appetite and led me to put the book on my Christmas wish list. Santa obliged, and now I'm looking at starting the journey.

Still, when actually confronted by the entire 1,085-page white-clad destination looming up above me in the mists of my unallocated reading time like a distant and possibly unattainable mountain peak, I began to crave some reassurance. Could it be the critics were right and I was in danger of starting a long and arduous journey that turned out to lead nowhere ? Could it be that Michiko was right when she said it "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"?

I feel more confident now that I've read the thoughtful, appreciative review in the New York Review of Books by Luc Sante, who teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. He makes it clear it's no casual day trip.
Against the Day is a baggy monster of a book, sphinxlike and intimidating in its white wrappers, which are decorated with nothing but a seal containing an unintelligible glyph. It is appreciably longer than even Pynchon's longest previous books—nearly half again as big as Gravity's Rainbow (760 pages) or Mason & Dixon (773). Unlike Gravity's Rainbow, it does not have an easily describable subject, or one to which the average literary consumer is already attuned. Unlike Mason & Dixon it is not borne along by a couple of strong and affecting main characters. Its subject is slippery, mercurial, multifaceted, hard to explain, and nowhere near fashionable territory. Six or seven of its major characters are strong and affecting, but there are dozens of others here, and the story has so many branches and extensions, trunk lines and switchbacks and yards and sidings that characters regularly drop out for a few hundred pages at a stretch. It isn't always easy to remember who they are when they reappear.

Pynchon's novels always have their own peculiar rhythm and logic, setting the reader in terrain that is continually shifting and thus requires an athletic suppleness of attention and mood. Digression is the constant, not the exception. Sequences that seem to follow the traditional order of novelistic development tend to fade into extended prose poems, which turn into pages of abstruse speculation, which then, just as the reader's eyes begin to glow with a semblance of comprehension, tumble into slapstick, sometimes involving song-and-dance routines. Ideas powerful enough to drive whole books are prodigally thrown away, while the most gratuitous passing notions are taken up and pursued to the point of exhaustion. Some sequential and organizational decisions may have been made with the use of dice, or yarrow stalks, or tea leaves. Very occasionally, Homer nods.
But Sante also makes it clear that he found the journey well worth the effort. Unlike earlier reviewers, who, in all fairness, may have been hampered by the fact the publisher didn't give them much time with such a huge book, he engages the book on its own terms and doesn't try to fit the book -- to its detriment, like a round peg into a square hole -- into a predetermined slot. He makes it clear that Pynchon is trying to do things most novelists aren't trying to do, and that perhaps it should not even be called a novel at all, except what else would you call it?
Pynchon thinks on a different scale from most novelists, to the point where you'd almost want to find another word for the sort of thing he does, since his books differ from most other novels the way a novel differs from a short story, in exponential rather than simply linear fashion. Pynchon's work has absorbed modernism and what has come after, but in its alternating cycles of jokes and doom, learning and carnality, slapstick and arcana, direct speech and poetic allusiveness, high language and low, it taps into something that goes back to the Elizabethans, who potentially addressed the entire world, made up of individuals with differing interests and capacities. He also thinks big because he is extremely American (like many of his fellow citizens, he is never so American as when traveling abroad). In this way he is reminiscent of the "millionaire ascetic" in Borges's story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," who "declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of a whole planet." Here, in Against the Day,by his own admission, he has made what "with a minor adjustment or two [is] what the world might be."
Check out the rest of the review, which is worth reading in its entirety. Meanwhile, I'll be off to Pynchonland. The journey is going to take some time, as it's not the sort of book you read in a couple of nights. I suspect the voyage will take me far from my customary shores, but I'll try to send back an occasional message in a bottle, if they even have bottles where I'm going. UPDATE:SteelR is going me one better (see comments) and doing away with bottles altogether. He's reporting back with some sort of newfangled contraption called a blog: Blogging Pynchon -- "Day-by-Day Against the Day." Cool commentary, too. From yesterday's post: "Zeros and ones, cattle gates to logic gates, we shuffle and are sorted."

And if you'd like to read more by Sante, try his essay on language, "French Without Tears," which appeared in the Threepenny Review. It's an elegant reflection on French and English, each refracted through the medium of the other, by someone who came to America as a child in a French-speaking home of Belgian immigrants. (His comments on French puns inspired my title -- sorry, I just couldn't help myself.)

UPDATE: To find other posts in this series, type "Bottle Notes" into the box at the top of the page and click "Search this Blog." Use quotes.


Anonymous said...

Hi, fellow Vagabond of the Void. I'm reading "Against the Day" and blogging at

I tend to avoid reviews up front because I like to form my own sense of a book or film, but I check them out afterward. Thanks for spotlighting a good one.

Have fun!

Dr Diablo said...

All aboard, please! Next stop, page 37.

Have you ever noticed that there's something about page 37? It's the page from which the bookmark protrudes, sometimes for months, while a reader decides whether to make the commitment or not. You get much beyond 37 and you hate to bag it.

I predict that the Pynchon book will be lying on its side on your shelf, embroidered personalized bookmark anchored on page 37 and hanging limply over the side. There it will rests for months, a silent reproach to you.

All those reviewers can't be wrong. It's obvious that Sante's baying-at-the-moon review is intended to establish that he appreciates what previous reviewers are too thick to grasp. I'm going to rely on your synopsis of that review, just as I'm going to get out of the Pynchon book what you put into it.

I just read INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison. Unless you have read this truly seminal work, I advise you to read that, as I'm sure you have long intended to do, and settle for the "pinch o' Pynchon" you have already gleaned from all those reviews. Either way, Enjoy!

Madison Guy said...

A note on bookmarks to my Mephistophelean friend: Embroidered ersonalized bookmark? Not a chance. More like this. I like to recycle.

Anonymous said...

Back in December, after finding myself suddenly unemployed, I volunteered on the Chumps of Choice blog ( to moderate 25-30 pages in January as part of a group read. Obviously, I hadn't had enough coffee yet and my brain was fogged.
The date is almost upon me. "Against the Day" is by turns fascinating and completely bewildering as the plot (IS there a plot?) twists, skips forward and backward in time without warning and jumps the story around among a large number of whimsically named characters, each of which seem to have their own compelling story, which he tells part of, then abruptly abandons. I'll be writing my "essay" (think thesis) on my assigned pages over the weekend and posting Monday morning, Jan. 15. Wish me luck -- I need it.

Love your blog. The writing is refreshingly clear, thoughtful and right on the money. I'll be back.