Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (2006)

 So was I not reading anything from, like, June to November? Well, I'd certainly have enough excuses, but it's not true: I was rereading this. I don't know if I should admit this, considering that I wrote a dissertation chapter on it back in the day, but this was only the second time I'd read it cover to cover. I mean, obviously I'd read parts of it many times, but, you know, the whole thing is kind of an investment.

Still, I would definitely have finished it a lot faster if I hadn't been blogging about it. You may remember, although definitely not, that I actually made an abortive attempt to do that back when I first read it. But most of what I wrote was pretty superficial, and then I got bogged down and gave up before the end. So now, fourteen years later, blogs aren't a thing anymore, and the book isn't new--impeccable timing on my part to try again! But I did, anyway. I wrote A LOT, I'll tell you that much.

So, what did I think about Against the Day on rereading? Well...a number of things. As you might expect. Scattered thoughts:

-Pynchon is truly an amazing stylist. You read a breathtaking passage, and that's one thing, but then he just keeps writing them. He both can't and won't stop. Stunning, for a book of this length.

-He creates some memorable and lovable characters: I suppose the Chums of Chance will always remain my favorites, but the Traverse clan (um, mostly--we'll come back to this), the Rideouts, the memorable Yashmeen/Reef/Cyprian trio. Thumbs up.

-The thematic concerns--light, time travel, utopia--are super-intriguing. You'll never find, like, concrete explanations of what it's all about, but it's endlessly fascinating, and more important to think about now than ever, I think, given our sociopolitical situation.

-To me, the biggest strength of postmodern fiction at its best is the way it can simultaneously mix realistic and fantastical idioms and also have them be completely distinct things.  I think the most successful examples of this I've ever seen are John Barth's LETTERS and this.

-And the ending is gorgeous. Came as close as writing ever does to bringing a tear to my eye.

-It DOES sort of lose structural integrity at points: I mean, you wouldn't expect otherwise from an eleven hundred page novel, but there are plotlines and characters that just drop out in a not-wholly-satisfying manner. And, I have to admit, sometimes it can be a bit clumsy. Anarchism is one of the book's big things--all the heroes are presented as anarchists--but, as sympathetic as I am to the philosophy, Pynchon really doesn't do a very convincing job of presenting it as a real thing that could work. It's not a novelist's job to do that, necessarily, but it gets awfully hand-wavey in places, like it's trying to do something that it's not able to. Head writing checks its ass can't cash.

-Pynchon obviously did enormous amount of research, but this is not always integrated in a natural way into the narrative. The first time I read it I thought it was just me, but now I kind of don't. All the Great Game stuff, for one, just remains hopelessly abstruse, and the character of Derrick Theign in particular is just baffling: he's presented at first as just this sort of ordinary mid-level civil servant, but then at some point the book becomes VERY invested in convincing you that he's BAD BAD OH MY GOD SO EVIL, but it's just bare assertion, and when he comes to the most gruesome end in the book, it's like...what? Am I supposed to be edified? Or what? Likewise, everything to do with the Mexican Revolution. And while I do admire the way he brings advanced mathematics into the book, it's pretty indigestible, and you get the impression that, while Pynchon may have gotten a mathematician to explain the Riemann Hypothesis (eg) to him, he doesn't really understand these things on a deep level. I mean, hell, I don't either. But then again, I also didn't write a novel about it.

-Oh my god the sex. Here we get fraught. When I say "the sex," I don't mean all the sex, but there are certain, uh, preoccupations that we see in Pynchon. Remember DL, the woman in Vineland who was kidnapped and forced to become a ninja sex assassin and that was treated as it it was, like, normal? That was pretty weird, right? Well...all I can say is, he really likes putting his female characters in demeaning borderline-rapey situations but then it's okay they like it. And obviously it's okay for anyone to fantasize about anything, but you do get the kind of gross impression that it's Pynchon doing the fantasizing. This shit gets REALLY tiresome. BAD PYNCHON.

-But the absolute, unquestionable worst thing in the novel is the treatment of Lake Traverse. Poor Lake. First she marries her father's killer--she has her reasons, but it's still kind of a misogynist trope; nonetheless, it could be subverted. But it isn't! Just degrading sex and then, while <i>all</i> the other Traverses do okay, a hollow, loveless life. It's just SO painfully obvious that at a certain point Pynchon had no idea what to do with the character, and the end result is awful and insulting in every way. Gah!

So I realize I spent more time writing about what I don't like than what I do. These things happen. It's probably not fair, though, because it IS a staggering novel. You should probably take that in both a positive and a negative way, but is there such a thing as a great book that isn't also deeply flawed? I wonder.

Oh, and here's what happened when I tried in all innocence to post a link to the blog on facebook:

Well, I shoulda knowed better. Next time I'll make sure to include a bunch of nazi propaganda in anything I might want to post on facebook. I know that's more their style.


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