I like to think I’ve come along way from Gravity’s Rainbow, both in my ability to read and my ability to be honest in my reviews. The truth is that I am a big fan of Gravity’s Rainbow, but perhaps not the superfan I made myself appear to be in the review. The truth is that GR is a bit too angry and cynical for my taste. The humor makes the book enjoyable and the politics in general make it fascinating, but the book wears you down at points with just how disappointed and cynical the young author was when he wrote it. Yet there is a real argument to be made, now that I have read all but one of Pynchon’s novels, that GR is simply a side of Pynchon. That all his novels reflect a different portion of the man that can be tracked from young and cynical to old and sincere. Pynchon has always had a side of him that expresses fully the hope that all humanity is together in this thing we call life, but it is only in his later novels that we see this hope inhabit the writing of the reclusive author.
Mason & Dixon represented a turn in Pynchon (though I suspect Vineland at least offers a preview of it, if not houses the actual turn) toward creating fiction that uses elements of postmodernism without succumbing to postmodern distancing and the easy coldness of irony. Against the Day continues that with the added bonus of housing what is perhaps the most complete and clear understanding of Pynchon’s philosophy. And that is the word that I would use to describe this novel, despite giving up on it after 400 pages the first time I attempted it a little over a year ago: clear. The plot, centering around the Traverse siblings and their father, is quite simple to explain. The themes (the effects of late-capitalism upon humanity, the relationship between father and children, the nature of time, and other typical Pynchonian themes such as the failures of understanding both religion and science) are prevalent and far from hidden beneath endless layers of confusing prose. The math, unlike GR, is not really that difficult, just odd. It’s not written in a way that scares you off unless you slam a book shut the moment you see an equation.
Let’s get into it. Against the Day is probably behind Mason & Dixon, but alongside Bleeding Edge in my meaningless ranking of Pynchon’s novels. Perhaps what stands out most about it is simply how much emotion is in the text. Unlike some of Pynchon’s work, characters generally in Against the Day don’t drift away into nothingness never to be heard from again. With a decent amount of confidence I can tell you that if you meet a character in this novel that has any sort of backstory or peculiar happenstance about them, then you will see that story finished at some point, which is a welcome addition. What this makes for is repeated cases in which Pynchon can really warm… or more often break your heart. In the case of a polyamorous relationship between three characters, I found myself extremely upset when it became apparent that one of them was leaving the other two.
It is this allowance of real emotional situations into the text that saves Against the Day from becoming a lesser repetition of Gravity’s Rainbow that holds little substance beyond the constant political discussion of late-capitalism and its effects upon workers and their corporate overlords. It’s what makes Against the Day more than a well-informed rant over the costs of neoliberalism (ahem, 1984). That, and the fact that the Traverse family is quite simply the best cast of characters that Pynchon has ever created. Lake, Frank, Reef, Kit, their father Webb, and their mother Mayva all have such unique voices and captivate the reader in every scene whether through Frank’s simple humor (When the Tarot card reader asked Frank to pose a question he said, “How many Chinese are there in Idaho?”), Kit’s ending up committing the same errors as his father, Reefs failure to become the man he sets out to be, Lake’s endless rebellion that she repeatedly hopes to rationalize, Mayva’s interaction with all of her children as a mother, or Webb’s short stints chatting with the Marxist preacher and blowing up anything related to “corporate interests.”
Above all else, with Against the Day, Pynchon seems concerned. It’s difficult to miss the obvious analogies to our contemporary situation, which Pynchon believes we have sold out to corporate interests that disguise their need to constantly expand take power behind flowery language and the appearance of being involved in creating culture while they instead destroy it. The Traverse siblings represent an array of options in response to a slow, corporate takeover. You have those that join it despite knowing better (Lake), those that join it and fight it from the inside (Kit), those that say they’re fighting but do nothing or little (Reef), and those who in their very being cannot help but fight it at every turn (Frank). It is perhaps only when it leaves the Traverses that Against the Day even remotely resembles something like a faltering. When we visit Lew Basnight or the Chums of Chance, the two sets of characters that we visit at the beginning and end of each section the book for the most part, the novel has a tendency to dive into the depths of density that Pynchon is most known for. Yet in the end these sections represent only brief exoduses and are used for the interesting reflections upon the nature of time that Pynchon examines (Hint: if you enjoy Nietzsche, you’ll enjoy them for the most part).
Against the Day is about a lot, but despite its setting of the late 19th century bleeding into post-WWI, it is most about the choices we’re making today. Whereas an older version of Pynchon is cynical about the future holds, this Pynchon appears to be almost hopeful even despite the work we must do now that we’re so far down and so late into the game. What is it to be against the day? It’s to fight the day, to fight time itself, to cast light into the darkness. And perhaps, moreover, that if you do then you will never find yourself alone.
Recommended to: Pynchon fans, those looking for a book to read the rest of the summer that will greatly reward a patient reading, and those who are looking to get into a long Pynchon novel and can’t decide between this, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason & Dixon (This is the easiest of the three).
Avoid as if you’re the Mets playing the Nationals (WE SUCK SO MUCH RIGHT NOW (6/30)): Definitely not for first time Pynchon readers, despite the fact it is easier than other novels he has written. Mostly, with Pynchon I feel that people need to read either V., The Crying of Lot 49, or Gravity’s Rainbow first simply so they can see the difference between early and late Pynchon.