Monday, November 27, 2006

One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Down: Three Views of Pynchon's New Novel

Whom do you trust? The complete reviews from which the following excerpts were taken were available on the Times and New Yorker Web sites.

Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, 20 November 2006
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.

The novel plays with themes that have animated the whole of Mr. Pynchon’s oeuvre: order versus chaos, fate versus freedom, paranoia versus nihilism. It boasts a sprawling, Dickensian cast with distinctly Pynchonian names: Fleetwood Vibe, Lindsay Noseworth, Clive Crouchmas. And it’s littered with puns, ditties, vaudevillesque turns and allusions to everything from old sci-fi movies to Kafka to Harry Potter. These authorial trademarks, however, are orchestrated in a weary and decidedly mechanical fashion, as the narrative bounces back and forth from America to Europe to Mexico, from Cripple Creek to Constantinople to Chihuahua.

There are some dazzling set pieces evoking the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a convocation of airship aficionados, but these passages are sandwiched between reams and reams of pointless, self-indulgent vamping that read like Exhibit A in what can only be called a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Dozens of characters are sent on mysterious (often half-baked) quests that intersect mysteriously with the mysterious quests of people they knew in another context, and dozens of portentous plot lines are portentously twined around even more portentous events: the appearance of a strange figure in the Arctic, a startling “heavenwide blast of light”, the hunt for something called a “Time-weapon” that might affect the fate of the globe.

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.

Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times Book Review, 26 November 2006
In Against the Day, his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown. Its import emerges only gradually, camouflaged by the sprawling absurdist jumble of themes that can only be described as Pynchonesque, over the only time frame Pynchon recognizes as real: the hours (that stretch into days) it takes to relay one of his sweeping narratives, hours that do “not so much elapse as grow less relevant.”

Where to begin? Where to end? It’s both moot and preposterous to fix on a starting point when considering a 1,085-page novel whose setting is a “limitless terrain of queerness” and whose scores of characters include the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a dog who reads Henry James, the restless progeny of the Kieselguhr Kid and a time-traveling bisexual mathematician, not to mention giant carnivorous burrowing sand lice, straight out of Dune, that attack passengers of desert submarines — or, rather, subdesertine frigates. In any case, Pynchon (speaking, one presumes, through his characters) dismisses the existence of time as “really too ridiculous to consider, regardless of its status as a believed-in phenomenon,” asserting that civilization has been dead since World War I and “all history after that will belong properly to the history of hell.” He also rejects a fixed notion of place. To him, delineations of the known world are merely maps that “begin as dreams, pass through a finite life in the world, and resume as dreams again.” Let us proceed, then, like Pynchon: as we wish, without a map, and by bounding leaps.

Louis Menand in The New Yorker, 27 November 2006
Do The Math: Thomas Pynchon returns.

Thomas Pynchon is the apostle of imperfection, so it is arguably some sort of commendation to say that his new novel, Against the Day (Penguin; $35), is a very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of “Ambitious but flawed.” Imperfect in the sense of “What was he thinking?”

The book is set in the period between 1893 and around 1920, and this is the plot: An anarchist named Webb Traverse, who employs dynamite as a weapon against the mining and railroad interests out West, is killed by two gunmen, Deuce Kindred and Sloat Fresno, who were hired by the wicked arch-plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe. Traverse’s sons—Kit, a mathematician; Frank, an engineer; and Reef, a cardsharp and ladies’ man—set out to avenge their father’s murder. (Webb also has a daughter, Lake, but she takes up with one of the killers.) This story requires a thousand and eighty-five pages to get told, or roughly the number of pages it took for Napoleon to invade Russia and be driven back by General Kutuzov. Of course, there are a zillion other things going on in Against the Day, but the Traverse-family revenge drama is the only one that resembles a plot—that is, in Aristotle’s helpful definition, an action that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The rest of the novel is shapeless, just yards and yards of Pynchonian wallpaper: fantastic invention, arcane reference, virtuosic prose. Elaborately imagined characters and incidents, from a man who may or may not be transformed into a jelly doughnut to a city beneath the desert and a near-death experience in a mayonnaise factory, pop up and disappear after a few pages, so many raisins in the enormous loaf. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the mysterious collapse of the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, in 1902; the equally mysterious Tunguska Event, in 1908, in which roughly eight hundred square miles of Siberian forest was flattened, evidently by an exploding asteroid; the Mexican Revolution; and the troubles in the Balkans leading to the First World War all figure in the book’s pages. Longer-running characters include the eternally youthful crew of a sometimes invisible airship, Inconvenience, who style themselves the Chums of Chance; initiates of a British spiritualist society called T.W.I.T.; a private eye named Lew Basnight; a glamorous mathematician named Yashmeen Halfcourt; and an itinerant photographer called Merle Rideout, his daughter, Dahlia, and his ex-wife, Erlys, who has run off with a magician named Zombini. Scenes are set in (among other places) Colorado, New York, Venice, Paris, Croatia, Macedonia, Mexico, various points in Asia, and Hollywood. Characters are given names like Alonzo Meatman, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, the Reverend Lube Carnal, and Wolfe Tone O’Rooney. Pig Bodine, a recurring avatar who appeared in Pynchon’s first novel, V (1963), puts in his ritual appearance. There is a literate dog, a machine for time travel, a “subdesertine frigate” for voyaging beneath desert sand, and assorted mad inventors, shamans, clairvoyants, terrorists, drop-dead-gorgeous women, and drug abusers. The whole thing sloshes along, alternately farcical and magniloquent, with threads left dangling everywhere, sometimes for hundreds of pages, ultimately forever. The novel doesn’t conclude; it just, more or less arbitrarily, stops.

1 comment:

docker said...

Ah, I wish I could have a month in the country just to read Pynchon. But I never finished Mason & Dixon and I fear I'll never start this one. What's it called again? If I got the month off I think I'd want to re-read Gravity's Rainbow following the philosophy of "go with what you know".

(composer of the completely unknown piece for cello and piano "Thomas Pynchon, his Pavane & Galliard")