I've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine andI've never really felt comfortable writing a review of a Pynchon book. From the short and relatively accessible Crying of Lot 49 to the byzantine and complex Gravity's Rainbow, he's always left me standing agape, grasping for the right words to express just what it was that I had experienced, yet knowing that whatever choice I eventually make I will only be able to express the tiniest amount of what I had just been through. Because, if you're patient enough and not too thrown off by what seem like insufferably long asides with no contextual relation to anything that has come before in the book, Pynchon will take you on a journey to the farthest reaches of your imagination. From stitching together materials from a wide and eclectic group of influences, he will attempt to gain entry into the fabled halls of imagination itself, a literary paradise in which all is simultaneously effortlessly possible and maddeningly difficult. Whether he succeeds is a matter for great debate, but for me it's always the journey that makes it worthwhile.
In Against the Day, Pynchon chooses one of the most interesting eras in modern history, a time in which the old world was making way for the new in drastic violent upheavals in nearly every realm of life. Beginning with the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 and meandering along through time until just after the end of the Great War, Pynchon paints a surreal portrait of a world on the cusp of multiple revolutions. From the political struggles of the time- Colorado miners to unionize for better working conditions against the mine owners and their Pinkerton thugs, the blooming revolutions in Mexico and Russia, and the anarchists everywhere in between struggling to advance the freedom of all humanity to the scientific struggles and breakthroughs of the era- Nikola Tesla struggling to gain funding from capitalists to develop ways to transmit electricity wirelessly, the endless debates between rival scientists as to whether the gaps between the stars are filled with aether or nothingness, and all of the quaternion and vectorist mathematics that can explain it. Not to mention hydrogen-fueled airships, expeditions to the North Pole and into the center of the Earth, treatises on the unique nature of Venetian light, and enough bdsm power games to make your hedonist cousin blush, I'm not kidding when I say that this book really has it all.
Supported by a rotating cast of hundreds, the story primarily follows the fortunes and trials of the Traverse family as they attempt to get revenge for the assassination of their dynamite-chucking anarchist father. There's Frank, the staid and reliable middle son who uses his schooling at the Colorado Schools of Mines and his family's penchant for dynamite to attempt to get revenge on the two men who murdered his father, an odyssey that sees him rambling back and forth across the US-Mexico border more times than a character in a Cormac McCarthy book. There's Reef, the eldest son whose quest for revenge gets derailed along the way when he finds that it is far easier to use his skills as a cardsharp to defraud decadent aristocrats in Europe. There's Kit, plucked from his family's poverty and sent to private schools in the East by a powerful industrialist who may or may not have been the man who gave the order to have his father killed and who becomes a pawn in a massive game of intrigue between the forces of repression and freedom. Then there's their wayward sister Lake, so filled with self-loathing that she runs away with one of her father's assassins to a life of monotony and beatings.
All of these events occur within the pages of Against the Day but it doesn't really say anything with regard to what the book is actually about. Truthfully, after reading almost 1100 pages, I'm not entirely sure. It would be a bit of a cop-out to say that this book is about the search for paradise, both literal and metaphoric. Sure, there's a lot of that in here- the quest for Shambhala, the search for inner peace, the idealism of the anarchists- but what stands out more to me is Pynchon's playing with and breaking down duality. The vectorists and quaternions eternally quarreling, the breaking down of the gender binary that goes on between Yashmeen and Cyprian, the feud between the Traverses and the Vibes, the permeable boundary between the two worlds that is viewable only from within the epicenter of a large explosion or by peering through a piece of Icelandic spar. Not to mention the endless allusions to light and dark and how they're not really all that different, a listing of which would create a book nearly as large as the source material.
While the story does tend to feel a but unwieldy around page 600 and I found myself wondering on more than one occasion whether Pynchon had even the slightest clue as to where he was going with the tale, in the end I found myself just enjoying the ride. While a bit lengthier than his opus, Gravity's Rainbow, I found the writing to be vastly more accessible and didn't find myself reading and rereading a page half as often as I did with GR. I think this probably has more to do with being more familiar with Pynchon's rather unique way of spinning out a tale than with a change in his style, but it leaves me wanting to return to Gravity's Rainbow for a reread to see what new discoveries I can find within those pages. If you should find yourself stranded on a desert island, or locked away in prison for a length of time, you could do a lot worse to occupy your mind than reading Against the Day. ...more
There's something both alluring and repulsive about compulsive hoarders. Once, a few years ago, I had to help clean out the house of one of my in-lawsThere's something both alluring and repulsive about compulsive hoarders. Once, a few years ago, I had to help clean out the house of one of my in-laws’ neighbors who had just died. Entering the man’s house was like stepping into an Egyptian tomb; relics from countless eras stacked methodically to the ceiling, knick knacks piled haphazardly in corners and on top of the mantle. Moving around was limited by the small pathways the man had carved through his treasures, though they were not so much paths as they were game runs for the legion of rodents that had made their home among the accumulated detritus. It took four people over a week to clear out everything and in the end over a dozen trips to the dump had been made. It had taken us that long to sort through every single material possession that this man had come in contact with over his seventy-odd years. There’s a kind of twisted beauty in that not-letting-go which, as a rabid bibliomane unable to part with any of my books without hours of soul-searching and deliberation, I can readily understand, if not relate to. Hoarding of this sort seems a uniquely 20th Century affliction, one that would not have been possible in any other era.
I do have to admit though that, as disturbing as the disease may actually be, it makes for some truly compelling reading. In his latest book, Doctorow tells the story of the Collyer brothers, a real-life pair of shut-ins who lived in the slowly-crumbling Fifth Avenue mansion of their parents. The younger brother, Homer, went blind as a teen and the elder, Langley, had more than a few hinges loosened when he was exposed to mustard gas in the first World War. Doctorow continues his Tolstoyan exploration of history, particularly how the larger movements of History (capital H) can sweep even the most recalcitrant person along with it. The clutter from the first of Langley’s late-night scrounging of the New York streets is temporarily beaten back in order to make room for the ersatz speakeasy the brothers begin just as the Great Depression hammers their wealthy neighbors, the Collyer’s two Japanese housekeepers are picked up and interred in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, films go from silent to talkies, and the brothers meet their spiritual kinfolk in the new generation of youth that have taken to calling themselves hippies.
Doctorow has a tight grip on the flow of history, as evinced not only in this book but with Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, March, and a host of others. In each we get to see the individual confronting the larger issues of the era they live in. With Homer & Langley Doctorow lets the timeframe breathe out a bit, encompassing the events of nearly the entire 20th Century. It’s fun read of how the house fills up with each new invention Langley becomes enamored of, the house serving as a repository for dozens of typewriters, television sets, automobiles and computers, a museum collection in the offing. A really quick read, Homer and Langley is definitely worth the reading and one that makes me think I need to explore more of Doctorow’s works. ...more