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
What an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to desWhat an utterly beguiling book! I turned the last page of this hefty book nearly a week ago and I've been struggling to find the adequate words to describe my time with it ever since. This vast and sprawling epic is an ambitious, eloquent and beautiful novel- the type of read that reminds you of what all literature should strive to be. Or as Bolano puts it far more succinctly: "what a sad paradox... Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown... they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench." This is exactly that sort of book and Bolano is undoubtedly one of the great masters, if it wasn't clear after Savage Detectives then 2666 should put all doubts to rest. This is the sort of book that inspires a reader to pick up a pen for the first time in who-knows-how-long and jot out their own ramblings or makes you want to tackle all of those great pillars of literature that have loomed intimidatingly on the horizon for years, as though after summiting this peak you can handle just about anything an author can throw at you. Bolano likely intended such a challenge to his readers though, the chiding asides sprinkled through the book about the state of writing and reading in the world today serving as goads to spur the reader on.
Like most great pieces of literature, it's not easy to describe this book. At its center lies the fictional city of Santa Teresa, a sprawling necropolis of factories and slums situated across the thin Arizona border in the Mexican state of Sonora. A perfect representation of the dark and cannibalistic side of capitalist consumption, this city is a charnel house that consumes with unceasing hunger those souls who venture to the border looking for a better life. An epidemic of brutal killings has plagued the city for over a decade, hundreds of women raped, murdered, and dumped on trash heaps as the citizenry has internalized the message fed them at every turning. This message, that people, like the goods churned out in the maquiladoras, are disposable, cheap, rarely missed and easily replaced, creates an oppressive atmosphere of dread that permeates the five interweaving stories that spin out from Santa Teresa like the spokes on a bicycle and perfectly brings to life the Baudelaire quote with which Bolano opens the book, "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom."
In a postscript the heirs to Bolano's estate write about how, in his last days, Bolano insisted that the book be split into its five parts and sold separately so as to provide for the future well-being of his offspring. Fortunately his heirs couldn't stand to see the book sundered like that and initially published it as a whole before issuing a second edition sold as a quintet. While each of the parts can be seen as a stand alone tale set in the same world, I think it is the incongruities between these differing parts of the story that help the whole thing congeal into its own large imbalanced creature. We have the critics, devoting their whole lives to promoting a reclusive author who may or may not have finally surfaced in Mexico while still playing out the familiar power dynamics of a three-way sexual relationship. We have the Chilean expat, Professor Amalfitano, who may be receiving telepathic messages from an ancient race of humans or may just be going mad with worry about the fate of his nubile young daughter in a city that eats its young. There is the aging black power activist turned magazine writer, venturing into Santa Teresa on his first assignment as a boxing reporter. There are the hapless police of Santa Teresa on the hunt for this woman killer whilst being flummoxed at all turns by corruption from above, poor training from below, and the sheer systemic nature of the murders. Then, finally, there's the reclusive author himself Benno Von Archimboldi, a former German soldier turned literary star who seals together all these disparate parts into its substantial whole. Separately these are all interesting and distracting vignettes, together they form like Voltron into a lumbering golem of greatness.
There are some faltering steps though, however small. Part 4, the part that focuses on the killings, gets particularly rough about two hundred pages through after about the 70-80th clinically stark description of the raped and murdered corpses that keep appearing in the illegal dumps of Santa Teresa. A friend of mine aptly described this section as the book's Everest and it did indeed prove difficult to summit, but well worth it in the end. Finally, there's also the unfinished nature of the book. Bolano died before finishing it, so things are never tied up neatly in a little bow for the reader. Still, leaving the story without a definitive conclusion fits well with what I've taken away from the book- that events just happen and that there's no rhyme or reason to most of them. That we would all like to think we are the protagonists in our own stories, but for all we know we're just bit players in another player's banal Sisyphean epic. If you can accept that not things need conclusions but are just as powerful simply for having existed even briefly then this is a book that will astound and inspire. ...more