Thursday, September 4, 2008

Against the Day

I feel like a kid reporting, but with Labor Day passed I finally finished reading my big fiction book of the summer, Thomas Pynchon's _Against the Day_. I have long been a fan of his work (although I thought _Vineland_ was lousy), ever since I read his most famous work, _Gravity's Rainbow_ back in the mid-70s. This is his best since then, possibly better, and closest to it in themes. GR took place at the end of WW II with themes of technology and war. AtD starts at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and ends shortly after the end of WW I, with him clearly seeing WW I as what led to WW II. I think the day he is against is June 28, 1914, the day the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off WW I, which he makes clear was a catastrophic even in world history and civilization. His theme of technology is driven deeper by a much more profound investigation of the intellectual roots of relativity theory and other ideas in physics that would underly the various horrors of the 20th century, with long disquisitions on the themes of light and time.

His political/economic stance is much clearer than in earlier books, with several of his major characters coming out of a family of anarchists from the western US at the end of the 19th century. He is very much concerned with class struggle issues, but frames them in terms of anarchism, making only the briefest of mentions of Lenin or Bolshevism, and unfavorably. There is also more character development in this novel, his longest at 1084 pages, and I suspect that he may have reacted against his critics on this matter, with many writing about him, and there even being an academic journal devoted to his works. But this book is a profound tour de force that I highly recommend, with much that resonates with our recent and current situations in terms of the deeper trends of world history and politics.


Sandwichman said...


Pynchon's novels -- particularly GR and Lot 49 -- were a major influence on my own intellectual development.

Anonymous said...

"making only the briefest of mentions of Lenin or Bolshevism, and unfavorably."

Can you be surprised, given the actual track record of Bolshevism?

It was a regime which repressed strikes, imposed "dictatorial" managers in industry, abolished military democracy, disbanded and gerrymandered soviets, implemented a dictatorship of the party (and placed it into the heart of its politics), suppressed socialists and anarchists, and so on.

I cannot see how any genuine socialist could view it favourably. The sooner socialists reject the Bolshevik Myth, the more chance we have of building a real alternative to capitalism.

An Anarchist FAQ

kevin quinn said...

Barkley, thanks for the review. I bought this when it came out but haven't read it yet. I meant to pack it for my week at the beach and forgot it! I loved GR but I also liked *Mason and Dixon* more than the critics seemed to have.

Speaking of big American novels that are "Pynchonesque," I strongly recommend David Foster Wallace's *Infinite Jest*.

mark said...

A nice appreciation. I especially like the finding of 'a day' which he may be said to be against.

Think of joining the W.A.S.T.E pynchon reading list. We have just finished a first reading of AtD since pub.

mark said...


Actually I agree. When Mason & Dixon came out and I read it I wrote a much longer review that appeared in a newsletter. I said it was the best since GR, but this one is better. In some ways, I would say the new one combines the themes of M&D, which are very much rooted in US history, with those of GR.


Thanks, will see if I can check in sometime, but not today. Gotta run now.

Anonymous said...

It's been a while now since I read AtD, and that combined with the novel's breadth leaves it a bit of a tangled mess in my mind. But several amazing set pieces stick with me: that attack by the ice-beast on the great metropolis, for one, as well as the fleeting, sideways references to a cataclysmic war on the Tien Shen mountains.

It's interesting that you mention character development, Barkley (and I agree with you), because many reviewers have been quite critical of AtD, saying there's not much character depth and no coherent story. They're missing the larger scale on which the story occurs. Pynchon seems more than ever an astonishing historian, someone who ties together social processes and techno-scientific events in a way that reveals their hidden conenctions: bimetallism and the development of optics, post-Michelson-Morley physics with Futurist art. Just like GR did for WW2, he gives you an original and convincing perspective on a fascinating period.

For an Australian reader, the extended US West parts of the novel became a little trying, particularly as it was written in a pulp-pastiche style. But overall I thought this book was second only to GR, better even than M&D. said...


I enjoyed the parts you mentioned specifically.

Regarding the long passages in the US West, I would agree that at times they got to be a bit much. However, I think they were partly tied to his efforts at character development, which, even if still deemed insufficient by critics, went well beyond anything in any of his previous books, depended on this extended discussion of the US West as that was where this main family of characters (whose father was a pretty heavy duty anarchist) were located.

Anonymous said...

I must find a copy of AtD. But I must also disagree with you on Vineland. I remember staying up all night reading it back in 1990 or 1991, in paperback. Even then, I though, Gravity's Rainbow meets Neuromancer.