Why I quit reading “Against the Day”

pynchon.jpgBy now all the initial hoopla surrounding Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day” has died down, with the reviews coming in mostly mixed. So I feel I can finally confess that even though I was among those to receive an advanced readers copy, complete with my name and the name of the Times Union imprinted in thick magic marker, I gave up around Page 199.

Giving up is not something that gives me pride, but when I realized that I didn’t know who I was reading about or, really, what was going on, and was searching my house for a really big piece of paper to map out the family trees of the book’s characters, I realized that the book had escaped me.

I’ve enjoyed reading Pynchon before, including Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 and, especially, Mason and Dixon, but I don’t consider myself a huge fan of his work. I even gave up on Vineland.

Basically, the book wasn’t leading me anywhere — just showing me some rather clever and mildly humorous scenes, and connecting them with long expositions that spanned who knows how much time (I’m sure someone out there is busily trying to figure that out).

I think Dostoyevsky once wrote (maybe in “The Idiot”?) about a “leading idea” in fiction, and it seemed that was lacking in “Against the Day.” I couldn’t even begin to trust the novel and its narrators (well, maybe, the narrator of the Chums of Chance sections) because I wasn’t convinced there was a clear direction the novel was taking me. Not-knowingness, of course, is something readers always deal with as they learn more and more about the characters, places and events as they read. But they can often at least glimpse or have an expectation of where the novel is heading within the first fifth of a book.

Part of the problem could be how rapidly the novel moves from one scene to the next, not allowing breathing room for scenes or characters to develop fully. I mean, I had to keep rereading the opening Chums of Chance part to keep straight the characters.

Part of my giving up also has to do with the letter included with the review copy, written by Pynchon that said:

If it is not the world, it is what the world might be with a minor adjustment or two. According to some, this is one of the main purposes of fiction.
Let the reader decide, let the reader beware. Good luck.
Supposedly, Pynchon himself wrote this promo stuff, and that “beware” and the “Good luck” were at once silly and off-putting; his words were an unnecessary challenge, and a bit redundant once I started reading and watched as an overabudance of characters crammed the pages and entire periods of time got washed away in overgeneralized prose.
In a way, Pynchon’s challenge made it easier for me to give up. I handed the book to my colleage, Entertainment Editor Casey Seiler. And giving up freed me to read the reviews. I found the one by Tom LeClair in BookForum to express my somewhat limited view after 199 pages. He writes:
Against the Day lacks the ferocity and fear of Gravity’s Rainbow, the long-developed characters and the comedy of Mason & Dixon (1997). The only readers (beside responsible reviewers) I can imagine finishing Against the Day are the Pynchonists, the fetishizing collectors of P-trivia. I hope I’m wrong. I hope some future scholar will read the novel twenty times and either illustrate how it recapitulates the whole history of narrative or demonstrate how every piece fits together into a fourfold design that will replace fourbase genetics as a model of all life. As the author himself says in his abstract, “visions of the unsuspected.”

For an interesting, and ongoing, take of “Against the Day” check out this roundtable discussion at MetaxuCafe.


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