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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Against the Days and Days and Days… Part 1: Why the Long Book, Dave?

with 5 comments

As alluded to in my previous post, the majority of my reading time in the past few months has been devoted to Thomas Pynchon’s brick-like Against the Day. It’s a long book (1,085 pages) and additionally daunting in that its author is not known for focused plotting, character development, or resolution, but rather for complexity, scientific and philosophical arcana, and postmodern textual vacancies that demand a lot of interpretation. He writes what some might call “writerly texts.”*

This isn’t the first time I’ve tangled with Pynchon. I started, as most do, with The Crying of Lot 49, a deceptively short novel about conspiracies, paranoia, and postage in the 60s. It didn’t make sense to me the first time. I came out of the experience with the sensation that I’d finished a book, but retained none of its details; I came away with the idea that I’d read some great fiction, but none of the feeling that I’ve come to associate with reading great fiction, if that makes any sense.

It took a second read before I’d actually “get” it, and I discovered later that this is almost universally the case with that book – you need to read it twice. In fact, Raina’s mentioned to me that a college professor of hers gave his class that exact instruction, and it was readily apparent who had followed it by the next discussion. The one-timers were lost.

After my second attempt at The Crying of Lot 49, I tried Mason & Dixon and gave up about 300 pages in, enjoying its absurdist take on history, but unaccustomed to Pynchon’s seemingly endless meandering. To use movie analogies, Pynchon’s longer works can sometimes come off like the short attention span of Tarantino wed to the pacing of Malick and the “what the hell is going on and what’s the deal with the log lady?” of Lynch (yes, I just wed three things together – considering the stunning amount of polyamory going down in Against the Day, not an inappropriate choice).

I wrote off Pynchon’s longer works for a while after my attempt at Mason & Dixon, figuring that I’d eventually age into the attention span needed. I knew there would probably be some rewards to be had there, but there’d be time later. A few things inspired me to give him another go. First, in the years after my Mason & Dixon experience, I made it through and enjoyed a few long and complex works that instilled far more fear than Pynchon (Ulysses and Vladimir Nabokov’s less celebrated, but brilliant, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, to name a couple). Second, I knew I’d be committing to grad school in the near future, and I’d probably have little control over my reading list upon entry.

If I was going to get Pynchon’s longer works under my belt, it had better happen fast. To make the experience truly count, I decided upon Gravity’s Rainbow, a book with such a weighty rep that it even gave Lisa Simpson pause.** It was a several-month-long commitment, and that commitment was tested often, but it was ultimately rewarding experience. Pynchon’s language proved to be beautiful, funny, and entirely befuddling, sometimes all at once. If the characters didn’t all connect, the moments often did, and the concepts, when I understood them, were refreshingly wacked-out.

Having made it through Gravity’s Rainbow, I was anxious to read more and Against the Day was due to be released, but school got in the way for two semesters (taken for non-degree credit, so I’d have some fresh work and new references for application for degree status), then studying for the GRE English Lit test got in the way some more.***

As a reward**** to myself for taking the test, I decided to devote some time to Against the Day (an even longer novel than Gravity’s Rainbow – Pynchon’s longest, in fact), since, once again, grad school would soon be threatening my freedom of literary choice. I began in mid-November, took a few detours in December, and finished last week.

Since this post is already pretty long, I’m going to devote my next one to my findings and my recommendations should you ever feel the urge to devote a month or three of your life to the dirigible-flying adventurers, revenge-seeking dynamite experts, mathematicians, sexual experimenters, and psychical detectives of Against the Day.

* It’s an odd bit of synchronicity that, in the first google hit I found online for Barthes’ distinction, Barthes (or a translator, rather) happens to employ the term “traverse,” the surname of Against the Day‘s most prominent family.

** LISA (awed): “Are you reading Gravity’s Rainbow?” COLLEGE GIRL (snidely): “Well, rereading.”

*** This involved a whole bunch of canon review, and, while Pynchon might roughly fall into that category, I figured my time was probably better spent re-acquainting myself with Keats and whatnot rather than taking the time to make it through V. or Vineland.

**** Yes, a reward. I actually feel guilt when I devote too much time to one book, since I’m obviously missing out on so many other books. It even feels vaguely self-indulgent. Yeah, you try living with the reading machine that is my wife (who hasn’t read Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day, but could probably take them both down in about two weeks). *****

***** With the footnotes, you’d expect that I’d have read Infinite Jest. No, it just stares at me from the shelf with this smarmy grimace (undoubtedly loaded with footnoted subtext). Yeah, keep staring, stupid book. The next extremely long book I read is going to be entirely lacking in postmodern tangents, thanks. Maybe Middlemarch or something.


Written by Dave

February 23, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Posted in Books, Reading

Tagged with ,

5 Responses

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  1. Mason & Dixon may well be Pynchon’s most accessible work. Not in the way it’s written, certainly, but in the unusually linear plot and in the unique and egnuine affection for the characters. In most of Pynchon’s books the characters are sacrificed to the mechanics of the story – think Tyrone Slothrop – but in M&D he seems to be writing from the heart for once. The ending is the most moving ending of all his books. Try it again…”Snowballs have starr’d their arcs…”


    February 25, 2008 at 3:33 pm

  2. Eh, that should be “Snowballs have flown their Arcs, starr’d the sides of Outbuildings…”


    February 26, 2008 at 9:23 am

  3. I found a lot more heart than I’d expected in Against the Day, as well. I’ll probably be covering this in my next post.

    Like I said, I didn’t finish Mason & Dixon, and it hadn’t been what I was expecting at the time, but you’re probably right about its accessibility (except for the hugeness issue – probably what sends most of us to Lot 49 first). I own it, so I should probably give it another shot one of these days.

    I wonder if there’s been a general tendency toward sympathetic characters in his work since Gravity’s Rainbow, but the descriptions I’ve read of Vineland don’t suggest that this is the case.


    February 27, 2008 at 4:31 pm

  4. Gravity’s Rainbow is his masterpiece, far better than any of the others. Beautiful prose, hillarious at times, haunting at others. It is also a LONG book that requires more than one reading for comprehension of its numerous themes and messages. But it is easily enjoyed without that overall comprehension. BTW, I’ve read all of his novels…


    February 28, 2008 at 1:34 pm

  5. Um… that’s very impressive?


    February 28, 2008 at 2:20 pm

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