Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Against the Days and Days and Days… Part II: My Review and a Practical Guide

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So one post in, and I still haven’t really gotten to Pynchon’s novel, itself. Well, despite the number of hours spent on it, despite the guilt I felt for devoting so much attention to a single novel, despite the multiple times I found myself utterly perplexed by the science and math and tangential plot threads, I found myself completely won over by the end. In fact, I can more easily see myself re-reading Against the Day than Gravity’s Rainbow.

Perhaps this is partially due to its status as one of the Great 20th Century American novels, but while reading Gravity’s Rainbow, I remained aware of its, well, gravity throughout. Depending on who you talk to, it’s a war novel, an illustration of the fragmentation of our modern lives, a veritable V-2 rocket packed with double-meanings, puns, and metaphors. The truth is that it’s all of these things, and that’s enough to make it a classic. But sometimes importance can weigh a book down. Gravity’s Rainbow can often feel like Pynchon trying to construct a narrative about everything, so the obscure references, the thin (if interesting on a surface level) characters, the lack of resolution for those characters – the things that make the book what it is – cut the joy a little.

Against the Day, despite its size, reads like a novel of more modest goals. Sure, it still features a massive cast of characters, non-linear storytelling, difficult and wacky scientific theories, and maybe even that same vague goal of demonstrating postmodern fragmentation or what-have-you. But it’s also a bunch of ripping good yarns starring characters who may first emerge as jokey caricatures, but ultimately win our interest and sympathy. It has a heart. It may be hidden under the cutesy travels of a youthful team of flying adventurers, the initially hokey revenge plot of a family of dynamiters, the bizarre manipulations of a secretive British society, and the countless, unexpected pair-ups (and trio-ups), but there’s a real warmth that sneaks up on you.

Still, it’s big and more than a little convoluted, so here are some things you might want to keep in mind should you decide to read it.

This site is your friend. It’s a good resource that doesn’t give too much away in terms of spoilers, and the alphabetical index is a treasure for those of us with short memories. It’s especially helpful if you’re, say, on page 489, and there’s an out-of-the-blue reference to this guy, Cyprian Latewood, who soon turns into a major character, but you don’t remember him being introduced anywhere prior (answer – he wasn’t). Wikipedia is also your friend. Going in, I didn’t know anything about the Tunguska Event or Tatzelwurms. Now I do.

    – Unless you’re a math geek, you probably won’t get some of the science. Let the specifics of the Quaternionists vs. Vectorists wash over. Don’t try to grasp the properties of Icelandic spar right off the bat – just accept that it has something to do with doubling, splitting, whatever. Just because a few of the characters are obsessed with some very tricky stuff doesn’t mean you have to be. When confronted with a Kit or Yashmeen passage on some mathematical principle, don’t get too hung up on it unless you really want to. There’s plenty of other tasty stuff to feast on.

      – Keep your eye on the ball. Pynchon introduces scores of characters, and it’s often hard to figure out who’s going to get the spotlight later (even the Wikipedia page for the book lists a ton of characters, some of whom are only minor). Watch the following characters closely.

        • The Chums of Chance – Don’t worry too much about keeping the names memorized, as they almost always appear as a group, and the group dynamic stays pretty consistent.
        • The Traverses – You meet patriarch, Webb, early on, but pay a lot of attention to brothers, Kit, Reef, and Frank. These are essentially your male main characters. Their sister, Lake, plays a significant part, but she’s not featured nearly as heavily.
        • Yashmeen Halfcourt – She may seem like a supporting character in the Lew Basnight subplot, but Lew drops out of the book for long stretches, while Yashmeen gets entire sections to herself.
        • Cyprian Latewood – Similarly, Cyprian seems like a supporting character in Yashmeen’s story, but he’s a major player.
        • Dally Rideout – First introduced as a child, you might think she’s just a background detail in her dad, Merle Rideout’s subplot. It turns out he’s more of a recurring character, while she’s fairly important.
        • The Vibes – Ruthless businessman Scarsdale Vibe has a sort of overarching presence in the book, and he and his family drop in and out, but he’s more important as a concept than a character. Think Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, and you’ve pretty much got him down.

        Pynchon will throw curveballs at you. You’ll be positive that bit players like Hunter Penhallow and Foley Walker will get a lot of time, and they’ll just fade in and out. They may serve important purposes, but you’ll recognize them when you need to. Keep your eye on the ball.

          – Enjoy the sexy bits, but don’t write them off as mere titillation. Pynchon does a fine job of balancing the perverse and spiritual, the male-dominant and female-dominant, the gay and straight. A degrading, though consensual, polyamorous relationship in the first half of the book is mirrored by a unifying, loving one in the second.

            – Rest assured that, uncharacteristic as it may be for Pynchon, many of the main characters receive satisfying resolutions. Evil is punished, good is rewarded, and, in a few cases, love even seems to prevail. Not to say that any of this will end as you might expect, but there are endings.

              So I’m thinking one more post ought to do it. Since I’ve been straying a little from my musical comfort zone, Pynchon’s going to get a soundtrack.


              Written by Dave

              February 27, 2008 at 8:35 pm

              Posted in Books, Reading

              Tagged with ,

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