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Joy Ride

No, Really--1,000 Pages Of Thomas Pynchon Is Nothing But Fun

Sebastian Spring

Against the Day

Author:Thomas Pynchon
Release Date:2006
Publisher:The Penguin Press

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 12/27/2006

Here's what you'll need before sitting down to start reading Against the Day: a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a time line of historical events from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, and--most importantly--the patience and good humor to slog through what is undoubtedly (and this is a compliment) the most frustrating novel in recent memory. No passive readers need apply here; your limited attention span would be better served blindly flipping through Michael Crichton's latest book. Day is a massive tone that, despite its messiness, is always engaging in its confusions and brutally honest about its demands for reader participation.

Composing a plot summary of the novel is as futile as deconstructing a Jackson Pollock painting into its individual strands of color. For example, you could say the novel is a standard revenge tale in which a trio of brothers travels the globe to get even with the scum who murdered their anarchist pappy. But that would be ignoring the exploits of bisexual secret agents in pre-WWI Europe and the evil machinations of a filthy-rich capitalist baron. Not to overlook, of course, the airship of young boys who balloon in and out of the story on increasingly dazzling adventures. Oh, and the nearly impenetrable ramblings by theoreticians and intellectuals on such lofty issues as bilocation (being in two places at once) and time travel--can't forget those.

If anything's for certain in Pynchon's manic universe, it's that all is permissible and possible; we're in a mad, mad, mad, mad world here, folks. There are duels, magic tricks, monsters, ghosts, ships that travel through time and sand, mayonnaise, espionage, bombs, assassinations, talking balls of lightning, sexual flirtations with lap dogs, capitalism, anarchy, shady border towns, mysterious explosions, burlesque performances, and math. Lots of math.

No wonder then that the novel's epigraph comes from the improvisational jazz genius Thelonious Monk, since so much of the book reads like the spontaneous ramblings of a strange imagination. The whirlwind play with song lyrics, ridiculous acronyms, and even more ridiculous character names--all Pynchon staples--would lead you to believe Against the Day is nothing but an elaborate prank by a reclusive author, a 1,085-page mess intended only for hard-core Pynchon fanatics. Yet to follow that thought would divert you from the pockets of eye-popping writing that act as the real connective tissue here, whether it's "the unmistakable church-supper smell of American home cooking" or the impressions of history on a group of anarchists and socialists tunneling through a mountain:

They suffered from it, and it was also to be their liberator, if they could somehow survive to see the day. In the shower-baths at the end of the shift, the suffering could be read on each body, as a document written in insults to flesh and bone--scars, crookedness, missing parts. They knew each other as more comfortable men, in the steam-rooms of hydropathics, for instance, would not. Amateur bullet removals and bone settings, cauterizations and brandings, some souvenirs were public and could be compared, others were private and less likely to be talked about.

Just as the hundreds of characters float around like flotsam in continual waves of Progress--political, technological, cultural, biological--trying to make sense of their lives and missions, it's easy for the reader to drift unmoored throughout the book. The best advice for a reader understandably daunted by the size and might of both the book itself and its author's reputation is to just do it: cannonball into the novel and immerse yourself to the point of drowning. Don't worry--it may feel like you're overwhelmed and can't escape, but you're not, and the more you read the more you won't want to escape.

The most surprising aspect of Pynchon's latest work is how accessible it is despite its scope. Though you can never hope to follow the course of events from page one to page 1,085, there are frequent times when you'll suddenly grasp a particular character or event; you'll get a glimmer of the grand master plan only to have it taken away from you at the next abrupt shift in character or location.

But stick with it. Don't treat Against the Day as a sprawling epic with things to say. Surely, there are many serious implications here, but you'll be having too much fun just reading the damn book to notice.

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