Sunday, November 26, 2006


Most of the reviews I've seen of Against the Day have not been favorable. Some of the criticisms, such as the following from Michiko Kakutani, can be easily ignored because they seem to parade a disdain for what Pynchon's novels do, coupled with a notion ("psychological depth") that is generally in short supply in published fiction anyway. Asking Pynchon to do what he has no intention of doing is a lot like asking Ashbery to write a poem on a definite topic: a funeral, a party, some other poet's loves or letters, etc.

"Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning Mason & Dixon, demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in Against the Day are little more than stick figure cartoons."

Cartoons are what we expect from TP, damn it! And he has his reasons.

Other crits against Against the Day that strike me as more damning are the following from Mich Kak:

"Thomas Pynchon's new novel, AtD, reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex."

(The quaaludes comment is actually pretty snarky since an early reviewer of GR assumed it was written entirely on coke.)

and the following from Tom Leclair:

"GR is the most important novel I've ever read. I've taught nearly all of Pynchon's novels to unwilling undergrads and grads. . . . That is to say, I'm not James Wood, waiting to gouge anything by Pynchon . . . But AtD lacks the ferocity and fear of GR, the long-developed characters of M&D."

Leclair's comment, coming from an avowed Pynchon admirer, is more debilitating, though, if he's so informed, why does he not mention that the Traverse family -- the subject of AtD -- are the ancestors of one of the families in Vineland? (Well, he did say "nearly all"). I suspect that Leclair, like many of the reviewers of Vineland, are letting comparisons to GR occlude what the novel might actually be offering. It's not GR, it's not M&D -- gee, aren't we glad we've got such perspicacious reviewers around? A-and I'm not James Wood -- but that little aside says much about the aura such an undertaking as Pynchon's can expect in our current climate. And what about those "unwilling" undergrads and grads. Jeeze, TP isn't something I'd want to force down anyone's throat . . .

Then we have the thoughts of a reviewer in Philadelphia (a city to which I remain partial, despite everything):

"AtD raises more questions about the American novel in 2006 than any recent entry in the genre. For instance: Does a great novel still require a shape that makes total sense? Or are its beginning and ending arbitrary, like the times we live in?"

Not exactly new ideas, if anyone bothers to read novels from the '70s. The review, while generally positive and written with amused admiration for TP, spends too much time on TP's credits (those prizes his early fiction won, for instance, as though the prizes were what earned the reputation and not vice versa) and too little time convincing the reader that the reviewer knows what he's talking about. But the above comment is much to the point, I'd say (without having read AtD yet): what is it we want from a novel? What would "success" for a novelist like Pynchon consist of? That we love it? That we be irked or amused? That we "care about the characters"? That we, as one critic suggested, find in it a fictional correlative for some moral state we supposedly all share (particularly New Yorkers) "post" 9/11?

I'm not sure what I want from AtD, except that it be like nothing else I can think of. I accept that these reviewers are not convinced they need to be reading this. Much as I wasn't when reading The Recognitions recently. But I can't help feeling that this late entry to the Pynchon corpus might in some ways be all the more necessary the more vexed.


Andrew Shields said...

"TP isn't something I'd want to force down anyone's throat." Especially considering what gets forced down someone's throat in GR!

Okay, not really forced: he wants it, but I'm still amused by my little joke.

Andrew Shields said...

Second comment already: One part of the critic's job is to say what something is like. So if an author's goal is to write something "like nothing else [anyone] can think of," then he's damned to mixed reviews from the beginning. But as you pointed out, the truly new stuff is completely unpredictable -- and unavoidable.

Donald Brown said...

Hey yeah -- when I made that remark about forcing something down the throat I knew there was some joke idea in the back of my mind -- of course Brigadier Pudding is a good example of a rather unpleasant esophagal experience. But there's also the moment in GR: "momentary SNAFU for Lt. Slothrop" in which TS imagines his eyes crossed as a giant sausage is forced into his mouth. I think that's the image that comes to mind -- students and critics having to chew, literally, on 1100 pages of Pynchon prose...