Monday, August 02, 2010
Best Victory at Last, 2010 Edition
Today is Sunday, August 1st--but you'll be reading this on Monday, August 2nd. I just finished reading Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day for the second time. I started reading it on June 10th. I had estimated it was going to take me ten weeks to read it but I finished in just about 7 because I managed to read over 500 pages these last two weeks. The edition I read this time (a lovely softcover my parents picked up for me while in London) was 1220 pages. Let's just acknowledge that that's a lot of book.
When I finished Against the Day the first time in 2008 I liked it, but wondered if the reading had been worthwhile or if I had just invested a lot of time in a book that was just going to be remembered as that one big book Pynchon wrote late in his career while all Pynchon eyes remain still on Gravity's Rainbow, like whatever Tom Woolfe might write next (if he does) being compared to Bonfire of the Vanities.
But here's the thing: after finishing Against the Day the first time, I found myself missing it. I missed the characters, I missed the stories, I missed, of all things, the weight of carrying it around with me everywhere I went. And since then I've read Gravity's Rainbow which, eh, I definitely didn't like nearly as much as Against the Day. It got me to honestly wonder if, had Against the Day come out in 1973 instead, would it be regarded as highly as GR? Perhaps I blaspheme, but I don't see why not.
So wheels were turning in my brain and a spot in my reading itinerary was made and I took to Against the Day again.
Reading this book a second time, I think I felt what people that love Harry Potter feel when they read Harry Potter. Constant fascination with the inventiveness and cleverness on display, total satisfaction with the tale being drawn out before me. It's still hard for me to say what Against the Day is about, but this time I caught the drift of a lot more going on in this book than the first time. There's a primary story being told, a story sort of having to do with the sons of anarchist Webb Traverse as they journey to avenge the death of their father . . . but that, at best, should be considered the tree from which a thousand story branches grow and you find yourself spending a lot of time out on the end of the longest of its limbs as well as deep down in the dirt at the tips of the roots. There is also a lot happening in this book that you're not being told, a lot of mysterious, other-worldly stuff going on between paragraphs that occasionally pokes through here and there into the text.
What in the world am I talking about? First of all, I'm flattered you're still reading.
For example: a lot of the story has to do with this band of young airmen called the Chums of Chance. On this second reading I began to suspect, to believe that the Chums were actually fictional characters within the world of Against the Day and that their adventures, when related, were occurring in a separate reality from the reality of the book. But at times the Chums definitely interracted in the real life of the book with characters from the real life of the book . . . what accounts for this intersection of the fictional and the real in this fictional but real world? That's the mystery I'll apply myself to more closely on the third reading.
Something else I was struck with again by the book is the economy of Pynchon's prose, so much can happen in one page of this book, one paragraph--Pynchon knows how to succinctly and artfully express his ideas in as little space as possible, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the missing details. And, even with a book full of eccentric characters and details, he knows not to bog the reader down with too much detail that is just going to be ignored or forgotten by the reader and also everything is so adverb free, I always knew the tone of the conversations but never had to be instructed if Webb said something ruefully. The book might be 1220 pages, but if another author tried to tell this tale, it's not hard imagining it being seven times as long. And it's an absolutely unfair comparison but I was listening to, err, Eclipse at work the same time I was reading this book on the subway and the difference in the skill was just mind boggling (duh.) It was just about the best class I could have taken on How to Write/How not to Write. It was also enough to make me wonder what a teenage vampire story by this old fellow would be like. For one, it would be interesting. For two, the characters would have better names.
A final thing, unrelated to everything so far: When I was reading Infinite Jest it inspiring a lot of strangers who had read it to strike up conversations with me, usually people of my age on the subway or at restaurants. Against the Day found me in the occasional similar situation, but with longtime Pynchon fans about my Dad's age.
What I wrote the first time I read the book.