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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
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Against the Day
By Thomas Pynchon
 
Penguin, 2006
 
Reviewed by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a freelance writer living in New York City. She is currently editing her debut novel.
Sprawling, irreverent, and infused with Pynchon’s trademark subtlety of wit, Against the Day is a feast for any lover of mind-bending adventure and whimsy. Anchored by the tale of the hydrogen-balloon-aloft crew called Chums of Chance and their travels over thirty years and dozens--some imagined-- locales, Against the Day draws the reader into a world tinged with the familiar yet completely fantastical. Amidst impending global catastrophe and the tantalizing escape of phantasmagorical half-realities, Pynchon creates a setting that challenges our notion of three-dimensional space, yet all the while recalls the inescapable sameness of the strict construct of Time: “Perhaps its familiarity,” Randolph St. Cosmo, ship commander, suggests allegorically on page four, “rendered it temporarily invisible to you.”  

The myriad storylines, all averse to the quotidian even as they revel in it, are steeped in political corruption, elitist collusion, working-class resentment, the pursuit for survival, and our universal quest for transcendence—all fricasseed, as it were, among storytellers tacitly wizened to the notion that the destiny of fiction would bring them together in the end, even as the turgidity of the future amplified the present.  


        At Candlebrow U., the crew of the Inconvenience [aka the Chums of Chance] would find exactly the mixture of nostalgia and amnesia to provide them a reasonable counterfeit of the Timeless. Appropriately, perhaps, it would also be here that they would make the fatal discovery which would bring them, inexorable as the Zodiac’s wheel, to their Imum Coeli… 

Chief among his dizzying cast are anarchist Webb Traverse and his four children, a clan from Colorado who find themselves drawn into the worlds of dynamite, mathematics, revolution and sex while seeking an elusive fulfillment the only way they can. It is their father’s death that propels the young Traverses in opposing vectors to places like Gottingen, Vienna, London, Mexico, Inner Asia, Chicago, New York, and with them we meet the exhalations of Pynchon’s imagination: a traveling family of illusionists; a breathtakingly beautiful and dangerously brilliant woman from a parallel dimension; an accidental photographer and his fiery adopted daughter; Webb’s killers and their love of debauchery (including, incidentally, Webb’s willing little girl); an entrepreneur drunk with power and undone by greed; and of course, the colorful cast of the flying balloon whose indefatigable personalities and laugh-out-loud interaction with each other and the outside world make up for whatever may be lacking in depth. That’s not to say that what other reviewers may tag as lacking here is missed: like any Great American Novel, Against the Day incorporates universal themes, character arcs and plot devices to our hearts’ desire, but without the fanfare of according dialogue or pandering expository prose. It is ecstasy in language without adherence to pedantic constraint, and it’s masterful. 

Pynchon’s ability to manipulate such familiar verbiage into a staggering masterpiece is so clever, it’s almost abstract, breathtaking… and like any piece of abstract art, one needs to step back and allow meaning to overwhelm the senses all at once. It might take patience and a willingness to enjoy, or at least overlook, moments utterly lacking in meaning, but it’s worth it: this novel will stand the test of time and be remembered fondly as perhaps Pynchon’s best. As Cyprian, one-third of a dysfunctional (yet compassionate!) relationship with Reef Traverse and the woman of their dreams, sang (to the tune of the William Tell overture):  

Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed,

Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed,

Very nice, very nice, very nice-in-deed, very

Ni-i-i-ce, very nice-in-deed!