Against the Day Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged
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From Publishers Weekly
Looking to add 42 CDs to your collection in one fell swoop? Possessed of 54 hours of free time that desperately need to be filled? Look no further than this audiobook of Pynchon's latest literary behemoth, a product so ridiculously outsized it deserves a Pynchon book of its own to celebrate it. Hill is to be commended for making his way through the 1,100 pages of Pynchon's novel, traipsing all the way from the union-busting American West of the 1880s to the WWI-era Balkans, shifting accents and deliveries with aplomb along the way. While it is hard to imagine anyone mustering the energy to listen to all of Pynchon's admittedly brilliant late career masterpiece, Hill admirably meets the challenge, although he occasionally makes the mistake of emphasizing the book's comedy over its deep moral and intellectual seriousness. At 54.5 hours long, though, a little extra comedy is probably a necessary accoutrement.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Nearly a decade after Mason & Dixon (1997), Pynchon delivers a novel that matches his most influential work, Gravity's Rainbow (1973), in complexity, humor, and insight, and surpasses it in emotional valence. Approaching 70 and as famous for his avoidance of the public eye as for his Niagaras of prose, Pynchon remains profoundly fascinated by light, time, and technology. The improbable action begins onboard a hydrogen skyship, the Inconvenience, manned by the Chums of Chance, a fabled do-gooder aeronautics club on its way to Chicago for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Aside from some Jules Verne-like voyages beneath the earth's surface, the bickering Chums provide an aerial view of the carnivalesque proceedings as this many-voiced saga modulates in tone from cliffhanger jocularity to metaphysical speculation, lyricism, and devilish satire. As Pynchon whirls his way through such milestones as the invention of dynamite, harnessing of electricity, evolution of photography and movies, development of diabolical weapons, and the bloody turmoil in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire leading up to World War I, his motley characters circle the globe on quests for enlightenment, profit, revenge, romance, and sanctuary. Cartoonish figures vamp and menace, but Pynchon has also created genuinely dimensional and affecting characters, including marvelously tough and witty women, from saloon girls to a magician's assistant, a mathematician, and an anthropologist. By orchestrating fantastic, dramatic, and all-too-real goings-on in the Wild West, the Bowery, London, Gottingen, Venice, Mexico, Bukhara, Albania, and Tuva, Pynchon illuminates the human endeavor in all its longing, violence, hubris, and grace. A capacious, gritty, and tender epic. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The book was savaged by some critics with a notable air of self-pity ... oh it's so long, oh it's so meandering, oh I didn't bother to finish it. Yes, there are major reviews in major American publications where paid critics admitted to skimming over most of the last 300 pages. A crime and a pity, because it's only in the last few hundred pages where "Against The Day" fully reveals itself.
Critics (and readers) who enter this journey with hard and fast rules of what a novel should (or must) be are warned here ... you may very well hate it. Pynchon's characterizations can be muddled at time -- it took a second reading with the help of the superb audiobook (I don't know if they give Grammys for audiobook performances, but Dick Hill's is outstanding and worthy of some kind of award) for me to fully appreciate the cavalcade of characters. There is no central character, no central plot, but there are a multitude of character arcs and human interactions that I found heartbreaking. All of the great drama of human life is here -- but it's told in the signature, detached Pynchon style.
Critics have pointed out one clear flaw -- the book is all over the place. Pynchon jammed everything into this book, leftover threads from every other novel he's written, plus bits from all his favorite books and whatever scientific or philosophic musings he has left on the table. It has the feel of a big book by an aging master who fears that he might not write another. The four Traverse children have enough development for maybe two fully drawn characters. Kit, because of his resemblance to other Pynchon intellectual heroes, you expect to be the main character, but he disappears into the plot for hundreds of pages, much like Tyrone Slothrop did in the waning pages of Gravity's Rainbow. Eldest son Frank Traverse just isn't all that interesting and his meanderings in Mexico are the weakest part of the novel. Daughter Lake and out-of-control drifter Reef are the most compelling of the litter and a book focused solely on them might would have been more tightly focused (Although Kit is clearly needed as a bridge to all the mathematical warfare central to the book's second half.)
So it could have used a more thorough edit ... and yet, I'm glad it's all there. Once you get through it once, you'll be glad to revisit even the sections that seemed dull the first time around. Pynchon wrote a book big enough to encompass all of his thoughts about the fall of leftist politics in the West (as anarchism fell and Marxism rose), the dual nature of, well, nature, the various ways capitalism co-opts science and shapes it to its needs, the thin line between mysticism and mainstream religious faith. It's all there and much much more.
If you take your time and let this big, strange, overwhelming book sink into you (or, again, listen to the audiobook, which by its 20 pages per hour nature forces you to go slow), you might start to think about whether civilization was crushed by World War I and will never recover. Or whether our war on terror is no different from anarchist bombings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Or whether mankind is in a perpetual cycle of rebirth and destruction, always on the cusp of grand discoveries that go hand in glove with horrible threats, both promising beginnings and ends that never quite arrive.
If you want to examine big questions like these and want to be entertained with Monty Python-like broad humor and ridiculous songs out of nowhere and a mix of virtually every genre-prose style in existence, then this might be your book for the next month or two. If not, no worries, there are plenty more books that will suit your needs. As for me, my nine year wait to hear my master's voice has finally ended. Mock me for it if you wish, I'm just glad to have another 1000+ pages to obsess over before I die.
Taken at a more leisurely pace, this novel is, in fact, very accommodating, especially compared to the delightful, but verbage challenging Mason Dixon. Far from the blur of comically named stereotypes that have been alleged, the characters are more than adequately drawn with sufficient depth, if not to the unusual (for him) affection that Pynchon displayed for the aforementioned boundary makers.
The accessibility of the book also comes from a consistent level of humor, more droll than uproarious compared to his earlier work. It is this consistency of observation and discourse that makes Against the Day stand out from all that has proceeded it. In a way, it seems somewhat reminiscent of the stylistic change that Melville produced in The Confidence Man that distinguished it from the dramas that proceeded. Like the new novel here, there is a constant motion to the story as the focus changes from on character to the next, producing a works that are more esoteric than heart-wrenching.
Is too much of a good thing bad? Not if you have the time to savor all the wondrous elegance that goes into it. As long as you don't have a deadline haunting, you may find this the best voluminous post-modern epic of all (at least since Barth's Letters, and requiring a lot less effort).
Yet the Pynchon of Against the Day is not the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow. 33 years ago, that Pynchon was loading every page with deep emotion, fear and paranoia in a sort of urgent desperation. Now, this latest book contains many of the same themes that have followed Pynchon throughout his long career, yet with much more refinement, finesse and subtlety than ever before. The plot is more complex than any of Pynchon's earlier works, but also (strangely enough) easier to follow than the last part of 'Gravity's Rainbow' or even some of the disjointed flashbacks of 'V.'
The plot itself, like any Pynchon novel, is secondary to the themes of the novel, the mood that is created, the sheer weirdness of a Pynchonian world. It involves the murder of a Colorado anarchist, a group of 5 boys traveling the world in a balloon conducting secret missions, academic competition in early 20th century Germany, time travelers from the future, and the evil plans of a corporate tycoon. Sideplots and tangents include a journey inside a hollow earth, an attempted murder using mayonnaise, the search for a mythical central Asian city, and a group of magicians touring Europe. The sacred hotshots of history are side by side with the profane, as Franz Ferdinand drinks himself silly at the Chicago World Fair of 1893, and David Hilbert teaches a group of young mathematicians who spend their free time doing drugs and engaging in duels over women and mathematical proofs. Pynchon flawlessly combines the elements of humor, love, drama and fear to create an unforgettable narrative that almost, but not quite fits together into something rational.
Yet this very rationality is what Pynchon is out to mock and satirize, using everything from the technology present at the World's Fair to mathematical debates of the time. Much like the V-2 rockets of 'Gravity's Rainbow' and the eponymous V of 'V.', light exists as an extended metaphor in 'Against the Day.' The book begins with a quote by Thelonious Monk: "It's always night, or we wouldn't need light" and spends the next 1000+ pages exploring the effects of this light-bringing technology that began at the turn of the last century. Dynamite, quaternion mathematics, photography, a strange rock known as 'Iceland spar' the refracts light into bilocutions--all are part of Pynchon's strange way of commenting on our own dependence on technology and, even more so, logic and rationality. Scientists and academics go throughout the book searching for proof of a 'fourth dimension' of Æther, something beyond the three dimensions we live in, some unworldly dimension to put our faith into. Unsurprisingly, this fourth dimension goes undiscovered. This desperation for some sort of scientific rationality to put our faith into and our failure to find it is the main theme of the book, and perhaps Pynchon's works as a whole.
The book is long, unwieldy, and at times it is hard to see how everything fits together. Many reviewers have expressed their unhappiness in the book's length and numerous plot tangents. In the end, however, this is what makes Pynchon Pynchon. Is there any other way for the author to express the complexity and bizarrities of the modern world? The convoluted plotlines are what gives the author is famed originality.
In the end, while not for everyone, the book will reward the patient and those willing to wade through scores of characters and plot points to become one of the first great novels to comment on life in the 21st century by using the characters from the beginning of the 20th.
For there is much that is infuriating about Against the Day. Primarily, it's the fact that at 1089 pages long, there is no way to minimize the effort required to read it. Second, the plot is maddeningly elliptical, and it takes close to 400 pages before you really grasp what, exactly, is going on. Third, Pynchon fills Against the day with digression- not exactly a new phenomenon when it comes to fiction, but after your fifteenth twenty five page exegesis on Balkan geography or Albanian culture or whathaveyou, it's easy to see how a reviewer might be frustrated.
Balanced against its infuriating nature are several counter-points which lead me to the opinion that Against the Day is actually a superb, enjoyable novel. First of all, the plot isn't that difficult to grasp:
Basically, anarchist coal miner Webb Traverse is killed at the behest of evil industrialist Scarsdale Vibe. He leaves behind three sons and one daughter. Most of the book involves the attempts by Webb's sons to avenge their father's death. In the process, they have many adventures in places like Mexico, Germany, the Balkans & Central Asia. They meet, marry and have kids during the course of their adventures. Along the way there is a lot of math, a lot of physics and a lot of mumbo jumbo.
Together with this basic revenge plot is the interwoven story of the Chums of Chance, a bunch of boy adventurers who circle the globe in their zeppelin. The Chums of Chance don't really directly encounter the Traverse's, but they figure in the background of many of the locations.
And that's basically it, in terms of plot. Of course, with Pynchon, narrative focus is the least of his worries, and if you aren't down for digression, then sir or madam, you have no business reading Thomas Pynchon. In order to enjoy the digressions, you need to have some idea of the mise-in-scene, so to speak- the backdrop- the current events that form the setting for Against the Day. The time and place is roughly the 1870s to the end of World War II- 1918 or thereabouts.
So if you want to get the most out of Against the Day, have a working familiarity with historical events like the Chicago World's Fair, Labor History of the American West, Mexican politics in the 19th century, European Diplomacy in the Balkans before World War I, Theoretical Mathematics and Physics of the 19th century, The Cult of Pythagoreous in Greece, The "Great Game" i.e. Central Asian diplomacy in the 19th century/20th century & Pulp Adventure Novels from the early 20th century. Personally, I'm about 4/8 on that list, and that was just about enough.
It's clear that one of the contributing factors to the enormous length of Against the Day is Pynchon's fondness for the theme of doubling. Each character seemingly has a double, and many events seem to have their own double within the text. The doubling also appears as a species of Icelandic Rock that creates human doubles (instead of just reflecting them). In a certain sense, it's fair to say that the obsessions with doubling turns a 500 page revenge yarn into a 1000 page novel that, if diagrammed, would look something like a modern conception of an atom, with all the particles whirling around the nucleus.
I was fortunate that I spent the year between purchasing and reading the book reading up on some of the background subjects, more or less by coincidence, but this is not a book to rush, and not a book you want to read "cold" or more likely as not, you won't finish.
Other reviewers have sufficiently rehearsed the plot, such as it is (and the whole point of the book is: "it isn't"). Open the book at random--and you may as well, for there's little to be gained from reading it sequentially--and you're almost guaranteed to find, on any given page, a startling turn of phrase, a striking metaphor, an inspired simile, or a rapturous, descriptive prose-poem. Which is to say, all these years on, Pynchon's gift for the English language is undiminished. Joyce, Nabokov and Gaddis are really his only peers in the last hundred years.
Alas, all these years on, his vices are also undiminished. I come to Against the Day having read V. the year before (and having read all Pynchon's other novels at various times prior to that) and what strikes me is that here is an artist who has completely failed to develop over the years. Everything he does well, he did equally well in 1963; everything he does poorly (plotting, characterization, pacing, editing) he still does very poorly. Indeed, the similarities between V.and AtD are so striking--both concerned with the Great Game, woo-woo metaphysics and pseudoscience, and an imminent apocalypse--that they often read as if the one were a rewrite of the other.
Is it so unreasonable to expect a little artistic development in 45 years? I, for one, don't see it. In AtD, Pynchon gives us exactly what we've come to expect...and this, to me, is not the hallmark of a great artist, it's the hallmark of a one-trick pony. It's a hell of a trick--one that kept me entertained for several years--but at this point it's time to learn a new one.
Too, except for Pynchon cultists, I defy anyone not to be bored for long stretches of this bloated opus. The Virginia Quarterly reviewer hit the nail squarely on the head when he called Pynchon a "pub bore": someone who has half-digested mountains of random facts at his disposal and is determined to blow your mind with his erudition. Think: Cliff Clavin on steroids and crystal meth. For every genuinely interesting bit of period (1893-WWI) arcana that he's unearthed there must be a dozen of interest only to historians and steampunk obsessives.
Still, just when I'd get fed up, I'd get drawn back in. Parts of the book are certainly as splendid as anything he's ever written...and if there's a lot of the twee, the tedious, and the inane to wade through in between flashes of inspiration and insight, no adventure worth its salt--as the Chums of Chance might have it--is free of its dangers and doldrums. Pynchon fans will read it as a matter of course. Pynchon newbies, however, would be well-advised to get their feet wet with V., Gravity's Rainbow, or Mason & Dixon.