Tag Archives: thomas pynchon

Against the Day

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Against the Day

On finishing my read of Against the Day, I believe I have read all of Thomas Pynchon’s published fiction–all his books, anyway: the novels and the Slow Learner collection. This one took two attempts: I halted the first circa 2007 at the midpoint of the novel, and I returned to read the whole thing this year. Straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, I think it is Pynchon’s longest book. It descends from a rarified world of “boys’ adventure” in airships, through anarchist struggle, family revenge, state espionage, sexual compulsion, academic intrigue, and mystical conspiracy, to meditations on light, number, and time.

It is strange that my first attempt at this book was while I was living in Chicago, and my second has been in Colorado. It begins in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and several characters travel from Chicago to Colorado–while Colorado is also the disseminating point for the Traverse family, whose various members trace many of the book’s persistent plot threads. Ultimately, the geography of the book is all-encompassing, featuring London, Venice, Vienna, Mexico, Shambahla, and the Hollow Earth, among other locations. It includes a typically Pynchonian cast of thousands, with names like Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and Bevis Moistleigh.

The title phrase appears several times in the text, each with a different contextually-driven meaning. In addition to these, I understood it to be an Englishing of contre jour: the technique of giving focus to a backlit subject in photography and painting. This notion relates to inventor-character Merle Rideout’s photographic career with its through-line intersecting both the early and late parts of the novel, and to the physics of light that is centered in many different passages, as well as the sense of opaque futurity in the lead up to the Great War and the subsequent totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

As always, Pynchon is very funny, littering the book with jokes to take the edge off of a palpable anger. Among the many digressive episodes, some exalt genre conventions from less “literary” species of fiction, such as the terrific weird horror passage recounted by the explorer Fleetwood Vibe (138-148). Sex is frequent enough in the early parts of the book, and somewhat surprisingly seems to increase in the later ones. Altered states of consciousness and metaphysical indeterminacy create ambiguities and introduce unreliability into the third-person omniscient narration.

Some quick notes regarding my “completed” and iterative consumption of Pynchon’s works (in no particular order): Having read Inherent Vice I saw the movie during its initial release, and I think Gravity’s Rainbow needs to inspire a grand piece of musical theater. V is at the top of my list of Pynchon to re-read. I have now read Mason & Dixon twice and Against the Day one-and-a-half times–they were each worth it.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Vineland by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Vineland

I guzzled this then-new novel down with fascination and delight in a period of less than forty-eight hours during my senior year as a college student in 1990. (Was there chemical assistance in this herculean reading effort? I suspect that there was.) At the time, it seemed like a thematic sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. It also set up a lot of tropes and themes that I was happy to see Pynchon revisit in his later books.

Mason & Dixon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Mason Dixon

Mason & Dixon is the only Pynchon book I’ve read twice: once on my own, and once aloud with my Other Reader. It’s a downright hilarious tome, and only funnier if you’re familiar with the larger Pynchon oeuvre for the coy references that start with the parabolic trajectory in the opening sentence. If the rocket of Gravity’s Rainbow is merely a snowball in this novel, that’s a wonderful thing. Despite the book’s heft, it has a real intimacy, and–in many senses of the word–domestication. The Pynchonian playfulness works itself out on a more human level, and while there are still views of social and cosmic tragedy that strike hard and chill, this weave of historical improbabilities and personal yarns leaves the savvy reader with a flushed and slushy sense of satisfaction. 

Pynchon offers Mason and Dixon as a pair of characters that are almost a diagrammatic odd couple: the mournful encompassing astronomer, and the cheerily square land-surveyor. But for all that, they are never mere allegorical poles. Unlike earlier Pynchon protagonists, who seem to dissolve under the force of the author’s manifold micro-plots, Mason and Dixon actually become more coherent and characterful from start to finish. 

This volume doesn’t even pretend to be anything but fiction within fiction, but I give it more points for capturing the likely weirdness of its place(s) and period than any number of naive or revisionist pictures of the nascent United States. And if the worth of history is to give us a sense of the origin of our own perspectives and values, Pynchon seems to have done real historical work here. All of the crazy anachronisms and supernatural oddities just help the reader maintain the sort of healthy and happy skepticism such enterprises should always have at hand.

We’ve been in place forever. Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you?

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Bleeding Edge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

Bleeding Edge presents the dotcom-bust scene of “Silicon Alley” in NYC in 2001, with fine-tuned conspiracy psychedelia. Like the author’s other novels, it has evil forces of empire conspiring against the common good. Our plucky sleuth in this case is working mom and entrepreneur Maxine, a de-certified fraud examiner.

Despite Pynchon’s policy of personal obscurity, this book seems to project some of his personal affections and anxieties. As a denizen of New York, Pynchon offers what must be his own nostalgia in recurring moments. And his presentation of a pernicious Internet expressing its DARPA genealogy was written at a time when he finally relented and allowed his earlier novels to be distributed in e-book format.

This is not one of Pynchon’s highly digressive sprawls, like Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon; it definitely fits in and extends a series with Inherent Vice and Vineland, bringing that sense of subdued and elegiac outrage (with solid, but never-quite-sufficient comic relief) across the line into the twenty-first century. This one captures the peculiar manner in which our deeply-webbed, netted society has become more … well, more like a Pynchon novel. [via]

It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be.

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ’nother song.

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews Inherent Vice: A Novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice

Somehow Inherent Vice is the first Thomas Pynchon book I’ve read. Generally I found this book to be delightfully unexpected, as I simply didn’t know what I was missing; a little bit Thompson gonzo, a little bit Tom Robbins …

In specific, however, I realized somewhere near the middle of the book that I did not care at all about any of the characters, and felt detached from them and the story. Normally I find myself daydreaming, and thinking, and pausing to consider, and visualizing scenes and blocking and performance; but, in spite of the delightful intellectual trip in the story and writing, I was not particularly moved in any other way. I neither liked nor hated anyone in this story, and the action was not visceral to me. However, as I mentioned, it was definitely a fun intellectual trip in both style and substance.

Except for one thing that just rubbed me the wrong way. I recognize that the author has a particular and peculiar vernacular use of the apostrophe, a style. However, every time I saw “seeing ‘s” in the text, my skin crawled. , but the way it was seems completely wrong to me. First, this contraction of “seeing as” might be confusingly rendered as “seeing’s” though that seems more proper to me, as a contraction. Second, if this isn’t a contraction, but rather an indication there’s a full stop, then … no one actually talks like that, do they? Bah. Allergies. [via]

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from Bloomsbury

I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely popular novel about supernatural magic and magicians in early nineteenth-century England. The descriptions of magic seem to suggest that the author has some first-hand experience of significant thaumaturgy, or perhaps good drugs; they present a sort of genuine psychedelia (“mind opening”), as contrasted with the hackneyed tropes of occultist and drug subcultures. But the sorcery is in many ways subordinate to the characterizations and interpersonal plots of the novel, which are rich and satisfying, showing a profound insight into just the sort of motivations and tensions that emerge among colleagues and competitors in magical craft.

Press reviews have attempted comparisons with many other authors of fantasy literature, as well as “literary” authors. (The book was not issued under a genre imprint.) I cannot help making two of my own. The story often reminded me of the deservedly lauded Little, Big by John Crowley. Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than a century, it is easy to imagine Clarke’s and Crowley’s stories taking place in the same universe: the human and non-human dynamics of magic are similar, and the characters are equally vivid and engaging. The chief distinction between the two books is one not of scale, but of scope. Little, Big covers more time, but its concern is essentially a single household and family. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is oriented nationally, toward the condition of England and “English magic.”

The other resemblance that struck me was to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Obviously, there is the “odd couple” of the titular characters, brought together for professional reasons, and subject to the stresses of difficult lives. But the deft use of metafictional elements in a historical framework, along with a vivid sense of humor, makes these two books into close kin. Unlike Pynchon’s protagonists, though, neither Gilbert Norrell nor Jonathan Strange is an actual historical person. While Clarke was perfectly willing to conscript Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington into her novel, the magicians are all thoroughly fictional. An odd consequence of this approach is that she offers many glimpses of a history of “English magic” from which have been deleted England’s various legended, alleged, and actual magicians: no Roger Bacon, no John Dastin, no John Dee, no Edward Kelly, no Robert Fludd, no Simon Forman—even Merlin barely rates passing mention. In their stead, she details with high verisimilitude the received histories and legends of such de novo characters as John Uskglass, Jacques Belasis, Gregory Absalom, and Martin Pale. And she single-handedly generates a bibliography of imaginary tomes that easily competes with the Lovecraft circle’s notorious catalog.

Early on in the book, I found myself nonplussed by Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations. They are charcoal renderings in a loose style, reminiscent of nothing so much as late twentieth-century children’s literature, putting them at odds with the archaic spellings, footnotes, and other period elements of the text. The drawings did not seem to manifest a creative imagination, other than at least one case (p. 632) in which there were details that uselessly contradicted the text. The fact that Clarke explicitly referenced caricaturists of the period, and at one point devoted an entire chapter to a story about the engravings prepared to illustrate Strange’s History and Practice of English Magic, just added to the sense of Rosenberg’s drawings as inappropriate and superfluous.

To conclude, I’ll offer some thoughts regarding the plot that might be considered spoilers. Somewhere past the midpoint of the book, the level of dramatic irony got so high that I was almost discouraged from reading on account of sadness for the characters. I also started to suspect that the story would ultimately be an account of how magic had been eradicated from England. Not only was I wrong in that suspicion, but I have seldom been so pleasantly surprised by a happy ending. [via]


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