Lord help us. Laura Miller has reviewed Against the Day.
This isn’t about her not liking it. I’m perfectly fine with people not liking ATD, as long as they’re intelligent about it (see Tom LeClaire in Bookforum, for instance). In fact, I agree that there is plenty to criticize in this book. It is very imperfect.
But Miller dislikes ATD for such remarkably uninformed reasons that it’s a wonder that Salon still lets her write. Actually, no, it isn’t.
In his ethos, the brave, heroic, decent individual is pitted against merciless institutions, systems and elites (he’s got a thing about Ivy Leaguers) that openly or covertly run the world. (He’s also prone to personifying those systems, hence the mustache-twirling villainy of Scarsdale Vibe.) That’s the essence of Pynchonian paranoia, but the rub is that Pynchon’s heroes (in this novel, at least) aren’t paranoid.
I’m going to type this real slow so even Miller get it. The reason the characters aren’t paranoid is because THE BOOK TAKES PLACE BETWEEN 1887 AND 1920!!! Paranoia, at least the way Pynchon writes about it, doesn’t exist until after World War II. In ATD, Pynchon is trying to describe the world as it existed BEFORE WWII. Why would he include post-WWII paranoia in a book that tries to explain the world before WWII?
Maybe this would be sufficient, if by now we didn’t have, say, a writer like David Foster Wallace, who can give us a novel every bit as antic and intellectually demanding as "Against the Day," and can also populate it with believable people whose fates not only interest but break our hearts. . . .
The bar is higher now, and it’s not quite enough to sketch a dozen or so characters without trying to make them breathe in a novel that raises Big Questions and then just leaves them dangling. Time doesn’t exist, but it crushes us anyway; everyone could see World War I coming, but no one could stop it — those are two weighty paradoxes that hover over the action in "Against the Day" without truly engaging with it.
I will never understand why critics try to criticize Pynchon for not writing REAL CHARACTERS. As though REAL CHARACTERS were the be-all, end-all of literature. He wrties flat characters because–among other reasons–it wouldn’t do to have REAL CHARACTERS engage in manic orgies one moment and then be talking linear algebra the next.
The bar is not higher because Pynchon is not trying to jump over the same bar as other authors. Damn those apples! They really don’t make orange juice as well as oranges do, do they?! Say it with me Laura–"Pynchon does not want to be DFW! Pynchon does not want to be DFW! Pynchon does not want to be DFW!" Now let’s click our heels together and wait for the wizard.
As for the oddly capitalized Big Questions: He leaves the Big Questions dangling because . . . wait for it . . . THERE ARE NO ANSWERS! Yes! In Pynchon’s world, cause and effect only take place within the boundaries of one’s brain, so it wouldn’t exactly make sense if Thomas Pynchon tried to tell you how to make sense of History. He purposely repeatedly leads you right up to the answer and then dodges away for precesely for that reason.
I really don’t mind if Miller thinks that’s a bunch of BS. In fact, I would like to see an argument for why Pynchon’s view of history is incorrect. But from Miller’s review it looks like she doesn’t understand what Pynchon is trying to do.
Not to mention, if Miller is so intent on ANSWERS, then why is she such a big fan of Infinite Jest, a book that, to say the least, doesn’t exactly give you narrative closure?
One last one:
Like Pynchon’s previous novel, "Mason & Dixon," "Against the Day" doesn’t really start to cohere until a point so far into the book that all but the most fanatical acolyte (and there are plenty of those, of course) will have given up and wandered off. "Mason & Dixon" doesn’t become an actual novel until about page 250; with "Against the Day," it takes more like 400 pages.
I would like for Laura to trot out a 1,100-page book that DOES begin to "become an actual novel" within the first 400 pages. Well, actually, I’d like for Miller to explain what she means by "become an actual novel," since most of Pynchon’s books don’t ever become an actual novel in the sense in which Miller appears to be using that word.