I finished Against the Day about 5 days after Inherent Vice came out. I wasn’t going to rush out and buy Inherent Vice considering the pile of books I have at home waiting for my attention, but a large chain bookstore of whom I’m a member, sent me a 40% off coupon, so there you have it.
I began Against the Day right before our trip to Yosemite, so it took me almost two-and-a-half months to read, with a break for Revolutionary Road. Overall, I liked Against the Day, but it certainly is a lot longer than it needs to be. The book is overly ambitious, not surprising coming from Pynchon.
A lot of critics criticize Pynchon on the grounds that his characters often lack substance, that they often stand in for an idea, which, in some instances is true. But Pynchon is quite capable of creating fully realized and emotionally engaging characters. I found the main plot line of Against the Day about the Traverse family and their quest for revenge full of interesting characters and, for the most part, that plot line is quite engaging and often exciting. As with most of Pynchon’s big novels, any sense of a main plot is obfuscated by multiple tangent plots and hundreds of other characters. And it is with some of these subplots that Against the Day drags. I found myself thinking that there was a really great novel about the Traverse family lost in all the other chaos.
At the same time, however, it’s not easy to dismiss these tangents because many of them are important to the bigger ideas of the novel. The stories of Against the Day take place from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 to the years following the end of World War I. The novel traces some historical events and some imaginary events that lead to the War to End All Wars. Part of what I found so engaging about Against the Day is how Pynchon uses this history to foreshadow the violence, corporate malfeasance, and social upheaval that pervades the rest of that century and the first decade of the 21st. Although the events of the book take place in the early part of the 20th century, it is very much a reaction to the G.W. Bush administration. But it is not only a criticism of that administration, but it is also a criticism of how we painted ourselves into that particular corner. Then again, as Pynchon himself supposedly said in a blurb about Against the Day: “With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.”