Balloons, cowpokes and drugs – Against the Day – Thomas Pynchon

Against the DayAgainst the Day – Thomas Pynchon


A sprawling read, Against the Day is a romp through styles, politics and countries, not all of them real. It’s a little loose, more than a little all over the place but it also ranks right up there with his best, both for its insights into late-stage capitalism and for sheer enjoyability.

Generally, the book follows the live of Webb Traverse and his family. A dynamiter by trade and an anarchist by choice, Webb gets mixed up with Scarsdale Vibe, a corrupt, rich mine owner. Throughout the years, these two family keep running into each other, often popping up unexpectedly in places as diverse as Colorado, Mexico and Venice.

At the same time, Pynchon follows several others: private detective Lewis Basnight; early photographer (and amateur alchemist) Merle Rideout and his daughter Dahlia; a shadowy, cultish group of British mystics called the TWITs; and, by far my favourite, a Hardy Boys-esque group of young balloonists calling themselves The Chums of Chance.

As you’d expect from a 1000+ page read, the plot defies an easy description. Pynchon runs several seemingly unrelated plots all at once, bounces between different authorial voices (the Chums sections read like a pulpy boys book, for example) and goes everywhere: the Chums sail through sand dunes, fly missions across the Alps and even travel inside hollow Earth. Everyone has their own, similar personal journeys.

At the same time, all the loose threads start adding up and, to Pynchon’s credit, he gets everything to add together in the final 200 or so pages. It’s still a long, rambly book – it probably could’ve been trimmed down a bit, really – but he makes it all work into one giant tapestry. Mostly, anyway: I’m not completely certain where a couple of the threads led. But it reads better than other huge tomes like Infinite Jest, which has half the story and twice the pretension. A better soundtrack, too.

Side note: An incomplete list of Chums books Pynchon drops throughout the book:

  • The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
  • The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
  • The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
  • The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash Into the Kremlin
  • The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of Yellow Fang

I would definitely read all of these.

Still, the deeper I got into this book, the more overwhelmed I felt. A few weeks in, I almost felt like keeping notes on who was where and when. I even did, from time to time. I expect most people will feel the same: it’s a daunting read.

But I’m glad I kept with it. Aside from some brilliant writing and insights into America (this book feels as timely as ever when Pynchon gets into the struggles between the rich and poor), but because it’s packed with fun little moments: punny names, dick jokes, bursts of song and drug abuse. One character gets hooked on a particular brand of psychoactive dynamite. A dog mauls another character’s crotch. Characters get mixed up in vendettas, world wars and, occasionally, fall in love. Oh, and because it’s a Pynchon book, there’s a section dealing with pizza.

I’ve only read a couple of Pynchon’s books and I’d have no qualms recommending this, but not over the other them. It doesn’t have the same heart, focus or emotional payoff that Mason & Dixon had and it’s a lot more sprawling and not quite as fun as Vineland, which was a wild ride through 20th century America. But I’m still glad I read it: not only is it a fun read, but it’s provoking, too.

An underlying theme in the book is the struggle between rich and poor, the free market versus trade unionists, the labour struggles of the early 20th century. As a private detective, For example, the anti-labour violence of the Pinkerton Agency appalls Lew. The Rideouts aren’t against violence, so long as it serves a purpose: “Nothing vegetable or human that ain’t of some use,” says Webb, “except mine owners, maybe, and their got-dammed finks.”

But the Traverse family eventually learns there are far more evil people than just mine owners and they’ll do just about anything to make a buck. Pynchon’s message about the lengths greed will go rings as true now as ever; it’s interesting he wrote this book just a couple of years before the financial crisis of 2008, during the high years of the Bush administration.

Rating: 8/10. Maybe a little long in the tooth and certainly a bit of a challenge, but still a funny, gripping, wild read. Recommended: it took me most of July to read this and for nearly that whole month, I was more interested in reading this than in anything on TV, in theatres or Netflix.




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