Against the Day is Thomas Pynchon at his best; complicated, meandering, prurient, sometimes intentionally dumb, often laugh-out-loud funny. The book is real labor, and you never know if you’re fully understanding all the nuances of the text. The complexity and sheer scale of it guarantees moments when you find yourself struggling to remember characters and plot points. But then, sudden and unexpected, emerge moments of shocking clarity, moments of incandescence almost too beautiful to bear.
Like the moment Kit discovers Lake Baikal while wandering Central Asia…
“He had gazed into pure, small mountain lakes in Colorado, unsoiled by mine tailings or town waste, and was not surprised by the perfect clarity which had more than once taken him to the verge of losing himself, to the dizzying possibility of falling into another order of things. But this was like looking into the heart of the Earth itself as it was before there were eyes of any kind to look at it… In some way he was certain of but had not quite worked through, it was another of those locations like Mount Kailash, or Tengri Khan, parts of a superterrestrial order included provisionally in this lower, broken one. He felt swept now by a violent certitude. He had after all taken the wrong path, allowed the day’s trivialities to engage him—simply had not worked hard enough to deserve to see this…”
The book follows a similar pacing and voice as Gravity’s Rainbow, with frantic excursions into side journeys that are never neatly concluded, and a cast of dozens of walk-on characters with charming Pynchonian names like Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and the Reverend Lube Carnal. Indeed, (and this is hard for me to write), Against the Day feels like a more evolved and even more accomplished evolutionary cousin to Gravity’s Rainbow.
I was giddy when I realized the plot was about to include the 1908 Tunguska Event. Pynchon is the perfect author to describe the cosmic awe and sense of cosmic malevolence of that event. Reading that section came with a feeling of revelation, as if I had been waiting thirty years for Pynchon to describe Tunguska and only just then realized it.
The hardest part about the book is that, like Gravity’s Rainbow, it demands another reading. I feel like you could continue reading it indefinitely, with each pass drawing asymptotically closer to full understanding. But life is busy, and too short.