Choose Your Own Advent, Day 16: Against the Day

Against the Day, Thomas PynchonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Against the Day
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Year: 2006

I thought I’d write about Gravity’s Rainbow. I really did. It’s my favorite novel (full stop), and God knows I can ramble on endlessly about it. This would be the easiest entry to write. Hell, in my head, I’ve already overwritten it.

And if I didn’t write about Gravity’s Rainbow, maybe I’d write about V., Pynchon’s first novel. Or The Crying of Lot 49, which is the first novel of his that I read. Or Bleeding Edge, as it’s his most recent. Or Vineland, which is the novel of his I recommend the most to new readers. Maybe Inherent Vice, since I re-read that recently and might like to talk about it in a context other than comparing it to the film. Or Mason & Dixon, since the warm friendship at its core fits so well around the holidays.

In short, I genuinely didn’t expect to be writing about Against the Day…a book of his that I’m not even sure I like.

It’s overlong. It’s messy. It’s full of long stretches in which nothing interesting happens, and which often do little more than spew historical reference points. It raises great ideas and neglects to follow through on them. Its threads often fail to cohere. It’s too busy, too dense, too confusing.

But it’s also full of brilliance. Not consistent brilliance, but it’s there, and when it is, it’s true brilliance. Against the Day isn’t for a reader looking for a great novel, but it will reward readers by being an intermittently great novel.

That’s not why I’m writing about it, though. If I wanted to celebrate Pynchon’s greatness, we’d both be better served if I looked almost anywhere else. No, I’m writing about it because I read it again this year, my fourth or fifth time, probably, and I saw something in it that I’d never seen before. A theme, and an important one, made itself apparent.

And the book became something else to me.

Not better, necessarily. But something different. And as I read with this theme in mind, I found myself experiencing a version of Against the Day that I had not before.

The novel is full of themes. My inability to pick up on it earlier isn’t due to the fact that I wasn’t reading carefully; it’s due to the fact that other things were demanding my attention. There’s the theme of light. The theme of power. (Electrical power and social power.) There’s the theme of justice. The theme of capitalism. The theme of transience. The theme of doubling, doubled lives, doubled events, doubled worlds…

And all of that is still in there. So much more is there as well.

But this recent time…I found something else. Something that I needed to find when I found it. Something that helped me to understand the book in a new way, and maybe to understand myself.

It was time. Specifically, our inability to conquer it.


We are always at the mercy of time. And reading the book through that filter, every moment took on a new meaning for me. Sometimes because it very specifically tied into the theme. Other times it was just because the theme reminded me that these moments, any of these moments, all of these moments, would never happen again. Everything is temporary. Everything ends.

Pavilions set up to be dismantled. Cities whose cultures are destroyed by tourists. Civilizations that met a nasty end long before we were around to observe or record it. Battles we are destined to lose. Rebellions fated to be crushed, by those who are later crushed themselves. Ambitions that bring us so close to progress that, at once, are torn down by those who don’t wish to understand. A child’s doll left behind. A particular sunset we’ll never see again. A train pulling out of the station and the knowledge that whoever is present will never be here, never exactly here, again.

All that will exist will pass. All that exists now has already passed. Tomorrow will pass as well. We can’t help it. We can’t stop it. Our lives, as we live them, are pulling away.

I recognized it early in the novel this time, as one character reflects on his daughter getting a haircut. The narration fixes us within his mind, within his sphere of observations, as we learn about the barbershop, how it looks, where it’s located, what it smells like, the kinds of people who frequent it, what else goes on here, and then…it’s over. The haircut is over before we ever really saw it. We let ourselves get distracted. We looked around. We occupied our time with other things. And that moment was gone before we even thought to live it.

The simplest little thing, inconsequential, unimportant, becomes consequential and important simply because we missed it, because it’s one of many things we are destined to miss, because one day we, too, will die, and so much of our lives will have passed without us even thinking to pay attention.

That character’s little girl moves away. Not even all that far into the book. Not even all that many years later. A few blinks of the eye. A few nights nobody thinks to prolong. One day, she will be gone. And he won’t have this memory of her, because he didn’t think to pay attention.

I believe Against the Day is Pynchon realizing that he won’t live forever. That he’s an old man now, and that the vast majority of his life, his creativity, his productivity, is behind him. Against the Day is his meditation on his own mortality, in the only way that he can meditate: by having lots of characters crash into each other and stumble around and work hard to find some kind of direction that always–always–seems to elude them.

Against the Day becomes a deeply sad book if you read it like that, but it also, to me, became a more important one. It’s a jumbled reflection on a lifetime’s worth of missed, forgotten, and ignored moments. For everything you remember, there’s more that you forget. For everything that you do, there’s more that you don’t. For everyone you meet, there are more missed connections that could have changed everything.

His novel even features characters that don’t grow up…that are frozen, in a sense, in time. Forever young, as the world ages around them.

It must be nice, Pynchon may think, to be able to float above…observing…recording…touched by emotion but untouched by time.

Lonely, painful, with many generations’ worth of loss and longing and sorrow that you’ll never be free of…but, still, it must be nice…

In one scene, two dogs meet. One of them lives in the city, and has dreams of flying. The other lives on an airship, and dreams of living on the ground.