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March 19, 2007

Against the Day


Pride of Baghdad


So. Here we have an 1,100-page über-novel by an American master matched against a 136-page graphic novel by a writer best known for a series of comics about a superhuman mayor who can talk to machines.

Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day took me 22 days and two international flights to finish. I read Brian Vaughan’s The Pride of Baghdad during lunch. Twice.

On page 108 of The Pride of Baghdad, for example, there is only one word: “Grahhhhh!”

Pages 112 and 113 feature two words: “Nah!” and “Unh!”

There are lots of words on all of the pages of Against the Day.

The Pride of Baghdad offers a wildly fictionalized version of the escape of four lions from the Baghdad Zoo during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Vaughan’s lions speak English, dodge tanks, battle a bear (Grahhhhh!), and—spoiler coming—ultimately get shredded by faceless Americans with M16s. Along the way, the novel asks some interesting questions about power, hunger, and the lives of animals. Niko Henrichon’s art is lavish and several of his two-page panoramas are breathtaking.

Against the Day, on the other hand, is almost completely irreducible. It is a multigenerational saga involving at least 20 protagonists who move through a (mostly) pre-World War I era in which alternate histories nestle within real histories, time is elastic, and New York City is burned to the ground by a possibly conscious and obviously angry meteorite. Among many, many, many other weird things.

(Such as: A skyship that enters the interior of the earth through a portal in Antarctica and floats over “a battlefield swarming with diminutive combatants wearing pointed hats and carrying what proved to be electric crossbows.” [p. 117])

(Such as: Two killers who take a willing bride to the “Four Corners and put her so one of her knees was in Utah, one in Colorado, one elbow in Arizona and the other in New Mexico—with the point of insertion exactly above the mythical crosshairs itself.” [p. 269])

(Such as: A crew of mischievous time-traveling “Trespassers” who appear now and then as “seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment.” [p. 415])

• •

Look, pretend for a moment you’re an ant. To read The Pride of Baghdad is to take a trip across a leaf. It’s fairly absorbing. There’s lots to see. Your view of the world might be minimally altered once you get across it.

To read Against the Day is to spend a boatload of ant-lifetimes exploring a tree with a trunk as big as a beer truck. There are forks and boughs and limbs and twigs and parasitic vines and tens of thousands of shimmering leaves. The tree moves and even seems to grow; you experience it only a centimeter at a time, but as you climb you begin to sense its vast, beyond-baroque architecture, its athletic density, its almost miraculous existence as a self-contained entity, simultaneously highbrow and lowbrow, ironic and heartfelt, campy and genuine.

Against the Day is a messy novel, fat as a phone book, foaming over with pop-fiction prose and go-nowhere chatter. It is not built to please, and readers who like their stories tidily put to rights will quickly find their brains pulped. But I am very grateful I had the opportunity to read it.

• Today’s WINNER •

Against the Day

• About the Judge •

Anthony Doerr is the author of a story collection, The Shell Collector, and a novel, About Grace. His third book, a work of nonfiction entitled Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, inspired by his Letters From Rome on The Morning News, will be published in June. He was recently named one of Granta’s 20 Best Young American Novelists, a definitive list that, like the Tournament of Books, should never be questioned. In the interest of complete transparency, he admits to reading a few of Monica Ali’s stories in Alentejo Blue when they were in draft form and offering inadequate and unnecessary suggestions. And he has traded a half-dozen emails with Peter Orner.

• From the Booth •

Bill Bennett has already lost five large on Sundance Head and he has another 15 down on Cormac McCarthy. Kevin John This is like asking Elizabeth Hasselbeck to face off against Michael Moore in celebrity sumo wrestling.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane