The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Alentejo Blueby MONICA ALI
Against the Dayby THOMAS PYNCHON
It’s hard to describe how pissed off I got when the Tournament of Books people informed me that one of the works in my bracket was Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Considering the fact that at least one cretinous Morning News-er helped crush my Rooster dreams last year by voting against my novel in the Tournament final, I found it fairly galling for them to expect me to read 1,100 pages of what many critics were calling a serious travesty, an insult to the cherished legacies of Benny Profane, Oedipa Mass, and Tyrone Slothrop, not to mention Mason and Dixon. And to read it alongside Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue, all in a few weeks, was even more preposterous. I have a job, a toddler, favorite television shows!
Another factor fueling my rage was the sense that Ali’s book was also a dud, at least according to many reviewers, most of them admirers of her debut, Brick Lane. When the packages arrived I figured this would be a matter of pitting Ali’s B game against Pynchon’s C game, or something like that. But to my shame, I have not read Brick Lane, so I’m not really certain what constitutes Ali’s A game. She certainly exhibits real talent and control in Alentejo Blue, and initially I warmed to the idea of spending time with the various inhabitants of the Portuguese village of Mamarrosa. After a while, however, I found that the multiplicity of voices and points of view, some rather forced and flimsy, weakened the novel. Strangely, the character Ali writes with the most authority, the caddish British writer Stanton, is also the least interesting. I spent a month in Portugal years ago, and some of Ali’s narrative tripped some pleasant memories for me, most notably the taste of a Sagres beer on a hot Iberian afternoon (though Superbock is just as good.) Of course, reading the novel made me wonder if Ali’s understanding of Portugal is as shallow as mine. (Check out Tabucci’s Pereira Declares for a gripping novel about Portugal written by a non-Portuguese person.)
As for Against the Day, I do intend to finish it, perhaps even by the end of this month. Some of it is kind of boring. Some of it is astonishing. When the narration shifts into heavy scare-quote mode, it can get a tad annoying, and some of the exercises in pastiche (detective novel, adventure tale, scientific journal) work better than others. But Thomas Pynchon is a master and when he is onby which I mean when his riffs achieve the right balance of the arcane, the modern, the scary, and the hilariousthere is no way the mildly interesting, failed experiment of a younger writer is going to compete. Alentejo Blue is about Monica Ali resisting pigeonholes, sussing out what her voice sounds like now. Against the Day is about many things, including the recurring collision of science, politics, terror, and the imagination in our history. Yes, the book jumps around crazily, the threads seem to disintegrate in thin air. The trick is to consider this its nature, one that affords many other delights, rather than the novel’s flaw. Finally, though there are some flat moments in Against the Day, Pynchon never writes, as Ali does in her much shorter novel: The sky was so blue it hurt. At least he hasn’t so far. Check in with me next month.
|Lipsyte’s review seems to be as good a summary of all the reviews of Against the Day I have read.||Kevin||John||Imagine a Democratic primary where an early eliminated John Edwards secures the nomination by eating Hillary Clinton’s brain.|