“Against the Day” Roundtable, Part Two

[VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear, the Quite Balding Moderator wishes to note that this post came from the mordant wit of Carolyn Kellogg and not from his dunder-soaked head.]

[IMPORTANT NOTE (Not as Important as the First, But Important Nonetheless): The discussion can also be followed at Metaxucafe. Previous installments: Part One (Max) and Part Three (Megan).]

against2.jpgAnd so the New Chums of Chance continued their great rightward list (as opposed to Danielewski’s leftwrist twist) through the mammoth volume, still finding accommodations in Part One although undaunted by Messr. Pynchon’s dutiful chronicling and celeritous introduction of characters, some logged in history books and others escaping scholarly notice. Then the moment arrived in which Captain Carolyn Kellogg remarked upon Mr. Clarke’s findings — as it turns out, in many guises herself:

Big thanks to Max for parsing Part 1 so effectively. He does a great job as a reader of Pynchon. But as a currently-enrolled MFA student, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if Pynchon tried to bring this to workshop….

Tom Pynchon: OK, guys, this is Part One of my novel-in-progress. It’s called Against the Day. I’ll be quiet now and let you discuss.

Cranky MFAer: Part 1! This is 119 pages—and it’s single spaced. We’re supposed to go double-spaced. And our max is 30.

Professor: OK, I know it’s long, but let’s talk about what’s here.

Chirpy MFAer: I really liked the description! But I was … kinda confused.

Helpful MFAer: Yeah, Tom? I counted and you have, like, 60 characters in 119 pages. People can’t keep track of that many characters. How about 5? Five characters? Maybe 7? Then we could figure out who is who.

Echoey MFAer: Exactly! Like, Scarsdale Vibe is the bad guy, right? But why does he need a sidekick? And you know, everyone has a sidekick? You could really pare down if you got rid of the sidekicks.

Wrong Track MFAer: I don’t mind the sidekicks, but these Chums of Chance leading everything off made me think you were writing some meta comic book. They were funny, but if you want the book to have, you know, weight, you need to signal that up front. Instead of a dirigble, maybe they should be flying something more—threatening, like a military plane. Or maybe instead of a naked lady running around below them, it should be the scientists talking about the math that you’ve put in later.

Chirpy MFAer: About the science stuff? That left me really confused. Like, is it real or fiction? Am I supposed to Google it or something?

Cranky MFAer: Yeah, you’re asking a lot of your readers. If you want them to look stuff up. Or know stuff.

Echoey MFAer: Right? Like, Chicago World’s Fair, am I supposed to know when that was? Because I get that it’s a big fair, but I don’t know if it was back in the 1980s or 1950s or what.

Wrong Track MFAer: I looked it up—it was 1893. But how are we supposed to know this from the text? Maybe you could have a billboard or something that advertises, like, Introducing the New 1893 Coca-Cola! I mean, I don’t know if there was Coke then, but are we supposed to figure out the date by just trains and a haberdashery? Or know about World’s Fairs? Because that’s pretty arcane.

Chirpy MFAer: Can we talk about the science stuff? Because I didn’t get it at all.

Helpful MFAer: I don’t know if I needed to get all the science, and that was OK with me. But I kept looking for plot. Like, where is it? At first I thought it was the Chums of Chance’s mission, then I thought it was going to follow that little girl Dahlia, then I thought it was going to have something to do with Scarsdale Vibe and Tesla, and then there was this Webb Traverse guy blowing something up …. that’s like 5 books. It’s too much. To make this one book you need less—a lot less.

Tom: Um, can I say something?

Professor: Yes, Tom. That would be a change.

Tom: Well, this is only about the first tenth of the novel. I mean, there’s a lot more to come, not less. More characters, more plots, a lot more science, and yes, they all kind of ebb and flow, but the answers won’t be in part one ….

Tom is drowned out by cries of “How long?” “More characters?” “I don’t get the science at all!” etc. etc. And never returns to workshop—or public, for that matter—again.

I’m a new—and believe it or not, enthusiastic—MFA student, so I couldn’t help but read this thinking that a workshop would hate it. Pynchon does so many things that are verboten in writing class. He writes long. He writes complicated and dense as hell. Part 1 is comprehensible, but only in retrospect, really. Keeping track of characters and significant details as you go is near impossible: yet a careless ice cream on page 89 winds up having relevance hundreds of pages later. As Max said, the only way (that works for me) is to let the book wash over you and then go back to paddle around a bit.

And for my part, I promise more detailed paddling for Part 2. Which is when my reading-with-post-its really took hold.


  1. Wow. I just started having flashbacks. At least they didn’t tell him to change tense or POV…

  2. I know these people. They make me crazy.
    (I didn’t realize Cranky MFAer had transferred. My condolences.)
    You, my friend, are hilarious!

  3. Late, Sloppy MFAer: Um, I didn’t read this, but I just want to say that looking at it now, I agree with what other people are saying, there’s like too many things going on and stuff, and I don’t know what all this stuff is. Does anyone have a pen I can use?

  4. Maybe reading the whole book and thinking about the ideas-instead of creating obstacles to the insights
    in this book, would help.

    This book has a very clear narrative taking turns and twists based on the refraction and doubling of experience.
    This process in everyday life is the key to this beautifully woven literary Persian carpet that it seems you are picking sarcastic threads from for your own purposes.

  5. As I understand it, Pynchon turned down the chance to teach creative writing twice, first at Cornell, the second at Bennington. I wonder what the course of his career and creative writing programs would have been if he had not declined….

    From my one time through of AtD, my assessment is that the book holds together better than Gravity’s Rainbow and is perhaps an achievement beyond that book. The metpahor or light and refraction necessarily makes the book seem more rambling than GR where arcing and the pull of gravity makes the work seem to come together better, almost oppressively. I see GR and AtD as bookends, the first dealing with the seriousness of gravity, the second with the playfulness of light.

  6. Wow. I don’t know whether to be glad that the workshop I’m in isn’t the only one with such a low level of function, or sad that students given the chance to work with a professional writer of the heavyweight type wound up saying such stupid things.

    Just out of curiosity, how many Reticent MFAers, Sullen MFAers and Neverpreparedforclassbutattendandslowdownthediscussion MFAers were present?

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