Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Rant on Reviews via Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's new novel Against the Day, came out today. It's a good thing none of the stores in my immediate area had it in stock. I'm enough of a fan that I probably would have dropped the $35 if I found it on the shelf. Instead now I can wait a bit, at least until I get a coupon to cut the cost a bit. I know I'll buy it, though. I have a short list of novels I count as vastly important to me and Pynchon's the only one to have written more than one.

The literati hasn't been very receptive. The reviews thus far of Against the Day have been mixed at best, but two of them in particular jump out at me as two different ways of doing reviews.

Michiko Kakutani opens her review in the NY Times with this:

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day,” reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex. (NY Times, 11/20/06)

Steven Moore chose this approach for his review in the Washington Post:

Pynchon fans will accept this gift from the author with gratitude, but I'm not so sure about mainstream readers. While Against the Day isn't as difficult as some of Pynchon's other novels, its multiple story lines test the memory, and some folks may be scared off by the heady discussions of vectors, Brownian movements, zeta functions and so forth, not to mention words and phrases from a dozen languages scattered throughout....Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives. (Washington Post Book World, 11/19/06).

To me, a reviewer should principally do three things: 1) Summarize the main ideas, 2) write briefly on the good and bad points, and 3) suggest who would like it and maybe even who wouldn't. Kakutani, for whatever reason, chose to slam the novel in her opening paragraph. While she moves on to some interesting (and balanced) analysis of the strong themes and weak characters, many would abandon reading the rest of the review after that opening. Between this and the bad review they gave Only Revolutions, I may start thinking that a bad review in the NY Times means its the perfect book for me.

More critical analysis is certainly needed in reviews, but so is the understanding that tastes in books have ranges far greater than your own. Moore suggests other viewpoints, hinting that the audience for this novel is probably limited but that there is an audience nonetheless.

Would I be bitching about this if Kakutani raved about the novel? Probably not. I admit, I am slightly defending one of my literary idols. But Kakutani's method here is one I see in reviews all the time and it's really been bothering me lately.



Anonymous said...

Michiko Kakutani is a woman. Here is a picture and a bio.

Hebdomeros said...

Thanks for the correction; I apologize for the error. I made the appropriate changes.

Anonymous said...

No worries. Kakutani found Against the Day about as - "pretentious without being provocative" - as I've found most of the novel's early reviews.

Hebdomeros said...

That's a good way to put it. It's hard for me to say for sure since I haven't read Against the Day yet, but I imagine it's a hard book to write about after only one reading.