Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith. He's Dickens with degrees in chemistry and mathematics, Dostoevsky with a...

AGAINST THE DAY

            History and its discontents figure as prominently in Thomas Pynchon's formidably brainy novels as do most of the sciences and pseudo-sciences.  He entered our consciousness as a learned hipster almost immediately, in the early story "Entropy," a phlegmatic consideration of the heat death of the universe, and in the ironic epic V (1963), a tale of parallel searches for a mysterious woman whose despairing momentum is mitigated by the stoical mantra "Keep cool, but care."

            The combination of a rationalist's fatalism with a romantic's reverence for human creativity and resilience took brilliant form in a trim fable of conspiracy and disinformation linked to an "underground" postal system (The Crying of Lot 49, 1965); the massive Melvillean Gravity's Rainbow (1973), in which the science of modem warfare walks arm in arm with Armageddon; and the fetching fictional contrast between two legendary surveyors' efforts to map a new world and the redirection of scientific and technical innovations to serve agendas of conquest and exploitation (Mason & Dixon, 1997).             Pynchon now blends the yeasty period style of his most recent novel with the encyclopedic chutzpah of Gravity's Rainbow as he reaches back to the late-19th century and the origins of the first global götterdämmerung to be designated a World War.  Its array of parallel plots begins in the air, aboard a "hydrogen skyship" carrying an aeronautics club, the Chums of Chance (whose adventures inspire a series of dime novels), toward Chicago and the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  The image of adventurous progress thus created is then systematically dismantled by a series of ventures into increasingly dangerous territories.  Colorado miner Weeb Traverse opposes perceived injustice with acts of anarchy (which soon looms as the very Spirit of the Age), initiating a pattern of exile and antagonism that will engulf all his loved ones.  Weeb's son Kit, Yale-educated and severed from his roots, travels compulsively, moving across continents and through successive zones of conflict, into the heart of his deepest longings and fears.             Dozens of other characters – adventurers, spies, research scientists, disoriented celebrities and dedicated agents of the 20th century's culture of death – meet, recombine and redefine themselves. Revolutions break out in Russia and Mexico; ultimate weapons are built and deployed; and natural disasters (such as the 1908 explosion of a comet above the Siberian wasteland) eerily increase and multiply.

            Pynchon is both wordsmith and world-smith. He's Dickens with degrees in chemistry and mathematics, Dostoevsky with a fondness for dumb jokes and awful puns, Faulkner with an even more pronounced apocalyptic imagination.  Master of the knowledge he has acquired and the worlds he surveys, he challenges us to envision with him an opaque and threatening future, while mourning perversions of humanity's accomplishments and aspirations, fearing the worst, and laughing all the way.

Pub Date: Nov. 21, 2006

ISBN: 1-59420-120-X

Page Count: 1120

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2006

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NORMAL PEOPLE

A young Irish couple gets together, splits up, gets together, splits up—sorry, can't tell you how it ends!

Irish writer Rooney has made a trans-Atlantic splash since publishing her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017. Her second has already won the Costa Novel Award, among other honors, since it was published in Ireland and Britain last year. In outline it's a simple story, but Rooney tells it with bravura intelligence, wit, and delicacy. Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan are classmates in the small Irish town of Carricklea, where his mother works for her family as a cleaner. It's 2011, after the financial crisis, which hovers around the edges of the book like a ghost. Connell is popular in school, good at soccer, and nice; Marianne is strange and friendless. They're the smartest kids in their class, and they forge an intimacy when Connell picks his mother up from Marianne's house. Soon they're having sex, but Connell doesn't want anyone to know and Marianne doesn't mind; either she really doesn't care, or it's all she thinks she deserves. Or both. Though one time when she's forced into a social situation with some of their classmates, she briefly fantasizes about what would happen if she revealed their connection: "How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive." When they both move to Dublin for Trinity College, their positions are swapped: Marianne now seems electric and in-demand while Connell feels adrift in this unfamiliar environment. Rooney's genius lies in her ability to track her characters' subtle shifts in power, both within themselves and in relation to each other, and the ways they do and don't know each other; they both feel most like themselves when they're together, but they still have disastrous failures of communication. "Sorry about last night," Marianne says to Connell in February 2012. Then Rooney elaborates: "She tries to pronounce this in a way that communicates several things: apology, painful embarrassment, some additional pained embarrassment that serves to ironise and dilute the painful kind, a sense that she knows she will be forgiven or is already, a desire not to 'make a big deal.' " Then: "Forget about it, he says." Rooney precisely articulates everything that's going on below the surface; there's humor and insight here as well as the pleasure of getting to know two prickly, complicated people as they try to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

Absolutely enthralling. Read it.

Pub Date: April 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-984-82217-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Hogarth

Review Posted Online: Feb. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

THINGS FALL APART

Written with quiet dignity that builds to a climax of tragic force, this book about the dissolution of an African tribe, its traditions, and values, represents a welcome departure from the familiar "Me, white brother" genre.

Written by a Nigerian African trained in missionary schools, this novel tells quietly the story of a brave man, Okonkwo, whose life has absolute validity in terms of his culture, and who exercises his prerogative as a warrior, father, and husband with unflinching single mindedness. But into the complex Nigerian village filters the teachings of strangers, teachings so alien to the tribe, that resistance is impossible. One must distinguish a force to be able to oppose it, and to most, the talk of Christian salvation is no more than the babbling of incoherent children. Still, with his guns and persistence, the white man, amoeba-like, gradually absorbs the native culture and in despair, Okonkwo, unable to withstand the corrosion of what he, alone, understands to be the life force of his people, hangs himself. In the formlessness of the dying culture, it is the missionary who takes note of the event, reminding himself to give Okonkwo's gesture a line or two in his work, The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

This book sings with the terrible silence of dead civilizations in which once there was valor.

Pub Date: Jan. 23, 1958

ISBN: 0385474547

Page Count: 207

Publisher: McDowell, Obolensky

Review Posted Online: April 23, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1958

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