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

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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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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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