Reviewing the Review: November 26 2006

I must be in a mellow post-Thanksgiving mood or something, because I have barely a complaint with today’s New York Times Book Review. There’s some good reading here, like Liesl Schillinger’s cover piece on Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day. Once again, Schillinger writes with more clarity and erudition than most NYTBR regulars. Here’s her opening paragraph:

In “Against the Day,” his sixth, his funniest and arguably his most accessible novel, Thomas Pynchon doles out plenty of vertigo, just as he has for more than 40 years. But this time his fevered reveries and brilliant streams of words, his fantastical plots and encrypted references, are bound together by a clear message that others can unscramble without mental meltdown.

She does a few things right here. She employs lively phrasings like “doles out plenty of vertigo” and “unscramble without mental meltdown”, which shows a good sense for context (timid phrasings won’t fly when you’re reviewing Pynchon). She also manages to grab my interest by declaring that the book has a “clear message”, since I have often despaired of finding a clear message in any Pynchon novel. She actually delivers on this promise; the message appears to be that some form of foreign or extra-terrestial intelligence is communicating with earthlings and/or other aliens in the form of horrific natural events. That is, tsunamis and genocides are codes. I’m not sure I get it, and I’m still not planning to read this book, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the review.

Dennis Overbye also does a good job of engaging my interest in Jean-Claude Carriere’s cosmic French novel Please Mr. Einstein, even if his description of the plot makes no sense to me at all. David Kirby makes more sense, and is even more engaging, in laying out what’s so good about poet Galway Kinnell, whose new poetry collection Strong Is Your Hold I want to read very soon.

Robert F. Worth’s summary of the Denys Johnson-Davies’ Anchor Book of Modern Arabic Fiction is clear and informative. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand, is a little too heavy with the bon mots in his consideration of Gore Vidal’s Point To Point Navigation.

Finally, acclaimed author Michael Lewis reveals himself as all too eager to write an article about Colin Powell. His review of the new biography Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell by Karen DeYoung amounts to a vigorous consideration and (ultimately) prosecution of the former Secretary of State, who Lewis faults for excessive toadying to superiors carrying out policies he knew were dumb. I think Lewis makes a fine case against Powell’s reputation, but it’s hilarious how completely he ignores the book he is supposedly reviewing. This is Lewis vs. Powell, and Karen DeYoung barely gets any attention in a two-page review of her own book.

Still, this issue is substantial enough to satisfy me. Today’s New York Times was overflowing with literary stuff: a profile of Tom Stoppard in the Magazine, a polemic about architecture by Tom Wolfe in the opinion pages, and a glimpse at Orhan Pamuk’s Columbia University crib in the City section round the day’s offerings out.

2 Responses

  1. Against the DayAGAINST THE
    Against the Day

    AGAINST THE DAY is everything they say it is. And more.

    Pynchon is more against the absurdity of time than just the day and less against absurdity than he is in conceeding sanity as a stream of unconsciousness.

    You could cut it all up and twelve million monkeys would eventually write it anyway.

    I just don’t think Schillinger got to the juicy part. Which is the cynicism.

    Not that it’s a new cynicism. It’s a better cynicism. Like a hopeless mousetrap that catches better mice.

    Odd. For someone without hope, he seems to write a lot. One can only wonder. Why bother.

    Because. Madness.

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