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March 23, 2007

Alentejo Blue


Against the Day

judged by SAM LIPSYTE

It’s hard to describe how pissed off I got when the Tournament of Books people informed me that one of the works in my bracket was Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Considering the fact that at least one cretinous Morning News-er helped crush my Rooster dreams last year by voting against my novel in the Tournament final, I found it fairly galling for them to expect me to read 1,100 pages of what many critics were calling a serious travesty, an insult to the cherished legacies of Benny Profane, Oedipa Mass, and Tyrone Slothrop, not to mention Mason and Dixon. And to read it alongside Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue, all in a few weeks, was even more preposterous. I have a job, a toddler, favorite television shows!

Another factor fueling my rage was the sense that Ali’s book was also a dud, at least according to many reviewers, most of them admirers of her debut, Brick Lane. When the packages arrived I figured this would be a matter of pitting Ali’s B game against Pynchon’s C game, or something like that. But to my shame, I have not read Brick Lane, so I’m not really certain what constitutes Ali’s A game. She certainly exhibits real talent and control in Alentejo Blue, and initially I warmed to the idea of spending time with the various inhabitants of the Portuguese village of Mamarrosa. After a while, however, I found that the multiplicity of voices and points of view, some rather forced and flimsy, weakened the novel. Strangely, the character Ali writes with the most authority, the caddish British writer Stanton, is also the least interesting. I spent a month in Portugal years ago, and some of Ali’s narrative tripped some pleasant memories for me, most notably the taste of a Sagres beer on a hot Iberian afternoon (though Superbock is just as good.) Of course, reading the novel made me wonder if Ali’s understanding of Portugal is as shallow as mine. (Check out Tabucci’s Pereira Declares for a gripping novel about Portugal written by a non-Portuguese person.)

• •

As for Against the Day, I do intend to finish it, perhaps even by the end of this month. Some of it is kind of boring. Some of it is astonishing. When the narration shifts into heavy scare-quote mode, it can get a tad annoying, and some of the exercises in pastiche (detective novel, adventure tale, scientific journal) work better than others. But Thomas Pynchon is a master and when he is on—by which I mean when his riffs achieve the right balance of the arcane, the modern, the scary, and the hilarious—there is no way the mildly interesting, failed experiment of a younger writer is going to compete. Alentejo Blue is about Monica Ali resisting pigeonholes, sussing out what her voice sounds like now. Against the Day is about many things, including the recurring collision of science, politics, terror, and the imagination in our history. Yes, the book jumps around crazily, the threads seem to disintegrate in thin air. The trick is to consider this its nature, one that affords many other delights, rather than the novel’s flaw. Finally, though there are some flat moments in Against the Day, Pynchon never writes, as Ali does in her much shorter novel: “The sky was so blue it hurt.” At least he hasn’t so far. Check in with me next month.

• Today’s WINNER •

Against the Day

• About the Judge •

Sam Lipsyte is the author of Home Land, The Subject Steve, and Venus Drive. He teaches writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Connections to authors: He knows Gary Shteyngart.

• From the Booth •

Lipsyte’s review seems to be as good a summary of all the reviews of Against the Day I have read. Kevin John Imagine a Democratic primary where an early eliminated John Edwards secures the nomination by eating Hillary Clinton’s brain.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match «

• The Peanut Gallery •

Do you agree with the outcome of this match?

absolutely   no way

The Standings


• Round One •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. Absurdistan
judged by Brady Udall

The Echo Maker v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Marcus Sakey

Firmin v. Brookland
judged by Sarah Hepola

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo v. The Road
judged by Maria Schneider

Arthur and George v. One Good Turn
judged by Kate Schlegel

The Lay of the Land v. English, August
judged by Colin Meloy

Alentejo Blue v. Apex Hides the Hurt
judged by Dan Chaon

Against the Day v. Pride of Baghdad
judged by Anthony Doerr

• Round Two •

Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Emperor’s Children
judged by Jessa Crispin

Firmin v. The Road
judged by Mark Sarvas

One Good Turn v. The Lay of the Land
judged by Maud Newton

Alentejo Blue v. Against the Day
judged by Sam Lipsyte


Half of a Yellow Sun v. The Road
judged by Elizabeth Gaffney

One Good Turn v. Against the Day
judged by Sasha Frere-Jones


The Road v. Against the Day
judged by Andrew Womack

One Good Turn v. Absurdistan
judged by Rosecrans Baldwin


The Road v. Absurdistan
All Judges + Jessica Francis Kane