review of the week Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon Penguin, HK$300 Anyone who has read a Thomas Pynchon novel knows that this review has been published a decade early. Even those who've hurled one of Pynchon's finely bound bricks to the floor and refused to finish the story will scoff at the notion of critiquing his new work after only one reading, let alone boiling down the plot and ideas to 700 words. You'd struggle to list the characters from some of his novels in less than 1,000 words. Those who have finished a Pynchon novel - through enjoyment, not submission to the sirens of insanity baying in his plot labyrinths - might suggest as many readings as possible in a lifetime, at least one university thesis and, crucially, scrutiny of obsessive internet banter about the author's possible subtexts before attempting a review. Pynchon, we can only assume, would prefer that reviews never surfaced. The scholarship and the internet banter might be tolerated by the leftist lay physicist, but sustaining the review industry is likely to roil his guts. Pynchon has played almost no part in the media since he started writing in the 1960s. He makes a game of avoiding the spotlight while spending up to a decade on fat, polymorphic novels full of paranoia about the forces pulling our reins and eccentrics who, often inadvertently, break free and run their own anarchic race. His masterpiece, Gravity's Rainbow, found a shape to Europe when the borders briefly dissolved immediately after the end of the second world war. Against the Day ends shortly after the armistice of 1918 and is just as concerned with what controls chaos. It starts with the Chums of Chance, a band of adventuring balloonists who look down from the skies in the 1890s as the amorphous energy of America's frontier and democracy is channelled into an emerging consumer culture. Europe is sliding towards the first world war. 'The national idea would be reborn,' a character says of the Great War. 'One trembles at the pestilent forms that would rise up afterward, from the swamp of the ruined Europe.' The Chums are straight from the Boys' Own Adventure school of writing. The balloonists have looked and realised 'how much the modern State depended for its survival on maintaining a condition of permanent siege - through the systemic encirclement of populations, the starvation of bodies and spirits, the relentless degradation of civility until citizen was turned against citizen'. During the first 50 pages of this 1,085-page tale, dozens of characters and back stories are introduced - first by name and often thereafter by abbreviations and nicknames. We meet Yashmeen Harcourt, Merle Rideout, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, the Reverend Lube Carnal, Root Tubsmith and Alonzo Meatman. We arrive at what the author might deign to call a central character only once a swirling Pychonesque society has been set free. Webb Traverse is an anarchist miner bent on bombing capitalism into the dust, just as the big business juggernaut 'had rolled down on the country and flat stolen it'. But the local mogul Scarsdale Vibe has him assassinated, sending Traverse's four children spiralling to their own corners of the world. His daughter unknowingly marries one of the hitmen who killed her father. Two sons look for revenge and the third's mathematical gifts lead to Vibe sponsoring his education. From the American midwest, the novel zaps to Asia, Mexico and Europe, over dogs who read Henry James and seduce men - on page 666, naturally - and countless narrative strands. These places and characters vanish within a paragraph or reappear hundreds of pages later. Like the philosophical and scientific ideas of the era, some of the characters stick and others fade. Pynchon seems to have no better idea of which characters will lead his story on than people at the turn of the 19th century had about the future of plans to use the planet as an element in a 'gigantic resonant circuit' that would form the 'World System' of free electrical power. Against the Day is an astonishing collection of ideas and styles. When it's good, it's the best. But it's also exhausting and refuses to concede to the reader. 'News travels at queer velocities,' Pynchon writes, 'and not usually even in straight lines.'