- Study of light and non-light
- Byzantine mosaic
- Codex of visible and invisible
- Musical comedy
- Anarchist golf
- Photograph—the posing of, the taking of, the development of, the product of, the negative of, the future of, the past of, the continuous present of, the potential of…
- Revenge story
- Spy game
- Study of physical and metaphysical
- Likely too long for most readers
- Advent of modernity
- Alternate history of labor unions
- Math discussion
- Alternate reality exercises
- Invisible portraits, invisible landscapes
- Epic romance
- Flight log
- Hat fetishes
- Endless digression
- Maps and legends
- Flaneur’s game
- International intrigue
- Love story
- Lust story
- Series of ever-changing vectors
- Polyglossic carnival
- Doppelgangers and the women who love them
- Vaudeville routine
- Infinite jest
- Over the sky, under the desert, into the center of the earth
- Boys’ adventure story
- Girls’ adventure story
- Post-Victorian sci-fi
- Mayonnaise history
- Magic trick
- Time travel calisthenics
- Art history
- Stamp collection
- Like a surreal version of the game of Risk
- Genre mash-up
- Dream factory
- Gilded Age fallout
- Holy Grail quest
- Whatever word is the most intense and accurate opposite of sparse
- Robber barons and the men who hate them
- Ever bilocating plot lines unfolding and retangling in the direction of increasing entropy
- Pulp fiction
- Invisible ink
- Flip side of a tapestry, its ragged threads exposed
- Salad of utopian visions
- Vision through Iceland spar
- Critique of capitalism
- Disappearing act
- Polyphonic spree
- Moving pictures
- Deconstruction of family values
- Drunken cavalcade of dick jokes
- Rage against the machine
- Time travelogue
- Anti-war tract
- Shaggy ______________
- Critique of oligarchy
- Jazz improvisation
- Cricket with no scorekeeper
- 1,085 pages in hardback
- Often fuzzy, bilocated, discursive—full of flashforwards and flashbacks and side flashes
- Sexy sex sex
- Funhouse maze with smoke and mirrors
- High adventure
- Dictionary of mysticism
- Scathing analysis of Manifest Destiny
- Simultaneously heavy and light, profound and sophomoric
- “What It Means to Be an American”
- Drug manual
- Positive visions of the possibilities for human coexistence
- Index of wonderfully bad puns
- Perpetual motion machine
- Spiralling and unspiralling riffage
- A zillion dime novels turned on their ears and spines and just spinning
- Flight toward grace
A DAY OR TWO LATER, Lew went up to Carefree Court. The hour was advanced, the light failing, the air heated by the Santa Ana wind. Palm trees rattled briskly, and the rats in their nests up there hung on for dear life. Lew approached through a twilit courtyard lined with tileroofed bungalows, stucco archways, and the green of shrubbery deepening as the light went. He could hear sounds of glassware and conversation.
From the swimming pool came sounds of liquid recreation—feminine squeals, deep singlereed utterances from high and low divingboards. The festivities here this evening were not limited to any one bungalow. Lew chose the nearest, went through the formality of ringing the doorbell, but after waiting a while just walked in, and nobody noticed.
It was a gathering impossible at first to read, even for an old L.A. hand like Lew—society ladies in flapper-rejected outfits from Hamburger’s basement, real flappers in extras’ costumes—Hebrew headdresses, belly-dancing outfits, bare feet and sandals—in from shooting some biblical extravaganza, sugar daddies tattered and unshaven as street beggars, freeloaders in bespoke suits and sunglasses though the sun had set, Negroes and Filipinos, Mexicans and hillbillies, faces Lew recognized from mug shots, faces that might also have recognized him from tickets long cold he didn’t want to be reminded of, and here they were eating enchiladas and hot dogs, drinking orange juice and tequila, smoking cork-tip cigarettes, screaming in each others’ faces, displaying scars and tattoos, recalling aloud felonies imagined or planned but seldom committed, cursing Republicans, cursing police federal state and local, cursing the larger corporate trusts, and Lew slowly began to get a handle, for weren’t these just the folks that once long ago he’d spent his life chasing, them and their cousins city and country? through brush and up creek-beds and down frozen slaughterhouse alleyways caked with the fat and blood of generations of cattle, worn out his shoes pair after pair until finally seeing the great point, and recognizing in the same instant the ongoing crime that had been his own life—and for achieving this self-clarity, at that time and place a mortal sin, got himself just as unambiguously dynamited.
He gradually understood that what everybody here had in common was having survived some cataclysm none of them spoke about directly—a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the U.S. government. . . .
“No it wasn’t Haymarket.”
“It wasn’t Ludlow. It wasn’t the Palmer raids.”
“It was and it wasn’t.” General merriment.
—Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
The Chums of Chance Meet the Wandering Sisterhood of the Sodality of Ætheronauts (Pynchon’s Against the Day)
CROSSING THE ROCKIES, they found aloft an invisible repetition of the material terrain beneath them. Three-dimensional flows of cold air followed the flow of rivers far below. Air currents ascended sunny sides of mountains at the same steep angles as colder air drained down the shady sides. Sometimes they would be caught in this cycling, and hung over the ridge-line repeating great vertical circles until Randolph ordered the engines engaged.
It proved a struggle after that, for the wind desired them to go south, and numberless standard cubic feet of engine propellant were wasted against the northerly imperative before Randolph, calculating that they had exceeded their energy allotment, gave up the ship’s immediate future to the wind, and they drifted thus over the Rio Bravo, and into the skies of Old Mexico. So they were borne onward, before winds of obscure sorrow, their clarity of will fitful as the nightly heat-lightning at their horizon.
It was just at that moment of spiritual perplexity that they would be rescued, with no advance annunciation, here, “South of the Border,” by the Sodality of Ætheronauts.
How could they have ever crossed trajectories? Afterward none of the boys could remember where it happened, during which toxic ascent, amid what clamor of bickering by now grown routine, they had blundered into this flying-formation of girls, dressed like religious novices in tones of dusk, sent whirling, scattering before the airship’s star-blotting mass, their metallic wings earnestly rhythmic, buffeting, some passing close enough for the boys to count the bolts on gear-housings, hear the rotary whining of nitro-naphthol auxiliary power-units, grow rigidly attentive to glimpses of bared athletic girl-flesh. Not that these wings, with their thousands of perfectly-machined elliptical “feathers,” even in this failing, grime-filtered light, could ever have been mistaken for angels’ wings. The serious girls, each harnessed in black kidskin and nickel-plating beneath the inescapable burdens of flight, each bearing on her brow a tiny electric lamp to view her control panel by, regrouped and wheeled away into the coming night. Were glances, even then, cast back at the lumbering, engine-driven skycraft? frowns, coquetries, indistinct foreknowledge that it was to be among themselves, these sombre young women, that the Chums were destined after all to seek wives, to marry and have children and become grandparents—precisely among this wandering sisterhood, who by the terms of their dark indenture must never descend to Earth, each nightfall nesting together on city rooftops like a flock of February chaffinch, having learned to find, in all that roofs keep out, a domesticity of escape and rejection, beneath storm, assaults of moonlight, some darker vertical predation, never entirely dreamed, from other worlds.
Their names were Heartsease and Primula, Glee, Blaze, and Viridian, each had found her way to this Ætherist sorority through the mysteries of inconvenience—a train arriving late, a love-letter mistimed, a hallucinating police witness, and so forth.
—Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
1. So in the final pages of Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon takes us back to those heroes of the ether who initiated the book, the Chums of Chance. They’ve been absent for a long stretch, with only the occasional mention here or there to assure us that yes, they are still in the narrative, but under its surface, or, rather—invisible (this, in a novel full of invisibility).
2. Example: in a maddening moment, we learn that, via Pugnax’s girlfriend, a dog named Ksenija, “the Chums of Chance had been invisibly but attentively keeping an eye on the progress of Reef’s family exfiltration from the Balkan Peninsula.”
3. Several chapters later, Pynchon makes our sky-heroes visible again; they’ve dramatically expanded the size of their ship Inconvenience and have essentially declared independence from Chums headquarters.
They learn of a strange “updraft” over the Sahara desert that spells new adventure—
Tonight’s meeting was about whether or not to take the Inconvenience into the great updraft over the Sahara without somebody paying for it in advance. Miles called the session to order by bashing upon a Chinese gong acquired years before from an assassination cult active in that country, during the boys’ unheralded but decisive activities in the Boxer Rebellion (see The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang), and wheeled around a refrigerated Champagne cart, refilling everyone’s glass from a Balthazar of ’03 Verzenay.
4. And so of course they go, and we get this remarkable passage:
And as they entered and were taken, Chick Counterfly thought back to his first days aboard the Inconvenience, and Randolph’s dark admonition that going up would be like going north, and his own surmise that one could climb high enough to descend to the surface of another planet. Or, as the commander had put it then, “Another ‘surface,’ but an earthly one . . . all too earthly.”
—and jeez I hate to break in, but I just have to point out that Pynchon is citing himself here, that the lines that Chick Counterfly recollects go all the way back to page nine, to the first chapter of the book.
The corollary, Chick had worked out long ago, being that each star and planet we can see in the Sky is but the reflection of our single Earth along a different Minkowskian spacetime track. Travel to other worlds is therefore travel to alternate versions of the same Earth. And if going up is like going north, with the common variable being cold, the analogous direction in Time, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, ought to be from past to future, in the direction of increasing entropy.
So the great grand theme of bilocation gets tied in here to the novel’s hard sci-fi tropes, all pointing to “increasing entropy.” There are other Chums on other Earths, bilocating into other systems that are breaking “in the direction of increasing entropy.”
6. Which is a fairly accurate description of both the plot and the structure of Against the Day. The novel is shaggy and seemingly fails to cohere because it is a stylistic approximation of entropy.
7. And a few paragraphs later, we get a demonstration of this program. Miles Blundell, the most mystical and reflective Chum, is able to perceive the violence and terror of The Great War that rages below the Chums—who, bilocated, displaced cannot see it—it’s invisible.
“Those poor innocents,” he exclaimed in a stricken whisper, as if some blindness had abruptly healed itself, allowing him at last to see the horror transpiring on the ground. “Back at the beginning of this . . . they must have been boys, so much like us. . . . They knew they were standing before a great chasm none could see to the bottom of. But they launched themselves into it anyway. Cheering and laughing. It was their own grand ‘Adventure.’ They were juvenile heroes of a World-Narrative—unreflective and free, they went on hurling themselves into those depths by tens of thousands until one day they awoke, those who were still alive, and instead of finding themselves posed nobly against some dramatic moral geography, they were down cringing in a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death.”
“Miles,” said Randolph in some concern. “What is it? What do you see down there?”
Miles points out that the “boys” fighting in the war are “so much like” the Chums — “juvenile heroes of a World-Narrative” on their “own grand ‘Adventure’” and then punctures the high heroic rhetoric that marked the Chums episode up until this point, his analysis culminating in the abject image of “a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death.” The language and sentiment of the Chums is bilocated, unraveling in the direction of increasing entropy.
Titles of The Chums of Chance books mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day:
- The Chums of Chance and the Evil Halfwit
- The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna
- The Chums of Chance and the Ice Pirates
- The Chums of Chance Nearly Crash into the Kremlin
- The Chums of Chance and the Caged Women of Yokohama
- The Chums of Chance and the Wrath of the Yellow Fang
- The Chums of Chance at Krakatoa
- The Chums of Chance Search for Atlantis
- The Chums of Chance in Old Mexico
- The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth
- The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth
The Chums of Chance bits have been some of my favorites in Pynchon’s Against the Day, and have given me more than one occasion to riff. There’s something wonderfully generative (and even generous) about these pulpy, romantic titles—an invitation to daydream, to fly with the boys a bit.
The painting of the airship at the top is by Harry Grant Dart, whose comic strip The Explorigator undoubtedly influenced Pynchon’s vision of The Chums of Chance. You can perhaps glean some of that inspiration in this 1908 broadside:
Scarsdale Vibe was addressing the Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Industrial Defense Alliance (L.A.H.D.I.D.A~) gathered in the casino of an exclusive hot-springs resort up near the Continental Divide. Enormous windows revealed and framed mountain scenery like picture postcards hand-tinted by a crew brought in from across the sea and all slightly colorblind. The clientele looked to be mostly U.S. white folks, pretty well-off in a flash sort of way—vacationers from back east and beyond, though an observer might be forgiven if he thought he recognized faces from the big hotel bars in Denver, with a few that might’ve fit in on upper Arapahoe as well.
The evening was advanced, the ladies had long since retired, and with them any need for euphemism.
“So of course we use them,” Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stemwinder, “we harness and sodomize them, photograph their degradation, send them up onto the high iron and down into mines and sewers and killing floors, we set them beneath inhuman loads, we harvest from them their muscle and eyesight and health, leaving them in our kindness a few miserable years of broken gleanings. Of course we do. Why not? They are good for little else. How likely are they to grow to their full manhood, become educated, engender families, further the culture or the race? We take what we can while we may. Look at them—they carry the mark of their absurd fate in plain sight. Their foolish music is about to stop, and it is they who will be caught out, awkwardly, most of them tonedeaf and never to be fully aware, few if any with the sense to leave the game early and seek refuge before it is too late. Perhaps there will not, even by then, be refuge.
“We will buy it all up,” making the expected arm gesture, “all this country. Money speaks, the land listens, where the Anarchist skulked, where the horsethief plied his trade, we fishers of Americans will cast our nets of perfect ten-acre mesh, leveled and varmint-proofed, ready to build on. Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage money will be paying to build for us. When the scars of these battles have long faded, and the tailings are covered in bunch-grass and wildflowers, and the coming of the snows is no longer the year’s curse but its promise, awaited eagerly for its influx of moneyed seekers after wintertime recreation, when the shining strands of telpherage have subdued every mountainside, and all is festival and wholesome sport and eugenically-chosen stock, who will be left anymore to remember the jabbering Union scum, the frozen corpses whose names, false in any case, have gone forever unrecorded? who will care that once men fought as if an eight-hour day, a few coins more at the end of the week, were everything, were worth the merciless wind beneath the shabby roof, the tears freezing on a woman’s face worn to dark Indian stupor before its time, the whining of children whose maws were never satisfied, whose future, those who survived, was always to toil for us, to fetch and feed and nurse, to ride the far fences of our properties, to stand watch between us and those who would intrude or question?” He might usefully have taken a look at Foley, attentive back in the shadows. But Scarsdale did not seek out the eyes of his old faithful sidekick. He seldom did anymore. “Anarchism will pass, its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like the bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.”
—Nearing the end of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, we get this (final—sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this mutherfucker needed to get got!) monologue from mustache-twirling super-capitalist arch-villain Scarsdale Vibe. His speech here (to the L.A.H.D.I.D.A., another wonderful throwaway gag) recalls an earlier bit of the book that I riffed on at some length—it almost feels as if Pynchon, at the end of Against the Day is going through the motions of checking in on everyone and reminding the readers, Hey, look, this guy is downright dastardly. Also: Manifest Destiny, exploitation, environmental degradation, etc. And again—not trying to set up any spoilers, but I could totally see not just this guy’s demise on the radar, but also the means of his demise. And despite that, it was very, very satisfying.
“Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day” (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
FOR THIS PARTICULAR STRETCH of Pacific slope, Tapachula was town— you wanted to relax or raise hell or both at the same time, you went in to Tapachula. Frank tended to spend time at a cantina called El Quetzal Dormido, drinking either maguey brandy from Comitán or the at first horrible but after a while sort of interesting local moonshine known as pox, and dancing with or lighting panatelas for a girl named Melpomene who’d drifted down from the ruins and fireflies of Palenque, first to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and then, with that boomtown certitude some young folks possess of knowing where the money is being spent least reflectively at any given season, to Tapachula, where there were cacao, coffee, rubber, and banana plantations all within an easy radius, so the town was always jumping with pickers, tree shakers, nurserymen, beanpolishers, guayuleros, and centrifuge operators, none in a mood for moderation of any kind.
Melpomene told Frank about the giant luminous beetles known as cucuji. Each night in the country around Palenque, illuminating the miles of ruins hidden among the jungle trees, you could see them by the millions, shining all over their bodies, so brightly that by the light of even one of them you could read the newspaper, and six would light up a city block. “Or so a tinterillo told me once,” grinning through the smoke of a Sin Rival. “I never learned to read, but I have a tree full of cucuji in my yard. Come on,” and she led him out the back and down a cobbled alley and into a dirt lane. All at once, ahead of them, above the tops of the trees, shone a greenish yellow light, pulsing off and on. “They feel me coming,” she said. They rounded a corner and there was a fig tree, with near as Frank could tell thousands of these big luminous beetles, flashing brightly and then going dark, over and over, all in perfect unison. He found if he stared too long into the tree, he tended to lose his sense of scale and it became almost like looking into a vast city, like Denver or the Mexican capital, at night. Shadows, depths . . .
Melpomene told him how the Indian women of Palenque captured the beetles and tamed them, giving them names which they learned to answer to, putting them into little cages to carry like lamps at night, or wearing them in their hair beneath transparent veils. Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day.
“Do all these critters here have names?”
“Most of them,” giving him a look of warning not to make fun of this. “Even one named after you, if you’d like to meet him. Pancho!”
One of the fragments of light detached itself from the tree and flew down and landed on the girl’s wrist, like a falcon. When the tree went dark, so did Pancho. “Bueno, “she whispered to it, “pay no attention to the others. I want you to light up only when I tell you. Now.” The bug, obligingly, lit up. “Ahora, apágate,” and again Pancho complied.
Frank looked at Pancho. Pancho looked back at Frank, though what he was seeing was anybody’s guess.
He couldn’t say when exactly, but at some point Frank came to understand that this bearer of light was his soul, and that all the fireflies in the tree were the souls of everyone who had ever passed through his life, even at a distance, even for a heartbeat and a half, that there existed such a tree for each person in Chiapas, and though this suggested that the same soul must live on a number of trees, they all went to make up a single soul, really, in the same way that light was indivisible. “In the same way,” amplified Günther, “that our Savior could inform his disciples with a straight face that bread and wine were indistinguishable from his body and blood. Light, in any case, among these Indians of Chiapas, occupies an analogous position to flesh among Christian peoples. It is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind.”
–From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
This passage illustrates some of the novel’s grand themes—the visible and invisible worlds; the tangible, the real and the metaphysical something that might be behind it—and light, of course. I don’t know if I can muster anything else to say about it right now—I’ve enjoyed Against the Day—it’s funny, erudite, sprawling, etc.—but it’s very very long (part of the pleasure too, no doubt). Happy to be in the homestretch.
“I’ll be in the bar,” said Reef. Yzles-Bains was in fact one of the few places on the continent of Europe where a sober Anarchist could find a decent Crocodile—equal amounts of rum, absinthe, and the grape spirits known as trois-six—a traditional Anarchist favorite, which Loïc the bartender, a veteran of the Paris Commune, claimed to have been present at the invention of.
Bonus recipe: Kit Traverse’s drink invention:
“‘Love in the Shadows of Pera,’ ” Kit said. “It’s just Creme de Menthe and beer.”
THE NEXT DAY Reef, Cyprian, and Ratty were out on the Anarchists’ golf course, during a round of Anarchists’ Golf, a craze currently sweeping the civilized world, in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number—of holes, with distances flexible as well, some holes being only putter-distance apart, others uncounted hundreds of yards and requiring a map and compass to locate. Many players had been known to come there at night and dig new ones. Parties were likely to ask, “Do you mind if we don’t play through?” then just go and whack balls at any time and in any direction they liked. Folks were constantly being beaned by approach shots barreling in from unexpected quarters. “This is kind of fun,” Reef said, as an ancient brambled guttie went whizzing by, centimeters from his ear.
From Thomas Pynchon’s ginormous novel Against the Day, which I am almost finished with.
I won’t riff on this (very short) Anarchists’ Golf scene, other than to suggest that it perhaps functions as a condensation or synecdoche of the novel proper: the joy, the optimism, the phallic aggression, the disruption of order, the social angle, the nose-thumbing, the creativity, the synthesis—the anarchy.
“…the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive…” / Another Pynchon Riff
IT WAS MIDAPRIL, Carnevale had been over for weeks, and Lent was coming to a close, skies too drawn and pallid to weep for the fate of the cyclic Christ, the city having slowly regained a maskless condition, with a strange dull shine on the paving of the Piazza, less a reflection of the sky than a soft glow from regions below. But the silent communion of masks was not quite done here.
On one of the outer islands in the Lagoon, which had belonged to the Spongiatosta family for centuries, over an hour away even by motor craft, stood a slowly drowning palazzo. Here at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday began the secret counter-Carnevale known as Carnesalve, not a farewell but an enthusiastic welcome to flesh in all its promise. As object of desire, as food, as temple, as gateway to conditions beyond immediate knowledge.
With no interference from authority, church or civic, all this bounded world here succumbed to a masked imperative, all hold on verbatim identities loosening until lost altogether in the delirium. Eventually, after a day or two, there would emerge the certainty that there had always existed separately a world in which masks were the real, everyday faces, faces with their own rules of expression, which knew and understand one another—a secret life of Masks. It was not quite the same as during Carnevale, when civilians were allowed to pretend to be members of the Maskworld, to borrow some of that hieratic distance, that deeper intimacy with the unexpressed dreams of Masks. At Carnevale, masks had suggested a privileged indifference to the world of flesh, which one was after all bidding farewell to. But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.
1. Okay—I know it’s been like forever since I riffed on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (here, “forever” = a few weeks), but I took a week off from the novel, which turned into two weeks, which is a bad habit, yes, but here we are, and I’m nearing the end of the shaggy beast. I don’t think Pynchon is going to tie all the loose threads into some perfect picture for me, but I don’t think I’d want that anyway.
2. Where I am in the book: Cyprian, Cyprian, Cyprian. The beginning of The Great War. Just waaaaaay too much going on to even bother to begin to try to summarize.
3. Cyprian is surely the most fascinating character of Against the Day, but his somewhat late arrival in the text feels, I don’t know, lumpy or something. Something about reading such a long book—we make a kind of investment in certain plots, figures, characters, and Pynchon here sort of moves them into the background, or disappears them completely, for long, long stretches. I’m thinking about The Chums of Chance in particular, but also Lew Basnight, the Tunguska event, the Vibes vs. the Traverses, etc. Thematically it’s all there, but this stretch with Cyprian’s dark adventures, while fantastic, also feels almost like a novella shoehorned into the final chapters of an epic. This is not a complaint.
4. I’ve shared a few citations from Against the Day since my last riff, but the one above (my Kindle tells me its at the 82% mark, if that means anything to you) seems to resonate with what I take to be the major themes and motifs of the novel.
I’m thinking specifically of the final line: “But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.”
Invisible is obviously a key word in Against the Day, and the novel turns on concepts of doubling, masking, transgression, themes that the Carnevale-Carnesalve disjunction highlights (flesh vs. spirit, visible vs. invisible, etc.).
5. Actually, now that I think about it, Cyprian probably most embodies, or, rather, embodies most complexly, Pynchon’s themes of doubling, masking, and transgression. He’s his own doppelganger. (Even the name suggest a kind of bilocation — Cyprus, that ancient crossroads of East and West).
6. And —
The Carnesalve chapter culminates in a truly salacious sex scene, an S&M-fueled ménage à trois that somehow simultaneously punctures the novels structure of doubling (cause, uh, a three-way) at the same time it reinforces it (Cyprian as self-double). I’m not sure if any of this that I’m saying makes any sense at all.
7. The image at the top of this riff is a detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel.
“Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight,” and other Tunguska effects (Pynchon’s Against the Day)
FOR A WHILE after the Event, crazed Raskol’niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation. Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries since humans began invading the North. Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area. Mosquitoes lost their taste for blood, acquiring one instead for vodka, and were observed congregating in large swarms at local taverns. Clocks and watches ran backward. Although it was summer, there were brief snowfalls in the devastated taiga, and heat in general tended to flow unpredictably for a while. Siberian wolves walked into churches in the middle of services, quoted passages from the Scriptures in fluent Old Slavonic, and walked peaceably out again. They were reported to be especially fond of Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Aspects of the landscape of Tierra del Fuego, directly opposite the Stony Tunguska on the globe, began to show up in Siberia—sea ernes, gulls, terns, and petrels landing in the branches of fir trees, swooping to grab fish out of the streams, taking a bite, screaming with distaste, and throwing them back. Granite cliffs rose sheer and unexpected out of the forest. Oceangoing ships unmanned by visible crews, attempting to navigate the shallow rivers and creeks, ran aground. Entire villages came to the conclusion that they were not where they ought to be, and without much advance planning simply packed up what they had, left behind what they couldn’t carry, and headed off together into the brush, where presently they set up villages no one else could see. Or not very clearly.
And from everywhere in the taiga, all up and down the basins of the Yenisei, came reports of a figure walking through the aftermath, not exactly an angel but moving like one, deliberately, unhurried, a consoler. Accounts differed as to whether the outsize figure was man or woman, but all reported having to look steeply upward when trying to make out its face, and a deep feeling of fearless calm once it had passed.
Some thought it might be some transfigured version of the shaman Magyakan, whose whereabouts had been puzzling folks along the Stony T. No one had seen him since the Event, his izba was empty, and the magical force that had kept it from sinking, like everyone else’s dwelling in Siberia, into the summer-thawed earth, had abated, so that the cabin now tilted at a thirty-degree angle, like a ship at sea about to slide beneath the waves.
None of the strange effects lasted long, and as the Event receded in memory, arguments arose as to whether this or that had even happened at all. Soon the forest was back to normal, green underbrush beginning to appear among the dead-white trunks, the animals fallen speechless again, tree-shadows again pointing in their accustomed directions, and Kit and Prance continued to make their way through it with no idea what this meant for their mission out here.
—Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
“Your whole history in America has been one long religious war, secret crusades, disguised under false names” (Pynchon’s Against the Day)
“Not quite how it sorts out. Differences among the world religions are in fact rather trivial when compared to the common enemy, the ancient and abiding darkness which all hate, fear, and struggle against without cease”— he made a broad gesture to indicate the limitless taiga all around them— “Shamanism. There isn’t a primitive people anywhere on Earth that can’t be found practicing some form of it. Every state religion, including your own, considers it irrational and pernicious, and has taken steps to eradicate it.”
“What? there’s no ‘state religion’ in the U.S.A., pardner, we’ve got freedom of worship, it’s guaranteed in the Constitution—keeps church and state separate, just so’s we don’t turn into something like England and keep marching off into the brush with bagpipes and Gatling guns, looking for more infidels to wipe out. Nothing personal o’ course.”
“The Cherokee,” replied Prance, “the Apache, the massacre of the Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, every native Red Indian you’ve found, you people have either tried to convert to Christianity or you’ve simply killed.”
“I suggest it was about the fear of medicine men and strange practices, dancing and drug-taking, that allow humans to be in touch with the powerful gods hiding in the landscape, with no need of any official church to mediate it for them. The only drug you’ve ever been comfortable with is alcohol, so you went in and poisoned the tribes with that. Your whole history in America has been one long religious war, secret crusades, disguised under false names. You tried to exterminate African shamanism by kidnapping half the continent into slavery, giving them Christian names, and shoving your peculiar versions of the Bible down their throats, and look what happened.”
“The Civil War? That was economics. Politics.”
“That was the gods you tried to destroy, waiting their hour, taking their revenge. You people really just believe everything you’re taught, don’t you?”
Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s enormous novel Against the Day. Context unimportant to content here.
Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and her party had descended by way of the St.Gotthard Tunnel from league after league of peaks like ocean waves frozen in place, fading into merciless light, tending to eternity—a circuit of Alpine hotels and hydropathics so remote the hotels had to print up their own postal stamps just to get mail as far as a regular Swiss post office, full of giggling nitwits, quite a number of them British actually, running about the corridors, jumping off balconies into the snowdrifts, hiding in servingpantries and falling down dumbwaiter shafts. They had detrained at Bellinzona, where the motordiligence from the Sanatorium was waiting for them, and so up to the famed institution overlooking the Swiss shores of Lago Maggiore. Goats grazing by the roadside turned their heads to watch them pass, as if long familiar with Böpfli-Spazzoletta clientele. From somewhere came a repeated figure being played on an alpenhorn.
Though he was not ready to share it with his brother, not even Reef had been exempt from the folly up there.
“What kind of a dog’s that?” he asked Ruperta at one point.
“Mouffette? She’s a papillon . . . a sort of French ladies’ lapdog.”
“A—You say,” gears in his mind beginning to crank, “ ‘lap’—French . . . lapdog?” Somehow gathering that Ruperta had trained her toy spaniel to provide intimate “French” caresses of the tongue for the pleasure of its mistress. “Well! you two are . . . pretty close then, I guess?”
“I wuv my ickle woofwoof, ess I doo!” Squeezing the animal tightly, one would think painfully, except for the apparent enjoyment with which Mouffette was fluttering her eyelids.
“Hmm,” said Reef.
“And today I must go across the lake, and the mean old people there won’t allow my ickle pwecious to come with Mummy, and we were both wondering if her good Uncle Reef would look after her for the day, see that she gets her chopped filet and her boiled pheasant, as she’s so particular.”
“Sure, you bet!” His thoughts taking wing. The day alone with a French “lap” dog! who might be more than happy to do for Reef what she was obviously already doing for old ’Pert here! who in fact, mmaybe all this time’s been just droolin’ for onethem penises for a change, and will turn out to know plenty of tricks! Aand—
It took a while for Ruperta to get her toilette perfect and her bustle out the door. Reef found himself pacing and smoking, and whenever he took a look over at Mouffette could’ve sworn she was fidgeting too. The dog, it seemed to Reef, was giving him sidewise looks which if they’d come from a woman you would have had to call flirtatious. Finally after an extended farewell notable for its amount of saliva exchange, Mouffette slowly padded over to the divan where Reef was sitting and jumped up to sit next to him. Jumping on the furniture was something Ruperta seldom allowed her to do, and her gaze at Reef clearly assumed that he would not get upset. Far from it, what he actually got was an erection. Mouffette looked it over, looked away, looked back, and suddenly jumped up on his lap.
“Oboy, oboy.” He stroked the diminutive spaniel for a while until, with no warning, she jumped off the couch and slowly went into the bedroom, looking back now and then over her shoulder. Reef followed, taking out his penis, breathing heavily through his mouth. “Here, Mouffie, nice big dog bone for you right here, lookit this, yeah, seen many of these lately? come on, smells good don’t it, mmm, yum!” and so forth, Mouffette meantime angling her head, edging closer, sniffing with curiosity. “That’s right, now, ooopen up . . . good girl, good Mouffette now let’s just put this—yaahhgghh!”
Reader, she bit him. After which, as if surprised at the vehemence of his reaction, Mouffette jumped off the bed and while Reef went looking for an ice bucket, ran off somehow into the vast hotel. Reef chased her for a while but found it was getting him funny looks from the staff.
In the days that followed, Mouffette took every occasion to jump up in Reef’s lap and gaze into his eyes—sarcastically, it seemed to Reef—opening her mouth suggestively, sometimes even drooling. Each time Reef tried not to flinch. Each time Ruperta, exasperated, would cry, “Honestly, it isn’t as if she means to bite you.”
–A sophomoric, dirty joke from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
“—boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — Pynchon Riff + Joyce + Moebius + Chloral Hydrate Party
1. Here is a rambling riff if ever I rambled and riffed:
2, First, look, that lovely image—it’s by Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. I came across it a week or two ago and digitally nabbed it.
I love Moebius’s work in general and something about the image reminds me of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, although maybe I’m too immersed in the thick novel to not have much of what I see recall it in some ways.
Something about the airship and the horseman recalls an early passage where Reef Traverse, in the American West, dream-reads the airship adventures of The Chums of Chance into existence. (There are parts of Against the Day that recall to me Cormac McCarthy’s westerns (sometimes—often—called anti-westerns, but come, let’s be adults)…where was I going here? It’s Friday and I’ve consumed the better part (aka “all”) of a bottle of rosé and now I’m circling round some odd notes here—yes—the western/Western thing: Manifest Destiny, etc. — I see it in the Moebius illustration, but of course I bring it with me like a sickness. I move on).
3. ” . . . boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — This is from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (85.8). Pointed out to me by Roman Tsivkin, this seems like a most reasonable/splendid source for the namesake of our aeronaut adventurers (who seem rather, uh, absent of late in the final moments of the Bilocations book I’m in right now).
4. Data, perhaps imperfect (again, digitally nabbed)—
In Against the Day:
—Some form of the word invisible appears 173 times—
—The word inconvenience or inconvenient — 84 times—
—The phrase the day — 213 times (usually in a cadence suggestive of the book’s title—some kind of rhythm to it, anyway)—
—The phrase against the day — once (unless you count the chapter (book, really) called “Against the Day,” or the colophon, or what-have-you)—
5. I’m a few sections past this, but a nice passage to end on of a Friday night:
Among students of mathematics here, chloral hydrate was the preferred drug. Sooner or later, whatever the problem being struggled with, having obsessed themselves into nightly insomnia, they would start taking knockout drops to get to sleep—Geheimrat Klein himself was a great advocate of the stuff—and next thing they knew, they were habitués, recognizing one another by the side-effects, notably eruptions of red pimples, known as “the dueling scars of chloralomania.” On Saturday nights in Göttingen, there was always sure to be at least one chloral party, or Mickifest.
It was a peculiar gathering, only intermittently, as you’d say, brisk. People were either talking wildly, often to themselves and without seeming to pause for breath, or lounging draped in pleasurable paralysis across the furniture or, as the evening went along, flat on the floor in deep narcosis.
THE NEXT TIME he saw Pléiade Lafrisée was at a café-restaurant off the Place d’Armes. It would not occur to him until much later to wonder if she had arranged the encounter. She was in pale violet peau de soie, and a hat so beguiling that Kit was only momentarily surprised to find himself with an erection. It was still early in the study of these matters, only a few brave pioneers like the Baron von Krafft-Ebing had dared peep into the strange and weirdly twilit country of hat-fetishism—not that Kit noticed stuff like that ordinarily, but it happened actually to be a gray toque of draped velvet, trimmed with antique guipure, and a tall ostrich plume dyed the same shade of violet as her dress. . . .
“This? One finds them in every other midinette’s haunt, literally for sous.”
“Oh. I must’ve been staring. What happened to you the other night?”
“Come. You can buy me a Lambic.”
The place was like a museum of mayonnaise. This being just at the height of the culte de la mayonnaise then sweeping Belgium, oversize exhibits of the ovoöleaginous emulsion were to be encountered at every hand. Heaps of Mayonnaise Grenache, surrounded by plates of smoked turkey and tongue, glowed redly as if from within, while with less, if any, reference to actual food it might have been there to modify, mountains of Chantilly mayonnaise, swept upward in gravity-impervious peaks insubstantial as cloud, along with towering masses of green mayonnaise, basins of boiled mayonnaise, mayonnaise baked into soufflés, not to mention a number of not entirely successful mayonnaises, under some obscure attainder, or on occasion passing as something else, dominated every corner.
“How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.
He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens’—”
But she was frowning, earnest as he had seldom seen her. “La Mayonnaise,” Pléiade explained, “has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV—here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent. One might usefully compare Cleo de Mérode and the marquise de Pompadour. Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in.
“The sauce was invented as a new sensation for jaded palates at court by the duc de Richelieu, at first known as mahonnaise after Mahon, the chief port of Minorca, the scene of the due’s dubious ‘victory’ in 1756 over the illfated Admiral Byng. Basically Louis’s drug dealer and pimp, Richelieu, known for opium recipes to fit all occasions, is also credited with the introduction into France of the cantharides, or Spanish fly.” She gazed pointedly at Kit’s trousers. “What might this aphrodisiac have in common with the mayonnaise? That the beetles must be gathered and killed by exposing them to vinegar fumes suggests an emphasis on living or recently living creatures—the egg yolk perhaps regarded as a conscious entity—cooks will speak of whipping, beating, binding, penetration, submission, surrender. There is an undoubtedly Sadean aspect to the mayonnaise. No getting past that.”
Kit was a little confused by now. “It always struck me as kind of, I don’t know . . . bland?”
“Until you look within. Mustard, for example, mustard and cantharides, n’estce pas? Both arousing the blood. Blistering the skin. Mustard is the widelyknown key to resurrecting a failed mayonnaise, as is the cantharides to reviving broken desire.”
“You’ve been thinking about mayonnaise a lot, mademoiselle.”
“Meet me tonight,” a sudden fierce whisper, “out at the Mayonnaise Works, and you shall perhaps understand things it is given only to a few to know. There will be a carriage waiting.” She pressed his hand and was gone in a mist of vetiver, abruptly as the other evening.
Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; I don’t think you need any context to appreciate this passage.
1. This is one of the most extraordinary passages I’ve read so far in Pynchon’s Against the Day (pages 422-24 of my Penguin hardback).
It comes almost at the end of Iceland Spar, the second of the AtD’s five books, working as a surreal, dream-logic climax to the chapter.
Our heroes the Chums of Chance experience an existential identity crisis, one that makes them wonder if they themselves were mere dreamers, readers of the dime novels that chronicled their adventures, and not, y’know, actual adventurers:
Meantime, now and then in the interstices of what was after all not a perpetual midwestern holiday, the former crew of the Inconvenience became aware of doubts creeping in. What if they weren’t harmonica players? really? If it was all just some elaborate hoax they’d chosen to play on themselves, to keep distracted from a reality too frightening to receive the vast undiscriminating light of the Sky, perhaps the not-to-be-spoken-of betrayal now firmly installed at the heart of the . . . the Organization whose name curiously had begun to escape them . . . some secret deal, of an unspecified nature, with an ancient enemy . . . but they could find no entries in any of the daily Logs to help them remember. . . .
Had they gone, themselves, through some mutation into imperfect replicas of who they once were? meant to revisit the scenes of unresolved conflicts, the way ghosts are said to revisit places where destinies took a wrong turn, or revisit in dreams the dreaming body of one loved more than either might have known, as if whatever happened between them could in that way be put right again? Were they now but torn and trailing afterimages of clandestine identities needed on some mission long ended, forgotten, but unwilling or unable to be released from it? Perhaps even surrogates recruited to stay behind on the ground, allowing the “real” Chums to take to the Sky and so escape some unbearable situation? None of them may really ever have been up in a skyship, ever walked the exotic streets or been charmed by the natives of any far-off duty station. They may only have once been readers of the Chums of Chance Series of boys’ books, authorized somehow to serve as volunteer decoys. Once, long ago, from soft hills, from creekside towns, from libraries that let kids lie on the floor where it’s cool and read the summer afternoons away, the Chums had needed them . . . they came.
WANTED Boys for challenging assignments, must be fit, dutiful, ready, able to play the harmonica (“At a Georgia Camp Meeting” in all keys, modest fines for wrong notes), and be willing to put in long hours of rehearsal time on the Instrument. . . Adventure guaranteed!
So that when the “real” Chums flew away, the boys were left to the uncertain sanctuary of the Harmonica Marching Band Training Academy. . . . But life on the surface kept on taking its usual fees, year by year, while the other Chums remained merrily aloft, kiting off tax-free to assignments all over the world, perhaps not even remembering their “deps” that well anymore, for there was so much to occupy the adventurous spirit, and the others— “groundhogs” in Chums parlance—had known, surely, of the risks and the costs of their surrogacy. And some would drift away from here as once, already long ago, from their wholesome heartland towns, into the smoke and confusion of urban densities unimagined when they began, to join other ensembles playing music of the newer races, arrangements of Negro blues, Polish polkas, Jewish klezmer, though others, unable to find any clear route out of the past, would return again and again to the old performance sites, to Venice, Italy, and Paris, France, and the luxury resorts of old Mexico, to play the same medleys of cakewalks and rags and patriotic airs, to sit at the same café tables, haunt the same skeins of narrow streets, gaze unhappily on Saturday evenings at the local youngsters circulating and flirting through the little plazas, unsure whether their own youth was behind them or yet to come. Waiting as always for the “true” Chums to return, longing to hear, “You were splendid, fellows. We wish we could tell you about everything that’s been going on, but it’s not over yet, it’s at such a critical stage, and the less said right now the better. But someday . . .”
“Are you going away again?”
“We must. We’re just so sorry. The reunion feast was delicious and much appreciated, the harmonica recital one we shall never forget, especially the ‘coon’ material. But now . . .”
So, once again, the familiar dwindling dot in the sky.
“Don’t be blue, pal, it must’ve been important, they really wanted to stay this time, you could tell.”
“What are we going to do with all this extra food?”
“And all the beer nobody drank!”
“Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
But that was the beginning of a certain release from longing, as if they had been living in a remote valley, far from any highways, and one day noticed that just beyond one of the ridge-lines all this time there’d been a road, and down this road, as they watched, came a wagon, then a couple of riders, then a coach and another wagon, in daylight which slowly lost its stark isotropy and was flowed into by clouds and chimney smoke and even episodes of weather, until presently there was a steady stream of traffic, audible day and night, with folks beginning to venture over into their valley to visit, and offering rides to towns nearby the boys hadn’t even known existed, and next thing anybody knew, they were on the move again in a world scarcely different from the one they had left. And one day, at the edge of one of these towns, skyready, brightwork gleaming, newly painted and refitted and around the corner of a gigantic hangar, waiting for them, as if they had never been away, there was their ship the good old Inconvenience. And Pugnax with his paws up on the quarterdeck rail, tail going a mile a minute, barking with unrestrained joy.
2. Long passage, so short riff:
3. First (or third, if my enumeration is honest), let me point out that this passage recalls a similar identity transference that happened earlier in the novel to Reef Traverse when he reads a Chums of Chance novel.
4. Which, to rehash the point of the riff I linked to in point 3 above, is to say that the passage is very much about reader-identification, about the ways that we dream ourselves into the novels we read—that the places they occupy are very real.
So much of Against the Day is about doubling, about secret identities, secret powers, secret lives—the invisible (the word “invisible” pops up again and again and again in this book)—that we can lead these whole other lives in our imagination, and that books fuel these lives, etc.
5. This book of Against the Day is named for Iceland spar, a crystal with double-refraction properties. Earlier, the stage magician/minor character Luca Zombini (“Light Zombie”?) reveals that he’s actually split people into two versions of themselves (evidence of such doppelgangers are scattered throughout the novel) using the mineral in his shows.
When our Chums finally reassume the mantles of their “true identities” we’re told that “they were on the move again in a world scarcely different from the one they had left” — are these the same Chums, the same aircrew, the same adventurers? The adverb “scarcely” seems to work some strange magic here.
6. In any case, their loyal hound Pugnax identifies them as the real McCoy, his “tail going a mile a minute, barking with unrestrained joy.”
I’ll admit to feeling some of that joy myself.
“…a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets…” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)
1. Another riff on/citation from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.
2. In this episode, our heroes, Chums of Chance Chick Counterfly (chief science officer) and Darby Suckling (chief horndog) have found their way to an off-brand time machine, managed and (shoddily) maintained by Dr. Zoot (whose doctorate seems unlikely). Dr. Zoot sends the boys (ostensibly) to the future for a brief glimpse:
They seemed to be in the midst of some great storm in whose low illumination, presently, they could make out, in unremitting sweep across the field of vision, inclined at the same angle as the rain, if rain it was—some material descent, gray and wind-stressed—undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses. The multitude extended farther than they could see—a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind. Bright arrays of metallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more, like stars blown through by the shock waves of the Creation. Were those voices out there crying in pain? sometimes it almost sounded like singing. Sometimes a word or two, in a language almost recognizable, came through. Thus, galloping in unceasing flow ever ahead, denied any further control over their fate, the disconsolate company were borne terribly over the edge of the visible world. . . .
The chamber shook, as in a hurricane. Ozone permeated its interior like the musk attending some mating dance of automata, and the boys found themselves more and more disoriented. Soon even the cylindrical confines they had entered seemed to have fallen away, leaving them in a space unbounded in all directions. There became audible a continuous roar as of the ocean—but it was not the ocean—and soon cries as of beasts in open country, ferally purring stridencies passing overhead, sometimes too close for the lads to be altogether comfortable with—but they were not beasts. Everywhere rose the smell of excrement and dead tissue.
Each lad was looking intently through the darkness at the other, as if about to inquire when it would be considered proper to start screaming for help.
“If this is our host’s idea of the future—” Chick began, but he was abruptly checked by the emergence, from the ominous sweep of shadow surrounding them, of a long pole with a great metal hook on the end, of the sort commonly used to remove objectionable performers from the variety stage, which, being latched firmly about Chick’s neck, had in the next instant pulled him off into regions indecipherable. Before Darby had time to shout after, the Hook reappeared to perform a similar extraction on him, and quick as that, both youngsters found themselves back in the laboratory of Dr. Zoot. The fiendish “time machine,” still in one piece, quivered in its accustomed place, as if with merriment. (403-04)
3. I think the most obvious interpretation here is that our Chums witness part of a battle of the Great War, which is where Against the Day seems to be heading.
4. What I find most fascinating, though, is the way that Pynchon moves from the physical to the metaphysical in the series of images the Chums witness.
We get an image of “undoubted human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of horses” seems simultaneously concrete and metaphysical, specific but also hyperbolic.
The scene continues to tread this line—we witness “a spectral cavalry, faces disquietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind.”
On one hand, our disoriented Chums (to whose perspective Pynchon limits us) perceive ghosts here (almost cartoonish ghosts, I might add, of the holes-cut-out-for-eyes variety); on the other hand, the “blurred sockets” suggest gas masks and the “constantly changing” garments could perhaps be the variety of uniforms (and armor) of the soldiers.
Continuing: “Bright arrays of metallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more” — Bullets? Bayonets? Missiles? The concrete image is then likened to “stars blown through by the shock waves of the Creation.” The physical shifts into the metaphysical again as Pynchon sends “the disconsolate company . . . terribly over the edge of the visible world.”
5. Here, the Chums seem to experience the Great War as an intensely compressed allegorical sensation.
6. The second paragraph in the above citation moves the boys into “a space unbounded in all directions” where they perceive “a continuous roar as of the ocean—but it was not the ocean—and soon cries as of beasts in open country, ferally purring stridencies passing overhead, sometimes too close for the lads to be altogether comfortable with—but they were not beasts.”
The Chums have no language to describe what they hear; Pynchon has to mediate the similes available to them in negation. But we (and Darby and Chick, of course) know that this place is no bueno: “Everywhere rose the smell of excrement and dead tissue.”
7. Where have they gone? Are they still in the midst of war—are the sounds planes, bombs? World War I? WWII, site of that other giant Pynchon novel? Hiroshima? Vietnam? The WTC on 9/11? Where? When?
8. I take the second paragraph to be a brief homage to the penultimate chapter of H.G. Wells’s slim novel The Time Machine (frequently and directly invoked throughout this particular episode of AtD, btw). At the end of that novella, the time traveler, dispensing with Eloi and Morlock alike, takes his machine to the brink of time, to witness the end of the earth and our solar system: “A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me.” The Chums of Chance seem to witness a similar extinction.
9. Ah, but this is Pynchon, of course—so and how does the episode end? With a gag. In a vaudevillian twist, our players are removed from the stage via hook as the time machine, their audience, quivers “as if with merriment.”
Despite the zaniness of this exit, keep in mind that our heroes are hooked around their necks, lassoed by a noose of sorts—Pynchon saves them, but at the same time visually suggests their death, linking back to the image of mass extinction at the core of the passage.
10. The paintings in this riff are by the late Polish artist Zdzisław Beksińsk; like all of his work they are untitled.
Reef joined Ruperta’s loose salon of neuræsthenics traveling hot spring to spring in search of eternal youth or fleeing the deadweight of time, finding enough impulsive or inattentive cardplayers to keep him in Havanas and $3.50-a-quart Champagne, and Ruperta surprised enough now and then with silver and lapis Indian trinkets and the odd bushel of flowers to keep her guessing, she having figured him for a white savage masquerading as an exquisite. Which did not prevent them from going round and round on average once a week, memorable uproars that sent everybody running for the periphery, uncertain as to what distance was safe. In between these dustups, Reef had long, desultory conversations with his penis, to the effect that there wasn’t much point missing Stray too much right now, was there, as it would only blunt the edge of desire, not only for Ruperta but whoever else, Yup Toy or whoever, might drift by over the course of their travels.
They finally parted company in New Orleans after a confused and repetitive headache of a night that began at the establishment of Monsieur Peychaud, where the Sazeracs, though said to’ve been invented there, were not a patch, it seemed to Reef, on those available at Bob Stockton’s bar in Denver, though those Absinthe Frappés were another matter. After taking on fuel, the party moved out into the French Quarter hunting for modes of intoxication “more exotic,” meaning, if you pushed it, some form of zombie powder. Ruperta tonight was in a narrow black bengaline costume with a Medici collar and cuffs of bastard chinchilla. Nothing on underneath except for stays and stockings, as Reef had had occasion to find out earlier, at their habitual lateafternoon rendezvous.
It had soon become apparent in this town that what you could see from the street was not only less than “the whole story” but in fact not even the picture on the cover. The real life of this place was secured deep inside the city blocks, behind ornate iron gates and up tiled passages that might as well’ve run for miles. You could hear faint strands of music, crazy stuff, banjos and bugling, trombone glissandi, pianos under the hands of whorehouse professors sounding like they came with keys between the keys. Voodoo? Voodoo was the least of it, Voodoo was just everywhere. Invisible sentinels were sure to let you know, the thickest of necks being susceptible here to monitory pricklings of the Invisible. The Forbidden. And meantime the smells of the local cuisine, cheurice sausages, gumbo, crawfish étouffé, and shrimp boiled in sassafras, proceeding from no place you could ever see, went on scrambling what was left of your good sense. Negroes could be observed at every hand, rollicking in the street. The so-called Italian Troubles, stemming from the alleged Mafia assassination of the chief of police here being yet fresh in the civic memory, children were apt to accost strangers, Italian or not, with, “Who killa da chief?” not to mention “Va fongoola your sister.”
Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.
“It’s all about the light, you control the light, you control the effect, capisci?” (Pynchon’s Against the Day)
Luca Zombini liked to explain the business, at various times, to those of his children he deluded himself were eager to learn, even someday carry on, the act. “Those who sneer at us, and sneer at themselves for paying to let us fool them, what they never see is the yearning. If it was religious, a yearning after God—no one would dream of disrespecting that. But because this is a yearning only after miracle, only to contradict the given world, they hold it in contempt.
“Remember, God didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna make light now,’ he said, ‘Let there be light.’ His first act was to allow light in to what had been Nothing. Like God, you also have to always work with the light, make it do only what you want it to.”
He unrolled an expanse of absolute fluid blackness. “Magician-grade velvet, perfect absorber of light. Imported from Italy. Very expensive. Dyed, sheared, and brushed by hand many, many times. Finished with a secret method of applying platinum black. Factory inspections are merciless. Same as mirrors, only opposite. The perfect mirror must send back everything, same amount of light, same colors exactly—but perfect velvet must let nothing escape, must hold on to every last little drop of light that falls on it. Because if the smallest amount of light you can think of bounces off one single thread, the whole act—affondato, vero? It’s all about the light, you control the light, you control the effect, capisci?”
I think we get a fairly concise illustration of some of Against the Day’s major themes here: light, invisibility, perception, control, etc.
1. The passage I’ll be riffing on today is hardly the funniest or most dazzling piece of writing I’ve encountered so far in Thomas Pynchon’s massive, shaggy novel Against the Day. However, I think this stretch of writing neatly and concisely illustrates the perspective (maybe world view is a better term; hell, we could even go with fancy-pants Weltanschauung here) of who I take to be the novel’s most prominent villain, ruthless robber baron Scarsdale Vibe.
More significantly, I think this passage illustrates the ways that Pynchon’s big novel analyzes American history and illuminates the contemporary American zeitgeist.
2. The block quote citations are continuous, although I’ll be interrupting. The passage starts at the very bottom of page 331 and goes through 334 in my hardback Penguin first edition.
3. Okay, so a bit of context:
Our scene is mostly a dialogue, or a monologue really, between Scarsdale Vibe and his Other, Foley Walker, who took Scarsdale’s place in the Civil War, took a bullet to the brain, and now, like so many of the characters in Against the Day, has special powers (he can hear voices that tell him how to invest (Scarsdale’s) money in the market).
Back at Pearl Street, the two Vibes were sitting over brandy and cigars.
“A tough one to figure, that kid,” Foley opined. “Sure hope we ain’t got another Red in the root cellar like his old man.”
The “kid” here is hero Kit Traverse, and his old man — the “Red in the root cellar” — is the recently-deceased-on-Scarsdale’s-orders Webb Traverse, the Kieselguhr Kid, enemy of the captains of industry.
Scarsdale is backing Kit in the hopes that he’ll become “the next Edison” — and not, significantly, the next Tesla.
5. (Tesla v. Edison—another set of doubles in the book.
Tesla, Serbian-American, mad magician, prophet of science, seer of the invisible, wants to provide free power for all is clearly allied (in Pynchon’s book, that is) with the unions, the Traverses, labor—the good guys.
His double, Edison: American-American, reputed idea-thief, dog-electrocuter; Edison, a hustler who sweated out idea after idea, perhaps gracelessly; Edison, whose methods and inventions could generate corporate profits.
Tesla remarked of Edison, after his death: “he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor’s instinct and practical American sense”).
6. Note that Scarsdale wouldn’t hesitate to kill Kit:
“Our duty would be no less clear. There are hundreds of these abscesses suppurating in the body of our Republic,” an oratorical throb creeping into Scarsdale’s voice, “which must be removed, wherever they are found. No other option. The elder Traverse’s sins are documented—once they were brought to light, he was as good as lost. Should there be moral reservations, in a class war, about targeting one’s enemies? You have been in this game long enough to appreciate how mighty are the wings we shelter beneath. How immune we are kept to the efforts of these muckraking Reds to soil our names. Unless—Walker, have I missed something? you aren’t developing a soft spot.”
As Scarsdale’s was not the only voice Foley had to attend to, he erred, as usual, on the side of mollification. He held out his glowing Havana. “If you can find a soft spot, use it to put this out on.”
“What happened to us, Foley? We used to be such splendid fellows.”
“Passage of Time, but what’s a man to do?”
“Too easy. Doesn’t account for this strange fury I feel in my heart, this desire to kill off every damned socialist and so on leftward, without any more mercy than I’d show a deadly microbe.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. Not like that we haven’t bloodied up our hands already here.” Scarsdale gazed out his window at a cityscape once fair but with the years grown more and more infested with shortcomings. “I wanted so to believe. Even knowing my own seed was cursed, I wanted the eugenics argument to be faulty somehow. At the same time I coveted the bloodline of my enemy, which I fancied uncontaminated, I wanted that promise, promise unlimited.”
Foley pretended his narrowing of gaze was owing to cigarsmoke. “Mighty Christian attitude,” he commented at last, in a tone as level as he could make it.
Here we see Scarsdale’s hatred of organized labor, of anything that impedes on his profits, get tangled into the ideology that underwrites this conflict. He even cites the conflict as “a class war.” This class war interweaves into his personal life: he is usurping the coveted “bloodline of my enemy” by attempting to adopt Kit.
7. The scene then takes on a religious dimension, exploring a “Mighty Christian attitude”:
“Foley, I’m as impatient with religious talk as the next sinner. But what a burden it is to be told to love them, while knowing that they are the Antichrist itself, and that our only salvation is to deal with them as we ought.”
Pynchon’s villain here sounds like so many figures on the contemporary American Evangelical right, who repeatedly conflate their political/cultural enemies with “Antichrist” as a means to avoid the Jesusian imperative to love the Other.
8. Remember, wealthy Scarsdale—his father, really—was able to buy a deferment from the Civil War; Foley took his place:
It did not help Foley’s present mood that he had awakened that morning from a recurring nightmare of the Civil War. The engagement was confined to an area no bigger than an athletic field, though uncountable thousands of men had somehow been concentrated there. All was brown, gray, smoky, dark. A lengthy exchange of artillery had begun, from emplacements far beyond the shadowy edges of the little field. He had felt oppressed by the imminence of doom, of some suicidal commitment of infantry which no one would escape. A pile of explosives nearby, a tall, rickety wood crib of shells and other ammunition began to smolder, about to catch fire and blow up at any moment, a clear target for the cannonballs of the other side, which continued to come in, humming terribly, without pause. . . .
Foley has actually fought and been wounded and risked. He’s literally put skin in the game.
In contrast, Scarsdale Vibe was able to continue amassing and controlling wealth—just like other robber barons who bought deferments and then profited from the war (Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, and Jay Gould, just to name a few).
9. Note how Scarsdale, claiming “My civil war has yet to come,” pitches the conflict between capital and labor in terms of a holy war:
“I didn’t have my war then,” Scarsdale had been saying. “Just as well. I was too young to appreciate what was at stake anyway. My civil war was yet to come. And here we are in it now, in the thick, no end in sight. The Invasion of Chicago, the battles of Homestead, the Coeur d’Alene, the San Juans. These communards speak a garble of foreign tongues, their armies are the damnable labor syndicates, their artillery is dynamite, they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities, and their aim is to despoil us of our hard-won goods, to divide and subdivide among their hordes our lands and our houses, to pull us down, our lives, all we love, until they become as demeaned and soiled as their own. О Christ, Who hast told us to love them, what test of the spirit is this, what darkness hath been cast over our understanding, that we can no longer recognize the hand of the Evil One?
Note the xenophobia here, the fear that the dark Other with their “garble of foreign tongues” will try “to pull us down, our lives, all we love.” Good thing this poor rich captain of industry will fight for Real America!
10. Scarsdale, weary from carrying his White Man’s Burden:
“I am so tired, Foley, I have struggled too long in these thankless waters, I am as an unconvoyed vessel alone in a tempest that will not, will never abate. The future belongs to the Asiatic masses, the pan-Slavic brutes, even, God help us, the black seething spawn of Africa interminable. We cannot hold. Before these tides we must go under. Where is our Christ, our Lamb? the Promise?”
Seeing his distress, Foley meant only to comfort. “In our prayers—”
“Foley, spare me that, what we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked. All this pretending—’equality,’ ‘negotiation’—it’s been such a cruel farce, cruel to both sides. When the Lord’s people are in danger, you know what he requires.”
“Smite early and often.”
And there it is: The ideological veneer of demagoguery quickly gives way to the violent impulses seething underneath. Scarsdale’s Real America has no place for equality and negotiation. Just smiting.
11. And then quoth Foley:
“Hope there’s nobody listening in on this.”
I can’t help but read this as a joke, an echo (pre-echo?) of Nixonian paranoia. The direct recognition that there is a gap between intention at the core and the way that intention is represented (hidden) on the surface (in language, in gesture).
12. But Scarsdale is unafraid:
“God is listening. As to men, I have no shame about what must be done.” A queer tension had come into his features, as if he were trying to suppress a cry of delight.
“But you, Foley, you seem kind of—almost—nervous.” Foley considered briefly. “My nerves? Cast iron.” He relit his cigar, the matchflame unshaking. “Ready for anything.”
Scarsdale’s God is the god of the white man robber baron Real American capitalist, and “God is listening” not because he is omnipresent but because he is on Scarsdale’s side.
13. Foley doesn’t quite buy this resolve:
Aware of the Other Vibe’s growing reluctance to trust reports from out in the field, Foley, who usually was out there and thought he had a good grasp on things, at first resentful and after a while alarmed, had come to see little point these days in speaking up. The headquarters in Pearl Street seemed more and more like a moated castle and Scarsdale a ruler isolated in self resonant fantasy, a light to his eyes these days that was not the same as that old, straightforward acquisitive gleam. The gleam was gone, as if Scarsdale had accumulated all the money he cared to and was now moving on in his biography to other matters, to action in the great world he thought he understood but—even Foley could see—was failing, maybe fatally, even to ask the right questions about anymore.
Foley, who actually served in war, “who usually was out there,” can see that Scarsdale can only see what he wants to see—the Other Vibe lives in “a moated castle” as a “ruler isolated in self resonant fantasy,” blinded by the lights of his xenophobic ideology, which has moved beyond mere money to pursue some other greater power.
14. Foley, so far anyway, proves an important contrast, a balance even, to Scarsdale’s zealous evil. Through his eyes we can see the effects that isolation have taken on Scarsdale, who is becoming increasingly paranoid, anxious—crazy even. Scarsdale is completely divided from the men and women who create his wealth—he doesn’t understand (let alone empathize with) the average American—yet he sees himself as the God-appointed, self-created savior of America (an America with no place for equality or negotiation). The ways in which this passage diagnoses certain attitudes in contemporary American politics/big-business strikes me as so transparent that I won’t remark on them at further length. Pynchon’s novel documents the tail-end of the Gilded Age through the end of the Great War, showing us that the conflicts of the past are the conflicts of today—and tomorrow.