- 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.
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.
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.