“…in the direction of increasing entropy” (Another Riff on 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.

5. Continuing:

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. 

Blundell:

“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.

The Chums of Chance Reading List (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

hgdTitles 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:

Explorigator19080503Intro

 

 

“…the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive…” / Another Pynchon Riff

Capture

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.

“—boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — Pynchon Riff + Joyce + Moebius + Chloral Hydrate Party

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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 Collective Dream of the Chums of Chance (A Short Pynchon Riff)

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?”

“So soon?”

“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)

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. Here, the Chums seem to experience the Great War as an intensely compressed allegorical sensation.
  • 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.”

    1. 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?

    1. 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.
    2. 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.

    1. The paintings in this riff are by the late Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński; like all of his work they are untitled.

    Harry Grant Dart Painting

    harry grant dart

    (Via/about).