“…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.

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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)

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.

Harry Grant Dart Painting

harry grant dart

(Via/about).

The Weird and Wonderful World of Charles A. A. Dellschau

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I was looking for an image to accompany a riff I wrote on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. The riff circles around the skyship adventurers The Chums of Chance, characters who are both “real” in the novel and also “literary” — that is, they are the stars of dime novels that other characters in the novel read. I was hoping that maybe some creative soul had created a Chums of Chance book cover that I could use with the post. Through a few basic searches and a Metafilter board, I found my way to something far more intriguing—the strange watercolor and collage pieces of Charles August Albert Dellschau.

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Here’s a little background on Dellschau (from John Foster’s excellent article–chock full of images!—at Observatory):

It turns out that the drawings/watercolors were the work of one Charles August Albert Dellschau (1830 – 1923). Dellschau was a butcher for most of his life and only after his retirement in 1899 did he begin his incredible career as a self-taught artist. He began with three books entitled Recollections which purported to describe a secret organization called the Sonora Aero Club. Dellschau described his duties in the club as that of the draftsman. Within his collaged watercolors were newspaper clippings (he called them “press blooms”) of early attempts at flight overlapped with his own fantastic drawings of airships of all kind. Powered by a secret formula he cryptically referred to as “NB Gas” or “Suppa” — the “aeros” (as Dellscahu called them) were steampunk like contraptions with multiple propellers, wheels, viewing decks and secret compartments. Though highly personal, autobiographical (perhaps!), and idiosyncratic, these artworks could cross-pollinate with the fiction of Jules Verne, Willy Wonka and the Wizard of Oz. The works were completed in a furiously creative period from 1899 to 1923, when air travel was still looked at by most people as almost magical. Newspapers of that period were full of stories about air travel feats and the acrobatic aerial dogfights of WWI were legend.

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Verne, Oz, and steampunk are all clear comparisons. I’d add to them the manic spirit of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, the buzzing claustrophobia of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and the cartoony contours of turn-of-the-century comics.It also reminds me of Luigi Serafini’s surreal cryptoencyclopedia, Codex SeraphinianusAnd of course, Dellschau’s work resonates strongly with Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, more ludic than lunatic. His work shows an obsession fueled by science and science fiction alike, as well as a frankly adolescent sense of line, proportion and color. I love it. See more here and here.

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“…he enjoyed a sort of dual existence” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

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Art by Charles Dellschau (1830 Prussia – 1923)

He had brought with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth, and for a while each night he sat in the firelight and read to himself but soon found he was reading out loud to his father’s corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the dreamland of his death.

Reef had had the book for years. He’d come across it, already dog-eared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood, while languishing in the county lockup at Socorro, New Mexico, on a charge of running a game of chance without a license. The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang of Eskimos below. Reef began to read, and soon, whatever “soon” meant, became aware that he was reading in the dark, lights-out having occurred sometime, near as he could tell, between the North Cape and Franz Josef Land. As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read and, reluctantly, having marked his place, turned in for the night without considering any of this too odd. For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole. Cellmates came and went, the Sheriff looked in from time to time, perplexed.

At odd moments, now, he found himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to make sense of it. And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent. “It’s them, Pa,” he nodded back over his shoulder. “They’re watching us, all right. And tonight I’ll read you some more of that story. You’ll see.”

Riding out of Cortez in the morning, he checked the high end of the Sleeping Ute and saw cloud on the peak. “Be rainin later in the day, Pa.”

“Is that Reef? Where am I? Reef, I don’t know where the hell I am—”

“Steady, Pa. We’re outside of Cortez, headin up to Telluride, be there pretty soon—”

“No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes. . . .”

“It’s O.K.”

“Hell it is.”

—From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (215).

1. There’s so much I like about this passage.

2. First, Pynchon explicitly ties together two groups of his characters here. Pynchon connects the Traverses of Colorado with those champions of the ether, The Chums of Chance.

And he does it through a novel, which I’ll get to in a minute.

3. I’ve already remarked on the adventurous, even light-hearted tone of the Chums of Chance episodes, which often buoy the narrative out of its byzantine winding.

4. The Chums passages contrast strongly with the Colorado episodes featuring the Traverses.

While Pynchon is not really known for his pathos or the depth of his characters, the Traverse story line is genuinely moving. We see the family disintegrate against the greed of the Colorado mining rush. Patriarch Webb cannot hold his family together, and he gives over to a deep bitterness; his union becomes his raison d’etre, and he undertakes dangerous secret missions to fight the forces of capitalism. It’s worth giving Webb’s opinion at length:

“Here. The most precious thing I own.” He took his union card from his wallet and showed them, one by one. “These words right here”—pointing to the slogan on the back of the card— “is what it all comes down to, you won’t hear it in school, maybe the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence and so forth, but if you learn nothing else, learn this by heart, what it says here—‘Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof.’ Straight talk. No doubletalking you like the plutes do, ’cause with them what you always have to be listening for is the opposite of what they say. ‘Freedom,’ then’s the time to watch your back in particular—start telling you how free you are, somethin’s up, next thing you know the gates have slammed shut and there’s the Captain givin you them looks. ‘Reform’? More new snouts at the trough. ‘Compassion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump. So forth. Why, you could write a whole foreign phrase book just on what Republicans have to say.”

5. It’s also worth pointing out that Webb is likley the Kieselguhr Kid: He has a secret identity and secret powers, like many of the characters who inhabit Against the Day.

6. The Traverse passages recall the social realism of Steinbeck at times, with a dose of the moralizing we might find in Upton Sinclair. There’s also a heavy dash of Ambrose Bierce’s cynicism, and something of Bret Harte’s milieu here.

A kind of ballast for Pynchon’s flightier whims? Not sure.

7. Returning to our initial citation:

As prodigal son Reef Traverse moves his father’s corpse across Colorado, he reads from The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. We learn that he’s had the dime novel for years and we learn of its physical condition — “dogeared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood.” The book is a kind of abject survivor, a physical totem with powers of endurance, which, in turn, grants metaphysical powers on its user-reader.

8. (Parenthetical (i.e. unexplored) aside: The cover of The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth features handsome, uptight Lindsay Noseworth facing off against a “bestially rendered gang of Eskimos.” Here is our Manifest Destiny; here is our White Man’s Burden).

9. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth allows Reef brief transcendence of time (“whatever ‘soon’ meant”) and space (it provides him escape from his jail cell).

10. Also: The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth grants its reader the power to read in the dark. There is something of a huge in-joke here that all late-night readers will appreciate.

Also: the major motif of At the End of the Day is darkness and light. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth works as a kind of self-illuminating object outside the confines of the physical world, but only when the user is not conscious of this power (“As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read”).

11. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth bestows upon Reef, its operator,  “a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole.” This relationship, again, won’t be unfamiliar to voracious readers. Hell, many of us chase that transcendent space the rest of our lives. The older we get, the harder it is to get back to Dickensian London or Rivendell or Crusoe’s island or Narnia or Thornfield Hall or wherever it was that we got to live out part of our dual existence.

Here Reef, a grown-ass man, gets to be one of the Chums and traverse an alien frontier.

12. And the biggie: Somehow this dime novel wakes the dead.

Now, it’s easy to say that Webb doesn’t really talk to Reef, just as we can easily say that Reef doesn’t really head to the pole with the Chums, doesn’t really transcend time and space, etc. We could look for simple answers in psychology—Reef has internalized his father’s voice; Reef is going mad.

But I think Pynchon’s presentation of the scene suggests something more—but something I don’t know how to name or describe, only a fifth of the way into this book. Something to look for in any case.

And so thus end with Webb’s line: “Somethin has happened to my eyes.”

The Chums of Chance vs The Legion of Gnomes (Citation from + Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

At first the “noise” seemed no more than the ensemble of magnetoatmospheric disturbances which the boys had long grown used to, perhaps here intensified by the vastly resonant space into which they were moving ever deeper. But presently the emission began to coalesce into human timbres and rhythms—not speech so much as music, as if the twilit leagues passing below were linked by means of song.

Lindsay, who was Communications Officer, had his ear close to the Tesla device, squinting attentively, but at last withdrew, shaking his head. “Gibberish.”

“They are calling for help,” ~delared Miles, “clear as day and quite desperately, too. They claim to be under attack by a horde of hostile gnomes, and have set out red signal lamps, arranged in concentric circles.”

“There they are!” called Chick Counterfly, pointing over the starboard quarter.

“Then there is nothing to discuss,” declared Randolph St. Cosmo. “We must put down and render aid.”

They descended over a battlefield swarming with diminutive combatants wearing pointed hats and carrying what proved to be electric crossbows, from which they periodically discharged bolts of intense greenish light, intermittently revealing the scene with a morbidity like that of a guttering star.

“We cannot attack these fellows,” protested Lindsay, “for they are shorter than we, and the Rules of Engagement clearly state—”

“In an emergency, that choice lies at the Commander’s discretion,” replied Randolph.

They were soaring now close above the metallic turrets and parapets of a sort of castle, where burned the crimson lights of distress. Figures could be discerned below gazing up at the Inconvenience. Peering at them through a nightglass, Miles stood at the conning station, transfixed by the sight of a woman poised upon a high balcony. “My word, she’s lovely!” he exclaimed at last.

Their fateful decision to land would immediately embroil them in the byzantine politics of the region, and eventually they would find themselves creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy, which might easily have brought an official hearing, and perhaps even disfellowshipment from the National Organization. For a detailed account of their subsequent narrow escapes from the increasingly deranged attentions of the Legion of Gnomes, the unconscionable connivings of a certain international mining cartel, the sensual wickedness pervading the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience (Miles, as we have seen, in particular), readers are referred to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth—for some reason one of the less appealing of this series, letters having come in from as far away as Tunbridge Wells, England, expressing displeasure, often quite intense, with my harmless little intraterrestrial scherzo.

After their precipitate escape from the ill-disposed hordes of thickset indigenous, over another night and day, as time is reckoned on the surface, the Chums swept through the interior of the Earth and at last out her Northern portal, which they beheld as a tiny circle of brightness far ahead. As before, all remarked the diminished size of the planetary exit. It was a tricky bit of steering, as they emerged, to locate the exact spot, on the swiftly dilating luminous circumference, where they might with least expenditure of time find themselves in the vicinity of the schooner Etienne-Louis Malus, carrying the Vormance Expedition toward a fate few of its members would willingly have chosen.

1.The above citation comprises the final paragraphs of The Light Over the Ranges, the first book in Thomas Pynchon’s massive, byzantine novel Against the Day, which is perhaps too massive and too byzantine for me to approach in any way other way than the occasional riff and citation as I read it.

2. The Light Over the Ranges both begins and ends by focusing on The Chums of Chance, an intrepid band of adventurers who sail their skyship Inconvenience into every manner of trouble. The passage above—which, hey, don’t worry, there are no real spoilers there—-the passage above showcases a jocular, jaunty voice that Pynchon employs frequently throughout the book, a voice appropriate to pulp fiction, to serialized “boy’s novels,” to speculative fiction narratives, etc. The voice is somehow simultaneously engaged and detached, urging its listener to care about the heroes in peril, but also acknowledging its own formal artificiality, the flatness of its characters, their position as placeholders or checkerboard pieces in Pynchon’s big project.

3. The voice that relates the Chums of Chance episodes is wonderfully didactic, its earnest, moral tone buoying the narrative into adventure (and fun!); at the same time, everything else in the novel—its violence, its class warfare, its analysis of exploitation—-ensures that this voice is to be read and interpreted with dark irony.

4. And yet the spirit of adventure, of fun—of imagination—inheres (and not just in the episodes with the Chums).

5. The Chums of Chance: Miles Blundell, Chick Counterfly, Lindsay Noseworth,  Darby Suckling, and commander Randolph St. Cosmo. The names are Pynchonian, tautologies be damned! (They also remind me of porn aliases). I am remiss: Let me include Pugnax, a dog of discerning literary taste, his ability to read just one of many seemingly-metaphysical powers Pynchon grants his characters in Against the Day.

6. My favorite paragraph in the above citation is the penultimate one, where we find our heroes “creeping perilously close to outright violation of the Directives relating to Noninterference and Height Discrepancy” by diving into a strange underworld adventure and battling The Legion of Gnomes. Pynchon (or Pynchon’s adventure-voice, if’n ya’ll permit me) offers us a too-brief peek at “the royal court of Chthonica, Princess of Plutonia, and the all-but-irresistible fascination that subterranean monarch would come to exert, Circelike, upon the minds of the crew of Inconvenience” and then refers us to The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth, a book we cannot read because it doesn’t exist.

7. But what am I saying? Of course The Chums of Chance in the Bowels of the Earth exists!—we just have to imagine it.