“Exotic smoking practices around the world, of great anthropological value!” (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

Observers of the Fair had remarked how, as one moved up and down its Midway, the more European, civilized, and . . . well, frankly, white exhibits located closer to the center of the “White City” seemed to be, whereas the farther from that alabaster Metropolis one ventured, the more evident grew the signs of cultural darkness and savagery. To the boys it seemed that they were making their way through a separate, lampless world, out beyond some obscure threshold, with its own economic life, social habits, and codes, aware of itself as having little if anything to do with the official Fair. . . . As if the halflight ruling this perhaps even unmapped periphery were not a simple scarcity of streetlamps but deliberately provided in the interests of mercy, as a necessary veiling for the faces here, which held an urgency somehow too intense for the full light of day and those innocent American visitors with their Kodaks and parasols who might somehow happen across this place. Here in the shadows, the faces moving by smiled, grimaced, or stared directly at Lindsay and Miles as if somehow they knew them, as if in the boys’ long career of adventure in exotic corners of the world there had been accumulating, unknown to them, a reserve of mistranslation, offense taken, debt entered into, here being reexpressed as a strange Limbo they must negotiate their way through, expecting at any moment a “runin” with some enemy from an earlier day, before they might gain the safety of the lights in the distance.

Armed “bouncers,” drawn from the ranks of the Chicago police, patrolled the shadows restlessly. A Zulu theatrical company reenacted the massacre of British troops at Isandhlwana. Pygmies sang Christian hymns in the Pygmy dialect, Jewish klezmer ensembles filled the night with unearthly clarionet solos, Brazilian Indians allowed themselves to be swallowed by giant anacondas, only to climb out again, undigested and apparently with no discomfort to the snake. Indian swamis levitated, Chinese boxers feinted, kicked, and threw one another to and fro.

Temptation, much to Lindsay’s chagrin, lurked at every step. Pavilions here seemed almost to represent not nations of the world but Deadly Sins.   Pitchmen in their efforts at persuasion all but seized the ambulant youths by their lapels.

“Exotic smoking practices around the world, of great anthropological value!”

“Scientific exhibit here boys, latest improvements to the hypodermic syringe and its many uses!”

Here were Waziris from Waziristan exhibiting upon one another various techniques for waylaying travelers, which reckoned in that country as a major source of income. . . . Tarahumara Indians from northern Mexico crouched, apparently in total nakedness, inside lathandplaster replicas of the caves of their native Sierra Madre, pretending to eat visionproducing cacti that sent them into dramatic convulsions scarcely distinguishable from those of the common “geek” long familiar to American carnivalgoers. . . . Tungus reindeer herders stood gesturing up at a gigantic sign reading SPECIAL REINDEER SHOW, and calling out in their native tongue to the tip gathered in front, while a pair of young women in quite revealing costumes—who, being blonde and so forth, did not, actually, appear to share with the Tungus many racial characteristics—gyrated next to a very patient male reindeer, caressing him with scandalous intimacy, and accosting passersby with suggestive phrases in English, such as “Come in and learn dozens ways to have fun in Siberia!” and “See what really goes on during long winter nights!”

“This doesn’t seem,” Lindsay adrift between fascination and disbelief, “quite . . . authentic, somehow.”

An early episode from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; here, the Chums of Chance have flown to Chicago to visit the “World’s Columbian Exposition recently opened there;” Lindsay Noseworth and Miles Blundell fearlessly go beyond “the fabled ‘White City,’ its great Ferris wheel, alabaster temples of commerce and industry, sparkling lagoons, and the thousand more such wonders, of both a scientific and an artistic nature.”

4 thoughts on ““Exotic smoking practices around the world, of great anthropological value!” (Pynchon’s Against the Day)”

  1. Every selected word expressly chosen for its visual power.
    With reading TP, one must really be paying attention.
    No nodding off at the back of the class.
    I took me many years to finally ‘get’ a heartfelt appreciation for all the effort involved .
    The magic of Pynchon’s playfulness with prose.
    TP sometimes over-kills the imagery and one can get brain fuzzed, I mean in reading, zone out.
    Scanning words but not taking them in, usually leading to stage 3 brain wave pattens followed by REM sleep.
    I am really looking forward to The Bleeding Edge.
    Again, ‘Single up all lines!’


      1. Indubitably.
        My look before you leap enthusiasm compels me to contribute to a site/subject I love when really, when you get right down to the little air filled pustules of plastic bubble wrap cushioning whatever brass tacks and why brass tacks? Why not your regular 5/8ths of an inch bayonet steel tacks boxed in handy 30g yellow and dark blue boxes often found in out of town diy/building supply stores, often on the sales counter trying to elicit a ‘ oh they’re handy, I must have those’ point of sale transaction, I have really nothing to say but half thought through ideas that really add nothing to the element in discussion.
        Thought Through. Just noticed how similar those two words are. Mmmmmmmm.
        I also concur, but you Sir, have the dryer wit. Hats off.


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