Three Books (that are good starting points for reading Thomas Pynchon)

Today is Pynchon in Public Day, so today’s Three Books blog offers three books that I think may make good entry points for those interested in, but perhaps unnecessarily daunted by, Thomas Pynchon. My intuition is that many readers’ first experiences reading Pynchon may have been like mine: I read The Crying of Lot 49 as a college assignment, found it bewildering and baffling, and despite understanding almost none of it, I then attempted Gravity’s Rainbow (the key word is attempted (failed will also do in a pinch)).

Many readers start with The Crying of Lot 49 because it’s short. While I like the novel (I wrote about it here), it’s also extraordinarily dense, a box so crammed with jokes and japes that some fail to spring out at full force. Lot 49 is a much better reading experience after you’ve read more of Pynchon.

Lots of readers new to Pynchon plunge into Gravity’s Rainbow, probably because it’s famous. I love love love Gravity’s Rainbow, but along with Mason & Dixon (which may be my favorite Pynchon novel), I do not think it is a good starting place for Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is a rich, ringing vortex, a seven-hundred-and-something pager that almost necessitates that its reader immediately reread it. Gravity’s Rainbow is a very funny and very tragic book, and I think it is the work of genius that its reputation suggests—but it’s also one of the few books I can think of that get put on lists of Big Difficult Novels that is, actually, Difficult.

So here are my suggestions for starting places for Pynchon.


Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. First edition Penguin hardback, 2006. Jacket design my Michael Ian Kaye.

Okay. So maybe you’re saying, Waitisn’t that one, like, really long? Reader, you’re correct. At 1,085 pages Against the Day is Pynchon’s longest novel to date. But it’s also one of his most accessible, and, most importantly, it offers a condensation of Pynchon’s Big Ideas and Big Themes. (I wrote a list of 101 possible descriptors for Against the Day, if you’re interested in a short take; I also riffed on the book at some length in a series of posts).


V. by Thomas Pynchon. Vintage UK trade paperback edition (1995). Cover by Paul Burgess.

V. is Thomas Pynchon’s first novel. It’s also the first Pynchon novel I read and loved and (possibly) understood. Like Against the DayV. lays out many of the themes and styles (and even a character or two) that appear elsewhere Pynchon’s oeuvre. In a loose sense, V. feels like a dress rehearsal for Gravity’s Rainbow. Oh, it’s also pretty discursive—in fact, you can read chunks of it almost as short stories. In fact, here’s a good way to break into Pynchon: Get V., and read Ch. 9–it stands on its own as a long short story, the tale of Kurt Mondaugen—and colonialism, siege paranoia, dark dread, etc.


Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. First edition hardback, Penguin, 2009. Jacket design by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar; image credited to Darshan Zenith and Cruiser Art.

I’ve heard Inherent Vice dismissed as “Pynchon lite,” which may be true—I’ve read the book twice now and if its shaggy threads connect, I can’t see it (unlike, say, Gravity’s Rainbow, which resolves like a complicated math problem). Still, Inherent Vice makes a nice gateway drug to Pynchon—it’s funny and loose, and even though it rambles through an enormous cast of characters and settings, it’s ultimately far, far more contained than sprawling novels like Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation also makes an interesting visual counterpart to the novel—which it somehow simultaneously condenses and expands. Inherent Vice—the novel—also seems to me a kind of bookend or sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. (I wrote a bit about that here).

Last thought: Ignore my suggestions. Pick any novel that interests you by Pynchon and dive in. Don’t get too frustrated if you’re not sure what’s going on. A lot of the time, that’s the point of it all. Enjoy it.


“…the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899″ (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

For years after, there were tales told in Colorado of the amazing, world-reversing night of Fourth of July Eve 1899. Next day’d be full of rodeos, marching bands, and dynamite explosions—but that night there was man-made lightning, horses gone crazy for miles out into the prairie, electricity flooding up through the iron of their shoes, shoes that when they finally came off and got saved to use for cowboy quoits, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or to anything else nearby made of iron or steel, that’s when they weren’t collecting souvenirs on their way through the air—gunmen’s guns came right up out of their holsters and buck knives out from under pants legs, keys to traveling ladies’ hotel rooms and office safes, miners’ tags, fencenails, hairpins, all seeking the magnetic memory of that long-ago visit. Veterans of the Rebellion fixing to march in parades were unable to get to sleep, metallic elements had so got to humming through their bloodmaps. Children who drank the milk from the dairy cows who grazed nearby were found leaning against telegraph poles listening to the traffic speeding by through the wires above their heads, or going off to work in stockbrokers’ offices where, unsymmetrically intimate with the daily flow of prices, they were able to amass fortunes before anyone noticed. .

A passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

List of Possible Descriptors for Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Against the Day

  1. Study of light and non-light
  2. Byzantine mosaic
  3. Codex of visible and invisible
  4. Musical comedy
  5. Daffy
  6. Anarchist golf
  7. 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…
  8. Revenge story
  9. Spy game
  10. Study of physical and metaphysical
  11. Likely too long for most readers
  12. Advent of modernity
  13. Kaleidoscopic
  14. Alternate history of labor unions
  15. Math discussion
  16. Alternate reality exercises
  17. Invisible portraits, invisible landscapes
  18. Epic romance
  19. Flight log
  20. Hat fetishes
  21. Overstuffed
  22. Hallucinogenic
  23. Endless digression
  24. Maps and legends
  25. Underappreciated
  26. Flaneur’s game
  27. International intrigue
  28. Love story
  29. Lust story
  30. Series of ever-changing vectors
  31. Polyglossic carnival
  32. Sprawling
  33. Doppelgangers and the women who love them
  34. Vaudeville routine
  35. Infinite jest
  36. Over the sky, under the desert, into the center of the earth
  37. Boys’ adventure story
  38. Girls’ adventure story
  39. Post-Victorian sci-fi
  40. Acronyms!
  41. Zingers
  42. Mayonnaise history
  43. Magic trick
  44. Exiles
  45. Time travel calisthenics
  46. Art history
  47. Stamp collection
  48. Lumpy
  49. Like a surreal version of the game of Risk
  50. Genre mash-up
  51. Dream factory
  52. Gilded Age fallout
  53. Unwieldy
  54. Sentimental
  55. Ironic
  56. Holy Grail quest
  57. Whatever word is the most intense and accurate opposite of sparse
  58. Robber barons and the men who hate them
  59. Ever bilocating plot lines unfolding and retangling in the direction of increasing entropy
  60. Pulp fiction
  61. Invisible ink
  62. Flip side of a tapestry, its ragged threads exposed
  63. Salad of utopian visions
  64. Confusing
  65. Vision through Iceland spar
  66. Critique of capitalism
  67. Disappearing act
  68. Polyphonic spree
  69. Moving pictures
  70. Deconstruction of family values
  71. Drunken cavalcade of dick jokes
  72. Rage against the machine
  73. Time travelogue
  74. All-you-can-think
  75. Anti-war tract
  76. Explosions!
  77. Seance
  78. Shaggy ______________
  79. Critique of oligarchy
  80. Jazz improvisation
  81. Polyamory-positive
  82. Coffee-positive
  83. Meta-something-or-other
  84. Cricket with no scorekeeper
  85. 1,085 pages in hardback
  86. Often fuzzy, bilocated, discursive—full of flashforwards and flashbacks and side flashes
  87. Sexy sex sex
  88. Funhouse maze with smoke and mirrors
  89. High adventure
  90. Dictionary of mysticism
  91. Scathing analysis of Manifest Destiny
  92. Simultaneously heavy and light, profound and sophomoric
  93. “What It Means to Be an American”
  94. Goofy
  95. Drug manual
  96. Positive visions of the possibilities for human coexistence
  97. Index of wonderfully bad puns
  98. Perpetual motion machine
  99. Spiralling and unspiralling riffage
  100. A zillion dime novels turned on their ears and spines and just spinning
  101. Flight toward grace

A gathering impossible/General merriment (From Pynchon’s Against the Day)

A DAY OR TWO LATER, Lew went up to Carefree Court. The hour was advanced, the light failing, the air heated by the Santa Ana wind. Palm trees rattled briskly, and the rats in their nests up there hung on for dear life. Lew approached through a twilit courtyard lined with tileroofed bungalows, stucco archways, and the green of shrubbery deepening as the light went. He could hear sounds of glassware and conversation.

From the swimming pool came sounds of liquid recreation—feminine squeals, deep singlereed utterances from high and low divingboards. The festivities here this evening were not limited to any one bungalow. Lew chose the nearest, went through the formality of ringing the doorbell, but after waiting a while just walked in, and nobody noticed.

It was a gathering impossible at first to read, even for an old L.A. hand like Lew—society ladies in flapper-rejected outfits from Hamburger’s basement, real flappers in extras’ costumes—Hebrew headdresses, belly-dancing outfits, bare feet and sandals—in from shooting some biblical extravaganza, sugar daddies tattered and unshaven as street beggars, freeloaders in bespoke suits and sunglasses though the sun had set, Negroes and Filipinos, Mexicans and hillbillies, faces Lew recognized from mug shots, faces that might also have recognized him from tickets long cold he didn’t want to be reminded of, and here they were eating enchiladas and hot dogs, drinking orange juice and tequila, smoking cork-tip cigarettes, screaming in each others’ faces, displaying scars and tattoos, recalling aloud felonies imagined or planned but seldom committed, cursing Republicans, cursing police federal state and local, cursing the larger corporate trusts, and Lew slowly began to get a handle, for weren’t these just the folks that once long ago he’d spent his life chasing, them and their cousins city and country? through brush and up creek-beds and down frozen slaughterhouse alleyways caked with the fat and blood of generations of cattle, worn out his shoes pair after pair until finally seeing the great point, and recognizing in the same instant the ongoing crime that had been his own life—and for achieving this self-clarity, at that time and place a mortal sin, got himself just as unambiguously dynamited.

He gradually understood that what everybody here had in common was having survived some cataclysm none of them spoke about directly—a bombing, a massacre perhaps at the behest of the U.S. government. . . .

“No it wasn’t Haymarket.”

“It wasn’t Ludlow. It wasn’t the Palmer raids.”

“It was and it wasn’t.” General merriment.

—Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.


The Chums of Chance Meet the Wandering Sisterhood of the Sodality of Ætheronauts (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

CROSSING THE ROCKIES, they found aloft an invisible repetition of the material terrain beneath them. Three-dimensional flows of cold air followed the flow of rivers far below. Air currents ascended sunny sides of mountains at the same steep angles as colder air drained down the shady sides. Sometimes they would be caught in this cycling, and hung over the ridge-line repeating great vertical circles until Randolph ordered the engines engaged.

It proved a struggle after that, for the wind desired them to go south, and numberless standard cubic feet of engine propellant were wasted against the northerly imperative before Randolph, calculating that they had exceeded their energy allotment, gave up the ship’s immediate future to the wind, and they drifted thus over the Rio Bravo, and into the skies of Old Mexico. So they were borne onward, before winds of obscure sorrow, their clarity of will fitful as the nightly heat-lightning at their horizon.

It was just at that moment of spiritual perplexity that they would be rescued, with no advance annunciation, here, “South of the Border,” by the Sodality of Ætheronauts.

How could they have ever crossed trajectories? Afterward none of the boys could remember where it happened, during which toxic ascent, amid what clamor of bickering by now grown routine, they had blundered into this flying-formation of girls, dressed like religious novices in tones of dusk, sent whirling, scattering before the airship’s star-blotting mass, their metallic wings earnestly rhythmic, buffeting, some passing close enough for the boys to count the bolts on gear-housings, hear the rotary whining of nitro-naphthol auxiliary power-units, grow rigidly attentive to glimpses of bared athletic girl-flesh. Not that these wings, with their thousands of perfectly-machined elliptical “feathers,” even in this failing, grime-filtered light, could ever have been mistaken for angels’ wings. The serious girls, each harnessed in black kidskin and nickel-plating beneath the inescapable burdens of flight, each bearing on her brow a tiny electric lamp to view her control panel by, regrouped and wheeled away into the coming night. Were glances, even then, cast back at the lumbering, engine-driven skycraft? frowns, coquetries, indistinct foreknowledge that it was to be among themselves, these sombre young women, that the Chums were destined after all to seek wives, to marry and have children and become grandparents—precisely among this wandering sisterhood, who by the terms of their dark indenture must never descend to Earth, each nightfall nesting together on city rooftops like a flock of February chaffinch, having learned to find, in all that roofs keep out, a domesticity of escape and rejection, beneath storm, assaults of moonlight, some darker vertical predation, never entirely dreamed, from other worlds.

Their names were Heartsease and Primula, Glee, Blaze, and Viridian, each had found her way to this Ætherist sorority through the mysteries of inconvenience—a train arriving late, a love-letter mistimed, a hallucinating police witness, and so forth.

—Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.


“…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. 


“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:




“So of course we use them” / Scarsdale Vibe’s Last Evil Monologue (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

Scarsdale Vibe was addressing the Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Industrial Defense Alliance (L.A.H.D.I.D.A~) gathered in the casino of an exclusive hot-springs resort up near the Continental Divide. Enormous windows revealed and framed mountain scenery like picture postcards hand-tinted by a crew brought in from across the sea and all slightly colorblind. The clientele looked to be mostly U.S. white folks, pretty well-off in a flash sort of way—vacationers from back east and beyond, though an observer might be forgiven if he thought he recognized faces from the big hotel bars in Denver, with a few that might’ve fit in on upper Arapahoe as well.

The evening was advanced, the ladies had long since retired, and with them any need for euphemism.

“So of course we use them,” Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stemwinder, “we harness and sodomize them, photograph their degradation, send them up onto the high iron and down into mines and sewers and killing floors, we set them beneath inhuman loads, we harvest from them their muscle and eyesight and health, leaving them in our kindness a few miserable years of broken gleanings. Of course we do. Why not? They are good for little else. How likely are they to grow to their full manhood, become educated, engender families, further the culture or the race? We take what we can while we may. Look at them—they carry the mark of their absurd fate in plain sight. Their foolish music is about to stop, and it is they who will be caught out, awkwardly, most of them tonedeaf and never to be fully aware, few if any with the sense to leave the game early and seek refuge before it is too late. Perhaps there will not, even by then, be refuge.

“We will buy it all up,” making the expected arm gesture, “all this country. Money speaks, the land listens, where the Anarchist skulked, where the horsethief plied his trade, we fishers of Americans will cast our nets of perfect ten-acre mesh, leveled and varmint-proofed, ready to build on. Where alien muckers and jackers went creeping after their miserable communistic dreams, the good lowland townsfolk will come up by the netful into these hills, clean, industrious, Christian, while we, gazing out over their little vacation bungalows, will dwell in top-dollar palazzos befitting our station, which their mortgage money will be paying to build for us. When the scars of these battles have long faded, and the tailings are covered in bunch-grass and wildflowers, and the coming of the snows is no longer the year’s curse but its promise, awaited eagerly for its influx of moneyed seekers after wintertime recreation, when the shining strands of telpherage have subdued every mountainside, and all is festival and wholesome sport and eugenically-chosen stock, who will be left anymore to remember the jabbering Union scum, the frozen corpses whose names, false in any case, have gone forever unrecorded? who will care that once men fought as if an eight-hour day, a few coins more at the end of the week, were everything, were worth the merciless wind beneath the shabby roof, the tears freezing on a woman’s face worn to dark Indian stupor before its time, the whining of children whose maws were never satisfied, whose future, those who survived, was always to toil for us, to fetch and feed and nurse, to ride the far fences of our properties, to stand watch between us and those who would intrude or question?” He might usefully have taken a look at Foley, attentive back in the shadows. But Scarsdale did not seek out the eyes of his old faithful sidekick. He seldom did anymore. “Anarchism will pass, its race will degenerate into silence, but money will beget money, grow like the bluebells in the meadow, spread and brighten and gather force, and bring low all before it. It is simple. It is inevitable. It has begun.”

—Nearing the end of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day, we get this (final—sorry if that’s a spoiler, but this mutherfucker needed to get got!) monologue from mustache-twirling super-capitalist arch-villain Scarsdale Vibe. His speech here (to the L.A.H.D.I.D.A., another wonderful throwaway gag) recalls an earlier bit of the book that I riffed on at some length—it almost feels as if Pynchon, at the end of Against the Day is going through the motions of checking in on everyone and reminding the readers, Hey, look, this guy is downright dastardly. Also: Manifest Destiny, exploitation, environmental degradation, etc. And again—not trying to set up any spoilers, but I could totally see not just this guy’s demise on the radar, but also the means of his demise. And despite that, it was very, very satisfying.

“Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day” (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

FOR THIS PARTICULAR STRETCH of Pacific slope, Tapachula was town— you wanted to relax or raise hell or both at the same time, you went in to Tapachula. Frank tended to spend time at a cantina called El Quetzal Dormido, drinking either maguey brandy from Comitán or the at first horrible but after a while sort of interesting local moonshine known as pox, and dancing with or lighting panatelas for a girl named Melpomene who’d drifted down from the ruins and fireflies of Palenque, first to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and then, with that boomtown certitude some young folks possess of knowing where the money is being spent least reflectively at any given season, to Tapachula, where there were cacao, coffee, rubber, and banana plantations all within an easy radius, so the town was always jumping with pickers, tree shakers, nurserymen, beanpolishers, guayuleros, and centrifuge operators, none in a mood for moderation of any kind.

Melpomene told Frank about the giant luminous beetles known as cucuji. Each night in the country around Palenque, illuminating the miles of ruins hidden among the jungle trees, you could see them by the millions, shining all over their bodies, so brightly that by the light of even one of them you could read the newspaper, and six would light up a city block. “Or so a tinterillo told me once,” grinning through the smoke of a Sin Rival. “I never learned to read, but I have a tree full of cucuji in my yard. Come on,” and she led him out the back and down a cobbled alley and into a dirt lane. All at once, ahead of them, above the tops of the trees, shone a greenish yellow light, pulsing off and on. “They feel me coming,” she said. They rounded a corner and there was a fig tree, with near as Frank could tell thousands of these big luminous beetles, flashing brightly and then going dark, over and over, all in perfect unison. He found if he stared too long into the tree, he tended to lose his sense of scale and it became almost like looking into a vast city, like Denver or the Mexican capital, at night. Shadows, depths . . .

Melpomene told him how the Indian women of Palenque captured the beetles and tamed them, giving them names which they learned to answer to, putting them into little cages to carry like lamps at night, or wearing them in their hair beneath transparent veils. Nights were populated by light-bearing women, who found their way through the forest as if it were day.

“Do all these critters here have names?”

“Most of them,” giving him a look of warning not to make fun of this. “Even one named after you, if you’d like to meet him. Pancho!”

One of the fragments of light detached itself from the tree and flew down and landed on the girl’s wrist, like a falcon. When the tree went dark, so did Pancho. “Bueno, “she whispered to it, “pay no attention to the others. I want you to light up only when I tell you. Now.” The bug, obligingly, lit up. “Ahora, apágate,” and again Pancho complied.

Frank looked at Pancho. Pancho looked back at Frank, though what he was seeing was anybody’s guess.

He couldn’t say when exactly, but at some point Frank came to understand that this bearer of light was his soul, and that all the fireflies in the tree were the souls of everyone who had ever passed through his life, even at a distance, even for a heartbeat and a half, that there existed such a tree for each person in Chiapas, and though this suggested that the same soul must live on a number of trees, they all went to make up a single soul, really, in the same way that light was indivisible. “In the same way,” amplified Günther, “that our Savior could inform his disciples with a straight face that bread and wine were indistinguishable from his body and blood. Light, in any case, among these Indians of Chiapas, occupies an analogous position to flesh among Christian peoples. It is living tissue. As the brain is the outward and visible expression of the Mind.”

–From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.

This passage illustrates some of the novel’s grand themes—the visible and invisible worlds; the tangible, the real and the metaphysical something that might be behind it—and light, of course. I don’t know if I can muster anything else to say about it right now—I’ve enjoyed Against the Day—it’s funny, erudite, sprawling, etc.—but it’s very very long (part of the pleasure too, no doubt). Happy to be in the homestretch.


Cocktail Recipe: The Crocodile, a Traditional Anarchist Favorite (Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

“I’ll be in the bar,” said Reef. Yzles-Bains was in fact one of the few places on the continent of Europe where a sober Anarchist could find a decent Crocodile—equal amounts of rum, absinthe, and the grape spirits known as trois-six—a traditional Anarchist favorite, which Loïc the bartender, a veteran of the Paris Commune, claimed to have been present at the invention of.

A cocktail recipe from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day. (More on trois-six here; good luck finding real absinthe).

Bonus recipe: Kit Traverse’s drink invention:

“‘Love in the Shadows of Pera,’ ” Kit said. “It’s just Creme de Menthe and beer.”

Anarchists’ Golf (Maybe a Synecdoche of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Against the Day)

THE NEXT DAY Reef, Cyprian, and Ratty were out on the Anarchists’ golf course, during a round of Anarchists’ Golf, a craze currently sweeping the civilized world, in which there was no fixed sequence—in fact, no fixed number—of holes, with distances flexible as well, some holes being only putter-distance apart, others uncounted hundreds of yards and requiring a map and compass to locate. Many players had been known to come there at night and dig new ones. Parties were likely to ask, “Do you mind if we don’t play through?” then just go and whack balls at any time and in any direction they liked. Folks were constantly being beaned by approach shots barreling in from unexpected quarters. “This is kind of fun,” Reef said, as an ancient brambled guttie went whizzing by, centimeters from his ear.

From Thomas Pynchon’s ginormous novel Against the Day, which I am almost finished with.

I won’t riff on this (very short) Anarchists’ Golf scene, other than to suggest that it perhaps functions as a condensation or synecdoche of the novel proper: the joy, the optimism, the phallic aggression, the disruption of order, the social angle, the nose-thumbing, the creativity, the synthesis—the anarchy.


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


IT WAS MIDAPRIL, Carnevale had been over for weeks, and Lent was coming to a close, skies too drawn and pallid to weep for the fate of the cyclic Christ, the city having slowly regained a maskless condition, with a strange dull shine on the paving of the Piazza, less a reflection of the sky than a soft glow from regions below. But the silent communion of masks was not quite done here.

On one of the outer islands in the Lagoon, which had belonged to the Spongiatosta family for centuries, over an hour away even by motor craft, stood a slowly drowning palazzo. Here at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday began the secret counter-Carnevale known as Carnesalve, not a farewell but an enthusiastic welcome to flesh in all its promise. As object of desire, as food, as temple, as gateway to conditions beyond immediate knowledge.

With no interference from authority, church or civic, all this bounded world here succumbed to a masked imperative, all hold on verbatim identities loosening until lost altogether in the delirium. Eventually, after a day or two, there would emerge the certainty that there had always existed separately a world in which masks were the real, everyday faces, faces with their own rules of expression, which knew and understand one another—a secret life of Masks. It was not quite the same as during Carnevale, when civilians were allowed to pretend to be members of the Maskworld, to borrow some of that hieratic distance, that deeper intimacy with the unexpressed dreams of Masks. At Carnevale, masks had suggested a privileged indifference to the world of flesh, which one was after all bidding farewell to. But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.

1. Okay—I know it’s been like forever since I riffed on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (here, “forever” = a few weeks), but I took a week off from the novel, which turned into two weeks, which is a bad habit, yes, but here we are, and I’m nearing the end of the shaggy beast. I don’t think Pynchon is going to tie all the loose threads  into some perfect picture for me, but I don’t think I’d want that anyway.

2. Where I am in the book: Cyprian, Cyprian, Cyprian. The beginning of The Great War. Just waaaaaay too much going on to even bother to begin to try to summarize.

3. Cyprian is surely the most fascinating character of Against the Day, but his somewhat late arrival in the text feels, I don’t know, lumpy or something. Something about reading such a long book—we make a kind of investment in certain plots, figures, characters, and Pynchon here sort of moves them into the background, or disappears them completely, for long, long stretches. I’m thinking about The Chums of Chance in particular, but also Lew Basnight, the Tunguska event, the Vibes vs. the Traverses, etc. Thematically it’s all there, but this stretch with Cyprian’s dark adventures, while fantastic, also feels almost like a novella shoehorned into the final chapters of an epic. This is not a complaint.

4. I’ve shared a few citations from Against the Day since my last riff, but the one above (my Kindle tells me its at the 82% mark, if that means anything to you) seems to resonate with what I take to be the major themes and motifs of the novel.

I’m thinking specifically of the final line: “But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.”

Invisible is obviously a key word in Against the Day, and the novel turns on concepts of doubling, masking, transgression, themes that the Carnevale-Carnesalve disjunction highlights (flesh vs. spirit, visible vs. invisible, etc.).

5. Actually, now that I think about it, Cyprian probably most embodies, or, rather, embodies most complexly, Pynchon’s themes of doubling, masking, and transgression. He’s his own doppelganger. (Even the name suggest a kind of bilocation — Cyprus, that ancient crossroads of East and West).

6. And —

The Carnesalve chapter culminates in a truly salacious sex scene, an S&M-fueled ménage à trois that somehow simultaneously punctures the novels structure of doubling (cause, uh, a three-way) at the same time it reinforces it (Cyprian as self-double). I’m not sure if any of this that I’m saying makes any sense at all.

7. The image at the top of this riff is a detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel.

“Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight,” and other Tunguska effects (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

FOR A WHILE after the Event, crazed Raskol’niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation. Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries since humans began invading the North. Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area. Mosquitoes lost their taste for blood, acquiring one instead for vodka, and were observed congregating in large swarms at local taverns. Clocks and watches ran backward. Although it was summer, there were brief snowfalls in the devastated taiga, and heat in general tended to flow unpredictably for a while. Siberian wolves walked into churches in the middle of services, quoted passages from the Scriptures in fluent Old Slavonic, and walked peaceably out again. They were reported to be especially fond of Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Aspects of the landscape of Tierra del Fuego, directly opposite the Stony Tunguska on the globe, began to show up in Siberia—sea ernes, gulls, terns, and petrels landing in the branches of fir trees, swooping to grab fish out of the streams, taking a bite, screaming with distaste, and throwing them back. Granite cliffs rose sheer and unexpected out of the forest. Oceangoing ships unmanned by visible crews, attempting to navigate the shallow rivers and creeks, ran aground. Entire villages came to the conclusion that they were not where they ought to be, and without much advance planning simply packed up what they had, left behind what they couldn’t carry, and headed off together into the brush, where presently they set up villages no one else could see. Or not very clearly.

And from everywhere in the taiga, all up and down the basins of the Yenisei, came reports of a figure walking through the aftermath, not exactly an angel but moving like one, deliberately, unhurried, a consoler. Accounts differed as to whether the outsize figure was man or woman, but all reported having to look steeply upward when trying to make out its face, and a deep feeling of fearless calm once it had passed.

Some thought it might be some transfigured version of the shaman Magyakan, whose whereabouts had been puzzling folks along the Stony T. No one had seen him since the Event, his izba was empty, and the magical force that had kept it from sinking, like everyone else’s dwelling in Siberia, into the summer-thawed earth, had abated, so that the cabin now tilted at a thirty-degree angle, like a ship at sea about to slide beneath the waves.

None of the strange effects lasted long, and as the Event receded in memory, arguments arose as to whether this or that had even happened at all. Soon the forest was back to normal, green underbrush beginning to appear among the dead-white trunks, the animals fallen speechless again, tree-shadows again pointing in their accustomed directions, and Kit and Prance continued to make their way through it with no idea what this meant for their mission out here.

—Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.

“Your whole history in America has been one long religious war, secret crusades, disguised under false names” (Pynchon’s Against the Day)

“Not quite how it sorts out. Differences among the world religions are in fact rather trivial when compared to the common enemy, the ancient and abiding darkness which all hate, fear, and struggle against without cease”— he made a broad gesture to indicate the limitless taiga all around them— “Shamanism. There isn’t a primitive people anywhere on Earth that can’t be found practicing some form of it. Every state religion, including your own, considers it irrational and pernicious, and has taken steps to eradicate it.”

“What? there’s no ‘state religion’ in the U.S.A., pardner, we’ve got freedom of worship, it’s guaranteed in the Constitution—keeps church and state separate, just so’s we don’t turn into something like England and keep marching off into the brush with bagpipes and Gatling guns, looking for more infidels to wipe out. Nothing personal o’ course.”

“The Cherokee,” replied Prance, “the Apache, the massacre of the Sioux Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, every native Red Indian you’ve found, you people have either tried to convert to Christianity or you’ve simply killed.”

“I suggest it was about the fear of medicine men and strange practices, dancing and drug-taking, that allow humans to be in touch with the powerful gods hiding in the landscape, with no need of any official church to mediate it for them. The only drug you’ve ever been comfortable with is alcohol, so you went in and poisoned the tribes with that. Your whole history in America has been one long religious war, secret crusades, disguised under false names. You tried to exterminate African shamanism by kidnapping half the continent into slavery, giving them Christian names, and shoving your peculiar versions of the Bible down their throats, and look what happened.”

“The Civil War? That was economics. Politics.”

“That was the gods you tried to destroy, waiting their hour, taking their revenge. You people really just believe everything you’re taught, don’t you?”

Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s enormous novel Against the Day. Context unimportant to content here.


A Dirty Lapdog Joke from Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day

Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and her party had descended by way of the St.Gotthard Tunnel from league after league of peaks like ocean waves frozen in place, fading into merciless light, tending to eternity—a circuit of Alpine hotels and hydropathics so remote the hotels had to print up their own postal stamps just to get mail as far as a regular Swiss post office, full of giggling nitwits, quite a number of them British actually, running about the corridors, jumping off balconies into the snowdrifts, hiding in servingpantries and falling down dumbwaiter shafts. They had detrained at Bellinzona, where the motordiligence from the Sanatorium was waiting for them, and so up to the famed institution overlooking the Swiss shores of Lago Maggiore. Goats grazing by the roadside turned their heads to watch them pass, as if long familiar with Böpfli-Spazzoletta clientele. From somewhere came a repeated figure being played on an alpenhorn.

Though he was not ready to share it with his brother, not even Reef had been exempt from the folly up there.

“What kind of a dog’s that?” he asked Ruperta at one point.

“Mouffette? She’s a papillon . . . a sort of French ladies’ lapdog.”

“A—You say,” gears in his mind beginning to crank, “ ‘lap’—French . . . lapdog?” Somehow gathering that Ruperta had trained her toy spaniel to provide intimate “French” caresses of the tongue for the pleasure of its mistress. “Well! you two are . . . pretty close then, I guess?”

“I wuv my ickle woofwoof, ess I doo!” Squeezing the animal tightly, one would think painfully, except for the apparent enjoyment with which Mouffette was fluttering her eyelids.

“Hmm,” said Reef.

“And today I must go across the lake, and the mean old people there won’t allow my ickle pwecious to come with Mummy, and we were both wondering if her good Uncle Reef would look after her for the day, see that she gets her chopped filet and her boiled pheasant, as she’s so particular.”

“Sure, you bet!” His thoughts taking wing. The day alone with a French “lap” dog! who might be more than happy to do for Reef what she was obviously already doing for old ’Pert here! who in fact, mmaybe all this time’s been just droolin’ for onethem penises for a change, and will turn out to know plenty of tricks! Aand—

It took a while for Ruperta to get her toilette perfect and her bustle out the door. Reef found himself pacing and smoking, and whenever he took a look over at Mouffette could’ve sworn she was fidgeting too. The dog, it seemed to Reef, was giving him sidewise looks which if they’d come from a woman you would have had to call flirtatious. Finally after an extended farewell notable for its amount of saliva exchange, Mouffette slowly padded over to the divan where Reef was sitting and jumped up to sit next to him. Jumping on the furniture was something Ruperta seldom allowed her to do, and her gaze at Reef clearly assumed that he would not get upset. Far from it, what he actually got was an erection. Mouffette looked it over, looked away, looked back, and suddenly jumped up on his lap.

“Oboy, oboy.” He stroked the diminutive spaniel for a while until, with no warning, she jumped off the couch and slowly went into the bedroom, looking back now and then over her shoulder. Reef followed, taking out his penis, breathing heavily through his mouth. “Here, Mouffie, nice big dog bone for you right here, lookit this, yeah, seen many of these lately? come on, smells good don’t it, mmm, yum!” and so forth, Mouffette meantime angling her head, edging closer, sniffing with curiosity. “That’s right, now, ooopen up . . . good girl, good Mouffette now let’s just put this—yaahhgghh!”

Reader, she bit him. After which, as if surprised at the vehemence of his reaction, Mouffette jumped off the bed and while Reef went looking for an ice bucket, ran off somehow into the vast hotel. Reef chased her for a while but found it was getting him funny looks from the staff.

In the days that followed, Mouffette took every occasion to jump up in Reef’s lap and gaze into his eyes—sarcastically, it seemed to Reef—opening her mouth suggestively, sometimes even drooling. Each time Reef tried not to flinch. Each time Ruperta, exasperated, would cry, “Honestly, it isn’t as if she means to bite you.”

–A sophomoric, dirty joke from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day.


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


1. Here is a rambling riff if ever I rambled and riffed:

2, First, look, that lovely image—it’s by Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. I came across it a week or two ago and digitally nabbed it.

I love Moebius’s work in general and something about the image reminds me of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, although maybe I’m too immersed in the thick novel to not have much of what I see recall it in some ways.

Something about the airship and the horseman recalls an early passage where Reef Traverse, in the American West, dream-reads the airship adventures of The Chums of Chance into existence. (There are parts of Against the Day that recall to me Cormac McCarthy’s westerns (sometimes—often—called anti-westerns, but come, let’s be adults)…where was I going here? It’s Friday and I’ve consumed the better part (aka “all”) of a bottle of rosé and now I’m circling round some odd notes here—yes—the western/Western thing: Manifest Destiny, etc. — I see it in the Moebius illustration, but of course I bring it with me like a sickness. I move on).

3. ” . . . boys to your bellybone and chuck a chum a chance!” — This is from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (85.8). Pointed out to me by Roman Tsivkin, this seems like a most reasonable/splendid source for the namesake of our aeronaut adventurers (who seem rather, uh, absent of late in the final moments of the Bilocations book I’m in right now).

4. Data, perhaps imperfect (again, digitally nabbed)—

In Against the Day:

—Some form of the word invisible appears 173 times—

—The word inconvenience or inconvenient — 84 times—

—The phrase the day — 213 times (usually in a cadence suggestive of the book’s title—some kind of rhythm to it, anyway)—

—The phrase against the day — once (unless you count the chapter (book, really) called “Against the Day,” or the colophon, or what-have-you)—

5. I’m a few sections past this, but a nice passage to end on of a Friday night:

Among students of mathematics here, chloral hydrate was the preferred drug. Sooner or later, whatever the problem being struggled with, having obsessed themselves into nightly insomnia, they would start taking knockout drops to get to sleep—Geheimrat Klein himself was a great advocate of the stuff—and next thing they knew, they were habitués, recognizing one another by the side-effects, notably eruptions of red pimples, known as “the dueling scars of chloralomania.” On Saturday nights in Göttingen, there was always sure to be at least one chloral party, or Mickifest.

It was a peculiar gathering, only intermittently, as you’d say, brisk. People were either talking wildly, often to themselves and without seeming to pause for breath, or lounging draped in pleasurable paralysis across the furniture or, as the evening went along, flat on the floor in deep narcosis.

Thomas Pynchon Offers a History of the Cult of Mayonnaise (And Some Hat-Fetishism)

THE NEXT TIME he saw Pléiade Lafrisée was at a café-restaurant off the Place d’Armes. It would not occur to him until much later to wonder if she had arranged the encounter. She was in pale violet peau de soie, and a hat so beguiling that Kit was only momentarily surprised to find himself with an erection. It was still early in the study of these matters, only a few brave pioneers like the Baron von Krafft-Ebing had dared peep into the strange and weirdly twilit country of hat-fetishism—not that Kit noticed stuff like that ordinarily, but it happened actually to be a gray toque of draped velvet, trimmed with antique guipure, and a tall ostrich plume dyed the same shade of violet as her dress. . . .

“This? One finds them in every other midinette’s haunt, literally for sous.”

“Oh. I must’ve been staring. What happened to you the other night?”

“Come. You can buy me a Lambic.”

The place was like a museum of mayonnaise. This being just at the height of the culte de la mayonnaise then sweeping Belgium, oversize exhibits of the ovoöleaginous emulsion were to be encountered at every hand. Heaps of Mayonnaise Grenache, surrounded by plates of smoked turkey and tongue, glowed redly as if from within, while with less, if any, reference to actual food it might have been there to modify, mountains of Chantilly mayonnaise, swept upward in gravity-impervious peaks insubstantial as cloud, along with towering masses of green mayonnaise, basins of boiled mayonnaise, mayonnaise baked into soufflés, not to mention a number of not entirely successful mayonnaises, under some obscure attainder, or on occasion passing as something else, dominated every corner.

“How much do you know of La Mayonnaise?” she inquired.

He shrugged. “Maybe up to the part that goes ‘Aux armes, citoyens’—”

But she was frowning, earnest as he had seldom seen her. “La Mayonnaise,” Pléiade explained, “has its origins in the moral squalor of the court of Louis XV—here in Belgium the affinity should not be too surprising. The courts of Leopold and Louis are not that different except in time, and what is time? Both monumentally deluded men, maintaining their power through oppression of the innocent. One might usefully compare Cleo de Mérode and the marquise de Pompadour. Neuropathists would recognize in both kings a desire to construct a self-consistent world to live inside, which allows them to continue the great damage they are inflicting on the world the rest of us must live in.

“The sauce was invented as a new sensation for jaded palates at court by the duc de Richelieu, at first known as mahonnaise after Mahon, the chief port of Minorca, the scene of the due’s dubious ‘victory’ in 1756 over the illfated Admiral Byng. Basically Louis’s drug dealer and pimp, Richelieu, known for opium recipes to fit all occasions, is also credited with the introduction into France of the cantharides, or Spanish fly.” She gazed pointedly at Kit’s trousers. “What might this aphrodisiac have in common with the mayonnaise? That the beetles must be gathered and killed by exposing them to vinegar fumes suggests an emphasis on living or recently living creatures—the egg yolk perhaps regarded as a conscious entity—cooks will speak of whipping, beating, binding, penetration, submission, surrender. There is an undoubtedly Sadean aspect to the mayonnaise. No getting past that.”

Kit was a little confused by now. “It always struck me as kind of, I don’t know . . . bland?”

“Until you look within. Mustard, for example, mustard and cantharides, n’estce pas? Both arousing the blood. Blistering the skin. Mustard is the widelyknown key to resurrecting a failed mayonnaise, as is the cantharides to reviving broken desire.”

“You’ve been thinking about mayonnaise a lot, mademoiselle.”

“Meet me tonight,” a sudden fierce whisper, “out at the Mayonnaise Works, and you shall perhaps understand things it is given only to a few to know. There will be a carriage waiting.” She pressed his hand and was gone in a mist of vetiver, abruptly as the other evening.

Another citation from Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day; I don’t think you need any context to appreciate this passage.