Snoods, Gnomes, Loupes, Coffee (A Passage from Pynchon’s Novel Against the Day)

Electrical arcs stabbed through the violet dusk. Heated solutions groaned toward their boiling points. Bubbles rose helically through luminous green liquids. Miniature explosions occurred in distant corners of the facility, sending up showers of glass as nearby workers cowered beneath seaside umbrellas set up for just such protection. Gauge needles oscillated feverishly. Sensitive flames sang at different pitches. Amid a gleaming clutter of burners and spectroscopes, funnels and flasks, centrifugal and Soxhlet extractors, and distillation columns in both the Glynsky and Le BelHenninger formats, serious girls with their hair in snoods entered numbers into logbooks, and pale gnomes, patient as lockpickers, squinted through loupes, adjusting tremblers and timers with tiny screwdrivers and forceps. Best of all, somebody in here somewhere was making coffee.

Another passage from Thomas Pynchon’s great big book Against the Day.


“…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.


“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.”