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.