It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light. —Thelonious Monk
Each moderator would host for a week, posting a synopsis of that week’s reading along with questions for the group. We began in December of 2006 and ran through to December 2007. (I was someone else then…)
I hosted four times, with one additional “side” post. In the interest of owning your own content, I have dredged the posts from the Chumps Blogspot archives to give them a new, permanent home here.
- Light and Pain pp 189–219
- “We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing” pp 318–335
- Against the Day pp 792–805
- Mindless Pleasures (add’l comments)
- What I Tell You Three Times is True pp 976–999
1. Light and Pain
(2007-02-04) This week’s reading covers three chapters centering around Webb, Frank, and Reef Traverse. Below is as brief a summary as I could muster, followed by some questions for the group. I have deliberately left many events unremarked upon, with the expectation that others will fill things in. So let’s get right to it, then, shall we?
189-198 / Light over the ranges
We leave Kit and Lew and return once again to Webb. It is around 1902. All his boys have left home, and only the youngest, his daughter Lake, remains. She is “nearly twenty” (192:4), and as restless as the boys had been. She and Webb have stormy conflicts as she shakes loose of the family more and more. She disappears, returning home with money she will not say how she procured it. She claims to have made it betting on boxing matches, which Webb finds implausible for several reasons.
(I will spare y’all my perhaps excessive research on this topic, other than to say that all the boxers mentioned were real, and Webb’s opinions are borne out by history. Both Malloys were repeatedly defeated by the scrappy, indomitable Flynn; Andy in fact went on to become Jack Dempsey’s manager, who was also defeated by Flynn for the title of heavy-weight champion…)
Webb calls Lake a “child of the storm,” and says, “let the god-damned storm shelter you” (190:12, 18-19). He reflects how she is like a “blue norther,” a freak storm notable for its extreme and sudden temperature shifts. He fears her as he would a massive and unpredictable storm.
Lake leaves for the last time, and returns to Silverton “like coming home to her real family” (191:7-8). She misses her brother Kit the most, “for they were the two youngest, and shared a kind of willfulness, a yearning for the undreamt-of destiny, or perhaps no more than a stubborn aversion to settling for the everyday life of others” (191:25-28). And she fantasizes about waiting at an overpass and dropping a stick of dynamite on Webb as he passes by below (191:30).
With all his children now gone, Webb joins the Local 63. They find him a bit too zealous, and transfer him from Hellkite out to the Torpedo Workings in the Uncompahgre, where he meets Deuce Kindred. Deuce is described as a “Sickly Youth,” who is “more afraid of the fate all too obviously in store for weaklings in this country than of the physical exertion it would take to toughen up and avoid it.” He is described, not insignificantly, in terms of light: he absorbs cruelty, and re-emits it at different frequencies (193:7-14).
Deuce and Webb get to talking, and they watch a “sepulchral figure in a three-dollar sack suit” (193:20-1) walk past, whom Deuce believes is a Company spy. Webb is, or seems, unconcerned. He tells Deuce not to worry about the Company Inspectors. Deuce is a charmer, and Webb falls for it. A “couple-three” nights later, he gives Deuce some gambling advice, and invites him to call him Webb.
Then Deuce meets with a shadowy company rep (perhaps the selfsame “sepulchral figure”?) who contracts him to do some “persuading” or perhaps to “take it further” (194:15-40). Turns out, Deuce has a sidekick named Sloat Fresno, twice Deuce’s size. In the increasing theme of pairings and dualities, Sloat believes that Deuce is his sidekick. Perhaps he is, in some alternate version of the story.
They’ve helped out the Owners Association before on jobs needing their talents. They are craven opportunists, mercenaries. They take Webb while he’s being confronted by the company inspector about pocketing nuggets. “The first blow came out of the dark, filling Webb’s attention with light and pain” (197:3).
Deuce and Sloat ride Webb out into the country. Webb feels damned foolish, through the pain, for having so woefully misread Deuce. In their division of labor, it has fallen to Sloat to inflict physical damage. Using a railroad coupling pin, he smashes Webb’s feet and hands. It’s just a job, and he takes care not to look Webb in the face. Webb finds himself crying out his sons’ names, surprised at the note of reproach in his voice as he does so (197:40).
At 198:1-2, we encounter the sentence that gave Part 1 its name. Webb, severely beaten and now partially blind, watches the light over the ranges drain away. It is unclear, of course, whether the light is draining away because it is nightfall, or because his sight is failing.
They are headed for a place called Jeshimon, “over in Utah” (198:7, 11), where they intend to leave Webb for dead. They pass through Cortez, Colorado, and by chance encounter one Jimmy Drop, a former member of their gang. Deuce and Sloat hightail it out of there, but not before exchanging some “well-meaning rounds” with Jimmy, who tries, rashly and unsuccessfully, to procure a revolver from under one of the fandango girls’ skirts. She pulls instead a .22 from her cleavage for him to borrow.
199-208 / Against the daylight
Frank is in mine school. One day, Reef, “out of the usual nowhere” (199:26), invites Frank to come with him to Castle Rock, ostensibly for some entertainment. They are on their way, it turns out, to see a woman of Reef’s acquaintence. I like their nicknames for each other, Reefer and Francisco (“Kit” is itself short for Christopher; we can wonder if Lake too also has a nickname among them).
They arrive in Nochecita, where they meet Estrella Briggs. She is known as Stray, which makes sense when you recall the double L is pronounced as a Y in most dialects of Spanish. She turns out to be “real pregnant” (201:8), and it would seem Reef is the responsible party. We meet some of Stray’s friends and other regulars: Sage, a Mormon; Cooper, a sensitive motorcycle-riding guitarist and a suitor to Sage; Linnet Dawes, a schoolteacher. Frank slowly comes to the realization that Reef is not perhaps all that welcome here, that Stray’s friends are protecting her from Reef, whom they see as unstable, unreliable.
In a beautifully written passage (205-6), Frank and Stray have an oblique conversation, the bulk of which seems to go over Frank’s head. What strikes him most, however, is that he finds himself attracted to Stray, deeply, and suddenly, as she sits veiled in her own penumbra, against the daylight (205:14-15). The baby kicks, she turns on the electric light, they look at one another for a long instant, and he knows that his memory of her face will long be a vision to get him through “many a hard mile” (206:10).
One day soon afterwards, a phone rings while Reef happens to be sitting right next to it. He answers. It’s Jimmy Drop. “I’m sorry Reef. It’s your Pa” (207:3). Jimmy knows where they’re headed, too: a place called Jeshimon. Reef wants Frank to go back to look after Mayva and Lake. Frank insists on going with him. They are resolute but indecisive. At last, they get moving, travelling together as far as “Mortalidad, the nearest stop to Jeshimon” (208:30).
209-218 / The ends of the earth
Turns out, Reef is going alone to Jeshimon, which is “well up into Utah” (209:15). He wonders as he approaches the city, “what is wrong with these people?” (209:30). We readers can wonder the same thing. Corpses are strung up on gibbets for miles in every direction. Telegraph poles till they were used up, then “rude structures … known in Persia as”Towers of Silence” (209:40).
Reef meets the fabulously named Reverend Lube Carnal of the Second Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Church, who speaks cheerfully of the strict polarity of the region: “We attract evildoers from hundreds of miles around — not to mention clergy too o’ course” (210:12-13). He speaks of the Mayor of Jeshimon, known as “The Governor.” If, after committing your own personal flavor of sin, the Governor takes notice of you, expect no sanctuary in any of the churches. It is a town in every way surrounded and steeped in death — and piousness. It is a nightmare city of lawlessness, “the place they brought the ones they didn’t want found too soon” (210:28). Reef learns, however, “that, for a price, certain accommodations could be made” (210:29-30).
The Reverend takes Reef on a tour of the city, which is a living catalog of outrages, insults, and deviations so extreme and excessive as to be downright comical. Rev Carnal explains that this is because just as in medicine it is believed that the cure grows alongside the cause, here in Jeshimon, sin and redemption flourish side by side (211:28-30).
He says, “We like to think of Jeshimon as being under God’s wing.” “But wait a minute,” Reef protests, “God doesn’t have wings–” The Rev replies, “The god you’re thinking of, maybe not. But out here, the one who looks after us, is it’s a kind of winged god, you see” (211:34-38). Wes Grimsford, the Marshal, and his deputies ride by, expressionless, on black Arabians. They wear the standard sheriff’s star, but upside down (212:3).
And then, on page 212, we encounter a long description of the Governor. Remind you of anyone?
Now, Webb wasn’t quite dead when Deuce and Sloat brought him into town, and so the buzzards have not yet begun their work when Reef arrives. He buys (or perhaps rents) a set of grappling hooks to ascend Webb’s tower. He manages to get Webb down just in time, and flees as the Marshal approaches.
As he rides back toward Telluride, he reflects on the possibility of Webb having been an Anarchist, the Kieselguhr Kid, and if that really were so, then shouldn’t someone “carry on the family business…?” He feels “some new presence inside him, growing, inflating” (214:18). At night, around the campfire, he takes to reading to Webb from a dime novel he’s had with him for a long time, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. He’s had the book for years, ever since finding it in the lockup in Socorro, New Mexico. As he read, he “enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro, and at the Pole” (215:12). Not only that, but he could read in the dark as long as he didn’t notice the absence of light.
And now, riding with Webb, he begins to feel some presence overhead, “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…” (215:16-18). And as they ride for home, he and Webb exchange some words. Webb doesn’t know where he is. Reef says they’re outside of Cortez, but Webb retorts, “No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes”… (215:24-30).
They have a small funeral, missing only Kit, who’s Back East. Lake is wearing a black dress that seems more suited to quickening pulses than mourning the dead. Reef returns to Nochecita, where Stray has given birth to a son, Jesse. Reef contemplates the dangers of living the double life Webb had lived. “And Webb’s ghost, meantime, Webb’s busy ghost, went bustling to and fro doing what he could to keep things hopping” (218:31-2).
Questions & Curiosities
Some things to think upon and ponder. I’ve got a lot more to say about these chapters and all that I list below, but I will refrain for the nonce. I throw these out there now, and then I will, ahem, bustle to and fro in the comments to keep things hopping…
- There are some delightful names (Lube Carnal; Sloat Fresno). And some ominous or even dreadful names (Nochecita; Mortalidad; Jeshimon). This is one aspect of Pynchon that I’ve come to see as peculiarly Dickensian. Pynchon’s names are often whimsical, but never entirely without significance. What do they mean, and what do they mean to you?
- Anyone want to comment on the significance of Lube Carnal belonging specifically to the Missouri Synod? Oh, and does anyone else remember that old Emo Phillips thing of him talking to the guy who’s about to jump off a bridge? If I can find my old E=MO2 cassette (and a device that can actually play cassettes!) maybe I’ll transcribe choice bits…
- Cooper is riding a motorcycle, which is not in fact an anachronism. His guitar is an Acme “Cornell” (which by a curious coincidence is the name of Our Humble Author’s alma mater). Note, too, the description around 202:29 of how Cooper hits “between the wrong frets.” Who else does that sound like?… Also, Pynchon’s songs hold a special place in the hearts of his readers. Cooper’s song is a lovely thing, and I invite any and all to reflect upon the lyrics. There are several other references to music throughout this section. Discuss.
- Deuce and Sloat’s division of labor in their killings: body and spirit; each seeing the other as the sidekick. Jeshimon as a polarity. Reef’s dual existence. Webb’s secret identity; Webb, in death, insisting, “no, that’s not where this is.” Discuss.
- Foax well-versed in other Pynchon works should feel free to drop by in the Add’l Discussion section. I’ve got some questions and comments over there…
A number of compelling crossovers have come to light in these pages. I want to point a few of them out to elicit replies from anyone who may have something to say on these matters. And of course, if there’s anything else you may be thinking about…
First, we have the Marshall of Jeshimon wearing an inverted pentagram, which we’ve already encountered in Mason & Dixon. And along with Carnal’s description of “their god” being winged, we’ve got ourselves a curiously strong collection of satanic images. This seems significant, given the broad theme throughout M&D of the Line carving through the dragon, the spirit of the place, throwing nature out of balance, and so forth. Thoughts?
Second, there are two ties to Vineland, one weak and and strong. The weak one is Sloat’s propensity for referring to Deuce as “li’l buddy,” right out of Gilligan’s Island, bringing to mind Hector Zuñiga, the TV addict.
The strong tie is that of Jesse Traverse. In Vineland, we learn that Prairie Wheeler’s mother’s mother’s father is named “Jess” Traverse. We meet him at the family reunion on page 369. The provenance works out, if a bit tight: If Jesse was born in 1902, his daughter Sasha could have been born anytime in the early 1920s and be old enough to have herself a daughter, Frenesi, in the 1940s. And Prairie was born sometime between 1967 and 1970.
Lastly, I’ve been thinking about that letter to his editor in 1964, where he said he was working on three books at once (n1). It is increasingly clear to me that the three books are Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. Furthermore, it seems to me that Vineland is something of a pullout from ATD — that Vineland as a whole may have come from a long digressive narrative originally meant for ATD, but cut loose because its action takes place so far outside ATD’s fairly tight chronology of 1893 to 1914.
My appeal to the High Chump Council, therefore, is for anyone who knows Vineland well to step forward and discuss for us any themes they may sense ATD shares with that much-maligned tome.
So: what say you all?
(n1) Hmm, according to this article, Pynchon apparently spoke of being in the middle of four novels, one of which, I suppose, may very well be Vineland; after all, aside from Lot 49, he has only published four novels since that letter was written, since he’s always spoken of Lot 49 as a short story “with gland trouble” rather than a true novel…
2. “We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing”
(2007-03-12) This week’s reading, pp 318-335, returns to Kit, who is still at Yale, which has been losing its charm. Like all too many serious students, he has been discovering how little college has to do with learning. As Tesla’s friend Mark Twain is reported to have said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” He mutters to himself, at the beginning and end of each day, “Tengo que get el fuck out of aquí” (318:15), or “I gotta get me the fuck outta here.” He repeats it like a prayer (318:17).
With the attrition or death of several guiding lights of the math department, Kit’s disillusionment comes to a head; he begins to realize Yale is little more than a “factory for turning out Yale Men, gentlemen but no scholars except inadvertantly” (318:31). Since “Gibbs had died in the spring” (318:28), this episode therefore begins during the fall semester of 1903. Kit feels like an outsider here, knowing that he “will never look like this fellow, talk like that, be wanted in that way” (319:7-8). He may be right to some extent, but he’s clearly “wanted” in some way, because even though men in “expensive town suits” don’t chat him up, Vibe sentinels, “eyes in leafy ambuscade,” are watching him constantly.
Once again, we have a duality: Kit knows that as long as Vibe is paying the bills, he is expected to stay engaged in “applied” mathematics, but he is also aware that there is “no role for his destiny as a Vectorist within any set of Vibe goals he could imagine” (319:31).
It is ironic that an outsider like Kit is in turn perceived by Vibe as being the insider, an acolyte to an unearthly discipline, while he, Vibe, is “left behind in this soiled Creation” (319:40).
Just like Reef and Frank before him, now Kit has a conversation with his father — though unlike the others, he does not yet know that Webb is dead. He dreams that they are in a city that, in the spirit of bilocations, both is and is not Denver. Webb berates him for his damn foolish interest in Æther, and says “nobody has to know” whether Æther exists. Kit retorts that he does, and says, “I always believed children came from heaven” (320:17). This incomplete reply, with the ungraspable logic of dreams, sounds as if Kit is about to equate the Æther with Heaven.
He wakes to find that Professor Vanderjuice wants to meet with him. He has a letter from Lake, which informs him of Webb’s murder. The letter has already been opened. He and Vanderjuice skate around any explicit acknowledgement of their being prisoners here. Kit feels “the presence of a small, wounded girl” (321:36) who is trying to cry (which may be Kit’s Anima). He wanders through New Haven, and finally finds himself out on West Rock, and lets himself cry. And here is yet another reference to alternate universes; this time it is vector analysis (322:2).
Across Long Island Sound from New Haven, as the spring of 1904 “two-steps” toward summer, a tower can faintly be seen increasing in height day by day. It is Wardenclyffe Tower, which Tesla is planning to use for wireless telecommunications and power transfer.
“A trusswork tower, apparently eight-sided” (322:25).
Kit and Vanderjuice get to talking about Tesla and his tower, and they discover their mutual, dual connections to both Tesla and Scarsdale Vibe. Page 323 is thick with allusions and echoes. Vibe, for example, is funding both sides of the energy research and is willing to use dynamite against any “threat to the existing power arrangements” (323:6) just as Webb used dynamite against the existing power arrangements; Vanderjuice was working on an anti-transmitter, another duality… And the passage at 323:27-31 is as succinct a summation of Pynchon’s classic “They” as any I’ve seen. Then there’s that glimmering winged object (323:39) out in Vanderjuice’s peripheral vision, which may or may not be his soul, “whose exact whereabouts since 1893 had been in some doubt” (324:1-2).
(Also, I must mention in passing that I find it highly significant (or at least really funny) that Vanderjuice — another character whose initial is “V” — has an addiction to pizza, a wedge- or V-shaped food.)
Then things get denser and denser on page 324, when Vanderjuice advises Kit to go to Göttingen, Germany, where some really advanced math shit is going down. He wants Kit to become “something else” (324:12) besides, or aside from, a physics student. There is something about this that reminds me of Lew’s Eastward journey. Something symbolic about travelling East over the ocean. And Lew and Kit will not be the only ones who face transformations when travelling east…
Also significant, but I can’t say why exactly, is the description of Vanderjuice’s conscience “showing signs of feeling, as if recovering from frostbite” (324:3-4). That one word, “frostbite,” evokes for me the Polar adventures earlier in the book: the Vormance expedition; the Chums; Hunter Penhallow…
This dense and allusive exchange breaks against another musical number: Vanderjuice, accompanying himself on a ukelele, “produced as from empty space” (324:23), performs “That Göttingen Rag” (which will no doubt remind many of us of another mathematically-minded Tom’s song, The Vatican Rag).
Kit’s friend at Yale, ’Fax Vibe, is also interested in Tesla’s tower, and he suggests the two of them boat across the Sound to investigate. They capsize, and warm up in the transmitter shack, with Tesla himself making them coffee.
Throughout this exchange on pp 326-7, are many compelling things. Just a few: We have a few more in a long and illustrious line of references to vision, invisibility and the Invisible, going all the way back to that day in 1893 when the Chums arrived at the Chicago Fair, when (1) Miles tripped over a picnic basket whose “familiarity rendered it temporarily invisible” (4:30-31), and (2) they were travelling so fast as to be functionally invisible (8:30); Tesla recounts to Kit his initial vision that led him to begin his researches in electricity and “wireless” power transmission. He speaks of his “Magnifying Transmitter” as existing already, “as if time had been removed from all equations” (327:18); he speaks too of how he is expected to be “consciously scientific,” rather than subconsciously, or unconsciously, in stark contrast to Edison’s “perspiration” that can be translated so easily into those comfortably tangible “billable hours” that clients desire…
After spending the night, Kit and ’Fax depart. The conversation they have on their way back is particularly interesting. There seems to be genuine affection and respect on both sides; the duality of the Vibe and Traverse families been remarked upon already, and the existenec of this friendship only strengthens it. It occurs to me that there’s a curious parallel between Scarsdale Vibe and Webb Traverse, in that they both look upon an outsider with greater paternal affection than upon their own children. With Vibe, it’s Kit, and with Webb, of course, it’s Deuce. And in both instances there’s something about it that’s ill-advised at best. And you could wonder, too, if ’Fax’s motivation to befriend Kit is anything like Lake’s motivation to marry Deuce?…
Anyway, despite his being yet another agent of Scarsdale’s vast network, I found myself taking ’Fax entirely at his word when he gives Kit advice about escaping; after all, he has his own very good reasons to get rid of a rival for his father’s affection. The advice he gives (at 329:15-21) struck me as being the best possible plan: both he and Kit benefits, it plays to Scarsdale’s weakness for votive motivations, and nobody has to get killed.
So Kit goes to see the Twin Vibes, and the meeting goes well, or as well as could be expected. Another allusive passage comes at 330:33-37. “Avalanches” reminds me of Lake’s fantasy of dropping dynamite on Webb, and of the explosive that actually fell on Lew; “blue northers” evokes Lake once again; “desperate men” could mean anyone back there in the San Juans, not least Webb himself; and “unexpectedly going loco” reminds me of Tesla’s story a few pages back of his mountain vision… What did y’all make of Foley snorting, as if waking, at the end of what kit says there at 330:37?
Oh, and look at 331:9 — how Scarsdale had paid “for the elimination of many forms of inconvenience.” I wish we had a concordance for Against the Day because that word jumped out at me, and I’d love to see where else it’s used other than as the name of the Chums’ airship…
Vibe says to Kit, significantly, “Become the next Edison” (331:28) rather than, of course, become the next Tesla. This is another odd little parallel with Webb, who in the dream had also spoken in a derogatory way about Kit being “a little damn Tesla”…
The Twin Vibes discuss Kit afterwards, and the contrasts between the two of them are once again sharpened. Foley is firm of resolve, with “cast iron” nerves. Vibe, on the other hand, is wracked with apocalyptic doubts; he is burdened and torn by his Christian duties, to love “every damned socialist” despite his belief that they are the Antichrist, “and that our only salvation is to deal with them as we ought” (332:30). It is disquieting, to say the least, to hear how one of Them speaks of Their own “Them” (that is, Us) — “they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities” (333:9).
Some other random observations: “What we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked” (333:22). Hm. What year is it again? There are some fields in Flanders that might work well to that end. “Smite early and often” (333:27) — a little Chicago shoutout, perhaps?
You will notice I’ve glossed over the mathematics and mathematicians in this section, because I simply do not feel qualified to address any of it. I will say this much, though. The Wikipedia article on Quaternions mentions at one point that “quaternion operations have extended applications in electrodynamics, general relativity, and 3D video game programming,” which seems like a typically Pynchonian collection. And given that Quaternions are useful in calculations involving three-dimensional rotations, we may have some new insight into Deuce and Sloat four-cornering Lake back on page 269… The “fundamental formula for quaternion multiplicative identities” is:
which makes no sense to me, but sets up a kute pun in next week’s reading. Any math nuts out there care to try their hand at explaining all this for the rest of us, and how it all connects?
Another undercurrent in this section, continuing and deepening from elsewhere in the book, is that of transcendent worlds, imaginary worlds, alternate universes, devotional activities meant to replace traditional religion, and so on. And the discoveries and observations being made during these early years of the twentieth century about the universe are thickening, tightening, twisting: space and time function more like a fabric or a continuum than like a grid or geometric projection. Time is fluid, or unnecessary, or nonexistent…
3. Against the Day
With this chapter and the last, we see the Event from a number of perspectives. This chapter (number 56 for those who’ve been counting) is divided into eight sections (with a notable parallel between the opening and closing lines of this chapter: “through the day” and “against the day”.)
We begin with the Chums, who appear for the first time since about page 556. Back then, to other characters, they were growing indistinct and nearly invisible. When we saw them briefly a few pages ago, they were little more than a shadowy presence.
Last night, they anchored above a hermetic city sealed off from the sky by seamless rooftops. Darby has the 4-8 watch, and Miles is making breakfast. Pugnax, like any other animal before a storm, is anticipating the Event: on the bridge, stock still, looking east. The sky changes, and it is only with the arrival of the sound shock that the Chums themselves know where to look for its source.
The city beneath them has been utterly transformed. It is now wide open, brimming with gardens and fountains and “cheerful commotion.” The Event has “torn the veil separating their own space from that of the everyday world” (793:13-14). We would do well to recall that “apocalypse” means an unveiling. But what does it mean for us, for Shambhala, for the Chums, that the membrane between their meta-universe and ours has been rent?
Linsay sez it was the Trespassers. Maybe, sez Randolph, but: if it’s true that the Chums had traditionally been sent on missions to oppose the Trespassers from entering the Chums’ “time-regime” (see 415:27-29), and since the Chums were not, this time, “sent here,” then this suggests that the Trespassers may not be responsible. The others aren’t convinced by Randolph’s argument (assuming I even understand his point) but just then, Vanderjuice calls from Tierra del Fuego, confirming what we’ve already been hearing about on page 784: Siberian and Fuegan stuff has swapped places. Sublime wackiness. (Does anyone else think it’s curious that Vanderjuice just happens to be in antipodal opposition to the Event and the Chums? This is more than a little like that other time on page 109, when the Chums were sent to the antipode of Telsa’s Colorado experiments.)
And, indeed, Tesla is another prime suspect. Vanderjuice suggests that the Event might be some sort of power burst sent from Tesla’s Wardenclyffe station, up to Peary’s base on Ellsmere Island. The geography works out, even if the chronology and blast patterns don’t: a straight trajectory from Wardenclyffe over Ellsmere Island does in fact leave you within 170 miles of the Event itself, so it wouldn’t take much of a miscalculation to land the energy blast at the Event’s coordinates. But: (1) Peary won’t arrive at Ellsmere until the summer of 1909 and (2) the butterfly patterns of downed trees suggest the blast came from the south not the north.
The Chums meet up with the Bol’shaia Igra over Semipalatinsk, which is a tad over a thousand miles southwest of the Event, for a confab. The Bol’shaia Igra crew have known about the Trespassers since Venice (circa page 243) — earlier than the Chums, who first met them during their sojourn at Candlebrow (around page 415). So a better question might be, why hadn’t Padhzi told the Chums sooner?
The Russian government thinks Japan (or at least China) was responsible. Padhzi asks about what the US govt thinks. The Chums don’t know: they work for themselves now. “You — balloonboys — are large American corporation?” “…not quite yet.” Did anyone else find this a little creepy? especially given Pynchon’s longstanding suspicion of corporations?
I love the paean to wireless communication. As an erstwhile computer tech and IT guy m’self, that was a laugh-out-loud moment. And the Chums’ concern for encryption parallels the exchange between Cyprian and Bevis will have below.
The section closes with a stunningly surreal series of visions, with the “axes of Creation” having been jolted. Notable is the gridwork of rail has appeared: not a heartening sign, given what the railroad stands for both in this book and in Pynchon’s ouvre. The skyful of unmanned balloons is another, which is overthetop bizarre. Any/all thoughts (except spoilers) welcome.
I’ll gloss this dense section, since I’m pressed for time, and say only: I find it ironic that the humans find the so-called “simultaneousness” of the Event’s repercussions and aftershocks so remarkable, when Pugnax actually anticipated it. A protagonist from another book may or may not come to mind…
4 thru 7
The next four sections are brief tranche de vie scenes: Dally in Venice, Cyprian in Trieste, Reef in Marienbad, Yashmeen in Vienna. In each of these passages, we see the Event break in upon them as they have been moving thru their lives. A strange menace runs thru each, reflecting the menacing sandstorm at the beginning of this chapter. Dally’s “diagreeable gent” telling her “I’m coming for you.” The deliciously named Bevis Moistleigh decyphering a message and uncovering only the Albanian word for “disaster.” Reef nearly caught in flagrante delictu, balancing on a window ledge as the unreal light grows in the sky. Yashmeen entangling with her old school chum Noellyn, who may be “here at the behest of TWIT. Or someone even more determined” (803:38).
This last passage is so unbearably lovely. It could justify a week of exegesis all to itself. It captures vividly both anticipation and forgetfulness, terror and calm. How we can be swept up in the promise of revolution, but then fall imperceptibly, inexorably back into grooves of habit and mindless pleasures. And, of course, we encounter the sentence that arguably supplies the book with its title. In this context, the phrase implies that the day is an implacable adversary whose quotidian onslaught we must ever be steeled for.
Qs & Obs
It might be fruitful to remark upon which characters we don’t see in this chapter. Frank, for instance, and Lew. Is there anything conspicuous in their absence? At first, I thought it’s a European thing, but: Lew is still in London, isn’t he?
After the scavenger hunt thru the last 800 pages for all the variations on, echoes of, approaches to “against the day,” it is a little jarring to see it here at last, intact. And how does it affect the Monk quote, which after all speaks of night and light, rather than night and day.
That’s all for the nonce.
I certainly agree that either meaning is an appropriate reading. Indeed, my first impression of the phrase was that of the archaic sense — esp. given all the other archaic/KJV-style phrases and cadences that seem to appear regularly throughout ATD (most recently being the “as above, so below” a few pages ago).
I think, though, that given the menace and portent (sound & fury signifying etc) in the preceding sections of this chapter increasingly suggested to me that the more modern meaning of “against” is also quite applicable.
Oh, also: there’s that lovely verb “fetch.” And also also, the cumulative effect of the whole passage evokes for me the rolling of the planet, and that we are all passengers, sheltering ourselves (cowering, even) beneath the wild skies and heavenwide forces playing over us… I came away from this chapter (and the previous) with the impression of massive and capricious powers that may or may not prove utterly, impersonally destructive to us. Along the lines of “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods” from King Lear…
Thanks for the kind words, foax. And “quotidian”? Shucks: I use that word every day!
Anyway, I’ve just posted an Additional Discussion post, despite their having been mothballed a month or so back. Apostasy’s just in my blood, I guess. (No pressure on upcoming Mods to reinstate it, unless of course there’s a groundswell of demand — grassroots letter-writing campaign, petition tables outside organic food stores, late-night drunken YouTube entreaties, sort of thing.)
Oh! I just remembered something.
Y’all remember when the Vormance Expedition brought back that thing, and apocalyptic mayhem ensued? Okay, and then Sr. Villamar found this as a possible historic correlation. Check out the date: eight years to the day.
3.1 Mindless Pleasures
(2007-07-30 This week only! Special Deal! I thought I would, con permiso, reinstate the Addl Discussion post. Future moderators should feel under no obligation to follow suit. I just have a few small observations to make that would likely take the main comment stream too far afield… I meant to get this up at the beginning of the week, but — alas, time being what it is — that didn’t quite work out. Better Nate than lever, I s’pose.)
Orgasm, hallucination, stupor, sleep is a fairly succinct catalogue of Pynchon’s motifs. They are the mindless pleasures of the Preterite. They are the carrot and stick, the currency more potent than lucre, that They use to bend people to Their will…
The working title of Gravity’s Rainbow was Mindless Pleasures, and there is something about the closing passage of this chapter that suggests to me (once again) that this current book, in some embryonic form, was already gestating alongside an incipient Mason & Dixon and Gravity’s Rainbow, as hinted at in the Donatio letters. (So another point of speculation: which is the fourth novel referenced? Some version of Vineland? Some other monster work slouching toward Penguin to be born?)
Also, I had never before thought of Slothrop’s anticipatory hardon as resembling a dog’s nervous anticipation of an electrical storm, but the similarities are striking (ouch, sorry). Has this been suggested before? I mean, I know there’s that strong Pavlovian theme going on in GR, but that’s about conditioning — what about plain old “animal freaking out hours before the tornado hits” type stuff? What if Slothrop was just… born that way?
And if we recall Vineland’s epitaph (“Every dog has his day, and a good dog just might have two days”) along with the proliferation of dogs throughout his books (almost more important, or at least ubiquitous, than TRP’s beloved pigs), we might have a curious reflection on the idea of anticipation, simultaneity, mindless pleasures, the life (and exploitation) of appetites, etc etc, which seems more and more to be a basso continuo of sorts within all his books…
4. What I Tell You Three Times Is True
What we’ve got this week are two chapters, both returning us to the Southwest, and inaugurating another long string of unlikely reunions. For such a vast sprawl of geographic locations, all the same people sure keep running into each other — and am I the only one at this point who’s pretty well lost track of who’s shagged who?
In the short chapter on pp 976-981, we pick up with Ewball and Stray, as he brings her home to meet his parents. His father is, to put it lightly, piqued that Ewb Jr’s been using extremely rare stamps for potsage on his letters home. It’s nice to see someone taking philately so seriously. The mêlée is interrupted by none other than Mayva Traverse, who now works for the Ousts. Mayva and Stray catch up, and talk about Reef, Jesse, and Frank. (No mention of Jesse’s new half-sister? Didn’t the postcard Reef sent home to Mayva [p. 968] ever arrive? Or did Reef neglect to mention it?)
This chapter reads like something of an intermezzo, tying a number of Traverse story lines together, especially since the next chapter, pp 982-999, returns to Frank, still in Mexico, who we last saw here. He heads for Jiménez, famous for meteorites. He carries one around that speaks when he touches it. “What are you doing here?” it asks. Webb? Is that you?
Frank modifies a train engine, transforming it into a moving bomb, something the locals call a “máchina loca” — an activity worthy of the Kieselguhr Kid. He then drifts away south to the Capital and, finding himself in an “out-of-the-way” restaurant, runs into none other than Günther von Quassel, who we haven’t seen since, oh, the 630s. They discuss Frank lending Günther a hand fixing all of his newfangled machines he’s using at the coffee plantation. But Günther’s got problems with revolutionaries and re-revolutionaries between the Capital and Chiapas.
So he accompanies Günther to a meeting with someone who will help get them through the troubled regions and back to the coffee plantation. It takes place at the new “Hotel Tezcatlipoca” in a suite overlooking Chapultepec Park, and a new statue of an angel representing winged victory. Frank looks through a telescope trained on its face, and recognizes it. The statue speaks to him.
The plantation is on the extreme south Pacific coast, almost in Guatamala. He meets there a girl with the intense name of “Melpómene” — her namesake, the muse of tragedy. She tells him of the fireflies in the trees. She shows him one, named Pancho, who blinks on command. Frank realizes this is his soul. Comparisons to the eucharist and Special Relativity are mentioned, as well as instant telepathy.
Watching the tree full of fireflies, Frank falls into a trance and has a vision that is deeply reminiscent of several other episodes in the book, including Jeshimon and the disaster visited up on the nameless city. Seems this vision, and the news Melpómene has for him about the most recent coup, leads Frank to decide finally to quit Mexico.
He heads back to Denver, and, in rapid succession, bumps into Willis Turnstone, Wren Prevenence, and Ewball. He signs on to help them out in the labor struggles at the nearby mines.
Can I just say that I certainly hope Our Mexican Correspondent Sr Villamar chimes in at any time? (Will I in the meantime suggest that people consult the Pynchonwiki (which has grown increasingly valuable over the course of this first post-ATD year has progressed) for what has proven to be a lot of useful research points?)
Why did Stray and Ewball run off together in the first place, anyway? Does their parting have more to do with the pair’s amicability — or the subtle amnesia that seems to afflict all too many characters in this book? And does it seem strange that Stray believes, or ever believed, that anarchism and “greater invisibility” might be in any way related — indeed, does this evoke the Chums’ increasingly shadowy and indistinct appearances or am I just whistling dixie?
Given that we as readers have spent considerably more time with her sons than she has, can we agree with Mayva’s characterization that Frank is “the patient one in the family”? Is there more than a little bit of that oldtimey Buddhist Karma in what Stray sez at 980:24-6?
Isn’t it the strangest sort of insight into Reef’s character to think that he, too, could perhaps be described as “a child of the storm,” thrilled and hyped up by the St. Elmo’s Fire on the stovepipe, and hearing the dynamite blasts, his frown saying “where’s the lightning, where’s the storm” (981:11-16)?
Did anyone perk up at the mention of both of meteorite fragments and Iceland Spar, especially considering that Frank believes that it was somewhere nearby that he had that other encounter with the spar (391:30-32) which “led him to Sloat Fresno” (983:40)? Isn’t that long paragraph starting at the bottom of 984 gorgeous? And funny how it’s a bug that brings him “back to the day,” isn’t it?
When Frank meets up again with Günther, what could Günther mean when he says he hopes “to slip through a loophole in the laws of chance” (987:4)? Since when did chance follow any law? And if it actually does, the Chums of Chance are arbiters or at least monitors of such laws, of course, aren’t they? Come to think of it, isn’t there an implicit paradox in the idea that there would be a heirarchical organization in the service of Chance? Isn’t Chance by definition supposed to be, well, random? Or is this like the common misconception that Anarchy is analogous with anything-goes lawlessness?… (Or, because the word “chance” isn’t capitalized when Günther says it, should we assume that he’s just talking about “chance” rather than “Chance”?)
Whose face do you suppose Frank recognizes in the statue?
I wasn’t the only one waiting for the third brother to pass under a third arch ever since Reef went under the Halkata back on page 955, was I? How is Frank’s passage through the ceremonial arch on page 993 different from the other two arches? Is it, for example, significant that “Frank,” rather than Frank, passes thru it? And why do you suppose it grows more substantial and “takes on a ghostly light” (993:30) once he passes under it? I mean, it can’t be an accident that “Frank” passed under an arch too, can it? What do you suppose it means, assuming it means anything at all? And should we now be waiting for Lake to pass through one as well? (Whatever happened to her, anyway? How long has it been since we saw her sorry fundament, or her jittery little shit of a husband?) If Kit’s passage was one of transformation (771:16) and release (771:20), and Reef’s was one of perpetual love (955:29-30), what is Frank’s? Life and death (993:29)? What does that mean? And what might we expect Lake’s passage to be, if it ever happens? Did she in fact already pass under an arch of some kind in the deep past of the book, and I just missed it? Or, in fairytales inviolving three sons, does a daughter even count? Should we find it important that both Reef’s and Frank’s arches are encountered amid swarms of insects (Reef: butterflies; Frank: fireflies), while Kit and Frank are near or on trains when they dream of theirs? Or that Reef’s and Kit’s were natural rock formations, while Frank’s was built by humans?
Would I be lying if I said I hadn’t been suffering a bit from “Against the Day” Fatigue lately? Who wouldn’t be at this point, as we close in on the end of the first “millennium” and the beginning of the last “century” of the book? Would anyone be surprised to learn that I’m getting a little misty-eyed at the thought that this is my last go-round as moderator? Why can’t I stop phrasing sentences in the form of a question, like a gameshow from which I am trying to awake? (And am I the only one who’s wondering what snorting coffee powder would be like, or am I sharing a little too much here?)