The Chumps of Choice

A Congenial Spot for the Discussion of Against the Day, by Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Cornell '59, and Any Other Damned Thing That Comes Into Our Heads. Warning: Grad Students and Willie-Wavers will be mocked.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Rue du Départ

(pp. 1065-1085)

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) (Source)

And so it comes to this.

Before I start with this, the final episode in this unprecedented, year-long group-reading experiment, let me say a big thank-you to all our participants, lurkers and commenters. In particular, I want to thank the Moderators for dedicating their time and not inconsiderable effort to stoking the fires of conversation about this mad, sprawling, enormous book. Through mayonnaise, mathematics and Mexico, through ballooning, the Balkans and bilocation, through T.W.I.T., Tunguska and To-Hell-You-Ride, with stops to replenish the dope supply at Chicago, Chihuahua and Chillicothe, vivisect Vectors in Venice and Venedig-an-Wien, take tea with Tesla, Tatzelwurms and the Tarahumara, chuck an insouciant bomb with Blavatsky, Bakhunin and the Bindlestiffs of the Blue, we've come a long way, baby.

It's been an Anarchist's dynamite blast, and I thank you all for participating.

This final section of the book finds us finishing up the Aetheric conversation between Dally and Merle that ended the penultimate "Against the Day" section. Dally's living on the Rue du Départ (day-part, anyone?), next to the departures track at the gare Montparnasse. Leaving the suburb (banlieue) where the mysterious transmitter allowed her to chat "across the dimensions" with her father, she hums a popular tune from a Reynaldo Hahn operetta, "C'est pas Paris, c'est sa banlieue" ("It's not Paris, it's her suburbs" -- cut 16 on the linked CD). Walking on, who should she run into but La Jarretiere, a musical-comedy danseuse who has staged her own "death and rebirth as someone else." Together, Dally and Jarri regale some Yank tourists with "Mon Dieu! Que les hommes sont bêtes," with could quite possibly be Messager's "Les hommes sont biens tous les mêmes."

We learn that Dally is continuing her stage career, appearing in the (fictional) Jean-Raoul Oeuillade's Fossettes l'Enflammeuse, but her mind drifts to Kit Traverse, whom, it seems, Dally married in 1915. In a long flashback, we learn that their marriage wasn't a particularly successful one, under pressure both from wartime deprivations, and from the reappearance of Clive Crouchmas in Dally's life. Despite "that awkward business of his having once tried to shop her into white slavery," Dally...well...dallies, is I guess how you'd put it, with Crouchmas, and Kit ain't happy about it. With his pal Renzo, a maniac pilot who's working on the nascent concept of dive-bombing as a military tactic, he buzzes the restaurant where his kitten canoodles* with Crouchmas, a scene in which the diving plane goes so fast that "something happened to time, and maybe they'd slipped into the Future, the Future known to Italian Futurists, with events superimposed on one another..."

Kit, our flashback continues, went up with Renzo for some more of those dive-bombing runs, most notably against a workers' strike, helping to crush it. During the run, he has a "velocity-given illumination. It was all political." The dive-bombing was "perhaps the first and purest expression in northern Italy of a Certain Word that would not quite exist for another year or two." (Fascism. Hence the Futurist reference earlier.)

Well, who should show up in our continuing flashback but old Reef and Yashmeen, escaping the fighting in northeastern Italy. Something slightly redolent of menace passes between Dally and Yash, wife and ex-lover, and it begins to look like another Traverse marriage is headed for the rocks. Kit, "shamed into abandoning his engineer's neutrality," begins flying missions for the Italian air force against the Austrian invaders, allowing himself to be "seduced into the Futurist nosedive." Dally points out that Austrians, "your brothers-in-arms," aren't the ones he should be aiming his bombs at -- Traverse family values and all that -- and her disgust with Kit's helplessness to fight the Fascist/Futurist impulse leads her to walk out, head for Paris and solitude.

The narrative -- in a strange vectoring away from Dally's flashback, it seems, and not in the "present tense" as it were -- then concentrates itself on Reef and Yashmin. They cross the Atlantic to Ellis Island, where Reef gets a big "I" (for "idiot") chalked on his back. They head west, "propelled by [Reef's] old faith in the westward vector, in finding someplace, some deep penultimate town the capitalist/Christer gridwork hadn't got to quite yet." (Good luck with that, kids...) Who should they run into in Montana but Frank, Stray and Jesse, Reef's son by Stray. The two families, strangely intertwined by marriage, fall in together, and the complicated emotions engendered by having two dads, one mom, and two half-sisters living under one roof begins to tell on Jesse.

The families have moved to the farthest-northwest corner of the US, Kitsap Peninsula (Google Earth puts it in Tacoma, WA), and Jesse brings home a school assignment: "What it Means to Be an American." His response, "It means do what they tell you...," shows the old Anarchist flame to be alive and well in the third generation of Traverses. He gets an A-plus from his teacher, who'd been "at Cour d'Alene back in the olden days." Thus, the brotherhood of the downtrodden...

And, drool drool, our last view of this Traverse family arc promises some Steamin' Hot Lesbo Action. Unfortunately, we're not gonna get to watch....

Now we're back with Dally in the "present tense." Meeting up with Policarpe, from that Young Congo crowd of Belgian nihilists back on 527, she buys him a drink, and we're back in Buddhist Maya again; postwar Paris, allows Policarpe, is naught but "Illusion... At your most langourous moment of maximum surrender, the true state of affairs will be borne in on you. Swiftly and without mercy."

Kit appears in the "present tense" Paris, apparently looking for Dally, and we're off on another flashback explaining how he came to be here. The war over and his divebombing proclivities now no longer needed, he drifts to Lwow and the Scottish Café, gathering place for insane mathematicians. He "is shown beyond a doubt" (although by whom we're not privileged to know) a "startling implication of Zermelo's Axiom of Choice": that it is in theory possible "to take a sphere the size of a pea, cut it apart into several very precisely shaped pieces, and reassemble it into another sphere the size of the sun."

"Staggering subsets, fellows," marvels a voice in the Café crowd, "Those Indian mystics and Tibetan lamas and so forth were right all along, the world we think we know can be dissected and reassembled into any number of worlds, each as real as 'this' one."

(Weren't we looking for a topic sentence, a summing up of this whole mad book, a few weeks ago? I'm nominating that one right up there.)

Who should the speaker be but old Heino Vanderjuice himself, looking younger and free of worry, now, like Kit, out from under Scarsdale Vibe. Vanderjuice recounts how the Chums of Chance rescued him from an attempt of Vibe's life, "rescued me from my own life, from the cheaply-sold and dishonored thing I might have allowed it to become."

Then Vanderjuice vanishes, "some claimed to have seen him taken into the sky." Kit goes into a strange, Vectorial migration around Europe, "thinking about nothing but Dally, aware that they'd separated, but unable to remember why." He has visions (or are they real?) of a portal, a "framed shadow" approaching him; after a time the portal swallows him, and he finds himself transported (the description reminds me of the transporter beam in those old Star Trek shows) to a hotel room in Paris belonging to Lord Overlunch, a collector of Tibetan stamps (that image on the cover finally pays off!). Kit's face has been appearing on one of his stamps -- "But I wasn't..." "Well, well. A twin, perhaps."

And yes, Kit's mercifully back with Dally. "Some sort of husband in the picture..."**

May we imagine for them a vector....


And now, finally, the great wheel having come full circle, we're back with the Chums of Chance, at the Garçons de '71, "There, but Invisible" in a great gathering of skyships that transcend "the old political space, the map-space of two dimensions, by climbing into the third." Married, now, to the women of the Sodality of Aetheronauts, the Inconvenience now grown to the size of a small city, the Chums are literally surfing on light. "It is no longer a matter of gravity -- it is an acceptance of sky."

They fly toward grace.***

***Look out, Grace!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chumps On Turkey Break

A Gentle Reminder: We are on a two-week break for the Thanksgiving holiday. We will be back in session on Monday, December 3, with the Final Installment of our festivities.

That certainly doesn't mean that discussion is discouraged! As a suggested starting point, allow me to throw out this quote, from Scott Leith in The Spectator:
I’m far from the first person to point it out, but it bears pointing out again: Pynchon’s novels behave much more like jazz than they do like anything else. Themes emerge, are riffed on, returned to, and transfigured. Passages refer to each other not so much directly as by a sort of sympathetic vibration. You suddenly notice something -- be it as slight as the conjunction of the colours mauve and green -- that clicks in your mind. I’ve seen this earlier. Where the hell was it ? What’s he getting at? Accordingly, my notes are as bizarre as those I have made on any book I’ve read for review. (...) What is Against the Day about? What is it not about? To try to summarise the plot would be insanity. It is a comedy of ideas with people in it. Describing it as if it were a realist novel would be like trying to transcribe in musical notation the sound of a piano falling down the stairs. (...) It is virtuoso nonsense; it is a giant shaggy dog story, serious as history; it is by turns mind-crushingly tedious and utterly exhilarating; it is remorselessly facetious and yet deeply moving. It is like watching the European apocalypse as scripted by Looney Toons. It is brilliant, but it is exhaustingly brilliant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Basnight in Twilight

But here seemed to be those old bilocational powers emerging now once again, only different.

picture source

(pp. 1040-1062)

It is 1925, and Lew Basnight, after spending the war in England has, like all good private eyes nearing retirement age, ended up in Los Angeles. He has a staff of three mighty fit young ladies, Thetis, Shalimar, and Mezzanine, handy with firearms, enough rich clients with messy lives needing cleaning, and some mysterious overseas income, so that he is doing quite well for himself.

As our penultimate episode opens, a black jazz musician, Chester LeStreet, tells Lew he's been sent by Tony Tsangarakis, a club owner and gangster, to ask him to investigate the possible reappearance of a party girl named Encarnacion, who was supposed to have been murdered some time before. This word has come via a phone call from Santa Barbara made by one Miss Jardine Maraca, Encarnacion's old roommate.

Lew traces Miss Maraca to a shabby motor court on the Pacific Coast Highway, from which she has departed. Finding no clues in her empty room, Lew calls Emilio, a Filipino dope peddler and psychic living nearby, to come give the place, specifically the toilet bowl, a look.

Emilio, appalled by his visions, gives Lew a Los Angeles address that appears to him, and demands his fee right then, in cash.

Back at the office, Lew learns that Merle Rideout has been calling every ten minutes to speak to him. Finally getting him on the line, Merle asks Lew to meet him at a picnic ground.

Merle has been in L.A. for over a decade, running into Luca Zombini, now a designer of movie special effects, in early 1914. He visits the always interesting Zombini household and comes to some affectionate resolution with Erlys. The Zombinis become what family Merle has.

At the picnic park, Merle has Lew take steps to shake anyone tailing him, directing him to meet his partner Roswell Bounce at the other end of the park. The three of them proceed to the inventors' lab.

Rideout and Bounce (heh) have invented a sort of viewing process which accesses the mysterious capabilities of silver to bring photographs to life, making them not only windows of the future, and the past of their subjects, but, depending on the settings, viewers of alternate futures as well.

The scientists think the studios are out to steal the process and ask Lew for protection. Testing their invention, Lew gets them to scan a photo of Jardine Maraca, and watches as she drives to a place called Carefree Court.

When Lew finally checks out the address Emilio gave him, he finds a bungalow, and, behind its screen door, the malevolently beautiful, and haunted looking, Mrs. Deuce Kindred. Noting Lew's obvious arousal, the very willing Lake invites him in.

Oh this was going to be sordid as all hell, thinks Lew, and boy is he right.

Afterwards, while Lew is chatting with Lake about Encarnacion's case over coffee in the kitchen, Deuce enters, a mean runt packing heat, a labor-busting goon for a low-rent movie studio.

Deuce does not care, like at all, about what Lew and Lake have been up to, but objects heatedly to Lew's mocking questions about what he does, and finally pulls his gun. Luckily, Lew had earlier told Shalimar to back him up. She enters with a machine gun and Deuce ducks out.

The next three pages are sketched out of the miserable dream lives of Lake and Deuce, two pathetic people who've used each other for years merely to escape the consequences of any human feelings.

A day or two later, Lew goes to Carefree Court, where he crashes a party. Everyone there has been, over the years, at war, or at least at odds, with the many forces of authority, but seem pretty chipper about it all. Lew meets Virgil Maraca, who reminds him of the Hermit tarot card, and his daughter Jardine, who reminds Lew of his lost wife, Troth.

Jardine tells Lew that Encarnacion's case is closed, that she returned (from the dead?) only long enough to testify against Deuce, whom the cops have picked up for a string of grizzly murders of women.

Though she makes plans for Lew to take her out of town, Jardine decides instead to steal an airplane, and flies away over the desert.

Lew goes to Merle with a photo of Troth taken in 1890 and asks to see her grow old. Doing so, he falls into a reverie of the irrecoverable past, wondering if she can see him too.

Merle, perhaps inspired by this, uses a picture of Dally he took in Colorado when she was 12, to find her now in Paris, where she, sitting in a tiny studio, now appears to return his gaze, smiles at him, saying something.


I will add my comments in Comments in a bit.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cue The Band!!

Apologies to Chumps near and far, but a clot of work which needs to get off my desk subito has kept me from my obligation here. I'll have it up, I dearly hope, by tomorrow evening. In the meantime, here's another word from our patron saint.

Also note: due to the looming Thanksgiving holiday, Neddie will be back with our last (gasp!) installment in two weeks.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remember the Starving

Pp. 1018 - 1039

We're back, finally, with the Chums of Chance.

The Chums are now working mainly on their own stick, as the National Office has been so cheap with the budget that the organization is crumbling. Everybody's negotiating their own prices and choosing their own missions. This has proved to be marvelously profitable, and the Chums are rolling in scratch -- champagne with dinner, improvements and upgrades on the Inconvenience...

It's a very hot summer, and the Saharan updrafts are spectacular. Goaded by Pugnax's companion Ksenija, the dog who was protecting Reef's "family exfiltration" back on 969, the Chums vote to dive into the updraft to see where it will take them, picking up the costs out of overhead, just, it seems, for the hell of it.

And dive they do. As they're borne upward, Chick Counterfly muses a notion that comes to us from the very beginning of the book (hey, we've gotta tie up some loose ends, nicht wahr?), the dark warning from Randolph back in Chicago that "going up was like going north," and that if you ascend high enough, you'll eventually begin to descend to the surface of another planet. "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 [Hey! It's Pynchon!] ought to be from past to future, in the direction of increasing entropy."

Chick takes the air temperature and pressure outside in the sand-cloud, and is alarmed to see that the pressure is increasing, not decreasing: The ship is heading for a crash landing on the surface of some other Earth! Unable to discern where the hell they actually are, the "two-lad Navigational Committee" concludes they have reached the Pythagorean or Counter-Earth once postulated by Philolaus of Tarentum (but shorten that throttle, Aristotle), which posits a second Earth, the Antichthon. In the Chums' conception, it's a second planet whose orbit is 180 degrees opposite "our" Earth's, and is thus never seen from Earth.

No, Darby, they didn't just fly through the sun, but maybe it's "more like seeing though the Sun with a telescope of very high resolution so clearly that we're no longer aware of anything but the Aether between us."

"Oh, like X-Ray Spex."

So the Chums find themselves on the Counter-Earth, a planet that some days perfectly resembles Earth, and on others holds "an American Republic...passed...irrevocably into the control of the evil and moronic." Now they appear to inhabit two Earths, and yet belong in any true sense to neither.

A shadowy Russian agent, one Baklashchan (backlash?) sends them off on a mission to find their "old friendly nemesis" Padzhitnoff. In performing this undertaking, the Chums seem strangely oblivious to the First World War going on on the earth beneath them. "'Trenches,'" muses Miles, "as if it were a foreign technical term."

(Oddly, I've noticed at least two grammatical terms, verbal moods, used in this section: Here (1023:3) we have the Chums' freedom from "enfoldment by the indicative world below"; and on 1033:14 Noseworth's "I am as fond of the subjunctive mood as any...". Not sure what to make of it...)

Chick notes that Padzhitnoff's travels have been closely mirroring the Chums' own: "Where we haven't been yet, he seems to have left no trace." "Swell," sez Darby. "We;'re chasing ourselves now."

Foreshadowing from earlier in the book now begins to pay off. Miles recalls his bicycle ride through Flanders with Ryder Thorn, back on 552-3, in which Thorn says, "Our people know what will happen here...and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know." It's worth going back and reading that passage, where Thorn blurts out that "Flanders will be the mass grave of History." Back in this section, some sort of scales fall away from Miles' eyes, and he has an insight that the other Chums fail to see: the noble youth of Europe "cringing in a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death."

The lads find Padzhitnoff, his Bolshai'a Igra now "dozens of times its former size," colored solid red, and renamed "Remember the Starving." He's engaged in charity work now, dropping not brickwork but food, clothing and medical supplies to "whatever populations below were in need of them." He's based in Switzerland, in a "private Alp" stuffed full of contraband chocolate and coffee. The Chums decide not to turn Padzhitnoff in to the "cringers" but to become fugitives from justice themselves.

(Want to call your attention to 1025:35-38, in which artillery shells can be seen "reaching the tops of their trajectories and pausing in the air for an instant before the deadly plunge back to Earth." But this time, the Rainbow of Gravity is observed from above, a reverse parabola. Just sayin'.)

The Chums now find themselves, owing to "special situation" and the Inconvenience's superior speed, repatriating "persons of particular interest who cannot be repatriated without certain awkwardness," when one day, Martinmas (November 11), the Armistice is signed and the war is over. Pugnax brings in an offer from California, an offer of unbelievable remuneration, so it's ho for Los Angeles.

The wind blows them off course, south of the Rio Bravo, where they are rescued by the Sodality of Aethernauts. Here my expertise in Steampunk Science fails me somewhat, as the explanation of the girls' ability to use the Aether as a medium of flight goes whizzing over my fuzzy little head, but I do get the fruity import of Viridian's tart retort: "Burning dead dinosaurs and whatever they ate ain't the answer, Crankshaft Boy."

Also well within my intellectual grasp is the pairing off of Chums and Sodalites (hee!).

The winds finally shift in the Chums' favor, and Los Angeles heaves into view. "Where on Earth is this?" wonders Heartsease. ""That's sort of the problem," muses Chick. "That 'on Earth' part."

The passage that follows tugs at my heartstrings a bit: As a rural sort, living in the shadow of a mountain, I marvel at the stars I can see on a clear, cold night; in my former, light-polluted suburban existence, I missed them terribly, and thought with nostalgia of a time when the cities of Earth didn't blot them almost completely from the sky. In the Chums' day, this process, in which "a triumph over night" meant that shift-work was now possible, meant either "the further expansion of an already prodigious American economy," or "groundhog sweat, misery and early graves," depending on how you see it.

The Chums discover that the lucrative mission they've been sent on is a phony, and they find themselves at a loose end. Wandering around in Hollywood "whom should he run into" but his old dad, "Dick" Counterfly (love those quote marks!). "Dick" (everybody in the world calls him that!) is doing mighty well for himself and this third wife, possibly younger than Chick, named Treacle. "Dick" shows Chick a machine he's invented that has all the appearances of being a primitive Steampunk television; the program -- a submoronic bit of monkey-slapstick -- being broadcast from somewhere "not on the surface of the Earth so much as" -- "Perpendicular," fills in Chick.

The next day, "Dick" picks up Chick in his Packard and takes him to meet up with ol' Merle Rideout and Roswell Bounce, who are running a research facility on Santa Monica Bay. Merle quizzes "Dick" as to some "muscle" to protect their operation -- Roswell's a hair paranoid. Who should "Dick" recommend but our old friend Lew Basnight!

Turns out the device Merle and Roswell are working on is pretty miraculous. Having thrown together some worm drives, Nicol prisms, Navy-surplus Thalofide cells and some baling wire and chewing gum, they've invented a machine that can actually make a photograph come to life! "Ain't that just the damnedest thing you ever saw?"

We end with "Dick" driving Chick back to the Inconvenience in Van Nuys, and some father-son bonding; "Dick" offers to teach Chick to drive, and Chick extends an invitation to go for a spin in the airship. "Well. Thought you'd never ask," sez Dick, and our cold, cold hearts melt just a little tiny bit.

Unavoidably Detained...

...I'm woikin' as fast as I can! This unemployment dodge ain't all beer and skittles!

Meanwhile, here's a little diversion from Epigraph Pianist and His Mighty Sidekick Coltrane...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Unquiet, Malevolent Dead

The Death Pit, Ludlow, Colorado 1914

In this chapter, three monumental things occur. We finally embark on page 1,000 of our tale, The Villain Scarsdale Vibe is murdered, and the culmination of the political saga of Colorado miners reaches its historical apex in the Ludlow Massacre during the Colorado Coal Field War of 1913-14. In case you didn't follow the link in DJ's synopsis last week, please click here to read a short history of the war which is completely fascinating (and it's where all these photos came from). It also confirms that Pynchon is being historically accurate in his background for this week's tales of love and murder.

The section begins on page 1,000 at a hot-springs resort casino "up near the Continental Divide" where Vibe is addressing the greatest acronym since T.W.I.T., the Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Industrial Defense Alliance (L.A.H.D.I.D.A.). Midway through the page, he begins a long soliloquy, "So of course we use them," that is positively operatic. Both Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello" and Claggart in Melville's "Billy Budd" were representatives of ultimate evil whose motivations were never explained by their creators, but in the opera versions by Verdi and Britten respectively, they both get a "Credo" aria to explain their point of view and Pynchon has decided to do the same thing. Like those characters, Vibe's own imminent doom is spelled out mid-aria, in this case, with the aside "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." (1001:23)

The next day in his private train The Juggernaut on his way to the "coal war," Vibe encounters a spirit, whose presence usually terrifies him, but this time he's only curious, and after an odd exchange with the spirit, Vibe announces to Foley that he looks forward "to being one of the malevolent dead" (1002:16), which Foley understands from his Civil War experience to be "ghosts...filled with resentments, drifting, or stationed by cemetery gates and abandoned farmhouses where half-mad survivors wuld be mostly likely to see them...not the companionship he would have chosen."

The scene shifts to Frank and Ewball making their way to the striking mining town of Trinidad, where Ewball makes the observation that some of the Balkan-originated strikers must be ghosts (1003:12), "the unquiet dead, geography ain't the point, it's all unfinished business, it's wherever there's accounts to be balanced..." which prompts Frank to say, "Ewball, that is some bughouse talk." When the two get into Trinidad, they immediately notice Foley in front of the Columbian Hotel where Vibe is staying, and make a plan of attack, which includes the sly observation (1004:5), "They say Foley's a born-again Christer, so he can act as bad as he wants because Jesus is coming and nothin a human can do so bad Jesus won't forgive it." The irony of that remark is underlined when Frank and Ewball make a pathetic attempt to assassinate Vibe in the main street. Instead of following Scarsdale's imperious tone of command to shoot the anarchists, Foley instead lines up his Luger "with his employer's heart, and chambered the first round. Scarsdale Vibe peered back, as if only curious. 'Lord, Foley...' 'Jesus is Lord,' cried Foley, and pulled the trigger, proceeeding to empty all eight rounds..."

The Death Special

The narrative turns to Stray, who had been in Trinidad but decided to help out the tent colony in Ludlow filled with striking miner families. While she's dodging random machine gun fire from the militia, her son Jesse shows up after having hitched a ride on a train, which both dismays and warms her. Searchlights on towers are set up by the mining company and "began sweeping the tents all night long" which leads to the suggestion, "The Colorado militia were in fact giving light a bad name...In the tents, darkness in that awful winter was sought like warmth or quiet. It came for many to seem like a form of compassion."(1008:25) There's a welcome return of the Reverend Moss Gatlin, giving yet another great Anarchist sermon (1009:15), and we follow Jesse in his wanderings through the camp and among the militia, being young enough to still get away with it though it comes with the realization that "pretending to have a friendly chat with potential targets of their Death Special was a level of evil neither boy had quite suspected in adults till now." (1010:10)

Later, at the 19 Luglio Saloon, "named for the date back in 1900 when an Anarchist named Bresci assassinated King Umberto of Italy," Frank runs into Stray, who is looking like Michelangelo's Pieta while nursing a striker. After he brings up Ewball, she tells him, "Buy me one of whatever that is in your fist and I'll tell you the whole sordid tale." From here, we go through a brilliantly written scene (page 1012) where Stray FINALLY, after being with Reef, bad boy motorcyclists, Ewball, and god knows who else, realizes who Frank is and how he loves her. She invites him to the tent city, he tells her it's about ready to be razed by the militia, and her response is "Guess you better visit us soon, then."

Karl Linderfeldt, Mercenary

During Frank's visit, he catches sight of a real historical character, a truly malevolent proto-Blackwater mercenary named Karl Linderfeldt, who guided the Ludlow Massacre and who also murdered people for hire during the Mexican Revolution. Jesse arrives breathlessly from some adventure involving bullets, uncle and nephew bond over weaponry, and after realizing that "not much Frank could teach him," he starts to talk to Stray, "I wanted to say," Frank said. "Oh you been sayin it, don't worry." He gave her a closer look, just to make sure of her face. "Fine time to be getting around to this." (1014:15) This may be the single most romantic exchange in the 1,000+ novel, with its hundreds of pages filled with time and Frank's yearning for Estrella from the moment he met her.

Frank immediately comes up with an escape plan, the militia attacks, and we're in a scene of confusion and slaughter. After being caught by a militiaman named Brice, Jesse has a moment of grace and is allowed to escape, and the three of them "take shelter with hundreds of the wide arroyo north of town, waiting for some letup in the shooting to get someplace safe. After a hallucinatory moment with Webb's dead hand on his shoulder, Frank wakes up and sees the awful slaughter. And here we come to one of the novel's serious morals (1016:14): "But it happened, each casualty, one by one, in light that history would be blind to. The only accounts would be the militia's." One proof of Pynchon's charge is that I was once again completely ignorant of this fairly essential history until reading this novel.

Ludlow Family

There's a gorgeously romantic section where Frank sends Estrella and Jesse off back home while he joins up with the strikers, "dead on their feet, not half a dozen words of English among them." After it's settled, Frank and Estrella face off. "Their embrace might not have been so close or desperate, but no kiss he could remember had ever been quite this honest, nor this weighted with sorrow." The last line invokes Orpheus and Eurydice "not looking back" once again, just as Yashmeen and Reef didn't look back at Cyprian.

Monday, October 22, 2007

What I Tell You Three Times Is True

pp 976-999

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?

máchina loca?

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 René López 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"?)

Could Ibargüengoitia, "the Repairman," really be the "Genevan contact" that Slothrop meets with (GR 384)? And are these appearances of the name an homage to this Mexican satirist?

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?)