Dance of anarchy and change
Hulloh, fellow Chumps! Blue Wren here.
First, full disclosure: I am not a “professor,” just a curious reader who likes a challenge. My moderation of this section won’t dig deeply into physics or mathematics, philosophical hairsplitting or the space-time continuum. My eyes tend to cross when I think that hard. Then I need a nap.
Instead, mine will be a light (wink) overview. I’ll leave the mounds of unearthed jewels to more agile minds than mine. You know who you are.
That said, I’m having a ball with “Against the Day.” But I didn’t write the following without some help. Neddie Jingo, that muskly Pynchon miner, dug up some glittering nuggets for me as I read madly and prepared to write this up. You won’t find them all here, but I’m sure he’ll pipe up in the comments. Will Divide offered some gentle guidance as well, advising a minimalist approach. Gentlemen, the both of them. The chivalrous Chums would be glad to have them aboard. As for me, I’m all agog and quite grateful. Beers are owed.
So, forgive me for reading above my grade level. And let’s plunge into “Against the Day,” pages 81-118:
This section dances with anarchy and change. Look for bifurcations: the reflections and refractions that Pynchon’s been building carefully throughout the story so far.
Page 81 starts in the booming mining town of
And it’s getting hotter: To Webb, the Fourth of July seems more like “Dynamite’s National Holiday” because everyone in town will be playing with caps and fuses attached to little bits of the explosive stuff, lighting them up as the day progresses. In fact, they’ll be making so much noise celebrating the “bombs bursting in air” aspect of the holiday, Webb figures no one will notice one more explosion. Note: There’s a fun link in the ATD Wiki about thunderstorms, lightning, and how Barbara, a beautiful girl who lived in 4th Century AD
Webb, who hasn’t slept very well – I was struck by the empathy in the line, “he did not so much sleep as become intermittently conscious of time ” (been there, done that) – rides out among “cicadas going on like prolonged richochets” to meet his partner, the passionate worker’s champion Viekko Rautavaara, a Finn.
Neddie says “Viekko” is a rather common name in
The two men meet. Rautavaara, who sees little difference between life under the deposed Russian Tsar and American capitalism, is in a bad mood. He’s received a postcard from his sister in
It’s another reference to photography – images made from silver and light, real but not real. Change is relentless.
Webb and Rautavaara are meeting on this sizzling Fourth of July morning to blow up a railroad bridge. A description of the preparation of the charge, the fuse and attachment of the dynamite to the bridge struts follows. Webb notices a hawk looking down on them as they work (like the Inconvenient, perhaps? Another up-down, down-up reflection ...).
Pages 85-86: We learn how an exploding pool ball sent Webb sidelong and in slow motion into his covert career as an anarchist and terrorist, his “trajectory toward the communion of toil.” It begins in the “middle of Cripple Creek ... when men were finding their way to the unblastable seams of their own secret natures, learning the true names of desire, which spoken, so they dreamed, would open the way through the mountains to all that had been denied them.”
At night Webb dreams of standing at a divide, facing west – “something like wind, something like light” and “wake to the day and its dread.” An important passage, here, given the book’s title. There are binaries everywhere – east/west, night/day, Heaven/Earth, life/death, inside/outside.
Page 87: Webb meets up with the Rev. Moss Gatlin, who twists his sermons about Original Sin (only with exceptions) and “fishers of men” to have something other than a religious meaning. Could the name “Moss” be a leap to the eldritch foxfire moss, a bioluminescent, forest fungus? And I couldn’t help but associate “Gatlin” with the Gatling gun, the first machine gun).
Page 89: Here’s a reference to the repeal of the Silver Act and “the Gold Standard reclaiming its ancient tyranny.” Worth a look-up, Neddie says.
Page 92: More opposite pairs, as Gatlin explains to Webb how the slave owners of the South might be gone, but have been replaced by capitalist business owners holding low-wage-earners to their thankless jobs just as surely as slaves. Blacks become whites.
Page 94: There’s a Day Webb and a Night Webb. Day Webb works the mines. Night Webb lives his secret life as an anarchist... another bifurcation, a double refraction. Webb is an important character.
Page 96: This passage: “Four closely set blasts, cracks in the fabric of air and time, merciless, bone-strumming. Breathing seemed beside the point. Rising dirty-yellow clouds full of wood splinters, no wind to blow them anyplace. Track and trusswork went sagging into the dust-choked arroyo.” Isn’t that just fine? “Happy Fourth of July, Webb.”
Page 97-98: A new section that follows young Kit Traverse, Webb’s 17-year-old son who, rather than become a miner, chooses to be an electrician. The first passage is a glory of a list regarding the strange happenings on the “world-reversing” night of the Fourth of July eve of 1899. “...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-quirts, including important picnic tourneys from Fruita to Cheyenne Wells, why they would fly directly and stick on to the spike in the ground, or anything else nearby made of iron or steel...”
Kit was part of the strangeness, working in
Page 99: Kit is compelled by and obsessed with electricity and its making. “Water falls, electricity flows – one flow becomes another, and then into light. So is altitude transformed, continuously, into light.” Religion, indeed.
An aside from Neddie about the inventor, physicist, mechanical and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla: According to legend, Tesla was born precisely at during an electrical storm ... He had a photographic memory. Tesla was wonderfully weird. Read the
Page 100: Note the Twin Vibes. Will we be surprised to find references to “phasing?”
Leaping ahead after Kit’s decision to leave home for Yale, financed by Vibe, alienating his father, and his embarkation into the dark unknown, the story once again shifts, this time back (or forward? I’m floundering) to the Chums.
Page 107: Rousing from inactivity and disuse, the Chums get the “call” to “steer southwest and await course correction from a station unnamed, at a distance indeterminate, which would be calling in from the ship’s Tesla device ...” (a wireless radio?), which of course they answer, guided by westerly winds with “all but geometrical precision.” Hmm. Can winds do that? In this section, we seem to be in a flux of change once again, leaving the Pynchon version of “real” for the magical, the mystical, the ... fictional? Are the Chums aware of their nature as a plot device?
Page 108-109: They soar over a vast ocean (which may be the
And now, the Chums slip through the veil from reality into a sort of whimsical unreality as they reach the last island, where people just appear where there were none before as the Inconvenient touches down. These people are very strange, dressed formally in town suits and tea gowns, but none of them wear shoes. The Chums are the odd ones out, since they do wear shoes. In the center of the town, which also seems to appear out of nothing, is a huge underground construction, concrete pits in which are steam machines and draft animals. Asked what this activity is, the answer is as strange as the people themselves. “It’s home ... “What is home where you come from?”
The Chums move on, whether on this island (the last) or another is unclear, and find the volcano they’ve been looking for. They land and all the equipment the ship has been loaded with is taken out and set up – the idea being that this is the “Earth antipodal to Colorado Springs,” where they’ll measure the effects (or not-effects) of Dr. Tesla’s experiments with electricity ...
Page 110: The Chums have changed, particularly Darby, who seems to have reached the sneering phase of adolescence. Instead of the cheerful jovialness they greeted us with in the beginning of the book, they’re irritable and snarly, and as they wait for the measurement instruments to measure whatever it is they do, the Chums have their own, miniature wallow in anarchy. This is caused by a quarrel over what to replace their damaged figurehead with. Darby wants a curvaceous woman; St. Cosmo suggests the National Bird.
Boys will be boys. While they don’t come to blows, they do flip gobs of asparagus mousse and mashed turnips at each other during dinner, an image which I giggled over for a while.
Page 111: It’s almost the Fourth of July, and the Chums must have a shipboard celebration by standing orders, like it or not. “Explosion without an objective ... is politics in its purest form,” says Miles Blundell.
“If we don’t take care,” opined Scientific Officer Counterfly, “folks will begin to confuse us with the Anarcho-syndicalists.”
“About time,” snarled Darby. “I say let’s set off our barrage tonight in honor of the Haymarket bomb, bless it, a turning point in American history, and the only way working people will ever get a fair shake under that miserable economic system – through the wonders of chemistry!”
“Suckling!” the astounded Lindsay Noseworth struggling to maintain his composure. “But, that is blatant anti-Americanism!”
Page 112: As they shoot off their fireworks, Miles asks them to consider the “nature of a skyrocket’s ascent ... after the propellant charge burns out ...” (From Neddie: Absolutely blatant reference to Gravity’s Rainbow. Hah! “Stop! Stop! It sounds like Chinese!” “Think, bloviators, think!” Huge in-joke at the expense of the English Department.)
The experiment over, the Chums take to the sky again, curiously relieved of their aggravation with each other. They resolve the figurehead dispute amicably and apologize to one another, seeing their odd irritation with each other as a lesson learned.
Page 113: The Chums get new orders in the form of a pearl in a Japanese oyster nearly ingested accidentally by Lindsay Noseworth.
Page 114: Off they go, following orders to proceed by way of the Telluric Interior to the northern polar regions, where they were to intercept a schooner and convince the commander to abandon his expedition, “using any means short of force – which, though not prohibited outright to the Chums of Chance, did create a strong presumption of Bad Taste, which every Chum by ancient tradition was sworn, if not indeed at pains, to avoid.”
This just tickled me. It seems that Pynchon has switched his style again here while I wasn’t looking, and we’re back to a boy’s adventure novel in tone.
Page 115: The Hollow Earth. Now this is a concept. Interplanetary “short-cutting.” Time travel? But something’s wrong: “Navigation’s not as easy this time,” Randolph mused ... “Noseworth, you remember the old days. We knew for hours ahead of time.”
The Chums enter the portal into the Hollow Earth at the pole, with some difficulty; notice that their Tesla Device is ... singing... and figure out that there are people below who are asking for help. They descend, see a castle, people fighting... they have to help ...
Page 117: Pynchon speaks in his own voice: “my harmless little intraterristrial scherzo...” Ahah! Proof the Chums are fictional and don’t exist except in the author’s mind...
Page 118: The portal to the Hollow Earth is closing, perhaps an allusion to the dying out of Myth itself?
That's it for me, Chumps. Your Wren is one tuckered little bird. Have fun!