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, March 19, 2007

Eastward Ho! pp 336-357

Welcome fellow readers.

You haven't seen me around here much because I was late getting started. I only got The Book in early February, so I have been playing catch-up going through the sections and reading the blog and other information but not posting comments (since, after all, it doesn't seem that anyone reads comments posted after a given section's discussion has completed). But I volunteered to be a Moderator because, from the very first chapters, this book was so much fun, I wanted to share my enjoyment.

First, however, I'd like to explain how I've been reading AtD, since it is probably a bit different from what others have done. I start by reading a section of the book (delimited by the pages set here for the different weeks' discussions), and, at the same time, check the AtD Wiki for info, and add things that I've spotted. I then read the blog here, and the comments. Alas, when reading this section, I cannot benefit from the combined wisdom of the posters here...

Finally, I listen to the same section from an audiobook (available from iTunes for $24, or from Audible.com for a bit more, though if you have a subscription with Audible, it's just one credit. This audiobook is extremely well read, and the narrator, Dick Hill, does wonders with the voices of the different characters. I find that reading/listening in this way gives me two perspectives about the book. After a first read, when some of the characters and events are new, hearing them read reinforces the insights that I've gotten from reading the comments here on the blog. I wouldn't recommend this to everyone, but it is certainly a novel way to read a novel, if you have time. (The audiobook is 53 1/2 hours long, or about 3 minutes per page.)

Call me obsessive, if you like, but this is an interesting way to approach a book that is as dense and complex as AtD.

In any case, this is one of the most entertaining novels I've read in quite some time, and certainly one of the most thought-provoking. This sharing of knowledge and trivia makes it even more so.

One thought: Pynchon being now almost 70 years old, is it worth considering that this may be his last novel? Given the amount of time between books, this is entirely possible. (I hope not.) Could this, in any way, lead to certain accretions of ideas that appear in AtD?

So without further ado, here is my Summary of the Action of This Section of Against the Day.

The story picks up from page 317, where Dally (or Dahlia) is setting of eastward on a train. She makes a brief stop in Chicago, long enough for TRP to give us one of the gems of the book (p. 336):

"Somewhere in her head, she'd had this notion that because the White City had once existed beside the Lake, in Jackson Park, it would have acted somehow like yeast in bread and caused the entire city to bloom into some kind of grace. [...] She looked out the windows, hoping for some glimpse of her White City, but saw only the darkened daytime one, and understood that some reverse process had gone on, not leavening but condensing this to stone gravity."

When Dahlia gets to New York, she goes into a restaurant to eat lunch and is astounded at how clean and neat everything is, in contrast to her world out west. She starts chatting with a waitress named Katie, who asks if she is looking for a job and if she has a place to stay--Dahlia undoubtedly looks like she is Not From Those Parts. Looking for a job, she runs into Katie again, who is returning from an audition; she waits tables by day, and wants to be an actress by night. "It's New York. Disrespect was invented here." (338:14)

A few days later, they meet again at a "chop suey joint", and Dally goes to "apply" for a job as an "artist's model" in the "white-slave simulation industry". Apparently, the Chinese crime syndicates would stage mock kidnappings with pretty young white women, called "comediettas", or "chop suey stories", for Americans who wanted to see these imitations of irreality.

Dahlia moved in with Katie, and during the day "performed" in front of tourists in the ever-repeated sketch of being kidnapped and pulled down into a manhole. But Dahlia was good at her job, attracting the attention of show business impresarios, including (should we be surprised?) R. Wilshire Vibe, "ever on the cruise for new talent", who offered her a part in his next project, Shangai Scampers. Dahlia was naturally skeptical, but Vibe pointed out that he was a legitimate theater producers. He asked, "do you have a contract here?", to which Dahlia replied, "I signed something. But it was in Chinese". Vibe retorted, "Ah, when is it not."

Then irreality became reality as a "tong war" heated up, the Chinese fighting among themselves, and Dahlia needed a change. Katie suggested she follow up on Vibe's offer, and this is how yet another recurring character ended up in the Vibe web. She goes to Vibe's office on West Twenty-eighth street, overlooking Tin Pan Alley, but Vibe has nothing to offer for the moment. However, one Con McVeety needs a "card girl"; this is the girl who holds up the cards introducing the different vaudeville acts. Con and Dahlia negotiate, and she gets the job.

Con had an old "dime theater"--a sort of Barnumesque collection of curiosities--which fronted his McVeety's Theater. It's exhibits of pickled creatures was designed to "Get em in the mood before the show starts." The performers in the vaudeville show are the typical Pynchonesque lot of weird and abnormals. (pp 343-344) Occasionally, R. Wilshire Vibe, or R.W. as he preferred, would drop in and chat with Dahlia, giving her updates on Shanghai Scampers. And in the meantime, Con was preparing an up-to-date version of Julius Caesar, entitled Dagoes with Knives, in which Dahlia was nearly cast as Calpurnia, renamed for he occasion Mrs. Caesar; a Chinese actress, however, with support from some well-armed friends, got the role, in spite of her lack of familiarity with English.

Vibe had invited Dahlia to a party one Saturday, saying she could bring a friend, and Dahlia naturally invited Katie. In search of appropriate dresses, Dahlia had her first experience in a department store, and encountered such things as elevators, mannequins (that she took for real women) and full-length mirrors (where she saw herself and Katie), when she was what at first seemed to be an apparition: her mother (or someone who looked like her mother). Remember, one reason Dahlia came to New York was to find her mother, whose image she would have only from the magazine picture found many years earlier.

But she lost track of the woman who looked like her mother, and while she looked for her on every floor, the mother was not to be found. A hallucination? Perhaps; other things she saw in that same scene turned out to be, well, other: such as a harpist who was merely a "cigar-chewing bruiser".

The two ladies head downtown on the night of the party, to Vibe's italianate town house, somewhere in Greenwich Village. To prevent people from being wallflowers, a huge, round couch was located in the very center of the ballroom, where those who didn't wish to dance would have to sit in the middle of everyone, as though watching the dancers revolve around them in a parody of a galaxy. There were palm trees everywhere, of all kinds, "creating a sort of jungle" and Vibe stars sang songs from Vibe productions.

Dahlia walked out onto the rooftop for air, and met a young man, who, after suggesting they go inside, disappeared. She is accosted by a couple more odd characters, until she was "saved" by a magician's assistant--the woman she had seen in the store the previous day-- who led her out of the building to meet with Katie on the step of her rooming house in the Lower West Side. Another incident of time lost and time telescoped... Dahlia has forgotten everything that happened since the moment she was whisked away by the assistant.

Dahlia went to the Zombini residence, an extensive "French flat" on upper Broadway, in a twelve-storey skyscraper. The magician's assistant, Bria, was her stepsister, and Dahlia made the acquaintance of her other step-siblings, all of whom exercised magical activities. Meeting her mother was almost anti-climactic, with no rush of discovery or excitement; all seemed natural. Magic was everywhere in this household, and Luca Zombini waxes scientific on the illusion of sawing a woman in half, where she is always reassembled, where "there's always a happy ending." He then displays a piece of Iceland Spar, suggesting that one could saw someone in half optically, and, "instead of two different pieces of one body, there are now two complete individuals walking around, who are identical in every way." He apparently attempted this, yet was unable to reunite the victims. According to Professor Vanderjuice, he had forgotten the element of time, "so there was this short couple of seconds where time went on, irreversible processes of one kind and another, this sort of gap opened up a little, and that wis enough to make it impossible to get back to exactly where wed been."

Yet, a solution might exist, in the only place in the world that made these units, in the Isle of Mirrors in Venice (just where we last left the Chums of Chance), and where the Zombinis happened to be booked in a couple of weeks. Dahlia would accompany the family/troupe overseas.

Finally, Dahlia confronted Erlys, though not aggressively. Erlys asked about Merle, but eventually told Dahlia that she was already pregnant when she met Merle, and Dahlia's real father was one Bert Snidell (see p. 75), who died in a streetcar accident, and whose family threw her out when they found out. And so, with a hint of anger, quickly dissipated by the arrival of some other Zomboni children, they put off their discussion until they would be on board the S.S. Stupendica and one their way to Europe in a future chapter.

So here ends the plot summary. Now a few general comments. This is another of those transitional chapters, in which there is little mention of mathematics, tarot cards, or quaternia, but we do see the Iceland Spar again (have any of you gone out and actually bought a piece of this mineral? I'm curious to see what it looks like, but the only places I can find that sell it charge more for shipping--I'm in France--than for the spar itself...).

Links to other characters, items or places occur: the Spar, Professor Vanderjuice, Venice, where the Zombinis are heading. A Vibe appears, adding yet another link to the web of characters and events. Dahlia seems as though she will be a much more important character in the future (no, I haven't read ahead yet), though I had expected her to hook up with Kit, as Frank had suggested in the previous section. Much groundwork is being laid in this chapter, with many hints and connections that will undoubtedly be realized in later sections...

One other comment: I haven't read much about the way Pynchon is using all the stratagems of the classic 19th century novel, especially the omniscient narrator and the changes of point of view that are typical of, say, Dickens. (Quite the opposite of the several-times-cited Henry James, however...) If anyone today is a true heir of Dickens, it is certainly Pynchon, or at least the Pynchon of this novel.

14 Comments:

At Monday, March 19, 2007 9:23:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

I do agree completely about the link to Dickens. I have read several pynchon esssays that compare him to Joyce, but I see more of a Post Modern Dickens writing historical novels than an offspring of Joyce.

 
At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 6:09:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Or Thackery, who produced a "Novel without a Hero" with Vanity Fair. Our novel here has several heroes, but no central protagonist.

I thought this was an especially enjoyable passage, mainly because I'm nuts about Dally, and the Zombini kids are a stitch. I'd point out, though, that the i bambini Zombini are Dally's half, not step, siblings; and Mr. Hop Fung is not a member of the Chinese underworld, but rather a legit producer of rather fun, lurid, low-rent, (underground if you will) street theater.

Interesting how, with the infusion of Vibe money, the Fung show (hmmmm. . .) becomes more elaborate (341:11-24), a movie on location missing only a camera to film it. (Since it is about 1904, we can expect one shortly.)

Funny too how violent entertainment then somehow slopped over into "real life," heating up the local tong war. Interesting social observation that, and a funny use of quotation marks to boot.

What I especially liked about this section is how Pynchon presents his alternate worlds theme in everyday dress: theatrical entertainments that bleed into "real life", or the workings of the department store, with its beautiful, and mirrored, artfully illusury sales floors separated, by a veil, from the less merciful topography (345:34-5) of the workers' area.

Any Ben Katchor fans out there may have sensed an hommage in the very long graph that runs from 343:31 to 344:23. The odd names and surreal employments of Katchor's cartoon characters are utter Pynchonesque (most especially his sublime historical flight of fancy, The Jew of New York), and I get the feeling Tom is repaying the compliment here.

 
At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 6:26:00 AM, Blogger Monstro said...

Dickens, Joyce, Thackery...All the pomo people say their great influences are Borges and Sterne (Tristram Shandy was clearly this kind of writing). But I digress...

I think that this is an amazing part of the novel. It is like a whirlpool ride through turn of the century theater district New York. The lost time seems incredibly appropriate. It reads a bit supernatural, but I think that it is absolutely realistic.

One thing that struck me is how quickly and completely Pynchon switches gears from the Wild West to New York. I suppose the same thing could be said about Europe, but it seemed so cloistered and linear in Europe that it could believably be set next to Telluride without too much confusion. New York is like Pluto on speed.

Lastly, incredible job with the summary. (Insert applause here)

 
At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 3:22:00 PM, Blogger Axiomatic.Apricot said...

Hey all--

Apologies for my negligence. I've been confronting an overfull social calendar these last two weeks and Pynchon blogging just wasn't in the cards.

That said, I agree completely with the Dickens comparison (by way of Bellow, I tend to think), as does the always perceptive (if somewhat grumpily prejudiced) James Woods in his review of M&D. Joyce, by contrast, is similar primarily in his affinity for puns and allusions, and for his intricate symbolic systems. That, and of course, his epic scope. As for Borges and Sterne, Pynch's affinity for (respectively) metaphysical and narratory games seems to draw inspiration from those authors. Sadly, I haven't read Thackery.

Now, onto topical comments, I was especially taken with the department store scene, which brought back gaudy memories of heavily ornamented old school department store shopping from my toddler days (at Hess's in scenic downtown Allentown, PA). I found the magicians' assistant / the mysterious figure from Smokefoot's particularly interesting. Dally seems to have a received some freebie grace from beyond, but it remains unclear how or why.

As an elaboration on Will's ruminations on production values, it seems important to me that NYC, the home of capital in the US, should be typified, here, by its theatricality. But Pynchon's careful not to make this a straightforward, "look, capitalism paints itself up pretty as a whore" schtick by blurring the line between theater and reality, as when, in the apparently safe street abduction, real violence impinges, or as when, facing the very real prospect of being raped, Dally is saved by the theatrical magic of a disappearing routine.

Also, did anyone else read the collection of pickled heads on p. 343 as a Futurama allusion? Ditto Dally's intentionally disintegrating outfit as an allusion to Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction."

 
At Tuesday, March 20, 2007 9:03:00 PM, Anonymous Larry Jones said...

One thing that has always struck me about Pynchon's style is the way he gives many of his characters Dickensesque names that are suggestive if not symbolic, and which spring not from any language or tradition.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2007 8:53:00 AM, Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Thanks Kirkmc, and sorry for checking in late again... I've been swamped at work these days. Anyway, here are just a few miscellaneous notes (though from memory, unfortunately, as I'm at work now):

There's something to the speed at which Dahlia gets to NYC -- at least, compared with the rich description of Merle & Dally's trip out west. But here, she gets on a train, stops in Chicago, and then bam, NYC. Takes all of a page or so. Does anyone see this as related to the "lost time" occurrences? Or, more practically, is it just because we've already previously taken the long journey West and therefore have no need for an extended narrative during Dally's eastward journey?

RE Con's theater and curiosity collection. I was reminded here of an outstanding novel I read about 15 years ago. It was called "Peter Doyle" by a guy who teaches up at SUNY Binghamton, John Vernon. Excellent read. If you can imagine this little collection of curiosities being expanded into a historical novel, this is the book you'd want to buy. Can't recommend it strongly enough.

RE the department store: I agree, Axiomatic... Wonderful scene... Anyone else laugh at the apparent self-referential sentence about the size of the place being not so much for grandiose purposes, but to accommodate two worlds? I'd quote that here if I had the book with me.

I believe someone within the Chumps was tracking instances of the word "inconvenience" within the text (when not related to the airship). I noticed it twice in this section. (Drop me an email if you want page numbers.)

RE Step vs. half-siblings. You're right, Will. Interesting that the book does say "step," though. Just a small error that crept through, I suppose.

 
At Wednesday, March 21, 2007 4:40:00 PM, Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

Home from the office... Here's that seemingly self-referential quote I mentioned above:

"Yet the size of the place was not due to whims of grandiosity but rather dictated by a need for enough floor-area to keep rigorously set a veil separating two distinct worlds--the artfully illusory spaces intended for the store's customers and the less-merciful topography in between the walls and below the bargain basement." [345: bottom paragraph]

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2007 6:11:00 AM, Blogger Decency's Jigsaw said...

BSUWG said, "I believe someone within the Chumps was tracking instances of the word "inconvenience" within the text"

I think that was me, in last week's moderation, but unfortunately I'm doing no such thing, I'm just wishing we had a concordance to track that word (and oh so many others -- like "the day"). Unless of course there really is someone out there tracking that...

***

I love the doublings in this section. Dally sees double twice: first, she sees herself in the mirror and doesn't know it, then she sees another reflection that turns out to be her mother. It's almost too heavy-handed for the song in the department store to be "Her Mother Never Told Her," because then we learn on page 357 that Dally's mother had indeed never told her -- she had two fathers, Bert and Merle...

***

And the description of Dally's day in the department store: how "none of it held together, the details were like cards tossed on the table of the day that upon inspection could not be arranged into a playable hand" (347:24). Sounds like all too many reviews of ATD, and the standard complaint about Pynchon's books. But "a playable hand"? That depends on what you're using the cards for: poker or divination? Or 52-pickup?

***

So anyway, here's an idea. Y'all remember how Lew Basnight just woke up one day, with no memory? I wonder if he's an early victim of the Zombini's mirror trick? See the top of 355: "...there are now two complete individuals walking around, who are identical in every way..." But what if they're not identical in "every way"? What if the "new" twin is truly brand new: no memory? So there might be two Lew Basnights?...

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2007 6:13:00 AM, Blogger kirkmc said...

Re twins: Christopher Priest's The Prestige, recently made into a Major Motion Picture, is about magicians and twins... In fact, I wonder if TRP got the idea from that novel - there are similarities that are very interesting.

If you haven't read The Prestige, I'd strongly recommend it.

 
At Thursday, March 22, 2007 5:13:00 PM, Blogger Axiomatic.Apricot said...

Blowing--

I love the quote you point out, and it brings to mind the interesting question of how we're to see the relationship between the two main plot lines of the novel, namely of the Traverses and of the Chums: are we to understand the Traverses as in someway being the underclass forced to labor day in and out, to support the fictive reality of the Chums? If so, is there any payback for the Traverses? Can the occasional acts of unbidden Grace from the Other Side be seen as the fictional world's attempts to pay back reality? Also, as no one's failed to notice, Tom's pushing 70, and must have ruminated a bit by now on the idea of artistic immortality. That is, living forever through fiction as the Chums do.

D.Jig -- I've also been trying to track the various inconveniences as I read, but I've yet to actually try and shift all my underlining over to the wikipynchon site. It's a real shame there isn't yet a searchable copy of this puppy floating about. I'm almost tempted to buy another copy, rip it apart, and OCR the hell out of the fucker

 
At Saturday, March 24, 2007 12:06:00 AM, Blogger brooktrout said...

Just a note that in Luca Zombini we seeem to have another Prospero who feeds the yearning of his audience "only after miracle, only to contradict the given world". T o do this, e instructs his children you must " like God...work with light , make it do only what you want it to do."

Unfortunately, he tells them, perhaps as a joke, he has doubled some of his volunteers who now occupy two worlds.

I have noticed that the more a character interacts with the chums fictional world the more estranged they seem to be from the social world and the closer to realms of light, darkness, matter, and spirit: Merle, Lew, Hunter, Heino, Dally.

 
At Sunday, March 25, 2007 8:35:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Like Will, I'm also nuts about Dally and the Zombini kids, and it was fun hanging out with them after all the misery at Yale and among the anarchists in the Rockies.

The "less merciful topography" in the department store reminded me of working at a couple of luxury hotels in San Francisco in the 1970s. Every inch in the public eye was polished and garnished and mirrored to an inch of its existence, but the minute one moved through a doorway into the workers' quarters it was like a scene out of "Brazil," with exposed pipes, ducts, unpainted walls and grime everywhere. It was as if the transition was meant to forcefully remind all the workers that they were nothing but backstage slaves for the swells, and that they should never forget it.

The party at R. Wilshire Vibe's confused the heck out of me, though it did tend to reinforce RW's heterosexuality which was being questioned by one of the Chumps not long ago. I assume Dally was being mickey-finn'd by some unknown gent and was rescued by the Zombinis, but do we know if the rescue was intentional, an accident, or does it even matter?

Luca's disquisition on light was wonderful, and I love the magician's explanation that "The perfect mirror must send back everything, same amount of light, same colors exactly -- but perfect velvet must let nothing escape, must hold on to every last little drop of light that falls on it."

The final scene in this section between Daly and her mother Erlys is sensational (page 356:25-26)..."in a fierce and long-held whisper, "I was only a little baby--how could you just leave like that?" A kind of smile, almost thankful. "Wondering when that'd come up."

And the final two lines of 356, setting us up for an intersting scene: "And there Dally and Erlys would have to leave things for a while. In fact, the chore level being what it was, till they were on board the Stupendica and well out to sea."

For an 1,100 page book, it's amazing how much is compressed into these 21 pages.

 
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