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, June 04, 2007

From Tampico to Tatzelwurms

pp. 637-660

First things first: this week's reading is divided into three of AtD's untitled chapters which are themselves comprised of three, four and four sub-sections respectively. The first two sections treat Frank Traverse's wheelings and dealings down Mexico ways, the third his brother Reef as he works as a tunnel digger in Switzerland.

We join Frank anxious to leave Mexico in order to resolve certain revenge-centric "unfinished business in northamerica", but nevertheless finding it difficulty to extricate himself from the tangle of Mexican politics (637). He's hanging around in a village called Tampico (trans: The Place of the Others, a.k.a. Gringolandia) with Ewball Oust, the young mine engineer from Lake County whom we first met at p. 274, who has since "shifted his interests from rural Anarchism to arms procurement" (637). They both happen to bump into Günther von Quassel, late of Gottingen, now referred to as "El Atiladado," or "The Neat Man," who informs Frank of his own relationship with Kit as well as Kit's now rather dicey relationship with Scarsdale. There follows a passage concerning Frank and Günther's respective coffee preferences, and then all three of them then bump into a former acquaintance of Ewball's, Ramón, né Steve, who invites them to a party up in the hills.

Tom then supplies us with a breathtaking, paragraph-long sentence describing the anxiety the hill-dwelling gringos experience as they dread the inevitable "native uprising" (639). Really gorgeous stuff. You should go back and reread it; seriously, I'll wait.

Cut to the party, which is itself described as filled with uneasiness and partygoers willing to leave in a big hurry should the situation require. Günther and Frank discuss a shipment of Mondragón semiautomatics to be smuggled and meet Günther's sub-agent, the Irish Insurrectionist Wolfe Tone O'Rooney, late of New Orleans, who, like everyone this chapter is traveling under an alias, namely "Eusebio Gómez".

Wolfe, Frank, and Ewball start hanging out in a "cantina and gambling den known as La Fontiga Huasteca," a place where when the house band plays, "[e]verybody knew the words to everything, so the whole place sang along" (642). Then, another random meeting: Frank and Ewball's former jailmate and present nogoodnik, Dwayne Provecho. There follows a discussion of the possibility of revolution in Mexico and parts north, though Ewball contends that for the "norteamericaos" it's too late, having already "'delivered [themselves] into the hands of capitalists and Christers" (643). Dwayne leaves them with a hint about a shipment of Krag-Jørgensens up in Juarez that, as the chapter ends, Frank decides to pursue sans Ewball.

The next chapter opens to find Frank peeved that his Juarez contact, whose card (“E. B. Soltera, Regeneration Equipment”) Dwayne gave him, is to be found in "another of these damned lades' gathering spots," a fashionable restaurant for “gringos making their first trip south” (644). E.B. turns out to be none other than Estrella Briggs, a.k.a. Stray. The two talk business then discuss Reef and Jesse, the latter of whom is already playing with dynomite, “’just like his daddy’” (646).

Frank and Stray then head out into town where they meet two less-than-friendly associates of Stray, Hatch and his unnamed sidekick. A face-off occurs wherein Frank is matched with the sidekick (“For it really was the sidekick who presented the problem.”), but shooting is averted when Ewball shows, dues ex machina style, and deflates the tension (647). There follows more Frank and Stray chitchat and a description of a recurring dream Frank has been having about Webb who stands on the other side of a doorway that Frank cannot penetrate.

The chapter ends with Frank and Stray discussing Reef some more, Frank saying she should “[h]ave faith” (650), though she remains certain only of “her own sad story, her dream, recurring, bad, broken, never to come true (651).

Though Stray must remain waiting for her baby-daddy, we are transported by no more effort than a leaf-turn to Switzerland where we see exactly what Reef is now up to, or rather down to. Seems ol’ Reefer’s working with Flaco as a tunnel digger below the Austro-Swiss border in a region plagued by hotsprings and palling around with a typically motley cast including, we’re informed, a number of Anarchists. We catch Reef swapping blood vendetta stories with an Albanian named Ramiz, though Reef observes that such vengeance is getting trickier because “‘lately, as civilization comes creeping out from back east, authorities tend to frown more and more on it’” (654).

The workers have some complicated feelings about the tunnel, some of them holding the “belief that the tunnel was ‘neutral ground,’ exempt not only from political jurisdictions but from Time itself,” which has important implications for Anarchists or Socialists who contend that history is moving inevitably toward a revolutionary end-state. Stranger still is the rumored presence of Tatzelwurms, a “‘snake with paws’” and a horrifying scream which supposedly hibernates in the mountain and which is being disturbed by the drilling and especially by the presence of railroads (655).

And into this utterly proletariat setting, who should set foot but Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin. Ruperta’s come through town for the hot springs and Reef’s as smitten as ever. Ruperta’s been keeping busy slumming as a prostitute, but she and Reef quickly take up where they left off. During a post-coital discussion, they begin to talk of Scarsdale Vibe and Ruperta informs us that the baron has been buying up Renaissance art all around Europe but is currently headed for Venice where she, and she implies Reef, will soon be traveling.

This is followed by a brief passage focused on Phillipe, a tunnel digger and who compares the mountain to a cathedral, saying, “‘In a cathedral what looks solid never is. Walls are hollow inside. Columns contain winding staircases. This apparently solid mountain is really a collection hotsprings, caves, fissures, passageways, one hiding-place within another – and the Tatzelwurms know it all intimately. They are the priesthood of their own dark religion’” (658).

That said, Reef is promptly attacked by one of the pawed serpents, which, strangely greets him by name before it attacks. Reef manages to shoot the ‘wurm, which explodes in a mist of green blood, but it spooks him enough leave his position.

Riding the train down to Venice, Reef, alone in a car, has a conversation with a tunnel ghost, which accuses him of neglecting his obligations. He is living the good life as Ruperta’s boy toy and is not working to avenge Webb. The chapter – and the week’s reading – ends with the ghost not so subtly hinting that maybe Reef should “‘get back to [him]self again’” and target Scarsdale when he gets to Venice.


At Monday, June 04, 2007 5:56:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Thanks for the synopsis, A.A. I haven't even read the section yet, but your account makes me eager to get to it tonight. One question: I've forgotten where the character "Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin" first appeared. Could you clue me in?

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 5:20:00 AM, Blogger wildnis said...


if you use copyright protected images on your website you should at least give the photographers credit. The Venice picture is taken by Rolf Hicker - Hicker Nature Photography. Rolf even offers free images from his site for blog - only request is to use his picture-share code. You may consider using free images legal: free picture-share, instead of stealing images.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 6:12:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

“Right now everybody’s talking about Europe. All the Powers are planning how best to move their troops around, and you’d naturally think the railroad, but there’s these mountains everyplace, slowing everything down, so that means tunnels. Suddenly now all over Europe there’s tunnels big and small got to be blasted." (Flaco, p. 371)

At the risk of beating a dead cryptozoan: the presence of Tatzelwurms makes these tunnels wormholes, nicht wahr? Another nod to the all-but-hidden attractor of Albert E. and relativity that shapes AtD throughout. Trains, clocks, light, mirrors... geddit?

For details see Peter Galison's fine Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 8:34:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

sfmike: Ruperta first shows up in Denver on p. 367.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 1:28:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Thanks for the tip, Monte. And axiomatic apricot, you better watch out grabbing those pictures from the internet or Rolf will challenge you to a duel.

At Tuesday, June 05, 2007 4:10:00 PM, Blogger Kirsten said...

"Soltera" means "unmarried woman" in Spanish, so Stray's alias, in addition to encoding her initials (E.B.), comes back to the fact that she and Reef never actually got married (358). So when the ATD Wiki article links this novel with the Traverse family tree laid out in Vineland (, by way of its "Jess Traverse," we should presume that, as a grown man, Jesse not only drops the e but actively takes the surname. (For wouldn't he have been known as Jesse Briggs?)

At Thursday, June 07, 2007 2:41:00 AM, Blogger Axiomatic.Apricot said...

Hey all,

I changed the picture to appease rolf's automated passive aggression, so that's resolved.

Monte, I couldn't agree more re: the presence of Al all over this novel. I think so far (or rather the Pynchon wiki thinks so far) that the only direct reference was back on pp. 412, and that one's seems innocuous enough.

Good call on spotting the implicit 'wurm hole pun, too. I think it's interesting to note that Tom presents traveling either too high, a la the Chums, or too low, a la Reef, is a dangerous deal. It's no coincidence, also, that our fictional friends are the elevated ones and the poor, relatively realistic Reef is down low, though I'm still trying to figger out if it's significant that the tunnels being dug, while they penetrate the earth, are nevertheless located way the hell up in the alps.

Something to wonder on: why exactly are the 'wurms more against the railroad than the tunnels themselves. What about RR offends the cthonic powers? its linearity? its ease of travel?

On a quasi related note, one should note that it was sitting in Switzerland, contemplating the trains out his patent office window, that Einstein dreamed up special relativity. We're awful close to sacred ground up in those hills.


At Friday, June 08, 2007 3:37:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Einstein himself may be a ghostly presence, but Hermann Minkowski's lecture on p. 458 certainly brings him into the mix. Minkowski (according to Wikipedia) was the cat who, in 1907, building on Einstein's 1905 work on Special Relativity, posited the identicality of time and space:

"The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality."

A-and if that's not an Against the Day Thesis Statement, I'm both Marie and Pierre Curie.

(Sez Roswell after the lecture, "Notice the way the speed of light kept coming into it?" Replies Merle Rideout, "Like being back in Cleveland, all those Aether folks. We were all probably on to somethin then, didn't know it.")

At Friday, June 08, 2007 3:41:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

I think it's interesting to note that Tom presents traveling either too high, a la the Chums, or too low, a la Reef, is a dangerous deal.

That up-versus-down thing has been nagging at me, AA, since Randolph's declaration on p. 9 that "Going up is like going north." And one Chum's observation (can't remember where in the book, dammit), "As above, so below."

why exactly are the 'wurms more against the railroad than the tunnels themselves. What about RR offends the cthonic powers? its linearity? its ease of travel?

I interpreted it to mean that the 'Wurms have the gift of clairvoyance, and they "know" that the railroads are being built in anticipation of WWI.

At Friday, June 08, 2007 9:54:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Finally finished reading the section and again just want to say, great synopsis, A.A.

Some of my favorite things:

Page 554:31 has a great Working Class Hero moment while Reef is blasting the mountain: "In the shower-baths at the end of the shift, the suffering could be read on each body, as a document written in insults to flesh and bone -- scars, crookedness, missing parts. They knew each other as more comfortable men, in the steam-rooms of hydropathics, for instance, would not."

Page 655:25 has a great bad Freudian joke: "It is conforting to imagine this as an outward and visible manifestation of something else," chuckled one of the Austrians, puffing on a cigar stub. "But sometimes a Tatzelwurm is only a Tatzelwurm."

Page 660:16 when the ghost is telling Reef to get back to his dharma has one of the great leftistist-anarchist-hyphenated- phrases-of-all-time: "Scarsdale how-about-you-all-go-live-in-shit- and-die-young-so's-I-can-stay-in- big-hotels-and-spend-millions-on- fine-art Vibe."

At Sunday, June 10, 2007 8:18:00 AM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

Oh lord. I fell behind. I only just caught up. Wow!

It's interesting that in a novel about people being out of synch with each other, I was out of synch with you all. Always about fifty pages behind you when the baby started screaming and needed a-tending to (that's a real baby and not a metaphoric one). Thus I have always been just a little off like say the Chums as compared to the Traverses. I have felt a strong kinship with this book while reading it in this fashion.

Nonetheless, having absorbed ATD in infrequent and yet large doses, it seems to me that we might be a little too specific if we concentrate on light. There's a lot going on in here. Basically, the question Tom seems to be pondering is what it is that lurks behind the skein of things. What is light without aether, what are dimensions without an experiential equivalent? What are vectors without direction (strangely they're not scalers--a mountain climbing pun is in there somewhere)? The mountain is skein to a tunnel that has yet to be built. The body is skein to the soul. Fiction is skein to the real. I have said it before and I'll say it again: there's some kind of revelation waiting to happen in this book. We are peeling back layers of what we should assume 'is' only to find that these layers are masks for a deeper 'is-ness'. Except that that's just a layer as well that seems ready to be peeled.

But not to get too esoteric, all of this seems to be balanced against the Traverse family. What do you do when you are met with this kind of deeper meaning? How does it affect how you live, how or who you love? What purpose do you find in life if you are to absorb and enact the kinds of truths that get revealed in this novel. Would anybody really be surprised if Kit became the Dhali Lama?

At Sunday, June 10, 2007 2:54:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Hola, AA! Sorry to be late here, but I was, as you know, on the road.

Boy isn't this the chapter about making do while letting the ol' ideals slide? Nearly everyone, except the mining anarchists, has cashed in on "the revolution" and don't care who knows. One admires Ruperta at least for her strident and forthright indulgences.

Pynchon pens a beat-up Valentine to the beautiful and damned on p. 651:23-35, a vision of American victims in line with the opening of Howl

For all you Marty Robbins fans, p. 649:1-6, is a friendly shout out to the immortal El Paso.

And I bite, whose voice had Reef not heard before but recognized nonetheless.?

At Sunday, June 10, 2007 2:58:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Oh heck, and one more thing - just that Starbuck's sign peeping out from behind Arbuckle's coffee.

At Sunday, June 10, 2007 4:02:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind,
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue.

It seemsthat in the Traverse's journeying they are always being forced to choose between a"normal " existance and a more outlaw lifestye. But every hopeful possibility for a better non-outlaw future is tied to the wacked out dreams of industialists and empires . Here Reef is using his honestly acquired skills and hard work to do seemingly honest work that could be part of a relatively benign transportaion system. He has temporarily laid aside his card-sharping and assocation with business ala Groin. We, as readers are put in touch with the suffering and risk of laboring folk (and one may notice a less satiric tone in these passages throughout the novel) , and the shared experience of New and Old world workers.
The Tatzelwurm , to me, is just deaths question mark. We are all nervous about being eaten by worms underground. The question for Reef is does he want to die making a transport sysem for the war plans of the "great" powers.
He decides he'd rather make war directly on one of the great powers he knows on a personal level. Aren't worm holes just a theoretical distraction, an amusement, another hopeful fiction of colonizing the universe and escaping death, when in fact they are more like tatzelwurms , death in a dark hole by theoretical mathematics?

Reefs return to his oulaw life brings in the whole question of the up-down paths versus a more tainted but more deeply contrarion vision of how to live and how to relate to the big ideas. Of the 4 Traverse Children, Reef is the most earthy, non idealistic, experimental , but his spirit and conscience are alive.

At Tuesday, June 12, 2007 8:30:00 AM, Blogger Ol' Pal D said...


Seriously awesome Tatzelwurm skeleton photo. My new iBook desktop pic.

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