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, 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?)


At Monday, October 22, 2007 12:21:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear DJ: You must stop watching "Jeopardy" while under the influence of methamphetamines. It's not good for you.

Otherwise, great summary and fascinating links, particularly to the Colorado Coal Field Wars, another important piece of history of which I was completely ignorant. So, to answer one of your final questions first, I'm not suffering from "Against The Day" fatigue quite yet. Reading this book so slowly has been a fascinating immersion into another world and historical consciousness, and I could live in it for another 1,000 pages.

As for "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," this is one of my favorite things about the novel. You weren't expecting Dreiser-like realism in a novel that starts with The Chums of Chance and their talking dog Pugnax in their flying machine, were you? Plus, it brings to mind the old truism that there's only 12 people in the world and the rest is done with mirrors, though in this book, it's more like 1,200 people and Iceland spar replaces mirrors, which is probably closer to reality. We've all had the experience of going to some off-the-beaten track place for the first time and running into odd souls we've known in completely different settings. Maybe that's the "loophole of chance."

You ask "why did Stray and Ewball run off together in the first place, anyway?" and I'd say it was spelled out pretty clearly on 977:5, "Jeez, Ewball, I don't know, it's basically your dick," she replied. Also, my favorite bit of wisdom in the entire book is Stray's sudden revelation on 976:18, "One day she woke up understanding clear as the air that as long as a person was willing to forgo credit, there were very few limits on the good it became possible to do."

At Monday, October 22, 2007 11:45:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Addendum: Is there any better personal example of "willing to forego credit" selflessness than Thomas Pynchon?

What a treat to have his voice in our world.

At Tuesday, October 23, 2007 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

..."to slip through a loophole in the laws of chance" (987:4)? Since when did chance follow any law?

Aw, that's a well-gummed paradox: the law of large numbers, which shapes so many things into the ol' bell curve, has a stone determinism of its own. All statistical mechanics, including the "laws" of thermodynamics and our implacable friend entropy, depend crucially on assumptions of randomness.

... isn't there an implicit paradox in the idea that there would be a hierarchical organization in the service of Chance?

" 'Inconvenience, we’re only the runts of the Organization, last at the trough, nobody ever tells us anything — they keep cutting our orders, we follow ’em, is all.' ” (19)

I raised the question of that hierarchy in a Pynchon-L thread beginning at

which may be of interest.

At Tuesday, October 23, 2007 11:30:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Umm, try

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Monte: This narrow-column format forces hard-breaks into long URLs pasted into it.

I rescued the link from the source code. Try this link.

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