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.

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.

18 Comments:

At Wednesday, November 07, 2007 2:10:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

That repatriation, "in which an exchange of internees by train would be inadvisable," omits two specific cases (which given P's indirect ways, I'm betting were topmost in his mind)

1) Lenin's April 1917 return to Russia from Switzerland via Germany, Sweden and Finland, with the connivance of the German government

2) the negotiated exit in 1920 of the anti-Bolshevik Czech Legion, which had held much of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (cf. pp. 269, 567, 752...)

 
At Wednesday, November 07, 2007 3:35:00 PM, Blogger Akatabi said...

The transmission received on "Dick"'s steampunk contraption "what looked like a tall monkey in a sailor hat with the brim turned down fell out of a palm tree onto a very surprised older man -- the skipper of some nautical vessel to judge by the hat he was wearing" (1034:35)is in fact Gilligan's Island. A submoronic bit of monkey slapstick nails it, Neddie. There's a theory that the first signals received and decoded by any alien SETI project, the first with the required power and coherence to reach them, will in fact be teevee signals from the UHF band.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 5:34:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 5:40:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Gee, what else is dozens of times its former size ? maybe the reader's own vessel, the good ship Against the Day?? I may be looking at this sideways, but the hypertrophy of both airships suggested to me an expansion of design, a piling on of detail, which, coming after the 1,000 page mark, may reflect the self-aware reluctance on the author's part to jetison material. Rather he just adds more lift.

Though the great African updraft was beautifully rendered, I gotta say the whole counter Earth conceit left me cold this late in the game. If the Chums are helping Reef and Yash flee with little Luby on Earth 1, are their doubles on Earth 2? If WW1 is breaking out on Earth 2, what's the score on Earth 1, where, presumably, Thorne first warned Miles? Has the narrator been switching us between Earth 1 and Earth 2 the whole time and only now tipping his hand? Will we ever know for certain or is he just adding more lift?

'Nother parallel with GR would be the final journey of the rocket/Inconvenience from war torn Europe to southern California. Pynchon does have his hobby-horses, doesn't he?

Perhaps the Chums are meant to be trans-textural agents of confusion. As such, all their moods would be rhetorical ones (nize catch there Neddie!.) Recall all the subjunctive clauses which lay behind the Harmonica Band episode.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 6:02:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

...I gotta say the whole counter Earth conceit left me cold this late in the game

Seconded -- and I'll toss in the hollow earth sequence here, and that in Mason & Dixon too. P. is so good at weaving in glimpses of counter- and super- and sub-worlds all the way through, a flash of ankle here and some thigh there (a-and was that a nipple? boyoboy!) that these strike me as supererogatory: Hey, Here's The Global Metaphor Itself In Case You Missed It.

I mean, Oedipa wrote "Shall I project a world?" but knew better than to actually do it.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 11:42:00 AM, Blogger sfmike said...

Great job, Neddie, on an outrageously complex section of the book. I was wondering how you were going to possibly synopsize the thing, and relating the outlandish details in a straight-faced manner was a perfect choice. Thanks also for the Philolaus Counter-Earth link which gets us back into PythagorianLand. And akatabi's "Gilligan's Island" catch was pure brilliance as is his SETI project prediction.

The bilocated Counter-Earth situation didn't bother me as it did will and monte. For Jesus is the Lord's sake, we've already had a ship and its passengers bilocate on us, so this seemed a perfectly plausible development.

As for getting misty-eyed about "Dick" and Chick, I'm afraid I didn't share the emotion. For one thing, I'm confused about the age of the Chums. Have they grown any older since we met them "singling up all lines"? I assume "Dick" has aged thirty years, but has Chick? The Chums are certainly more sophisticated, at least in their eating habits, but are they still teenagers? Anybody have any thoughts? In any case, I'm glad they've met their Tinkerbell equivalents and hitched up in Mexico before hitting the New World Capital of dream machinery.

The offstage World War I is perfect. The novel has been building up to it for over 1,000 pages and then the actual event goes by in a blur, seen indistinctly from above, in both the Inconvenience and Switzerland. Paradoxically, this novel taught me more about World War One than any other, by creating a wildly vivid look at the world(s) creating that event. I still haven't finished the book, but it's obviously a masterpiece, bloated nitpickers to the contrary.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 12:20:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Bloated? I'm a lean, sylphlike nitpicker, as is will (whom I've never met).

As for a masterpiece: well, of course :-)

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 12:23:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

And me, I tip the scales at a trim 157, and can lick my weight in wild caterpillars.

Master work, yes. Masterpiece, ehhh, I reserve the distinction, still, for Mason & Dixon.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 1:26:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Mason & Dixon

Fair enough; maybe we share a leaning to classical principles of construction. The long friendship there, and its projection onto the next generation at the very end, leaves me with a ... glow of resolution, rounding-out, completion -- "calm of mind, all passion spent" -- that none of the other books quite matches. Maybe because even after all its deconstruction of New World hopes, I can't quite discard them any more than P. can.

In GR and AtD, he's made me so painfully aware of all the vectors toward what is coming (the cold war/arms race, fascism and WWII) that they fade out in my mind more like the chanting Lear-inflected chaos at the end of "I Am the Walrus."

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 4:55:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Not to mention the aptness of M&D's often crazy details, the conjuring of a world of vanishing magical beings and potentials, the magnificant narrative voice, the tale told in retrospect.

Nothing in AtD approaches the scene where Dixon grabs the whip from the slave driver (to be fair, contemporary fiction has a hard time coming close to the pitch of such drama.) M&D is a thrilling book. (GR, with its mordant mysteries and frazzled ending is also thrilling.) AtD is, by turns interesting, challenging, and very entertaining, but never quite transports and sustains the reader in its very fractile universe.

 
At Thursday, November 08, 2007 9:03:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

New worlds are a possibility we carry around inside of us and usually enter without noticing. But, how long can a new world be new? How old can a world get before it stops being itself and is something else. And where did that pesky wabbit get to now?

Time is like a skippable ,flippable, movable rabbit hole, slippery slope to everywhere.

And Updock, I mean what is it anyway?

 
At Saturday, November 10, 2007 7:40:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

A Humble Query for the Two or Three Assembled in His Name:

Why do Anarchists drink only herbal tea?

 
At Saturday, November 10, 2007 10:24:00 PM, Blogger sfmike said...

Dear Neddie: I'm feeling dense and don't understand the question. Please give this doofus a clue.

Finished the book last night and was literally transported.

 
At Sunday, November 11, 2007 6:19:00 AM, Blogger Neddie said...

Your transportation must have clouded your mind, sfmike, you goose: The question couldn't have been more straightforward! Why do Anarchists drink only herbal tea?

Because proper tea is theft!

 
At Sunday, November 11, 2007 6:43:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Was it the transportation that clouded his mind... or the company?

Those Femmes of Fate -- "bared athletic girl-flesh... with their thousands of perfectly-machined elliptical 'feathers'... harnessed in black kidskin and nickel-plating..." (1030)

When you get to heavy breathing in that Aether, man, you gotta expect payback the next morning.

 
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