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, December 03, 2007

Rue du Départ

(pp. 1065-1085)

Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) (Source)

And so it comes to this.

Before I start with this, the final episode in this unprecedented, year-long group-reading experiment, let me say a big thank-you to all our participants, lurkers and commenters. In particular, I want to thank the Moderators for dedicating their time and not inconsiderable effort to stoking the fires of conversation about this mad, sprawling, enormous book. Through mayonnaise, mathematics and Mexico, through ballooning, the Balkans and bilocation, through T.W.I.T., Tunguska and To-Hell-You-Ride, with stops to replenish the dope supply at Chicago, Chihuahua and Chillicothe, vivisect Vectors in Venice and Venedig-an-Wien, take tea with Tesla, Tatzelwurms and the Tarahumara, chuck an insouciant bomb with Blavatsky, Bakhunin and the Bindlestiffs of the Blue, we've come a long way, baby.

It's been an Anarchist's dynamite blast, and I thank you all for participating.

This final section of the book finds us finishing up the Aetheric conversation between Dally and Merle that ended the penultimate "Against the Day" section. Dally's living on the Rue du Départ (day-part, anyone?), next to the departures track at the gare Montparnasse. Leaving the suburb (banlieue) where the mysterious transmitter allowed her to chat "across the dimensions" with her father, she hums a popular tune from a Reynaldo Hahn operetta, "C'est pas Paris, c'est sa banlieue" ("It's not Paris, it's her suburbs" -- cut 16 on the linked CD). Walking on, who should she run into but La Jarretiere, a musical-comedy danseuse who has staged her own "death and rebirth as someone else." Together, Dally and Jarri regale some Yank tourists with "Mon Dieu! Que les hommes sont bêtes," with could quite possibly be Messager's "Les hommes sont biens tous les mêmes."

We learn that Dally is continuing her stage career, appearing in the (fictional) Jean-Raoul Oeuillade's Fossettes l'Enflammeuse, but her mind drifts to Kit Traverse, whom, it seems, Dally married in 1915. In a long flashback, we learn that their marriage wasn't a particularly successful one, under pressure both from wartime deprivations, and from the reappearance of Clive Crouchmas in Dally's life. Despite "that awkward business of his having once tried to shop her into white slavery," Dally...well...dallies, is I guess how you'd put it, with Crouchmas, and Kit ain't happy about it. With his pal Renzo, a maniac pilot who's working on the nascent concept of dive-bombing as a military tactic, he buzzes the restaurant where his kitten canoodles* with Crouchmas, a scene in which the diving plane goes so fast that "something happened to time, and maybe they'd slipped into the Future, the Future known to Italian Futurists, with events superimposed on one another..."

Kit, our flashback continues, went up with Renzo for some more of those dive-bombing runs, most notably against a workers' strike, helping to crush it. During the run, he has a "velocity-given illumination. It was all political." The dive-bombing was "perhaps the first and purest expression in northern Italy of a Certain Word that would not quite exist for another year or two." (Fascism. Hence the Futurist reference earlier.)

Well, who should show up in our continuing flashback but old Reef and Yashmeen, escaping the fighting in northeastern Italy. Something slightly redolent of menace passes between Dally and Yash, wife and ex-lover, and it begins to look like another Traverse marriage is headed for the rocks. Kit, "shamed into abandoning his engineer's neutrality," begins flying missions for the Italian air force against the Austrian invaders, allowing himself to be "seduced into the Futurist nosedive." Dally points out that Austrians, "your brothers-in-arms," aren't the ones he should be aiming his bombs at -- Traverse family values and all that -- and her disgust with Kit's helplessness to fight the Fascist/Futurist impulse leads her to walk out, head for Paris and solitude.

The narrative -- in a strange vectoring away from Dally's flashback, it seems, and not in the "present tense" as it were -- then concentrates itself on Reef and Yashmin. They cross the Atlantic to Ellis Island, where Reef gets a big "I" (for "idiot") chalked on his back. They head west, "propelled by [Reef's] old faith in the westward vector, in finding someplace, some deep penultimate town the capitalist/Christer gridwork hadn't got to quite yet." (Good luck with that, kids...) Who should they run into in Montana but Frank, Stray and Jesse, Reef's son by Stray. The two families, strangely intertwined by marriage, fall in together, and the complicated emotions engendered by having two dads, one mom, and two half-sisters living under one roof begins to tell on Jesse.

The families have moved to the farthest-northwest corner of the US, Kitsap Peninsula (Google Earth puts it in Tacoma, WA), and Jesse brings home a school assignment: "What it Means to Be an American." His response, "It means do what they tell you...," shows the old Anarchist flame to be alive and well in the third generation of Traverses. He gets an A-plus from his teacher, who'd been "at Cour d'Alene back in the olden days." Thus, the brotherhood of the downtrodden...

And, drool drool, our last view of this Traverse family arc promises some Steamin' Hot Lesbo Action. Unfortunately, we're not gonna get to watch....

Now we're back with Dally in the "present tense." Meeting up with Policarpe, from that Young Congo crowd of Belgian nihilists back on 527, she buys him a drink, and we're back in Buddhist Maya again; postwar Paris, allows Policarpe, is naught but "Illusion... At your most langourous moment of maximum surrender, the true state of affairs will be borne in on you. Swiftly and without mercy."

Kit appears in the "present tense" Paris, apparently looking for Dally, and we're off on another flashback explaining how he came to be here. The war over and his divebombing proclivities now no longer needed, he drifts to Lwow and the Scottish Café, gathering place for insane mathematicians. He "is shown beyond a doubt" (although by whom we're not privileged to know) a "startling implication of Zermelo's Axiom of Choice": that it is in theory possible "to take a sphere the size of a pea, cut it apart into several very precisely shaped pieces, and reassemble it into another sphere the size of the sun."

"Staggering subsets, fellows," marvels a voice in the Café crowd, "Those Indian mystics and Tibetan lamas and so forth were right all along, the world we think we know can be dissected and reassembled into any number of worlds, each as real as 'this' one."

(Weren't we looking for a topic sentence, a summing up of this whole mad book, a few weeks ago? I'm nominating that one right up there.)

Who should the speaker be but old Heino Vanderjuice himself, looking younger and free of worry, now, like Kit, out from under Scarsdale Vibe. Vanderjuice recounts how the Chums of Chance rescued him from an attempt of Vibe's life, "rescued me from my own life, from the cheaply-sold and dishonored thing I might have allowed it to become."

Then Vanderjuice vanishes, "some claimed to have seen him taken into the sky." Kit goes into a strange, Vectorial migration around Europe, "thinking about nothing but Dally, aware that they'd separated, but unable to remember why." He has visions (or are they real?) of a portal, a "framed shadow" approaching him; after a time the portal swallows him, and he finds himself transported (the description reminds me of the transporter beam in those old Star Trek shows) to a hotel room in Paris belonging to Lord Overlunch, a collector of Tibetan stamps (that image on the cover finally pays off!). Kit's face has been appearing on one of his stamps -- "But I wasn't..." "Well, well. A twin, perhaps."

And yes, Kit's mercifully back with Dally. "Some sort of husband in the picture..."**

May we imagine for them a vector....


And now, finally, the great wheel having come full circle, we're back with the Chums of Chance, at the Garçons de '71, "There, but Invisible" in a great gathering of skyships that transcend "the old political space, the map-space of two dimensions, by climbing into the third." Married, now, to the women of the Sodality of Aetheronauts, the Inconvenience now grown to the size of a small city, the Chums are literally surfing on light. "It is no longer a matter of gravity -- it is an acceptance of sky."

They fly toward grace.***

***Look out, Grace!