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.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Can You Do The Kieselguhr, Kid?

I dunno, this just struck me as germane.

Could that be our Lake?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Save The Drama For Your Baby Momma, pp 358-373

Hello all—

To begin with. I apologize for my avoidance of crazy links, pictures and what not. I’m just not that good with the internet and finding things. Besides, I imagine that you all can grab information by typing it into google as well as I can. This is not, by the way, a commentary on that type of moderation. I just tend to read Pynchon a little differently s’all: I assume that the crazy things he mentions (cattle rustling camels, for instance), probably is true, and in any case, if it isn’t, I don’t really care because the book is fiction whether it’s historically accurate or not. In other words, if the book references the assasination of president McKinley, I have to process the information the same way that I would the radioactive lighters used by the Chums—both are true to the same degree as they are true in the novel, and whatever truth they hold on Wiki is irrelevant unless mirrored within Against the Day.

Sorry. Bit of willie wagging. I will stop.

This section poses an interesting problem in that it is hard to follow the order of the scenes. Clearly the section starts in the middle of the action by bringing Reef Traverse into the fold. On his way down to Arizona, he passes through Duranga and runs into Mayva some time after her falling out with Lake. This brief encounter allows Reef to introduce his own mother to his new Baby’s momma, Stray Briggs—the girl from Utah for those who, like me, forgot what happened a hundred pages before. One may remember that Stray at the point of her last appearance was with child. Well, the intro to this scene does not mention a child, which seems odd to say the least since, Mayva should (one assumes) want to see her grandchild. The dialogue as it goes seems to suggest that Mayva notices something (“You two ain’t married, by any chance?” on p. 358), but baby Jesse has yet to make an appearance.

The big question I think is: where has Reef been. We learn that since falling in with Stray, Reef has had his skills as a would be desperado pimped out by Stray to anyone willing to pay the price. The scene reads like Reef meeting Stray’s extended family: her “friends” which generally serve as middlemen in these schemes. Note the chain: someone needs something done, they hire a middle man, the middle men (“and not all men, of course”) find Stray, who then sends out Reef. In this section Reef and Stray are on their way to Arizona to round up imported Camels that had been let go wild in Arizona for a friend of Stray’s: Archie Dipple. Somehow the passage alludes to the fact that Reef has some breed of lay expertise concerning camels: “these double doms being in Reef’s experience never quite as retiring as they looked, some of them damned touchy, as a matter of fact” (359). Experience? Where did he get experience?

Turns out the two have been crisscrossing the west for years running scams but always running from land owners who are trying to etch out some Capital (in the Marxist sense). Not my willy wagging, by the way; that’s Pynchon. The point seems to be that this is a different sort of Plutocrat, a Plutocrat in training who will defend their material and shoot anyone “if it even looked like they might want to take it.” Thus the happy couple has been obliged to move around to keep from getting shot.

Their baby, Jesse is kept in a dynamite crate without nails so that it won’t attract lightening. Discuss.

Here’s the problem, the rest of the scenes revolve around this scene chronologically with little rhyme or reason. Though what happens next is a flashback, other scenes are far less obvious. In the next scene, we find Reef alone, near Ophir, attempting to blow up some kind of power plant that’s supplying juice for the town’s silver mines. He rounds the corner with a bunch of dynamite and runs into Stray and Jesse. Reef is following in dad’s footsteps, except that he’s turned it religious. Capital and the plutes are undeniably evil, and Reef sees himself as “a damn Christer and his deliverance with that.” I wonder about these visions and there geographical placement in Utah given the religious (?) implications seen earlier in the Jeshimon chapter, but I digress…

Turns out Stray and Reef are good at communicating and so this scene spawns a happy relationship—the particulars of which I’ve already gone over. As far as Reef is concerned, he is no longer set on avenging the single dead man (his father) but all the dead. “They wanted his attention, them and the ones who’d died at other places, the Coeur d’Alene, Cripple Creek, even back east at Homestead, points in between, all kept making themselves known. They were Reef’s dead now, all reight, and di they meake a grand opera of coming around to remind him. Damn” (362). I do not read this literally (Reef as a medium), but the effect is similar. He is avenging all the dead in these battles. What’s more, his position as Christ-like and the many many further mentions of ghosts in this section make statements like this problematic for an easy read of the above passage.

As he has to worry about Stray and Jesse now, Reef decides to head out to Denver, from the town of Ouray in the San Juan range, to bring Frank into the Traverse family business—dynamiting for the union.

Here’s where the problem with putting this chapter in order really comes in. After this scene, Reef will go off and thereafter be essentially sans-Stray and child. He will head off to New Orleans and eventually Genoa. So…when did the scene with Mayva happen? Clearly it had to have happenned before this, but the suggestion is that after that scene, the couple was headed for Arizona where they meet and talk with Dipple and are then seperated. …But the scene of their seperation happens in the San Juan mountains (Southwest Colorado), where they have been fighting the Plutes for some time (I assume since there are all those dead to account for). Am I missing something? Are they returning now from Arizona? Is this the same seperation alluded to at the beginnning of this chapter? Is this seperation out of order; in other words, does it happen after Genoa? I’ll be honest I’m baffled, and in a novel where we see doublings and parrallel dimensions, etc., I’m wondering whether this isn’t a doubling (Reef Traverse through Icelandic spar). I say this because…

In the next scene, Reef leaves Stray and rides out on horse named Borrasca (which means Storm—oh yes; Reef is a rider on the storm) to go up and over the Rocky Mountains. He passes through towns that are burried under snow in the winter and which give names to the ice shelves that are soon to be turned into avalances. It’s all very ominous. We learn that the National Guard often shoot cannons into the ice, which sounds like a clear reference to an idle military building itself up in preparation for the great war.

Somebody hits a shelf of ice near by and starts it going. I realize that there are a lot of really good passages in this section which demonstrate Pynchon’s style and grace, but I want to point out this passage as being especially demonstrative of his skill:
Here she came, the soul-smiting roar, quick as that, grown to fill the day, the bright cloud risen to the top what sky he could still see in that direction, all down here suddenly gone into twilight, and him and Borrasca, dead in the path. Nothing anywhere close enough to get behind. Borrasca being an animal of great common sense, let out with a hell-with-this type of whinny and began to move out of the area quick as he could. Figuring the colt would do better without a rider’s weight, Reef kicked out of the stirrups and rolled off, slipped in the snow, fell, and got up again just in time to turn and face the great descending wall. (365)

Is it pretty? No. But it’s immediate: exactly what is called for in an action scene. Pynchon will probably always be famous for characters who wax intellectual, mixing philosophy, pop culture, and politics into common tongue and colloquialism, but it’s worth noting just how easilly, when needed, he can switch away from that Dickensian/Joycian tongue when the scene all but demands a Hemingway.

In any case, Reef escapes by sheer luck and by sliding down the side of the hill on a waterproof poncho. He nearly falls over a cliff and recovers only to tell his horse that he’s been born again. Reef is split by the ice, recalling the spar, recalling the expedition. What’s funny though is that the horse recognizes this born again-ness in a Hindu sense. In other words, the horse is the reincarnation of someone (Webb?). And then out of nowhere, Reef isn’t alone. What’s even weirder is that Reef isn’t surprised by not being alone as if Jake has always been there. And what’s even weirder than that is that Jake appears without introduction and the scene ends without giving the reader even the slightest mention of who Jake is. I’ll admit it, I’m stumped. Who the hell is Jake and where did he come from?

Reef, Jake, and the horses head back to Ouray where Reef informs Stray that he needs to disappear for a while. Spooked by the assasination attempt, he heads out for a while and assumes the identity of “East Coast nerve case Thrapston Cheesely III,” a continental dandy and polar opposite of Reef Traverse (367). He of course meets a women with a name just as absurd, Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, a Brit touring the “wild west” (seems to be a run of them these days…) and they begin touring hot springs in search of eternal youth.

Note, the water metaphors are thick in this chapter. If the avalance is the experience of being born again, what does that say about hot springs, especially considering this passage at the top of 368: “Down in the unlighted depths of the great machine, a steam hammer relentlessly slammed away at blocks of ra ice, vapors rose and blew, a confusion of water in all its phases at once.” We have water driving a machine of water which breaks water—a confusion of the state of things with the things themselves, like aether and light, like chemicals and materials, like electiricity and conductor, word and meaning, etc..

The new couple head off to New Orleans where Ruperta becomes offended by Reef’s desire to dance to jass. After her abandonment, Reef meets new friends while smoking reefer (you know we were all waiting for it to happen). The two new characters, an Irish guy,“Wolfe" Tone O’Rooney and an African American jass musician, “Dope” Breedlove are discussing jass’s merits as an expression of anarchism. Reef falls in with Wolfe and is introduced to Flaco, another anarchist “chemist” like Reef. Flaco explains that Europe needs people who are good with explosions because they need to make sure that the trains can make it through the mountains so as to carry soldiers to the front…just in case a war breaks out. I imagine this will get worked out in discussion, but this seems like the first time (of, I imagine, many) dynamite is seen as a tool for smoothing that path for war.

In another of those weird alchemical moments, Flaco explains that governments, in repressing people, are essentially simmulating death, and that Flaco wants a counter-death which he sees as chemistry. Thus chemistry is a mode of freedom. On 372, we learn a little about Flaco’s history. He was rounded up as an anarchist after a bombing at the opening of William Tell in Montjuich. Collected with the other anarchists, he becomes an anarchist and now fights against the state, “which includes: the church, the latigundios, the banks and corporations, of course” (372). The description he gives of becoming an anarchist mirrors the theory of jass offerred by “Dope” earlier—that is anarchist even though it is socially cooperative.

In any case, the assasination of McKinley has made the U.S. an uninviting country for the anarchists, so they’re all attempting to leave in mass out of New Orleans. This dates the scene around 1901, for what it’s worth. In any case, Flaco invites Reef to come along with him to Genoa (heading towards the Chums; cross your fingers) and so they await news of the arrival of their ship, the Despedida

In the last scene, Flaco, Reef and Wolfe sit drinking beer and watching the sun go down. Wolfe comments that because they are drifters they are always in a new place for the new day and so they never see things change except geographically. As they are never part of anything, they become ghosts. Read this into the title as you wish.

…and I’m spent.

Monstro out.

additional discussion, pp. 358-373

You know you want to mention Jesus Arrabal. So do so here.

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 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.

Additional Discussion: pp 336-357

I'm not an expert Pynchon-ite; I've read most of his work, but never with the attention I'm paying to AtD. In part, perhaps, because I didn't have Internet resources when reading previous ones (I didn't get very far in M&D, and I read all the others in the paleo-data days). So I won't be able to make any comparisons with the other books.

I do have some strong opinions about interpretation, however, many of which come from my long experience as a reader of many kinds of literature, and from reading "critical" analyses of works I enjoy. I'm not a grad student, teacher, or anything like that, and I tend to get all itchy when I read people suggesting some of the more tenuous meta-interpretations. I also find that an overzealous search for symbolic meaning in tiny details can be not only counter-productive, but, most likely, wrong. (While that approach works with Finnegans Wake, with its fractal structure - Joyce intended each word to be a reflection of each sentence which was a reflection of each paragraph which was a reflection of the entire work - I don't think Pynchon's writings benefit from such speculation.)

There certainly are references, to ideas, places, people, and events, but some of the suggestions I've seen on the AtD Wiki are, at best, grasping at straws. (One, in particular, that I found ludicrous, is the suggestion that by using the work "neurasthenia", Pynchon is referring to Proust. While Proust might have been called neurasthenic, he was much more an asthmatic. He had some serious issues, but calling him neurasthenic is really a shortcut for those who know little about his life. And, neurasthenia was a 19th century catch-all word for what would be today called depression. In fact, if it were to refer to anyone, I'd think more Henry James, since there are several very clear James references in AtD; not the author himself, but some of his characters, or his sister Alice, perhaps, whose lived, in some ways, like the sister of Paul Muniment in The Princess Casamassima. But I'm straying...) While it's interesting to see what resonates with different readers, some people seem too obsessed with tiny details at the expense of broader themes. That said, I have to admit that I immediately reacted when I saw the name of Dr. Oyswharf; I've been a Deadhead for a long time. :-)

Monday, March 12, 2007

"We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing" pp 318-335

This week's reading, pp 318-335, returns to Kit, who is still at Yale, which has been losing its charm. Like all too many serious students, he has been discovering how little college has to do with learning. As Tesla's friend Mark Twain is reported to have said, "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." He mutters to himself, at the beginning and end of each day, "Tengo que get el fuck out of aquí" (318:15), or "I gotta get me the fuck outta here." He repeats it like a prayer (318:17).

With the attrition or death of several guiding lights of the math department, Kit's disillusionment comes to a head; he begins to realize Yale is little more than a "factory for turning out Yale Men, gentlemen but no scholars except inadvertantly" (318:31). Since "Gibbs had died in the spring" (318:28), this episode therefore begins during the fall semester of 1903. Kit feels like an outsider here, knowing that he "will never look like this fellow, talk like that, be wanted in that way" (319:7-8). He may be right to some extent, but he's clearly "wanted" in some way, because even though men in "expensive town suits" don't chat him up, Vibe sentinels, "eyes in leafy ambuscade," are watching him constantly.

Once again, we have a duality: Kit knows that as long as Vibe is paying the bills, he is expected to stay engaged in "applied" mathematics, but he is also aware that there is "no role for his destiny as a Vectorist within any set of Vibe goals he could imagine" (319:31).

It is ironic that an outsider like Kit is in turn perceived by Vibe as being the insider, an acolyte to an unearthly discipline, while he, Vibe, is "left behind in this soiled Creation" (319:40).


Just like Reef and Frank before him, now Kit has a conversation with his father -- though unlike the others, he does not yet know that Webb is dead. He dreams that they are in a city that, in the spirit of bilocations, both is and is not Denver. Webb berates him for his damn foolish interest in Æther, and says "nobody has to know" whether Æther exists. Kit retorts that he does, and says, "I always believed children came from heaven" (320:17). This incomplete reply, with the ungraspable logic of dreams, sounds as if Kit is about to equate the Æther with Heaven.

He wakes to find that Professor Vanderjuice wants to meet with him. He has a letter from Lake, which informs him of Webb's murder. The letter has already been opened. He and Vanderjuice skate around any explicit acknowledgement of their being prisoners here. Kit feels "the presence of a small, wounded girl" (321:36) who is trying to cry (which may be Kit's Anima). He wanders through New Haven, and finally finds himself out on West Rock, and lets himself cry. And here is yet another reference to alternate universes; this time it is vector analysis (322:2).


Across Long Island Sound from New Haven, as the spring of 1904 "two-steps" toward summer, a tower can faintly be seen increasing in height day by day. It is Wardenclyffe Tower, which Tesla is planning to use for wireless telecommunications and power transfer.

"A trusswork tower, apparently eight-sided" (322:25).

Kit and Vanderjuice get to talking about Tesla and his tower, and they discover their mutual, dual connections to both Tesla and Scarsdale Vibe. Page 323 is thick with allusions and echoes. Vibe, for example, is funding both sides of the energy research and is willing to use dynamite against any "threat to the existing power arrangements" (323:6) just as Webb used dynamite against the existing power arrangements; Vanderjuice was working on an anti-transmitter, another duality... And the passage at 323:27-31 is as succinct a summation of Pynchon's classic "They" as any I've seen. Then there's that glimmering winged object (323:39) out in Vanderjuice's peripheral vision, which may or may not be his soul, "whose exact whereabouts since 1893 had been in some doubt" (324:1-2).

(Also, I must mention in passing that I find it highly significant (or at least really funny) that Vanderjuice -- another character whose initial is "V" -- has an addiction to pizza, a wedge- or V-shaped food.)

Then things get denser and denser on page 324, when Vanderjuice advises Kit to go to Göttingen, Germany, where some really advanced math shit is going down. He wants Kit to become "something else" (324:12) besides, or aside from, a physics student. There is something about this that reminds me of Lew's Eastward journey. Something symbolic about travelling East over the ocean. And Lew and Kit will not be the only ones who face transformations when travelling east...

Also significant, but I can't say why exactly, is the description of Vanderjuice's conscience "showing signs of feeling, as if recovering from frostbite" (324:3-4). That one word, "frostbite," evokes for me the Polar adventures earlier in the book: the Vormance expedition; the Chums; Hunter Penhallow...

This dense and allusive exchange breaks against another musical number: Vanderjuice, accompanying himself on a ukelele, "produced as from empty space" (324:23), performs "That Göttingen Rag" (which will no doubt remind many of us of another mathematically-minded Tom's song, The Vatican Rag).

Kit's friend at Yale, 'Fax Vibe, is also interested in Tesla's tower, and he suggests the two of them boat across the Sound to investigate. They capsize, and warm up in the transmitter shack, with Tesla himself making them coffee.

Throughout this exchange on pp 326-7, are many compelling things. Just a few: We have a few more in a long and illustrious line of references to vision, invisibility and the Invisible, going all the way back to that day in 1893 when the Chums arrived at the Chicago Fair, when (1) Miles tripped over a picnic basket whose "familiarity rendered it temporarily invisible" (4:30-31), and (2) they were travelling so fast as to be functionally invisible (8:30); Tesla recounts to Kit his initial vision that led him to begin his researches in electricity and "wireless" power transmission. He speaks of his "Magnifying Transmitter" as existing already, "as if time had been removed from all equations" (327:18); he speaks too of how he is expected to be "consciously scientific," rather than subconsciously, or unconsciously, in stark contrast to Edison's "perspiration" that can be translated so easily into those comfortably tangible "billable hours" that clients desire...


After spending the night, Kit and 'Fax depart. The conversation they have on their way back is particularly interesting. There seems to be genuine affection and respect on both sides; the duality of the Vibe and Traverse families been remarked upon already, and the existenec of this friendship only strengthens it. It occurs to me that there's a curious parallel between Scarsdale Vibe and Webb Traverse, in that they both look upon an outsider with greater paternal affection than upon their own children. With Vibe, it's Kit, and with Webb, of course, it's Deuce. And in both instances there's something about it that's ill-advised at best. And you could wonder, too, if 'Fax's motivation to befriend Kit is anything like Lake's motivation to marry Deuce?...

Anyway, despite his being yet another agent of Scarsdale's vast network, I found myself taking 'Fax entirely at his word when he gives Kit advice about escaping; after all, he has his own very good reasons to get rid of a rival for his father's affection. The advice he gives (at 329:15-21) struck me as being the best possible plan: both he and Kit benefits, it plays to Scarsdale's weakness for votive motivations, and nobody has to get killed.


So Kit goes to see the Twin Vibes, and the meeting goes well, or as well as could be expected. Another allusive passage comes at 330:33-37. "Avalanches" reminds me of Lake's fantasy of dropping dynamite on Webb, and of the explosive that actually fell on Lew; "blue northers" evokes Lake once again; "desperate men" could mean anyone back there in the San Juans, not least Webb himself; and "unexpectedly going loco" reminds me of Tesla's story a few pages back of his mountain vision... What did y'all make of Foley snorting, as if waking, at the end of what kit says there at 330:37?

Oh, and look at 331:9 -- how Scarsdale had paid "for the elimination of many forms of inconvenience." I wish we had a concordance for Against the Day because that word jumped out at me, and I'd love to see where else it's used other than as the name of the Chums' airship...

Vibe says to Kit, significantly, "Become the next Edison" (331:28) rather than, of course, become the next Tesla. This is another odd little parallel with Webb, who in the dream had also spoken in a derogatory way about Kit being "a little damn Tesla"...

The Twin Vibes discuss Kit afterwards, and the contrasts between the two of them are once again sharpened. Foley is firm of resolve, with "cast iron" nerves. Vibe, on the other hand, is wracked with apocalyptic doubts; he is burdened and torn by his Christian duties, to love "every damned socialist" despite his belief that they are the Antichrist, "and that our only salvation is to deal with them as we ought" (332:30). It is disquieting, to say the least, to hear how one of Them speaks of Their own "Them" (that is, Us) -- "they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities" (333:9).

Some other random observations: "What we need to do is start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked" (333:22). Hm. What year is it again? There are some fields in Flanders that might work well to that end. "Smite early and often" (333:27) -- a little Chicago shoutout, perhaps?


You will notice I've glossed over the mathematics and mathematicians in this section, because I simply do not feel qualified to address any of it. I will say this much, though. The Wikipedia article on Quaternions mentions at one point that "quaternion operations have extended applications in electrodynamics, general relativity, and 3D video game programming," which seems like a typically Pynchonian collection. And given that Quaternions are useful in calculations involving three-dimensional rotations, we may have some new insight into Deuce and Sloat four-cornering Lake back on page 269... The "fundamental formula for quaternion multiplicative identities" is:

which makes no sense to me, but sets up a kute pun in next week's reading. Any math nuts out there care to try their hand at explaining all this for the rest of us, and how it all connects?

Another undercurrent in this section, continuing and deepening from elsewhere in the book, is that of transcendent worlds, imaginary worlds, alternate universes, devotional activities meant to replace traditional religion, and so on. And the discoveries and observations being made during these early years of the twentieth century about the universe are thickening, tightening, twisting: space and time function more like a fabric or a continuum than like a grid or geometric projection. Time is fluid, or unnecessary, or nonexistent...

Additional Discussion: pp 318-335

Here, as always, is the place to discuss the fundamental interconnectedness of Pynchon's work.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

To-Hell-You-Ride! pp. 281-317

This week's read is two shortish chapters, proceeding straight forward from last week, starting with Frank's nighttime arrival in Telluride, first seeing the "unholy radiance" of its electric street lighting, then passing a "local lunatic" who screams "To-Hell-you-ride! Goin' to-Hell-you-ride!" And that ain't just local color: Telluride is Hell, complete with the mephitic stench of tellurium compounds, "worse than the worst boardinghouse fart ever let loose."

Wikipedia's article on Telluride gives the town's history:

In 1858, the first gold was discovered.... Telluride was originally named "Columbia," but due to confusion with Columbia, California, the name was changed by the post office in 1887. The town was named after the chemical element Tellurium, which was never actually found in the mountains of Telluride.... An alternate theory for the naming of Telluride is that it is a contraction of "to-hell-you-ride."


In June 1889, Butch Cassidy and his gang The Wild Bunch robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank in Telluride. This was his first major recorded crime. He exited the bank with $24,580.

So the telluric stench is a bit of licence on our author's part, but "to-Hell-you-ride" seems to be historical.

During Frank's first evening in Telluride, he watches Guard troopers rounding up vagrants in the street, and hears that Bob Meldrum, the gunfighter, is in town. Bob is just one of a whole parade of characters in this chapter: next we get Ellmore Disco, a local merchant and "the man to see" if you want to be put in touch with Bulkley Wells, who, as it turns out, is the man Frank's looking for. Disco's general store provides one of those Pynchon catalogs, starting with bowlers and deerstalkers (Disco is a hat man) and winding up with bolts of fabric, "plain, striped, or in Oriental prints direct from Liberty's of London."

Disco and Frank chat for a while, and Disco warns Frank that Bob Meldrum is a very dangerous fellow, but Franks will need his help to see Bulkley Wells. After assuring Disco that he's not a bomber, Frank lets on that he's trying to peddle a new process for extracting gold from ore. Rather than discuss that, Ellmore Disco takes Frank with him for lunch at Lupita's taqueria, which sounds like a hell of a lot of fun, a place where the Hellishness of Telluride is manifested as food so chilified it makes your nose run.

Lupita mentions that they just missed "La Blanca," Bob Meldrum's wife, who sounds pretty scary herself and is nicknamed after her white horse "of supernatural demeanor," reminding me of the iconic white horse of Emiliano Zapata.

She inhabited this geometry of fear so effortlessly that Bob might've found her once upon a time in a story-kingdom of glass mountains every bit as peculiar as the San Juans, and trailside poets speculated that with all her solitary ranging – black cape billowing, hat down on her back, and the light of Heaven on her hair, flowered silk neckerchiefs Bob bought for her up in Montrose guttering like cold flames, in blizzards or spring-avalanche weather or the popcorn snows of August – she was riding out a homesickness too passionate for these realms of ordinary silver and gold to know much about, much less measure up to.

Damn! He better bring her back into the story! A-and that "story-kingdom of glass mountains" makes me think of the green-ice cliffs of Iceland...

That night, who should show up outside Frank's door but Bob Meldrum himself, convinced he's banging on the door of some Japanese guy who's screwing his wife, ready to blow his head off. Frank is a pretty cool customer, though, and manages to convince him (at gunpoint) that he's got the wrong man. So of course they go out drinking. Bob is somehow more comic than scary in this passage; he complains about living in the shadow of the legend of Butch Cassidy.

When Frank mentions that he'd like to meet Bulkley Wells, Bob starts to go into a fit of paranoid suspicion: "You just say what I think I heard? Wop anarchist sons of bitches rolling bombs at the man day in day out, stranger shows up asking if he's 'in town'?"

But then a funny thing happens: who should show up but Merle Rideout, who, as we may recall, is the "amalgamator" at the Little Hellkite Mine. He responds to Frank's pitch about magnetic extraction, though with some skepticism, and invites Frank up to the mine.

Just then, in comes the Japanese trade delegation, stereotypical Japanese tourists actually, right down to the cameras. Bob can't figure out which one to shoot, and the barflies taunt him; it seems La Blanca's indiscretion is pretty well known. The Japanese all simultaneously fire off their flashes, filling the room with magnesium smoke, and a general brawl erupts.

As the smoke clears, we find Merle conversing with one of the visitors, who makes a reference to the "national soul" of America. Merle cracks up, denying that there's any such thing. But the trade delegate persists, saying "An edge of steel – mathematically without width, deadlier than any katana, sheathed in the precision of the American face – where mercy is unknown, against which Heaven has sealed its borders! Do not – feign ignorance of this!

After he's gone, Merle says that the delegate is associated with Baron Akashi, who spends his time stirring up anti-Tsarist sentiment among Russian students, and that the "trade delegation" is probably interested in the local Finns, who are passionately anti-Tsarist. Plus, Merle thinks there's some industrial espionage on the agenda.

And the chapter ends with another brief reminiscence of Butch Cassidy....

To me, this chapter is sort of a collage of every Western movie and novel I've ever watched or read, peppered up with plenty of P.'s usual drolleries and surprises. It doesn't move the narrative forward much at all, but it sets up the next chapter:

Frank heads up Hellkite Road on horseback:

The longer he stayed in this town, the less he was finding out. The point of diminishing returns was fast approaching. Yet now, as the trail ascended, as snowlines drew near and the wind became sovereign, he found himself waiting for some split-second flare out there at the edges of what he could see, a white horse borne against the sky, a black rush of hair streaming unruly as the smoke that marbles the flames of Perdition.

Active imagination that Frank's got there. I don't know about the black rush of hair, but the white horse borne against the sky might mean he's thinking about La Blanca. It's also the final image in the movie "Viva Zapata!": after Zapata has been killed, his white horse is seen on top of a hill, against the sky, signifying his immortality.

Next paragraph, well hell, I have to quote that one too:

Even Frank, who was not what you'd call one of these spiritualists, could tell that it was haunted up here. Despite the day-and-night commercial bustling down below, the wide-open promise of desire unleashed, you only had to climb the hillside for less than an hour to find the brown, slumped skeletons of cabins nobody would occupy again, the abandoned bedspring from miners' dormitories left out to rust two and a half miles up into the dark daytime sky . . . the presences that moved quickly as marmots at the edges of the visible. The cold that was not all a function of altitude.

Frank reaches the Little Hellkite Mine and asks for Merle, but Merle's not around.

"He's down at Pandora, son."

"They told me he was up here."

"Then he's down one of these adits, talking to the tommyknockers, more'n likely."

Frank goes snooping into a mine entrance, and sees what he first thinks is a duende, a supernatural mine creature (a Mexican tommyknocker?). But no, it's (who else) Dally, employed as a powder-monkey these days. Who is turning out to be one of Pynchon's more charming creations. She's a teenager now, threatening to take off on her own, but Merle is keeping her in the hellhole of Telluride so as to give her an education.

"This is school, Dally – fact it's a damn college ... and the grades handed out are but two, survive or don't."

As soon as Dally's out of the room, Merle asks Frank straight out what he's up to. Turns out, he knows who Frank is. Shows him a photograph of Webb. Lets him know that his cover is pretty much blown anyway, and "Word is around, Frank. Boys want you gone."

Merle shows Frank a couple of photographs of Deuce and Sloat, and Pynchon remarks on the "curious crazed radiance which once was an artifact of having to blink a couple of hundred times during the exposure, but in this more modern form due to something authentically ghostly, for which these emulsions were acting as agents, revealing what no other record up till then could've."

Suddenly Dally is back, warning Frank to go, because "Bob and Rudie, up by the shaft house, and the wrong one is smiling." (Which one is that, and why?) Hurriedly, Merle opens a secret trap door, gives Frank a sandwich and tells Dally to see him back to town. Frank and Dally go down into a tunnel, where suddenly there is a "curious swarming, half seen, half heard." Dally calls out in an unknown language, there seems to be a reply, she calls for the sandwich, sets it down in the tunnel, and they take off running.

"Why'd we–"

"Are you crazy? Don't you know who they are?"

Tommyknockers, as Merle tells us later.

They escape down the mountain in an ore bucket, Dally whooping "To Hell you ride!"

They find Telluride in the middle of a very loud Saturday evening, and go into the Gallows Frame, where the piano player is playing ragtime. Frank's never heard ragtime. Dally makes him dance to it. Then she sets him up with a place to sleep at the Silver Orchid, a whorehouse where, it turns out, Merle has sent her to be instructed about the Facts of Life.

Frank's sleep is interrupted by the arrival of Merle, who wants to tell him about "a certain Dr. Stephen Emmens," an alchemist who has been transmuting silver into gold back in New York. Frank is skeptical, but Merle, an alchemist himself after all, is sure Emmens is the real deal. And he whips out a nugget of "argentaurum," a-a-a-and – yup, a piece of that Iceland Spar. Which when you look at the nugget through the spar, you see two images of it, one gold and the other silver.

Merle says that the pre-argentauric silver – the stuff needed for transmutation – is found in close association with Iceland Spar, down in Mexico. And he's off into

"Yes and how could something weak and weightless as light make solid metals transmute? ... But consider the higher regions, the light-carrying Æther, penetrating everyplace, as the medium where change like that is possible, where alchemy and modern electromagnetic science converge, consider double refraction, one ray for gold, one for silver, you could say."

And segues from there into how "this stuff could knock the Gold Standard right onto its glorified ass."

The price difference between gold and silver, and the basis for U.S. currency in one metal or the other or both, was about the hottest economic issue in those days, the subject of William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech in 1896. Obviously if you could transmute one metal into the other, the entire game would change. And I wish someone who understands economic history better than I do would comment on this.

Frank is still skeptical. Why's Merle telling him all this?

"Because maybe what you think you're looking for isn't really what you're looking for... there is a whole catalogue of things you're not looking for."

And he thinks Webb was looking for the same, but also didn't know it. Then he clams up and tells Frank to talk to Doc Turnstone.

And then we're off into a flashback about how Merle once took the Doc down into a mine to show him the tommyknockers were real. And we learn that the tommyknockers are always stealing dynamite.

"Someplace," Dally declared, "there's at least one tommyknocker with a hell of a lot of dynamite stashed away.

"Sure it's all the same critter?

"I know it. I know his name. I speak their language."

Anyway, Frank looks up the Doc, and learns that he had his heart broken by none other than Lake. And then, to my delight, comes the passage that was released as a teaser before the release of the book: the "punkinroller" passage, a flashback into Doc Turnstone's arrival in Colorado, where he got held up by the outlaw Jimmy Drop.

And here I have to digress slightly about how very Pynchonian that name is. Some-god-only-knows-how, Pynchon ran across that term for a piece of SUV custom suspension hardware, and it stuck in his mind, to become the name of a Wild West bad guy. Oh, and a turnstone is a kind of bird....

And it comes as no surprise, by this time, that having been held up by Jimmy Drop, and fixed his bad back, Willis Turnstone wound up drinking with him. Well, it's the story of Doc's sad life, short version, as only Pynchon could tell it, as Doc tells it to Frank. When Lake ran off with Deuce Kindred, Jimmy Drop offered to kill him, Doc says.

Which is the first time Frank has heard about Lake and Deuce. It throws him for a loop, fills him with shame and rage. He goes off to find Jimmy Drop, who of course recognizes him right off and knows his whole story. (Apparently everybody does, the poor schmuck.) Jimmy remembers Lake when she was ten or eleven, teaching some kid at the ice rink the Dutch Waltz. A management kid, and Webb showed up and "Ten years now, and I've known it noisier, but I still remember that go-round."

"It wasn't even about me personally," Lake wasn't too angry to point out later, she saw it clear enough, "it was your damned old Union again."

Well and there it is, apparently, the thing that broke Lake and made her and her father such mortal enemies that she would marry his murderer.

And so we come to the end of the chapter, in which Frank, with help from Ellmore Disco, goes into disguise as an itinerant Mexican musician in an outfit called Gastón Villa and His Bughouse Bandoleros, where he is equipped with a Galandronome salvaged from the Battle of Puebla.

Is how Frank became Pancho the Bassoon Player. Within a day or two, he was actually getting a sound out of the 'sucker, and before long most of "Juanita," too. With a couple of trumpets playing harmony, it wasn't that bad, he supposed. Affecting, sometimes.

And before leaving town, Frank goes down to the graveyard and has a conversation with his father's ghost, explains to Webb how he's setting out to track down Lake and Deuce. Figures Deuce must have headed for Mexico.

So ran Frank's reasoning. Webb, who knew everything now, saw no point in trying to convince him otherwise. All he said was "D' you hear something?"

Some ghosts go
oo-oo-oo. Webb had always expressed himself more by way of dynamite.

Dally finally cuts loose from Merle and heads back East. Frank goes to the station to see her off, and tries to make her promise to look up Kit, saying "you and Kit are two of a kind."

"Hell, that case I ain't going near him."

Merle bids her goodbye philosophically. It's Prospero turning Ariel loose, in The Tempest. And the chapter is done.

(The temptation is to do a bit of fantasy casting for this Western movie here. I was thinking maybe Sean Penn could do Frank...)

Additional Discussion: pp. 281-317

It seems to me that although Mr. P. has not previously written a Western revenge saga, there are plenty of resonances with his other work. For one thing, Pynchon has been working on the Dally character for a long time: there was Rachel Owlglass, for example, in V., and Geli Tripping in Gravity's Rainbow. And of course the Traverse family saga continues into Vineland.

These chapters show us a good sample of Pynchon's Luddite sentiments. His horror of electric lighting is there to see; are there parallels in his other novels? And what about photography? It seems to creep him out a bit, and maybe his famous avoidance of cameras has as much to do with that as with being "reclusive."

Finally, there's P.'s fascination with the supernatural, which goes far beyond any cheap woo-woo and yet stops short of embracing any existing doctrines of the supernatural. In this week's read we've seen alchemy and tommyknockers and conversation with a ghost. I know Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon are full of parallels. But I also note that Against the Day so far doesn't have the Christian references that are scattered through the other novels. Interest in Preterition vs. Election seems to have been replaced by Workers vs. Owners.

Have at it, Chumps!