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 18, 2007

The Things A Spy Will Do For His Queen

(pp. 697-711)

I remember thinking who is this guy and why should I care. No matter how large the novel, it’s just bad form to introduce a main character after page 300. Actually, even page 300 is sort of late in the game, especially in a novel with hundreds of characters already running amuck. The entire collection of information that I allowed myself to retain about Cyprian was that he was gay and that he had some mock romantic interest in Yashmeen who doesn’t swing his way even if he were straight. I figuredthat this were some strange Pynchonian meeting of extremes: these two are both so gay that they’re straight again. Aside from this momentary ponderance, I let Cyprian go. I figured I’d get the reason for his inclusion my second time through the novel.

But alas, here he is again, and the main character of the section I am moderating. Perhaps in a bilocated universe there is a God. Ahem…

The section itself follows Pyhon’s usual structure of linearity. We begin at some undisclosed present moment that is out of synch with where we last left the character. We are then flashed back to a previous moment closer to a point where we remember the character being and then we proceed forward eventually overtaking and surpassing the moment where we began the section with little or no mention of its passing..

In our generic present, Cyprian is in Trieste (Joyce’s stomping grounds as well as his good friend Svevo—neither of whom, sadly, make an appearance). He is monitoring the Neo-Uskok who are, themselves, watching the Turks—watchers watching watchers and we, as readers, are watching them. Cyprian is watching immigration patterns from Austria-Hungary to America and vise versa, as well as sunsets (daybreaks for you title hunters out there). It turns out that this job is of only tertiary importance to this section.

By way of explanation of how Cyprian came to this assignment, we learn that he had been prostituting himself to a heavily influential S. and M. fanatic known as “The Colonel” in the Jewish section of Vienna. The Colonel’s henchmen, Misha and Grisha alert Cyprian that any mention of his affairs with The Colonel will result in very bad things. Thus, when Cyprian runs into his old friend Ratty, he makes a deal with Ratty’s super manly homophobic friends to get him out of Vienna. Cyprian, of course, plans to seduce said homophobes (hilarity ensues).

Cyprian meets with his contact in this group, a man named Derrick Theigh (a reference to both a penis and a thigh; subtle) while dressed in drag (Cyprian not Derrick). To avoid suspicion by men who are shadowing them, the two mimic flirtations and then head off to a Hotel of ill repute (because it has great escape tunnels into the sewers). To protect Cyprian from The Colonel, Misha, and Grisha, Derrick suggests moving Cyprian to Trieste. Cyprian is apprehensive because Derrick does not offer him enough funds to live in for this sabbatical.

Some time ago, somebody (Will Divide, I think) connected sewers, garbage, and sodomy as Plutonic art (art in an age when art has died). I couldn’t help but remember that comment when we learn that the faux homosexual tryst will result in an escape through the sewers (sans platonic cowboy, Indian, or harmonica—sorry couldn’t help myself).

Also, what’s the deal? The male prostitute has a cadre of spies after him and protecting him, and he can’t return home because England has been compromised. Does anyone else think that this is hyperbole or that the various “forces” are overreacting? It makes me wonder if a bilocated Cyprian isn’t somewhere doing something more internationally interesting than working his corner.

Cyprian’s new found friends proceed to threaten Grisha to give up info on The Colonel and we learn that The Colonel is an expert in South Slavic politics and that he uses Croatia-Slavonia as his garden of delights…and then we learn that he’s unimportant. He’s been arrested.

What is important is that Cyprian has proved that his homosexuality can be utilized in service to England—sort of a gay Austin Powers. He’s sent all over with little explanation finally ending up in Vienna where he is to find designs for the “sinister Siluro Diregible a Lenta Corsa or Low-Speed Torpedo”—an Italian submarine.

Even more interesting though is that the Russians have already seen the sub through the use of airships that can cloak themselves. Huh? Are we in the Chums’ world again? At least Alice had a rabbit hole. Pynchon punches his readers through to another level of fiction without so much as a hint of that movement. What, by the way, is happening to the world of the Chums adolescent fiction that it now includes state sanctioned male prostitution, bondage and sado-masochism as appropriate subject matter. What’s next, The Chums of Chance at the Glory Hole?

Misha and Grisha, now freed, are attempting to get away. Derrick (nicknamed “The Good Shepherd”) tries to figure out where to send Cyprian to keep him safe, but this conversation quickly ends with Derrick and Cyprian becoming lovers and thus complicating their professional relationship.

We soon learn that Derrick has been putting together a motorcycle brigade (codename: R.U.S.H.) in his spare time in preparation for war in Europe. These Rushers will act as messengers and shadows. The conversation turns to the philosophical implications of losing one’s self to the person one is shadowing—which of course is extraordinarily relevant in a novel where we have shadows of shadows of shadows and people who are shadows of themselves.

As Derrick dresses Cyprian up as a leather daddy the conversation turns to homosexuality as a means of pursuing eternal youth. Note, at this point, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to think of same sex love as another breed of shadowing and of course there’s the eternal youth that comes with being a fiction such as that which the Chums enjoy. Pynchon seems to be putting all of it in the same pot and mixing it. The more I think about it, the more my brain hurts. Moving on.

Derrick sends Cyprian back to Vienna—the heart of danger for him. While aboard the train, he thinks of all the different agencies whose interest center on The Colonel: the Russians, the British Secret Service, not to mention The Colonel’s men, the Serbs, the Turks, the French, and the Italians. He, himself, is in danger because of his own association with the (incarcerated) Colonel because of his position as one of countless men in Europe that the Colonel had sex with before his arrest.

So, for me the big question is: why Cyprian? I mean, there’s really nothing particularly or uniquely implicating about his encounter with the Colonel, so why this mobilization of every intelligence agency in Europe against him? This seems like a massive overreaction which Pynchon doesn’t really explain, and in fact, the lack of explanation seems conspicuous. Consider the REAL dangers in Europe at this time in the novel: bombers, drug addicts, assassinations, royal claims with questionable validity. Is one affair of man-on-man love really the thing the British Secret Service ought to be worried about when there’s a war about to happen in Europe?

Monstro out.


At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 10:31:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember thinking who is this guy and why should I care.

yeah, i'm still having a hard time caring about him. i'm taking a week off to recharge my batteries.

and i forget if Pynchon ever comes right out and says it, but Misha and Grisha are Nigel and Neville, right?

At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 4:01:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

I don't think they're Nigel and Neville are they? I mean, it seems like they might be doubles of doubles (again, this was all in lot 49 so double that too), but I have a hard time feeling that Nigel and Neville could scare anyone. Plus, Cyprian would know them, I think... I could be wrong.

I think that Cyprian is interesting in that he is keeping the rest of Europe from stopping the people who are going to assassinate Ferdinand, and why? No particularly good reason: they're just all going to be in the wrong place following the wrong guy. I think. I'm not reading ahead, so this is just a guess.

At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 5:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To all the critics who have complained that, this time, Pynchon has hyperbolized his usual clandestine conspiracy theories into an improbable, world-spanning absurdity, take a look at this.

Real news, right now. Not so far-fetched, eh?

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 4:50:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Add me to the WTF? column regarding Cyprian's second innings elevation in the batting order. He is named Latewood however (delayed errection? dead forest?), and allows the novel to take a decidedly darker turn.

That the mere homosexual act was against the law until pretty damn recently made millions of men into defacto criminals, and that this sub rosa world would by necessity become ripe for espionage work is, I guess, Pynchon's main trope.

But one misses a greater sense of either dedication to a cause or betrayal of ideals in Pynchon's spywork here. Conrad, Greene and, not exactly their league, Le Carre, took pains to show how shabby, lonely and pathetic their characters, and-by extention-their characters' plans and causes, are. Even the real life, gay, Philby/Burgess cell were dedicated Reds. Here all we get is SM homosex and a certain randy sense of danger.

And menace, tons of menace. I think our author's aims are too vast to allow any particulars to bleed through. So we are given Conspiracy without the gift of any plots in particular.

Allow me to feel a tad dissatisfied with this. Nothing ever succeeds or is foiled (Consider-have the pulp heroes, Lew Basnight and the Chums, ever caught, killed or rescued anybody?? They are, like us, mainly witnesses.) History just rolls over everything, and the novel hastens onward, occasionally through the shallows.

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 10:20:00 AM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Sorry for the length of this comment, but oh dear, all this butt-fucking seems to have gotten everyone rattled. I contend that this little chapter is not about gay sex and espionage so much as it's about Sick British Sex and Imperial Empire. And of course there are "obvious implications for the Macedonian Question" (page 697:15).

I also love cleek's conjecture that Misha and Grish ARE Nigel and Neville, but I concur with Monstro that they are probably yet another set of Doublemint Twin characters who populate this book, such as Sloat/Deuce, Vibe/Foley, Nigel/Neville, Rocco/Pino, etc.

Cyprian's arrival as a main character at the beginning of the eponymous section was a bit startling, and it took me a while to figure out that he was the lovesick gay swain who was in love with the bisexual Yashmeen back at school. His explanation to Ratty his old school chum about all this is very funny (page 701:6-14): "It isn't as if one starts off intending to live this way...Oh yes planning, you know, to seek a career in sodomy.' But--perhaps less at Trinity than at King's--if one wanted anything like a social life, it was simply the mask one put on. Inescapable, really...Who could have foreseen, any more than the actress who falls in love with her leading man, that the fiction might prove after all more desirable--strangely, more durable--than anything the civilian world had to offer."

So like other upper-class Englishmen of his time, Cyprian goes to the Continent to be a Bad Boy where he turns tricks for money. The scene with the Jewish Colonel is deeply bizarre (page 700:3-20) and the first time Pynchon has been sexually explicit since Lake was being sexually degraded by Deuce and Sloat at The Four Corners.

The scenes between Cyprian and Derrick Theign also struck me as very funny, possibly because Theign is such a twisted, homophobic closet case and Cyprian, at least, is quite open about who and what he is in the larger world a la Quentin Crisp. This all gets played out in their Venice idyll which contains a few fascinating bits. First, on page 706:22, we have "Time and again he [Theign] had been referred to offices at La Specia set up for the express purpose of misleading foreigners, especially ones like Theign, who might as well have worn sandwich-boards fore and aft reading SPY."

The next paragraph (706:28) starts with an amazing sentence. "We of the futurity know that the unit in question was the sinister Siluro Dirigibile a Lenta Corsa or Low-Speed Steerable Torpedo." Who are the "we of futurity"? The author and readers who we are to assume have already read about Rocco and Pino's adventures in Ostend?

This is followed by Theign's description of the Italian character: "What makes it particularly malevolent is that it does not require of its crew any bravery at all, only that facility for creeping about which one associates with the Italian character." Cyprian replies, "Oh that's just such a big myth. They are as direct as children. Get about more and you'll see."

The Cyprian/Derrick relationship up to this point has been nonsexual in practice, I've been presuming, because on page 707:24, we have Cyprian batting his eyelashes and asking "And where do you want me, Derrick?" followed by "It proved to be the one silly question that Derrick Theign would find insupportable. What he intended then as a humorous tap on the cheek became first, unmistakably, a caress, and then provoked by Cyprian's venturesome laughter, a rather sharp slap. The next either of them knew....Erect penises all round. The spell of Venice in those days, it was said." which leads to Derrick's pronouncement "I wouldn't have preferred this scenario...It does put you in rather a different cubbyhole."

This is followed by Derrick's spymaster machinations that are very absurdist, with Cyprian playing the "straight" man. Page 708:40, Cyprian advises him: "Have you considered wearing something a bit less odor-retentive than Scottish tweed? for instance this new Itlaian 'sharkskin," from which everything slips away smoothly as a satin gown." Theign: "I keep forgetting the reason I don't have you transferred--it's the fashion advice!"

This is followed by the great exchange in the section, starting on page 709:14 where Derrick summons Cyprian into his office. "See here, Lakewood, in all the time we've known each other, we've never yet had a serious talk about death." "Probably a good reason for that," Cyprian looking around the room nervously."

And then, after more homophobic spymaster remarks, we get to the core of Theign's belief system (709:36): "So you end up smarter, sneaker, nasterier than the competition. Useful among professonal pouffes, I shouldn't wonder, but these engagements out here are a bit more than simple sodomitic rivalries. The consequences are rather more serious." "Are they." "We are talking about the fates of nations. The welfare, often the sheer survival, of millions. The axial loads of History. How can you compare--" "And how, vecchio fazool, can you fail to see the connection?"

Cyprian is the wise fool who actually cares about other human beings, not "axial loads of History" and his reaction to Theign at this moment says it all (710:5): "Theign had of course mastered in his first year at Naval Intelligence that blank and slightly openmouthed expression so useful to His Majesty's agents abroad. It produced in Cyprian not the false sense of superiority intended but a queasy despair. He had never cared before, particularly, about being understood by an object of fascination. But somehow when it became obvious that Theign didn't want to understand, Cyprian became guardedly terrified."

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 11:54:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

vecchio fazool = old bean.

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 1:33:00 PM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

"Why should I care?" Boy, mileage does vary.

I don't think Pynchon has ever been primarily in the psychological-realism, "make me care about the characters" business. But I don't entirely turn off those expectations, and Cyprian moves me more than anyone else in the novel.

More than that, his part of AtD seems to me much richer in interweaving erotic domination/submission with its political counterparts than its obvious predecessor, the "Under the Rose" section of V, or than most uses of the same theme in GR.

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 6:42:00 PM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...


Let's try this. First of all, my ambivalence towards Cyprian does not stem from a puritanical response to him. It's just that this seems to be a novel about the Traverse family with a few minor deviations. Cyprian is a deviation (Traverse) from a deviation (Bassnight) from a deviation (Yashmeen). He is largely unconnected from the story line that takes up more than half of the book. He's a red herring.

Note also, my ambivalence towards Cyprian was in his reccurance from an earlier scene. At the time, in the moment of starting this section, I was ambivlaent. I am not ambivalent towards him now because I think I can discern the purpose he serves in the narrative. He decoys European surveilance away from real threats like anarchists and bombers, and shows the exhuberance of police machinery to take up moral rather than political issues.

Now, psychological realism? Is that the issue? Not as I see it. I disagree that it doesn't exist in a Pynchon novel or else why does Lot 49 end where it ends. Why have Slothrop take on the Rocketmensch costume, but that's not my problem here. My problem is simple verisimilitude. Would an entire continent of spies follow a homosexual man around Europe to either assasinate him or thwart such attempts just because said homosexual man had sex with a man who has likewise had sex with the men of an entire Balkan nation. I don't believe it--not even in hyperbole.

Now, if I may anticipate: "Pynchon is not interested in verrisimmilitude." Ahem...then why are we all looking up names and dates on Wikipedia? There is a certain realism to this situation or else it is farce without force, a joke without a punchline. It may be representative of real things. It may be absurdities standing in for real structures, but if it is discernible by you and I then there must be some kind of empathy with the experience of the characters born to some second cousin of our own experiences.

The revelation here is that homophobia is a powerful force even when other very real phobias are warranted. I agree that there are undercurrents of domination and submission in this section, but it just seems to me to be a lot bigger than the Secret Service getting off on being able to tell Cyprian where to go. If the espionage community can infect their drama into unreasonable corners, if they usurp all deviancy, then (in a Pynchon novel at least) they control everything.

In any case, that's how I'm reading it.

At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 10:38:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Dear monstro: I wasn't accusing you of puritanism or homophobia, but I do think you're off course with trying to read metaphors into the gay stuff. You write: "I am not ambivalent towards him [Cyprian] now because I think I can discern the purpose he serves in the narrative. He decoys European surveilance away from real threats like anarchists and bombers, and shows the exhuberance of police machinery to take up moral rather than political issues."

I don't think anybody in the book gives a fuck whether or not Cyprian is a "sodomite," except for those having dominant sex with him, and those types tend to be predominantly heterosexual men or at least serious closet cases. So I definitely think you're off track with the whole "homophobia" theme as a red herring for the spy services. The "sodomite cubbyhole" is just that, a reason why all these different spy organizations feel they can blackmail and use Cyprian at will, but they're not as nutty about the whole homo thing as American fundamentalists in the present day, for instance. It's an apples and oranges thing.

Also, never forget that we're dealing with a certain class here, among the British, where this kind of behavior is tolerated. The true classless, anarchist characters are the Traverses, and though I haven't read ahead, I think part of what this story is about is that old Henry James staple, America meeting The Corrupt Old World, and watching the sparks fly.

At Thursday, June 21, 2007 3:16:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

that old Henry James staple, America meeting The Corrupt Old World, and watching the sparks fly

Davvero. Impossible to miss our Master's voice in the ending of this scene on p. 632:

“You’re not angry, I hope. Kit?”
“Oh don’t worry, Yash -— we’ll see it through.”
"It’s how their minds work.”
“It’ll be fun.”
Her quick glance was only with difficulty to be distinguished from alarm.
" ‘Fun.’ ”

Or even more so in [micro-spoiler] the first ten lines of p. 736.

If the book's genders and nations weren't so rigorously compartmented, you might even go looking for Madame Merle.

At Thursday, June 21, 2007 8:08:00 AM, Blogger Monstro D. Whale said...

I feel like there's trouble a-brewin' and I feel as though I might be the cause. So, I want to clear up my opinion. Here it is:

It seems to me that all of Europe is attempting to go after Cyprian because he's had an affair with The Colonel. Because that relationship was homosexual in nature, Cyprian is ripe for blackmail. He is, in short, dominatable.


My question is: why him? Why not any of the other men that the Colonel has had sex with in Croatia-Slavonia? It's a simple question: why concentrate on this one guy?

Another question I have is: why make such a rucous about homosexuality when there are tons of anarchists coming to Europe? I think that this is a valid question because the scene opens with Cyprian monitoring immigration patterns.

What I'm not asking is what does it mean, symbolically, that Cyprian is gay. I wouldn't know how to answer that question. Maybe others do.

My concern is completely in the realm of the reaction (overreaction in my opinion) of all of Europe to this one gay guy. I'm also not asking what does sexuality/gender/sexual prefence mean in this novel. Given that everyone has a double that might be an alteration of sex or gender and that people try to get head from dogs, I think questions of what defines sex in its many meanings and forms is just plain out the door.

Now, it is possible that my questions are ridiculous or made so by some previous knowledge that I should have but don't. That's fine. Give me better questions to ask of this section and I'd be happy to concentrate on them. Or, if you prefer, explain to me why my questions are bunk. I'd be happy to hear that as well.

Look, maybe I don't have the emoticons to let you, SF Mike, know that I'm trying to engage in intelligent conversation about a fairly difficult novel, but I assure you that is my purpose. I'm not trying to sling around ideology; I'm just trying to get a better idea of what Pynchon is trying to say.

At Saturday, October 27, 2007 12:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Monstro,

I concur with you, given the improbable weight Cyprian carries. Yet, I don't think it's a good idea of annul the reader-novelist compact we endorse, which is "a deliberate suspension of disblief".

Though you've every reason to doubt the verisimilitude a fiction never purports to supply, Pynchon's stories are always stuck in the limbo of reality-fantasy. As far as espionage is concerned, the British Secret Agents might not have the access to the nature of Cyprian and the Colonel's sex deal. Neither do the Russians or other foreign spys. You shall not make a value judgment on their fuss over Cyprian, an Englishman of minor political significance, since what you read (say, Cyprian and the Colonel's talk and sadomy) is blocked to the other fictional characters, who therefore are inclined to overestimate Cyprian's involvement and to mobilize expensive manpower to track him down. In other words, what appears improbable to the Reader doesn't necessarily appear improbable to the Characters / Plot.

For these agents / spys, Cyprian might be in possession of a map, a design for U-boat, or a name roll of the most wanted anarchists...

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