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, July 30, 2007

Against the Day

Pages 792-805.

With this chapter and the last, we see the Event from a number of perspectives. This chapter (number 56 for those who've been counting) is divided into eight sections (with a notable parallel between the opening and closing lines of this chapter: "through the day" and "against the day".)


We begin with the Chums, who appear for the first time since about page 556. Back then, to other characters, they were growing indistinct and nearly invisible. When we saw them briefly a few pages ago, they were little more than a shadowy presence.

Last night, they anchored above a hermetic city sealed off from the sky by seamless rooftops. Darby has the 4-8 watch, and Miles is making breakfast. Pugnax, like any other animal before a storm, is anticipating the Event: on the bridge, stock still, looking east. The sky changes, and it is only with the arrival of the sound shock that the Chums themselves know where to look for its source.

The city beneath them has been utterly transformed. It is now wide open, brimming with gardens and fountains and "cheerful commotion." The Event has "torn the veil separating their own space from that of the everyday world" (793:13-14). We would do well to recall that "apocalypse" means an unveiling. But what does it mean for us, for Shambhala, for the Chums, that the membrane between their meta-universe and ours has been rent?

Linsay sez it was the Trespassers. Maybe, sez Randolph, but: if it's true that the Chums had traditionally been sent on missions to oppose the Trespassers from entering the Chums' "time-regime" (see 415:27-29), and since the Chums were not, this time, "sent here," then this suggests that the Trespassers may not be responsible. The others aren't convinced by Randolph's argument (assuming I even understand his point) but just then, Vanderjuice calls from Tierra del Fuego, confirming what we've already been hearing about on page 784: Siberian and Fuegan stuff has swapped places. Sublime wackiness. (Does anyone else think it's curious that Vanderjuice just happens to be in antipodal opposition to the Event and the Chums? This is more than a little like that other time on page 109, when the Chums were sent to the antipode of Telsa's Colorado experiments.)

And, indeed, Tesla is another prime suspect. Vanderjuice suggests that the Event might be some sort of power burst sent from Tesla's Wardenclyffe station, up to Peary's base on Ellsmere Island. The geography works out, even if the chronology and blast patterns don't: a straight trajectory from Wardenclyffe over Ellsmere Island does in fact leave you within 170 miles of the Event itself, so it wouldn't take much of a miscalculation to land the energy blast at the Event's coordinates. But: (1) Peary won't arrive at Ellsmere until the summer of 1909 and (2) the butterfly patterns of downed trees suggest the blast came from the south not the north.


The Chums meet up with the Bol'shaia Igra over Semipalatinsk, which is a tad over a thousand miles southwest of the Event, for a confab. The Bol'shaia Igra crew have known about the Trespassers since Venice (circa page 243) -- earlier than the Chums, who first met them during their sojourn at Candlebrow (around page 415). So a better question might be, why hadn't Padhzi told the Chums sooner?

The Russian government thinks Japan (or at least China) was responsible. Padhzi asks about what the US govt thinks. The Chums don't know: they work for themselves now. "You -- balloonboys -- are large American corporation?" "...not quite yet." Did anyone else find this a little creepy? especially given Pynchon's longstanding suspicion of corporations?

I love the paean to wireless communication. As an erstwhile computer tech and IT guy m'self, that was a laugh-out-loud moment. And the Chums' concern for encryption parallels the exchange between Cyprian and Bevis will have below.

The section closes with a stunningly surreal series of visions, with the "axes of Creation" having been jolted. Notable is the gridwork of rail has appeared: not a heartening sign, given what the railroad stands for both in this book and in Pynchon's ouvre. The skyful of unmanned balloons is another, which is overthetop bizarre. Any/all thoughts (except spoilers) welcome.


I'll gloss this dense section, since I'm pressed for time, and say only: I find it ironic that the humans find the so-called "simultaneousness" of the Event's repercussions and aftershocks so remarkable, when Pugnax actually anticipated it. If a protagonist from another book comes to mind, I suggest you stop by the Additional Discussion next door (coming soon, but I'll predate it so this stays at the top all week 8/2 edit: it's up)...

4 thru 7

The next four sections are brief tranche de vie scenes: Dally in Venice, Cyprian in Trieste, Reef in Marienbad, Yashmeen in Vienna. In each of these passages, we see the Event break in upon them as they have been moving thru their lives. A strange menace runs thru each, reflecting the menacing sandstorm at the beginning of this chapter. Dally's "diagreeable gent" telling her "I'm coming for you." The deliciously named Bevis Moistleigh decyphering a message and uncovering only the Albanian word for "disaster." Reef nearly caught in flagrante delictu, balancing on a window ledge as the unreal light grows in the sky. Yashmeen entangling with her old school chum Noellyn, who may be "here at the behest of TWIT. Or someone even more determined" (803:38).


This last passage is so unbearably lovely. It could justify a week of exegesis all to itself. It captures vividly both anticipation and forgetfulness, terror and calm. How we can be swept up in the promise of revolution, but then fall imperceptibly, inexorably back into grooves of habit and mindless pleasures. And, of course, we encounter the sentence that arguably supplies the book with its title. In this context, the phrase implies that the day is an implacable adversary whose quotidian onslaught we must ever be steeled for.

Qs & Obs

It might be fruitful to remark upon which characters we don't see in this chapter. Frank, for instance, and Lew. Is there anything conspicuous in their absence? At first, I thought it's a European thing, but: Lew is still in London, isn't he?

After the scavenger hunt thru the last 800 pages for all the variations on, echoes of, approaches to "against the day," it is a little jarring to see it here at last, intact. And how does it affect the Monk quote, which after all speaks of night and light, rather than night and day.

That's all for the nonce.


At Monday, July 30, 2007 8:05:00 PM, Blogger Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

"[T]he phrase implies that the day is an implacable adversary whose quotidian onslaught we must ever be steeled for."

I like that succinct reading, Decency. "Against the Day" is an odd phrasing that seemingly must indicate the interpretation you've given it. The sentence ends, "...fetch them through the night and prepare them against the day." Normally, people are prepared for events; here they're prepared against something, setting up the adversarial relationship you mention. I also agree we should spend some extra time here, as there seem to be numerous relevant approaches to and potential implications of these words, not the least of which relates to a self-referential, meta-fictional reading of the book itself.

More later... gotta run.

At Tuesday, July 31, 2007 6:50:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

"Quotidian onslaught"

I like that succinct reading...

Seconded. One of Pynchon's great gifts is his ability to pump up these concatenations of crises and choices and irrevocable turning points... and then let them deflate into our all-but-sure return to mindless pleasure, habit, automatism.

I guess structurally it's cognate with Vonnegut's "so it goes," but far richer and shifted from snark towards a Buddhist compassion.

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 8:44:00 AM, Blogger H. Rumbold, Master Barber said...

The reading of implacable adversary is certainly there is the modern usage of "against the..." but the archaic sense as found in Pepys diaries and the King James Version need imply no more than "in readiness for"

"After dinner to the office, and there all the afternoon making an end of several things against the end of the month, that I may clear all my reckonings tomorrow"

Pepys' Diary for 30 Jul 1664

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 10:02:00 AM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

I certainly agree that either meaning is an appropriate reading. Indeed, my first impression of the phrase was that of the archaic sense -- esp. given all the other archaic/KJV-style phrases and cadences that seem to appear regularly throughout ATD (most recently being the "as above, so below" a few pages ago).

I think, though, that given the menace and portent (sound & fury signifying etc) in the preceding sections of this chapter increasingly suggested to me that the more modern meaning of "against" is also quite applicable.

Oh, also: there's that lovely verb "fetch." And also also, the cumulative effect of the whole passage evokes for me the rolling of the planet, and that we are all passengers, sheltering ourselves (cowering, even) beneath the wild skies and heavenwide forces playing over us... I came away from this chapter (and the previous) with the impression of massive and capricious powers that may or may not prove utterly, impersonally destructive to us. Along the lines of "as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods" from King Lear...

At Wednesday, August 01, 2007 3:58:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

What an elegant summary, DJ, and the excellent use of "quotidian" has set the bar very high indeed. Here are a few observations and questions:

Tom Swift is mentioned on page 794:18-22 and I'm wondering if that is the first time the Chums have mentioned a fellow "fictional" character. In any case, according to Wikipedia, time is a little out of joint again since the Tunguska event is 1908 and the first Tom Swift novel was 1910. In the later series with Tom Swift, Jr. (1954-1971), Tom Swift Senior has become an industrialist with a huge Edison-like corporation while his son goes on the adventures. Maybe that's what the Chums becoming capitalists routine is referencing. Under the "Modern Influences" category in the same Wikipedia piece, there was this little gem: "In Thomas Pynchon's short story "The Secret Integration" (1964), the "boy genius" Grover is tormented by Tom Swift books which constantly appear around his home. Discussing the matter with his friend Tim, he wonders whether his parents are trying to make him into an inventor or a racist (the latter because of the stereotypes applied to Eradicate Sampson)."

Also loved the over-the-top description of the unmanned balloons traveling all over Eurasia, though I think it's important to note that (796:15) "each was tethered by steel cable to a different piece of rolling-stock somewhere below, moving invisibly on its own track, guiding its buoyed cargo to a different destination." Does anybody have any idea what this means?

On page 797:23, Pynchon lays out The Tunguskan Event as Metaphor in a less mysterious fashion, spelling it out: "Was it, to be blunt, the general war which Europe this summer and autumn would stand at the threshold of, collapsed into a single event?"

Though it's cruel to introduce another new character on page 799, Bevis Moistleigh is an instant favorite. When Cyprian confesses that he has "Little occasion to go into any Orthodox churches" the reply is perfect, "Not yet. The time comes, however." (799:19) In fact, his entire disquisition on pages 800:15 to 801:17 is fascinating, starting with "That person [Theign] gives me the chills" to "Or worse--some sort of Crusade."

Finally, seeing "against the day" as the final phrase of the section made me think of an article I read years ago about the magicians/comedians Penn & Teller who would get together a group of buddies for a weekly bad movie night in Times Square. There was a whole list of ritualistic behavior, including sitting in the front row, and my favorite bit was that the group was required to burst into applause when the actual title of the movie was spoken by a character in the film. I couldn't help but do the same thing when I read "against the day."

At Thursday, August 02, 2007 6:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anybody have any idea what this means?

balloons are sometimes used in logging, to get trees out of areas that are inaccessible to truck or train.

maybe he's describing balloons carrying rail cars to places where there was no rail, yet... ? in anticipation of the railroad?

there are patents that describe balloons carrying heavy equipment.

At Thursday, August 02, 2007 9:25:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

"each was tethered by steel cable to a different piece of rolling-stock somewhere below, moving invisibly on its own track, guiding its buoyed cargo to a different destination." Does anybody have any idea what this means?

Other than distant locomotives towing lighter-than-air cargo balloons across the landscape? No.

At Thursday, August 02, 2007 7:37:00 PM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

Thanks for the kind words, foax. And "quotidian"? Shucks: I use that word every day!

Anyway, I've just posted an Additional Discussion post, despite their having been mothballed a month or so back. Apostasy's just in my blood, I guess. (No pressure on upcoming Mods to reinstate it, unless of course there's a groundswell of demand -- grassroots letter-writing campaign, petition tables outside organic food stores, late-night drunken YouTube entreaties, that sort of thing.)

At Friday, August 03, 2007 8:32:00 PM, Blogger Robert Z. said...

Oh! I just remembered something.

Y'all remember when the Vormance Expedition brought back that thing, and apocalyptic mayhem ensued? Okay, and then Sr. Villamar found this as a possible historic correlation. Check out the date: eight years to the day.

At Friday, August 03, 2007 9:08:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

DJ, that's spooky, and so is going back into the time machine and looking at the old posts.

At Monday, August 06, 2007 7:54:00 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

I think the glimpses of Shambalah are important, as evidenced by the large investments of individuals and various powerful forces to find and own the secret of the fabled city. I think P. s using it as tonic to the darker worlds and kingdoms and futures and myths that shape so much of his and our worlds. We have glimpsed it when Kit enters the Stone Gate,and perhaps in the sub sandmarines. Here its cover of ordinary light blows away in a brief blast of extra-terrestrial light as the chums also are exposed. Shambalah is in this case not some monastery of meditation and stillness but full of markets , commotion , fountains, where every dwelling has a garden inside; not a renunciation of the world but a renunciation of the desert.
What I am seeing here is a vision of another possible order where every dream is not tethered by steel cables to imperial tracks and wheels, but the idea that paradise is always with us; not in the future, not in some distant land but here in the joyfulness of life , available to minds freed from fear. One can argue that Shambalah is just another fiction but life can be argued to be a fiction.
The meeting of the Inconvenience and the Bol’shaiah Igra ( Grab ol Isaiaha?) is the first glimpse of rapproachment where both are looking for new ways of doing the sky-boy gig, from wages to investments but also a hint that old truths and alliances are changing and new ones are possible. For me it is this elaborately posed question about what is possible under the circumstances that is central to how I look at ATD.
Right after this P. draws an association between the Tunguska event, Tchernobyl( the Russian name for Wormwood, the falling star that poisons the earth in the book of Revelation) and WW1. This association also looks forward to the introduction of nuclear war at Hiroshima and the indirectly resulting devastation at the actual town of Chernobyl and the posons being released into the earth through fission. The Tunguska event is clearly not man made, but In a militarized world , God herself cannot speak without being suspected of being part of a Chinese plot.
Speaking of plots. The light from the Tunguska event seems to reveal the plots of entrapment and abuse laid everywhere in the lives of our various protagonists. The comparisons to Gravity’s Rainbow seem more favorable and intriguing than the critics seemed to have noticed.
Great stuff from fellow chumps as usual. Too much too late, as usual from the Roaring Brook of S. Vermont .

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