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, September 24, 2007

Spice of Life

She pretended to gaze at the paprika fields ripening to a red no match for her hair--or lips for that matter (it was occurring now to Kit). . .

picture source

(pp. 908-918)

Instead of shopping Dally to a seraglio in the newly prudish, and renamed, Istanbul, Clive Crouchmas decides to sell her into white slavery in Hungary instead, and commissions two dopes from light opera central casting, Imi and Ernö, yet another of the novel's comic pairs, to kidnap her.

Under the mistaken impression that they are grabbing a redhead for the famous arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, the two accost Dally in her rail compartment while the train is stopped at Szeged. Directly across the platform, on a train headed in the opposite direction--that is, towards Europe--Kit Traverse looks out the window and sees a presentable redhead in some kind of trouble. He intervenes.

Our lovers meet again, cute as ever, and after easily outfoxing the dolts, whom they leave on the moving train, they take off running through a handy paprika field, where in short order they commence to fucking.

Kit, we learn, has drifted back from the Steppes in short hops, eventually tending bar in the Pera district of Istanbul, a colorful spot where he meets again the affable arms dealer Viktor Mulciber, last seen in Göttingen looking for the Q weapon way back on pages 557-8 (hat tip to the Chumps' own search engine!) Mulciber clues Kit into a startup Italian aircraft company, sez Kit can name his price there, and that Mulciber gets a finder's fee.

It so happens that soon after the meeting, Kit gets on the wrong side of the C.U.P., a political party with a goon squad. His boss, Jusuf, gives him a ticket out and some cash while begging for the recipe of a drink that's been wowing the clientele.

Back in Szeged, Dally and Kit prepare their escape to Italy. Before leaving they get an all-clear from Pityu, a psychic waiter, and are tipped by Miklos, the hotel desk clerk, not to miss the great Bela Blasko, in town performing in the inevitably named Pynchon operetta, The Burgher King, which details in song the merry hijinks of a disguised monarch, mixing with the middle-class Heidi, Mitzi, Schleppingdorff, and Ditters. (German song translation, anyone?)

After the show, Dally confides to Kit her rather colorful recent past, an act of trust immediately followed by more fucking.


The themes and tropes at large in this episode should now be old hat to readers, travel along and across parallel lines, beautiful scenery, the perpetual planning of the Powers That Be.

Kit has been drifting out of sight of the readers for two years, and shows no outward signs, good or bad, of his quasi-mystical Asian journey. Dally has grown up almost, if episodically, in front of our eyes--no small feat for an author--and the frank look at her sexual life here and in the previous episode leave this reader with a certain feeling of something, if only innocence, lost. Or maybe she's finally absorbed the lessons she first saw in that Telluride whorehouse.

Those with a lot of time on their hands may have a go at assigning Tarot cards to characters. We certainly know enough about them by now, and our author just led things off regarding The Star and Dally. I here nominate Kit as King, or maybe Knave, of Cups (Reef, Coins, and Frank, Swords.) He was a bartender, and it was the C.U.P., after all, which finally sends him back to Dally.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"It's me..."

(pp. 892 - 907)

The moon Tarot.

The Plot

Having decided they'd had enough of "Bodeo-packing coglioni" and the Principessa's continued Yentl-ism, Dally and Hunter reappear in London. After Hunter finds his way back to "the starched bosom of collateral relations someplace west of Regents Park", jealous-of-oatmeal Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin sets Dally up in a small apartment, deciding there's really nothing going on between she and Hunter. Chirpingdon-Groin introduces Dally to Arturo Naunt, a sculptor specializing in Angel Of Death statuary, who asks Dally to become his new model. Dally reflects on her previous experience in New York as a sculptor's model, she'd modeled for The Spirit Of Bimetallism (gold/silver/sun/moon bi-references here), among others. Dally agrees to model for Naunt, to mixed results.

Perenially-mean Ruperta accompanies Hunter to the Three Choirs Festival to hear a new work by Ralph Vaughn Williams, the "Tallis Fantasia" (for those unfamiliar with Williams, the festival, composer and work are all real). The music induces in Ruperta a life-change, tears streaming, a "levitation" and "return to earth" moved to leave behind her old ways. An almost Buddhist experience?

(Pynchon's breathtaking description of a wonderful night of serious music and it's effect on Ruperta is one of my favorite passages in the whole novel. Cantori/decani splits, Phrygian resonances, "nine-part harmonies occupied the bones and blood vessels of those in attendance" set the scene, and any of us who have allowed ourselves in these 'cool' times to be moved to tears by real music know exactly what Pynchon describes so masterfully here, at least IMHO)

Dally's modeling experience turns a little kinky for her tastes, and she re-runs into R. Wilshire Vibe, who offers her a role in his newest, Wogs Begin At Wigam. Almost by chance, Dally becomes an overnight sensation, then a true celebrity, and finds herself pursued by shady Clive Crouchmas, and old friend of Ruperta's. Dally gives in to the situation, and finds herself Crouchmas' mistress.

In another thread-crossroad which I'll leave to the more-capable to explore (me, I'm just along for the ride, and diggin' the wonderfully blurry scenery flying by the window, a perfect red farm-house here, a leering polar bear there), Dally meets Lew Basnight at a party. Tarot comes up, and Lew reflects on his mission. Another beautiful Pynchon moment, combining Lew, Dally, the Sun, the Moon, the night (and a perfect description of the traditional illustration of the Moon tarot card), each of the elements given voice: "It's me... it's me...", all culminating in Dally's question: "Who turned out to be the star?" Hmm...

Lew convinces Dally (with a big wad of offered cash) to spy on Crouchmas, telling Dally a little bit more about him in the process. (Please excuse my missing what looks like a pretty obvious German joke here, don't-a speak-a the doitsch-a) After apparently going about the business of turning Crouchmas' documents/secrets over to Lew for a while, Dally is finally caught in the act by Crouchmas himself, who it turns out was harboring some pretty deep feelings for her. Reacting harshly, he decides to get his revenge by taking Dally to Constantinople, where he plans to "shop the bitch to a harem". Running into old friend "Doggo" Spokeshave (is anyone else here viewing their daily spam differently after having read ATD? It's much easier for me to deal with Karthik J. Grosshandler's exhortation to "Save your relationship, stop premature ejaculation" f'ing 15 times a day if I imagine he's just one of Pynchon's people as I Delete him again and again... The least Kute Korrespondance of all...), Crouchmas makes plans to head to Constantinople on one of Basil Zaharoff's trains, and convinces Dally to come down and meet him. Lew sees her off, and (I was right, I knew I recognized it, go Duck Stab!) the Wiki confirms her last line to Lew comes right out of The Residents songbook: "here I come, Constantinople". I love this book.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Brand New -- and Infinitely More Complicated -- Way to Get Pregnant!

pp. 876--891

Suffice to say, we'll avoid any illustrative Google Image Searches this week, for fear of casting this tasteful group blog down into the hellfires of the Not Safe for Work.

We're back, with a bang (har!), to Cyprian and the Question of Desire. I must confess I find Cyprian's mind at this point to be astonishingly difficult to wrap my own brain around. As a lay student (if not practitioner, in my own small way) of Buddhism, I have done a fair amount of thinking about the abnegation of desire. But as I haven't got a sadomasochistic boner -- bone! bone! Jesus, did anyone hear that? -- in my body, I have only ever thought in the shallowest way about masochistic submission as an expression of it.

And yet, we are forced to here: "Most who met [Cyprian] found it difficult to to reconcile his appetite for sexual abasement -- its specific carnality -- with what had to be termed a religious surrender of the self." This recalls a question I asked a few weeks ago: Is not the desire to end desire itself a desire?

Yashmeen, it seems, is the first to recognize this dissonance in Cyprian's mind, and to -- what's the word? Nurture? Exploit? Consume? -- it, inhabiting, as everyone is, " a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and governments, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs" -- she sees Cyprian's "miraculous resurrection" (hmmm...) as an opportunity for transcendence.

Yin and Yang get all twisted up here, which, come to think of it, is perhaps the way we should always think of them. Yashmeen, hitherto always the pursued in relation to men, and the pursuer with women, finds that Cyprian responds to a seduction approach more appropriate to commanding the "desires of London shopgirls and haughty Girtonian alike." But with Cyps, unlike with the women Yashmeeen's pursued, "the gentle make-believe of princesses and maidservants [i.e., power relationships] was deepened, extended into realms of real power, real pain."

Do you see how the Personal becomes the Political here? Dominance and submission sex-games as expression, as mirroring, of the exercise of economic power? I can never see S&M at work without also thinking of czars and kulaks, of overseers in the cotton field, which, frankly, gives me a bit of a soft-off. The sadomasochistic enthusiast will no doubt answer me that, unlike the economic world, the exchange of power in S&M is voluntary, and that there are power relationships at work in even the most mundane missionary-position boffage. (Yes, but there's also a question of degree, nicht wahr?)

This can of worms is worth opening at least briefly, justified by this:
It was more than the usual history of flogging one expected from British schoolboys of all ages. It was almost an indifference to self, in which desire was directed at passing beyond the conditions of the self -- at first she thought, as other women on the face of it might, well then it's only self-hatred isn't it, perhaps a class thing -- but no, that wasn't it. Cyprian took altogether too much pleasure in what she obliged him to do. "'Hate'? no -- I don't know what this is," he protested, peering in dismay at his naked form in the mirror, "except that it's yours...."
(Emphasis mine.)

I ask again: Is not the desire to end desire itself a desire?

Later: "It was going on behind every other window one could see, common as the stars in the sky, the reversals of power, wives over husbands, pupils over masters, wogs over whites, the old expected order of things all on its head, a revolution in the terms of desire, and yet, at Yashmeen's feet, that seemed only the outskirts -- the obvious or sacramental form of the thing." Yashmeen seems to find some sort of mission to help Cyprian find oblivion and total self-abnegation -- but her self-justification is far from thought through: "Rules of proper conduct are for the dying, not for us." Famous last words...

The Spongiatosta family is throwing a "secret counter-Carnevale known as Carnesalve." (My desktop translator widget gives "meat" and "blank" for "carne" and "salve" respectively -- not very helpful....) Unlike the public Carnevale, held before Lent in anticipation of fasting, Carnesalve is "not a farewell but an enthusiastic welcome to flesh in all its promise. As object of desire, as food, as temple, as gateway to conditions beyond immediate knowledge."

My kinda party.

OK now, Jingo. Here's a challenge for you:

Try, just try, to summarize the action in the next scene without resorting to the sort of language to be found at (not that innocent li'l me would ever visit such a louche place)....

Cyprian, bedecked in his finest drag, and wearing a wig made from Yashmeen's own hair, catches Reef's eye at the Carnesalve. Reef, surprising no readers by this point -- this is the guy who solicited a blowjob from Yashmeen's dog; he'd fuck an alligator if somebody'd drain the pool (but see below! See below!) -- responds with a positive display of appreciation. Yashmeen, who has forbidden Cyprian to make any moves on her het-fella without express permission, escorts her boys/girls/somewhere-in-betweens to a private space for some "punishment." She demands that Cyprian retain the effluent emission from

(no, no! Too Latinate!)

She forces Cyprian to keep Reef's load in

(Jesus! What are you, a hack pr0n writer?)

Ardently looking on, waves of passion crashing over her as she watches her woman-man give the ultimate pleasure to her man-man, Yashmeen demands coquettishly that Cyprian retain Reef's bounteous love-reward

(Fuckin' hell! Harlequin Romances, now!)

All right. Reef goes Number Three in Cyprian's yum-yum, which he then proceeds to dribble into Yashmeen's hoo-hoo while Reef puts his weenie in his Naughty Place. Whew!

Happy? I know I am.

Besides the obvious trouser-tightening bits, the thing to observe here is that Cyprian is now overtly not only the "go-between" connecting Yash and Reef, but he's also taken both their roles, both the recipient and the deliverer of Reef's baby-batter. He has, in effect, become both of them.

MOVING ON... (Biomechanics being one thing but intimacy quite another...)

And now we are three.

Horndog Reef and Cyprian begin to "see" each other without Yashmeen's knowledge. Their pillow-talk is fascinating -- universes colliding, America and Europe. Reef, not the most percipient or empathic of men, wonders how "anybody can let somebody do that to him [i.e., bottom]," rather missing the point that the "doing to" him had been welcomed by Cyprian, and wasn't coerced or forced. "I mean, don't it hurt?" "It hurts, and it doesn't hurt," which I imagine is a pretty fair description, given the number of times it's done every day. "Japanese talk."

(Yes, more of that Japanese talk. Cue mention of "desire" in

Reef cites honor, which leads to Cyprian's observation (if "disingenuous"), "Perhaps I've only failed to see a connection between honor and desire (ding! ding! ding!), Reef." The relationship between honor and desire is of course more complicated for Cyprian, as his dismissal of honor as a personal value has been useful to him in the professional field. "Honor," as Reef sees it, equates to the refusal to be submissive to any person or thing, while for Cyprian it's an "outmoded sexual protocol." We get the searing insight that there are people who confuse Cyprian's submissiveness with sympathy, "especially those with the curious belief that sodomites, having few troubles of their own, could never become bored listening to the difficulties of others."

The passage that follows is all-revealing about Reef, and a damned sad passage too. He tells Cyprian of his encounters with closeted cowboys on trains, young men who'd left their wives ostensibly to look for work in the West but in reality to just get the hell away from the hellish secret lives they'd allowed themselves to get sucked into, of children that they love deeply and wives they may love but don't lust for. Then we're suddenly getting Reef counting himself among them, and the realization hits: Reef's closeted! And has been for the whole book!

Go back and check 218:13-18, just after Stray's had her baby and they've buried Webb. "Reef might not be able to pull off successfully the guise of a respectable wife-and-kids working stiff the way Webb had. Meant he'd either have to level with Stray or pretend to be up to his old rounder ways so she'd think when he disappeared for days at a time that it was ramblin and gamblin and nothing serious."

This explains so much! The sexual rapacity, the coolness to women even while he's laying them and his ease in leaving them, the idiot logic that leads him to solicit a blow-job from a poodle, the sudden, surprising eagerness to have it off with Cyprian... On my next re-read, I'm going to have a much more sensitive eye to this.

Reef dreams of Webb, after "years of avoidance" (how do you avoid dreaming about someone?). I think the mention of "being the Kieselguhr Kid in Webb's place" is a direct pointer back to p. 218; it was that issue that was disguising the real trouble in Reef's mind, and in ours -- "and now look at this that he'd come stepping into... Would Webb recognize him now, recognize his politics anymore, his compulsions?" Webb reminds Reef to "honor small victories"; when Reef points out their absence of late, Webb retorts, mysteriously, "Not talking about yours, numbskull."

The threesome take their act on the road, cleaning up in the casinos with Yashmeen's foolproof roulette system. Although they agree on the Big Issues (Anarchism, humor, and lots and lots of sex, and who can blame them, really?) they bicker (quite hilariously) over Reef's cooking. the outcome of which is a generous slathering of overcooked pasta in a Poisson distribution over Cyprian's phiz.

Wolfe Tone O'Rooney makes a brief appearance, warning darkly that "governments are about to fuck things up for everybody, make life more unlivable than Brother Bakunin ever imagined."

Once again, Cyprian has a nice, long wallow in his favorite subject: "But no more accountable was the absence of desire -- why one would choose not to embrace what the world judges, it often seemed unanimously, to lie clearly in one's interest." Yashmeen, her instincts as good as ever, perceives a change in Cyprian: "I feel...that somehow I am coming slowly not to matter as much to you as something else...."

Yashmeen discovers she's pregnant by Reef, and, Cyprian would like to think, with his help. I'm no gynecologist, but I'm willing to bet that the method they've been using is mighty, mighty inefficient.

Res ipsa loquitur.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Vendetta's Reunion

Venezia map, with Arsenale highlighted

pp 864-876

Cyprian makes a melancholy winter return to Venice after his near-fatal Balkan adventures. He had stopped in Trieste to look for Yashmeen, where he was told of Vlado's fate from his associates, along with news about his murderer. (854:31) "[Theign] has gone mad," said Vlado's cousin Zlatko Ottician. "He is dangerous now to everyone." On the boat ride into Venice, Cyprian fatefully sees Theign passing by in a traghetto which puts Cyprian into an "unexpected when he most needed a clever plan, his mind was becoming all staring Arctic vacancy," (856:6) which brings on vague thoughts of murder/suicide. At his old pensione he shared with Theign, Signora Giambolognese tells him that Theign "lives in the Arsenale."

Cyprian then runs into the newly married Ratty McHugh in front of the British consulate, and Ratty takes him to a remote courtyard-within-a-courtyard office where they speak in perfect upper-class English misdirection about Theign and Yashmeen and the horrors of marriage. Ratty strikes a gong for his colleague Piprake, and tells him that Cyprian needs to speak with the Principe Spongiatosta, who is not only the master of the house where Dally has been living, but who was also one of Cyprian's paying sexual clients when Theign was pimping him out, a fact known to both Ratty and Piprake.

Cyprian goes to Ca' Spongiatosta (no Princess or Dally to be seen), they acknowledge their history charmingly, and after a description of the antiques and modern items in the palace, the Prince gives a brilliant disquisition on Venetian history, and how each Doge became a slave to their position and power. "Other nations, Americans notoriously, style themselves 'republican' and think they understand republics, but what was fashioned here over corroded centuries of doges' cruelty lies forever beyond their understanding (868:8)...Unless one has performed in his life penance equal to what he has extracted from others, there is an imbalance in Nature." (868:22) That imbalance is what currently exists with the Austrian empire where nobody can be trusted since everyone can be bought, and Cyprian tells him that he has just returned from "a place less developed no doubt than the sophisticated cultures of the West, still naive, if not quite innocent...They possess what all the treasuries of Europe cannot buy" (869:7) The Prince replies, "Passion." and without further ado, the vendetta plot against Theign is put into motion as the Prince airily dismisses Cyprian.

"One day" Cyprian unexpectedly runs into Yashmeen who is on the arm of Reef, who Cyprian finds sexy. Yashmeen is cold and proper as they exchange brief news about Vlado, Yashmeen's escape, and Cyprian's revenge. "For the next week or so, Cyprian managed to go a little crazy, resuming, though not on a full-time basis, his old trade of compensated sodomy." With his ill-gotten gains, he heads to Fabrizio's for a "combative" makeover, and then takes a train to Trieste where he meets with Vlado's relatives, who promise, "You chase [Theign] into our sights, we'll do the rest."

On page 871, there is an interesting take on how Theign has been playing all sides against each other, with England, Russia, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian empire maneuvering against each other in the context of the Macedonian Question and the Anglo-Russian Entente. However, Cyprian's "field skills" have sharpened on the "whetstone of European crisis" while Theign's had deteriorated "from overindulgence in various luxuries." Cyprian learns Theign's daily timetable as he is accompanied by a "brace of plug-uglies" and plays various pranks on him. One night, when Theign is in front of the Austro-Hungarian consulate ("How much more blatant did the man imagine he could be?"), Cyprian shows himself and tells Theign to "make your arrangements" before disappearing.

An ambiguous, one-paragraph section ensues (872:23) where Cyprian becomes insomniac "as the crisis approached," and has fitful dreams of being betrayed by Yashmeen for "Austria" but not the real "Austria."

Cyprian and the Prince have an assignation where the Prince tells Cyprian that "it will be tonight" and "you have every right to be present." Cyprian says he'll leave it to the Ottican brothers and wants nothing other than to thank the Prince for his efforts, which startles the Prince: "sometimes, not often, [a man] will simply want nothing for himself, and that must be respected, if only for its rarity." He decides to invite Cyprian to his annual ball on the island, and when Cyprian demurs over having nothing to wear, is told "The Principessa will find something for you."

Theign returns to Venice from a trip to Vienna and realizes immediately he's made a mistake. He's abducted and taken to an abandoned factory where he's tortured to death in a remarkably graphic scene. Reflecting the Prince's previous rumination on "imbalance in Nature," Vastroslav tells Theign after he's gouged out both eyes, "Whenever you people torture, you try merely to cripple. To have some mark of imbalance. We prefer a symmetry of insult--to confer a state of grace. To mark the soul."

The final vignette in this section has Yashmeen sending Cyprian a message which begins, "I must see you." Ratty has given her Cyprian's address. They discuss Vlado, she gives him "The Book of the Masked," and then they fall back into their curious s/m love relationship. She talks about fucking Reef in a way she never would with Cyprian, they play around with Cyprian's sexual desire for Reef, and then fall into recriminations about who abandoned whom. The final paragraph is fascinating (876:9), yet another take on bilocation, time, and alternate realities. "They were two entirely different people who had no business being in the same city together let alone the same room, and yet whatever it was between them was deeper now, the stakes were higher, the danger of how much there was to lose terribly, incontrovertibly clear." I think they have just transcended space and time.