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.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Unquiet, Malevolent Dead

The Death Pit, Ludlow, Colorado 1914

In this chapter, three monumental things occur. We finally embark on page 1,000 of our tale, The Villain Scarsdale Vibe is murdered, and the culmination of the political saga of Colorado miners reaches its historical apex in the Ludlow Massacre during the Colorado Coal Field War of 1913-14. In case you didn't follow the link in DJ's synopsis last week, please click here to read a short history of the war which is completely fascinating (and it's where all these photos came from). It also confirms that Pynchon is being historically accurate in his background for this week's tales of love and murder.

The section begins on page 1,000 at a hot-springs resort casino "up near the Continental Divide" where Vibe is addressing the greatest acronym since T.W.I.T., the Las Animas-Huerfano Delegation of the Industrial Defense Alliance (L.A.H.D.I.D.A.). Midway through the page, he begins a long soliloquy, "So of course we use them," that is positively operatic. Both Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello" and Claggart in Melville's "Billy Budd" were representatives of ultimate evil whose motivations were never explained by their creators, but in the opera versions by Verdi and Britten respectively, they both get a "Credo" aria to explain their point of view and Pynchon has decided to do the same thing. Like those characters, Vibe's own imminent doom is spelled out mid-aria, in this case, with the aside "He might usefully have taken a look at Foley, attentive back in the shadows. But Scarsdale did not seek out the eyes of his old faithful sidekick. He seldom did anymore." (1001:23)

The next day in his private train The Juggernaut on his way to the "coal war," Vibe encounters a spirit, whose presence usually terrifies him, but this time he's only curious, and after an odd exchange with the spirit, Vibe announces to Foley that he looks forward "to being one of the malevolent dead" (1002:16), which Foley understands from his Civil War experience to be "ghosts...filled with resentments, drifting, or stationed by cemetery gates and abandoned farmhouses where half-mad survivors wuld be mostly likely to see them...not the companionship he would have chosen."

The scene shifts to Frank and Ewball making their way to the striking mining town of Trinidad, where Ewball makes the observation that some of the Balkan-originated strikers must be ghosts (1003:12), "the unquiet dead, geography ain't the point, it's all unfinished business, it's wherever there's accounts to be balanced..." which prompts Frank to say, "Ewball, that is some bughouse talk." When the two get into Trinidad, they immediately notice Foley in front of the Columbian Hotel where Vibe is staying, and make a plan of attack, which includes the sly observation (1004:5), "They say Foley's a born-again Christer, so he can act as bad as he wants because Jesus is coming and nothin a human can do so bad Jesus won't forgive it." The irony of that remark is underlined when Frank and Ewball make a pathetic attempt to assassinate Vibe in the main street. Instead of following Scarsdale's imperious tone of command to shoot the anarchists, Foley instead lines up his Luger "with his employer's heart, and chambered the first round. Scarsdale Vibe peered back, as if only curious. 'Lord, Foley...' 'Jesus is Lord,' cried Foley, and pulled the trigger, proceeeding to empty all eight rounds..."

The Death Special

The narrative turns to Stray, who had been in Trinidad but decided to help out the tent colony in Ludlow filled with striking miner families. While she's dodging random machine gun fire from the militia, her son Jesse shows up after having hitched a ride on a train, which both dismays and warms her. Searchlights on towers are set up by the mining company and "began sweeping the tents all night long" which leads to the suggestion, "The Colorado militia were in fact giving light a bad name...In the tents, darkness in that awful winter was sought like warmth or quiet. It came for many to seem like a form of compassion."(1008:25) There's a welcome return of the Reverend Moss Gatlin, giving yet another great Anarchist sermon (1009:15), and we follow Jesse in his wanderings through the camp and among the militia, being young enough to still get away with it though it comes with the realization that "pretending to have a friendly chat with potential targets of their Death Special was a level of evil neither boy had quite suspected in adults till now." (1010:10)

Later, at the 19 Luglio Saloon, "named for the date back in 1900 when an Anarchist named Bresci assassinated King Umberto of Italy," Frank runs into Stray, who is looking like Michelangelo's Pieta while nursing a striker. After he brings up Ewball, she tells him, "Buy me one of whatever that is in your fist and I'll tell you the whole sordid tale." From here, we go through a brilliantly written scene (page 1012) where Stray FINALLY, after being with Reef, bad boy motorcyclists, Ewball, and god knows who else, realizes who Frank is and how he loves her. She invites him to the tent city, he tells her it's about ready to be razed by the militia, and her response is "Guess you better visit us soon, then."

Karl Linderfeldt, Mercenary

During Frank's visit, he catches sight of a real historical character, a truly malevolent proto-Blackwater mercenary named Karl Linderfeldt, who guided the Ludlow Massacre and who also murdered people for hire during the Mexican Revolution. Jesse arrives breathlessly from some adventure involving bullets, uncle and nephew bond over weaponry, and after realizing that "not much Frank could teach him," he starts to talk to Stray, "I wanted to say," Frank said. "Oh you been sayin it, don't worry." He gave her a closer look, just to make sure of her face. "Fine time to be getting around to this." (1014:15) This may be the single most romantic exchange in the 1,000+ novel, with its hundreds of pages filled with time and Frank's yearning for Estrella from the moment he met her.

Frank immediately comes up with an escape plan, the militia attacks, and we're in a scene of confusion and slaughter. After being caught by a militiaman named Brice, Jesse has a moment of grace and is allowed to escape, and the three of them "take shelter with hundreds of the wide arroyo north of town, waiting for some letup in the shooting to get someplace safe. After a hallucinatory moment with Webb's dead hand on his shoulder, Frank wakes up and sees the awful slaughter. And here we come to one of the novel's serious morals (1016:14): "But it happened, each casualty, one by one, in light that history would be blind to. The only accounts would be the militia's." One proof of Pynchon's charge is that I was once again completely ignorant of this fairly essential history until reading this novel.

Ludlow Family

There's a gorgeously romantic section where Frank sends Estrella and Jesse off back home while he joins up with the strikers, "dead on their feet, not half a dozen words of English among them." After it's settled, Frank and Estrella face off. "Their embrace might not have been so close or desperate, but no kiss he could remember had ever been quite this honest, nor this weighted with sorrow." The last line invokes Orpheus and Eurydice "not looking back" once again, just as Yashmeen and Reef didn't look back at Cyprian.


At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 1:00:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo, sfmike~ It's indeed a grand summary! Thorough and revealing!

What strikes me most is your empathy with these "unquiet, malevolent dead", who sank into oblivion the moment they ceased to be in the world. Their dignity and their existence meant nothing but Nada, or just excrement for the blood-soaked land, on which the plutocrats-driven wars nearly annihilate the world in a century which is "a mistake".

Against the oblivion is a way to fight against the day. Thanks to Pyncho, some obscure segments of history come back to life in an otherwise forgetful grand narrative.

I sympathize with these "ghosts", when looking into the old pictures of these strikers, kids, wives, or mercenaries. No matter how painstaking the trek of reading AtD is, the newly aroused rememberance is a precious lesson we learn from Tom.

Vibe's death is an anti-climax, though some clues have been deliberately dropped by the author in the prior sections. Foley kills his double in the name of some terrorists. It's a brilliant idea and sheds new light on this otherwise underdeveloped character.
A surprising but reasonable way to wind up this feud.

Frank and Stray's long due affection is a very romantic end of this sprawling and grotesque plot. Grateful to Pynchon, because this time he stops frustrating our expectation and awards his diehard readers a melodramatic byproduct. No more incest, perverted S&M, or bizarre schemes for getting fertilized. Eventually, Tom feeds us with some old-fashioned cliches. Lovers settling down and families reunited.

That's why I adore TRP so much. He can be sincere when he thinks it's the high time to be sincere.

At Thursday, November 01, 2007 6:28:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

There is indeed something very anticlimactic (if that is not a contradiction in terms) about Vibe's end, though reminiscent of Brock Vond's more comical sudden exit in Vineland. Perhaps the message is that while the people can endure diverse changes in their fortunes, the Plutes depend on a very tenuous set of circumstances and, once those are changed, are quickly swept away.

After all the time we've just spent wandering in eastern Europe, the North American passages feel rushed to me. One would like to have seen Stray's change from weapons dealer to angel of mercy rather than have been told about it. Frank's satori on the train seemed to me better realized, that is, drawn for the reader, than either Kit's or Cyp's, and one is left wondering why the book needed all three.

What delivers the author again from the cranky cavails of some readers are his many narrative gifts for character and detail, his ability to move the camera, so to speak, in a comprehensive way. Maybe I'm alone in thinking the American passages are better realized, more clearly seen, than the European ones. They certainly seem to lack the more absurd elements and characters of the Continental plot lines, and I suspect this is because of the author's greater putative on-the-ground familiarity with Mexico and the west.

I keep thinking that somewhere in AtD is a great, maybe The great, novel of the American West diluted, for one reason or another, with a rather entertaining, though minor, Great Game fantasia.

At Thursday, November 01, 2007 6:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I keep thinking that somewhere in AtD is a great, maybe The great, novel of the American West diluted, for one reason or another, with a rather entertaining, though minor, Great Game fantasia.

i read the book under the impression that all the plot lines started out as separate stories. and when Pynchon decided he needed another Big Book he took all these stories and braided them together. that's why they seem somewhat conventional on their own, but get strange when they intersect: characters meet after slipping through time/space; Yashmeen, Reef and Cyprian's plots come together in a whirl of debauched sex; Lew is blasted out of one story and into another; the Chumps are only tangential to most of it.

of course, i don't know if that's true at all, but it's a feeling i couldn't shake.

At Friday, November 02, 2007 1:17:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Very nice summary, sfmike! Thanks very much! Agree, dan, that those are some mighty haunting photos.

And it's very, very weird to be reading this section at the same time as I'm reading up on the history of Appalachia. It's no accident that the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was called in from West Virginia with their "Death Special"; they'd been getting in a lot of target practice in "my" little neck of the woods in the years previous to these events.

After Vibe's soliloquy, I feel guilty for having enjoyed skiing in Colorado all those times...

Pynch gets a good one out of two Colorado towns in that L.A.H.D.I.D.A. acronym: Las Animas-Huerfano is (slightly ungrammatical) Spanish for "The Orphaned Souls."

Hey, when did Foley become a Christer? "He can act as bad as he wants because Jesus is coming and nothin a human can do so bad Jesus won't forgive it" combined with Foley's exclamation as he shoots Vibe, "Jesus is Lord!" seems suggestive, don't you think? Free will, predestination, all tha'?

At Friday, November 02, 2007 1:46:00 PM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Hey, when did Foley become a Christer?

Alas, one more character development made out of sight in the States while the reader was elsewhere.

At Sunday, November 04, 2007 6:51:00 PM, Blogger Neddie said...

Still noodling through this Foley-killing-Vibe thing...

A double kills his double. "Jesus is Lord" is on his lips as he does so. He performs this act ostensibly because he's heard Vibe give a speech he's presumably heard many times before, being his sidekick and all. The speech is a disgusting supremacist, triumphalist, Social-Darwinist rant.

With the "Jesus-is-Lord" slogan hanging in the air, why is Foley's conversion to Christer-hood held offstage? It just seems so...random. So...unplanned. So...unlike Thomas Pynchon.

You'd have expected Foley's conversion to have signified in some way.

The only thing that occurs to me about the killing is that, as far as I can remember, Foley is the only "double" in the book to have been hired to be a double -- stand-in in the Civil War and all that. Is something like revenge for pecuniary servitude being avenged? Is it that Foley, through his conversion to Chirsterhood, has also come around to the Anarchist POV? If this is the case, why weren't we told about it?

As I say, inchoate thoughts. I'll have to reread to get a handle...

At Sunday, November 04, 2007 9:11:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

Nobody thinks the" Jesus is Lord" could be a bit of dry humor on Foley's part? I can see it as kind of wry answer to Vibe's Bush-league -Calvinist sounding philosophy that whoever shoots his way to the top is most favored of the Lord .

There is a real nobility to his action also. He is drawing the fire away from the Traverses with nothing to gain but taking personal responsibility for shooting the man who bought his soul and used it as a divining rod for class warfare.

At Monday, November 05, 2007 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Civic Center said...

Totally agree with brooktrout about the wry humor/nobility, and thanks you, dan hansong for the all the kind words.

At Tuesday, November 06, 2007 3:22:00 AM, Blogger Monte Davis said...

Foley is the only "double" in the book to have been hired to be a double -- stand-in in the Civil War and all that. Is something like revenge for pecuniary servitude being avenged?
Jesus was a stand-in: taking the heat for all our original sin, scapegoat and all that...

At Tuesday, November 06, 2007 8:42:00 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

By the way, Mike, I agree with others that the photos speak volumes . Thanks for finding them.

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