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, November 26, 2007

Chumps On Turkey Break

A Gentle Reminder: We are on a two-week break for the Thanksgiving holiday. We will be back in session on Monday, December 3, with the Final Installment of our festivities.

That certainly doesn't mean that discussion is discouraged! As a suggested starting point, allow me to throw out this quote, from Scott Leith in The Spectator:
I’m far from the first person to point it out, but it bears pointing out again: Pynchon’s novels behave much more like jazz than they do like anything else. Themes emerge, are riffed on, returned to, and transfigured. Passages refer to each other not so much directly as by a sort of sympathetic vibration. You suddenly notice something -- be it as slight as the conjunction of the colours mauve and green -- that clicks in your mind. I’ve seen this earlier. Where the hell was it ? What’s he getting at? Accordingly, my notes are as bizarre as those I have made on any book I’ve read for review. (...) What is Against the Day about? What is it not about? To try to summarise the plot would be insanity. It is a comedy of ideas with people in it. Describing it as if it were a realist novel would be like trying to transcribe in musical notation the sound of a piano falling down the stairs. (...) It is virtuoso nonsense; it is a giant shaggy dog story, serious as history; it is by turns mind-crushingly tedious and utterly exhilarating; it is remorselessly facetious and yet deeply moving. It is like watching the European apocalypse as scripted by Looney Toons. It is brilliant, but it is exhaustingly brilliant.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Basnight in Twilight

But here seemed to be those old bilocational powers emerging now once again, only different.

picture source

(pp. 1040-1062)

It is 1925, and Lew Basnight, after spending the war in England has, like all good private eyes nearing retirement age, ended up in Los Angeles. He has a staff of three mighty fit young ladies, Thetis, Shalimar, and Mezzanine, handy with firearms, enough rich clients with messy lives needing cleaning, and some mysterious overseas income, so that he is doing quite well for himself.

As our penultimate episode opens, a black jazz musician, Chester LeStreet, tells Lew he's been sent by Tony Tsangarakis, a club owner and gangster, to ask him to investigate the possible reappearance of a party girl named Encarnacion, who was supposed to have been murdered some time before. This word has come via a phone call from Santa Barbara made by one Miss Jardine Maraca, Encarnacion's old roommate.

Lew traces Miss Maraca to a shabby motor court on the Pacific Coast Highway, from which she has departed. Finding no clues in her empty room, Lew calls Emilio, a Filipino dope peddler and psychic living nearby, to come give the place, specifically the toilet bowl, a look.

Emilio, appalled by his visions, gives Lew a Los Angeles address that appears to him, and demands his fee right then, in cash.

Back at the office, Lew learns that Merle Rideout has been calling every ten minutes to speak to him. Finally getting him on the line, Merle asks Lew to meet him at a picnic ground.

Merle has been in L.A. for over a decade, running into Luca Zombini, now a designer of movie special effects, in early 1914. He visits the always interesting Zombini household and comes to some affectionate resolution with Erlys. The Zombinis become what family Merle has.

At the picnic park, Merle has Lew take steps to shake anyone tailing him, directing him to meet his partner Roswell Bounce at the other end of the park. The three of them proceed to the inventors' lab.

Rideout and Bounce (heh) have invented a sort of viewing process which accesses the mysterious capabilities of silver to bring photographs to life, making them not only windows of the future, and the past of their subjects, but, depending on the settings, viewers of alternate futures as well.

The scientists think the studios are out to steal the process and ask Lew for protection. Testing their invention, Lew gets them to scan a photo of Jardine Maraca, and watches as she drives to a place called Carefree Court.

When Lew finally checks out the address Emilio gave him, he finds a bungalow, and, behind its screen door, the malevolently beautiful, and haunted looking, Mrs. Deuce Kindred. Noting Lew's obvious arousal, the very willing Lake invites him in.

Oh this was going to be sordid as all hell, thinks Lew, and boy is he right.

Afterwards, while Lew is chatting with Lake about Encarnacion's case over coffee in the kitchen, Deuce enters, a mean runt packing heat, a labor-busting goon for a low-rent movie studio.

Deuce does not care, like at all, about what Lew and Lake have been up to, but objects heatedly to Lew's mocking questions about what he does, and finally pulls his gun. Luckily, Lew had earlier told Shalimar to back him up. She enters with a machine gun and Deuce ducks out.

The next three pages are sketched out of the miserable dream lives of Lake and Deuce, two pathetic people who've used each other for years merely to escape the consequences of any human feelings.

A day or two later, Lew goes to Carefree Court, where he crashes a party. Everyone there has been, over the years, at war, or at least at odds, with the many forces of authority, but seem pretty chipper about it all. Lew meets Virgil Maraca, who reminds him of the Hermit tarot card, and his daughter Jardine, who reminds Lew of his lost wife, Troth.

Jardine tells Lew that Encarnacion's case is closed, that she returned (from the dead?) only long enough to testify against Deuce, whom the cops have picked up for a string of grizzly murders of women.

Though she makes plans for Lew to take her out of town, Jardine decides instead to steal an airplane, and flies away over the desert.

Lew goes to Merle with a photo of Troth taken in 1890 and asks to see her grow old. Doing so, he falls into a reverie of the irrecoverable past, wondering if she can see him too.

Merle, perhaps inspired by this, uses a picture of Dally he took in Colorado when she was 12, to find her now in Paris, where she, sitting in a tiny studio, now appears to return his gaze, smiles at him, saying something.


I will add my comments in Comments in a bit.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Cue The Band!!

Apologies to Chumps near and far, but a clot of work which needs to get off my desk subito has kept me from my obligation here. I'll have it up, I dearly hope, by tomorrow evening. In the meantime, here's another word from our patron saint.

Also note: due to the looming Thanksgiving holiday, Neddie will be back with our last (gasp!) installment in two weeks.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remember the Starving

Pp. 1018 - 1039

We're back, finally, with the Chums of Chance.

The Chums are now working mainly on their own stick, as the National Office has been so cheap with the budget that the organization is crumbling. Everybody's negotiating their own prices and choosing their own missions. This has proved to be marvelously profitable, and the Chums are rolling in scratch -- champagne with dinner, improvements and upgrades on the Inconvenience...

It's a very hot summer, and the Saharan updrafts are spectacular. Goaded by Pugnax's companion Ksenija, the dog who was protecting Reef's "family exfiltration" back on 969, the Chums vote to dive into the updraft to see where it will take them, picking up the costs out of overhead, just, it seems, for the hell of it.

And dive they do. As they're borne upward, Chick Counterfly muses a notion that comes to us from the very beginning of the book (hey, we've gotta tie up some loose ends, nicht wahr?), the dark warning from Randolph back in Chicago that "going up was like going north," and that if you ascend high enough, you'll eventually begin to descend to the surface of another planet. "And if going up is like going north, with the common variable being cold, the analogous direction in Time, by the Second Law of Thermodynamics [Hey! It's Pynchon!] ought to be from past to future, in the direction of increasing entropy."

Chick takes the air temperature and pressure outside in the sand-cloud, and is alarmed to see that the pressure is increasing, not decreasing: The ship is heading for a crash landing on the surface of some other Earth! Unable to discern where the hell they actually are, the "two-lad Navigational Committee" concludes they have reached the Pythagorean or Counter-Earth once postulated by Philolaus of Tarentum (but shorten that throttle, Aristotle), which posits a second Earth, the Antichthon. In the Chums' conception, it's a second planet whose orbit is 180 degrees opposite "our" Earth's, and is thus never seen from Earth.

No, Darby, they didn't just fly through the sun, but maybe it's "more like seeing though the Sun with a telescope of very high resolution so clearly that we're no longer aware of anything but the Aether between us."

"Oh, like X-Ray Spex."

So the Chums find themselves on the Counter-Earth, a planet that some days perfectly resembles Earth, and on others holds "an American Republic...passed...irrevocably into the control of the evil and moronic." Now they appear to inhabit two Earths, and yet belong in any true sense to neither.

A shadowy Russian agent, one Baklashchan (backlash?) sends them off on a mission to find their "old friendly nemesis" Padzhitnoff. In performing this undertaking, the Chums seem strangely oblivious to the First World War going on on the earth beneath them. "'Trenches,'" muses Miles, "as if it were a foreign technical term."

(Oddly, I've noticed at least two grammatical terms, verbal moods, used in this section: Here (1023:3) we have the Chums' freedom from "enfoldment by the indicative world below"; and on 1033:14 Noseworth's "I am as fond of the subjunctive mood as any...". Not sure what to make of it...)

Chick notes that Padzhitnoff's travels have been closely mirroring the Chums' own: "Where we haven't been yet, he seems to have left no trace." "Swell," sez Darby. "We;'re chasing ourselves now."

Foreshadowing from earlier in the book now begins to pay off. Miles recalls his bicycle ride through Flanders with Ryder Thorn, back on 552-3, in which Thorn says, "Our people know what will happen here...and my assignment is to find out whether, and how much, yours know." It's worth going back and reading that passage, where Thorn blurts out that "Flanders will be the mass grave of History." Back in this section, some sort of scales fall away from Miles' eyes, and he has an insight that the other Chums fail to see: the noble youth of Europe "cringing in a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death."

The lads find Padzhitnoff, his Bolshai'a Igra now "dozens of times its former size," colored solid red, and renamed "Remember the Starving." He's engaged in charity work now, dropping not brickwork but food, clothing and medical supplies to "whatever populations below were in need of them." He's based in Switzerland, in a "private Alp" stuffed full of contraband chocolate and coffee. The Chums decide not to turn Padzhitnoff in to the "cringers" but to become fugitives from justice themselves.

(Want to call your attention to 1025:35-38, in which artillery shells can be seen "reaching the tops of their trajectories and pausing in the air for an instant before the deadly plunge back to Earth." But this time, the Rainbow of Gravity is observed from above, a reverse parabola. Just sayin'.)

The Chums now find themselves, owing to "special situation" and the Inconvenience's superior speed, repatriating "persons of particular interest who cannot be repatriated without certain awkwardness," when one day, Martinmas (November 11), the Armistice is signed and the war is over. Pugnax brings in an offer from California, an offer of unbelievable remuneration, so it's ho for Los Angeles.

The wind blows them off course, south of the Rio Bravo, where they are rescued by the Sodality of Aethernauts. Here my expertise in Steampunk Science fails me somewhat, as the explanation of the girls' ability to use the Aether as a medium of flight goes whizzing over my fuzzy little head, but I do get the fruity import of Viridian's tart retort: "Burning dead dinosaurs and whatever they ate ain't the answer, Crankshaft Boy."

Also well within my intellectual grasp is the pairing off of Chums and Sodalites (hee!).

The winds finally shift in the Chums' favor, and Los Angeles heaves into view. "Where on Earth is this?" wonders Heartsease. ""That's sort of the problem," muses Chick. "That 'on Earth' part."

The passage that follows tugs at my heartstrings a bit: As a rural sort, living in the shadow of a mountain, I marvel at the stars I can see on a clear, cold night; in my former, light-polluted suburban existence, I missed them terribly, and thought with nostalgia of a time when the cities of Earth didn't blot them almost completely from the sky. In the Chums' day, this process, in which "a triumph over night" meant that shift-work was now possible, meant either "the further expansion of an already prodigious American economy," or "groundhog sweat, misery and early graves," depending on how you see it.

The Chums discover that the lucrative mission they've been sent on is a phony, and they find themselves at a loose end. Wandering around in Hollywood "whom should he run into" but his old dad, "Dick" Counterfly (love those quote marks!). "Dick" (everybody in the world calls him that!) is doing mighty well for himself and this third wife, possibly younger than Chick, named Treacle. "Dick" shows Chick a machine he's invented that has all the appearances of being a primitive Steampunk television; the program -- a submoronic bit of monkey-slapstick -- being broadcast from somewhere "not on the surface of the Earth so much as" -- "Perpendicular," fills in Chick.

The next day, "Dick" picks up Chick in his Packard and takes him to meet up with ol' Merle Rideout and Roswell Bounce, who are running a research facility on Santa Monica Bay. Merle quizzes "Dick" as to some "muscle" to protect their operation -- Roswell's a hair paranoid. Who should "Dick" recommend but our old friend Lew Basnight!

Turns out the device Merle and Roswell are working on is pretty miraculous. Having thrown together some worm drives, Nicol prisms, Navy-surplus Thalofide cells and some baling wire and chewing gum, they've invented a machine that can actually make a photograph come to life! "Ain't that just the damnedest thing you ever saw?"

We end with "Dick" driving Chick back to the Inconvenience in Van Nuys, and some father-son bonding; "Dick" offers to teach Chick to drive, and Chick extends an invitation to go for a spin in the airship. "Well. Thought you'd never ask," sez Dick, and our cold, cold hearts melt just a little tiny bit.

Unavoidably Detained...

...I'm woikin' as fast as I can! This unemployment dodge ain't all beer and skittles!

Meanwhile, here's a little diversion from Epigraph Pianist and His Mighty Sidekick Coltrane...