2007-02-04 23:01

Light and Pain

This week’s reading covers three chapters centering around Webb, Frank, and Reef Traverse. Below is as brief a summary as I could muster, followed by some questions for the group. I have deliberately left many events unremarked upon, with the expectation that others will fill things in. So let’s get right to it, then, shall we?

189-198 / Light over the ranges

The Ranges

We leave Kit and Lew and return once again to Webb. It is around 1902. All his boys have left home, and only the youngest, his daughter Lake, remains. She is “nearly twenty” (192:4), and as restless as the boys had been. She and Webb have stormy conflicts as she shakes loose of the family more and more. She disappears, returning home with money she will not say how she procured it. She claims to have made it betting on boxing matches, which Webb finds implausible for several reasons.

(I will spare y’all my perhaps excessive research on this topic, other than to say that all the boxers mentioned were real, and Webb’s opinions are borne out by history. Both Malloys were repeatedly defeated by the scrappy, indomitable Flynn; Andy in fact went on to become Jack Dempsey’s manager, who was also defeated by Flynn for the title of heavy-weight champion…)

Webb calls Lake a “child of the storm,” and says, “let the god-damned storm shelter you” (190:12, 18-19). He reflects how she is like a “blue norther,” a freak storm notable for its extreme and sudden temperature shifts. He fears her as he would a massive and unpredictable storm.

Lake leaves for the last time, and returns to Silverton “like coming home to her real family” (191:7-8). She misses her brother Kit the most, “for they were the two youngest, and shared a kind of willfulness, a yearning for the undreamt-of destiny, or perhaps no more than a stubborn aversion to settling for the everyday life of others” (191:25-28). And she fantasizes about waiting at an overpass and dropping a stick of dynamite on Webb as he passes by below (191:30).

With all his children now gone, Webb joins the Local 63. They find him a bit too zealous, and transfer him from Hellkite out to the Torpedo Workings in the Uncompahgre, where he meets Deuce Kindred. Deuce is described as a “Sickly Youth,” who is “more afraid of the fate all too obviously in store for weaklings in this country than of the physical exertion it would take to toughen up and avoid it.” He is described, not insignificantly, in terms of light: he absorbs cruelty, and re-emits it at different frequencies (193:7-14).

Deuce and Webb get to talking, and they watch a “sepulchral figure in a three-dollar sack suit” (193:20-1) walk past, whom Deuce believes is a Company spy. Webb is, or seems, unconcerned. He tells Deuce not to worry about the Company Inspectors. Deuce is a charmer, and Webb falls for it. A “couple-three” nights later, he gives Deuce some gambling advice, and invites him to call him Webb.

Then Deuce meets with a shadowy company rep (perhaps the selfsame “sepulchral figure”?) who contracts him to do some “persuading” or perhaps to “take it further” (194:15-40). Turns out, Deuce has a sidekick named Sloat Fresno, twice Deuce’s size. In the increasing theme of pairings and dualities, Sloat believes that Deuce is his sidekick. Perhaps he is, in some alternate version of the story.

They’ve helped out the Owners Association before on jobs needing their talents. They are craven opportunists, mercenaries. They take Webb while he’s being confronted by the company inspector about pocketing nuggets. “The first blow came out of the dark, filling Webb’s attention with light and pain” (197:3).

Deuce and Sloat ride Webb out into the country. Webb feels damned foolish, through the pain, for having so woefully misread Deuce. In their division of labor, it has fallen to Sloat to inflict physical damage. Using a railroad coupling pin, he smashes Webb’s feet and hands. It’s just a job, and he takes care not to look Webb in the face. Webb finds himself crying out his sons’ names, surprised at the note of reproach in his voice as he does so (197:40).

At 198:1-2, we encounter the sentence that gave Part 1 its name. Webb, severely beaten and now partially blind, watches the light over the ranges drain away. It is unclear, of course, whether the light is draining away because it is nightfall, or because his sight is failing.

They are headed for a place called Jeshimon, “over in Utah” (198:7, 11), where they intend to leave Webb for dead. They pass through Cortez, Colorado, and by chance encounter one Jimmy Drop, a former member of their gang. Deuce and Sloat hightail it out of there, but not before exchanging some “well-meaning rounds” with Jimmy, who tries, rashly and unsuccessfully, to procure a revolver from under one of the fandango girls’ skirts. She pulls instead a .22 from her cleavage for him to borrow.

199-208 / Against the daylight

Nochecita

Frank is in mine school. One day, Reef, “out of the usual nowhere” (199:26), invites Frank to come with him to Castle Rock, ostensibly for some entertainment. They are on their way, it turns out, to see a woman of Reef’s acquaintence. I like their nicknames for each other, Reefer and Francisco (“Kit” is itself short for Christopher; we can wonder if Lake too also has a nickname among them).

They arrive in Nochecita, where they meet Estrella Briggs. She is known as Stray, which makes sense when you recall the double L is pronounced as a Y in most dialects of Spanish. She turns out to be “real pregnant” (201:8), and it would seem Reef is the responsible party. We meet some of Stray’s friends and other regulars: Sage, a Mormon; Cooper, a sensitive motorcycle-riding guitarist and a suitor to Sage; Linnet Dawes, a schoolteacher. Frank slowly comes to the realization that Reef is not perhaps all that welcome here, that Stray’s friends are protecting her from Reef, whom they see as unstable, unreliable.

In a beautifully written passage (205-6), Frank and Stray have an oblique conversation, the bulk of which seems to go over Frank’s head. What strikes him most, however, is that he finds himself attracted to Stray, deeply, and suddenly, as she sits veiled in her own penumbra, against the daylight (205:14-15). The baby kicks, she turns on the electric light, they look at one another for a long instant, and he knows that his memory of her face will long be a vision to get him through “many a hard mile” (206:10).

One day soon afterwards, a phone rings while Reef happens to be sitting right next to it. He answers. It’s Jimmy Drop. “I’m sorry Reef. It’s your Pa” (207:3). Jimmy knows where they’re headed, too: a place called Jeshimon. Reef wants Frank to go back to look after Mayva and Lake. Frank insists on going with him. They are resolute but indecisive. At last, they get moving, travelling together as far as “Mortalidad, the nearest stop to Jeshimon” (208:30).

209-218 / The ends of the earth

Jeshimon

Turns out, Reef is going alone to Jeshimon, which is “well up into Utah” (209:15). He wonders as he approaches the city, “what is wrong with these people?” (209:30). We readers can wonder the same thing. Corpses are strung up on gibbets for miles in every direction. Telegraph poles till they were used up, then “rude structures … known in Persia as”Towers of Silence” (209:40).

Reef meets the fabulously named Reverend Lube Carnal of the Second Lutheran (Missouri Synod) Church, who speaks cheerfully of the strict polarity of the region: “We attract evildoers from hundreds of miles around — not to mention clergy too o’ course” (210:12-13). He speaks of the Mayor of Jeshimon, known as “The Governor.” If, after committing your own personal flavor of sin, the Governor takes notice of you, expect no sanctuary in any of the churches. It is a town in every way surrounded and steeped in death — and piousness. It is a nightmare city of lawlessness, “the place they brought the ones they didn’t want found too soon” (210:28). Reef learns, however, “that, for a price, certain accommodations could be made” (210:29-30).

The Reverend takes Reef on a tour of the city, which is a living catalog of outrages, insults, and deviations so extreme and excessive as to be downright comical. Rev Carnal explains that this is because just as in medicine it is believed that the cure grows alongside the cause, here in Jeshimon, sin and redemption flourish side by side (211:28-30).

He says, “We like to think of Jeshimon as being under God’s wing.” “But wait a minute,” Reef protests, “God doesn’t have wings–” The Rev replies, “The god you’re thinking of, maybe not. But out here, the one who looks after us, is it’s a kind of winged god, you see” (211:34-38). Wes Grimsford, the Marshal, and his deputies ride by, expressionless, on black Arabians. They wear the standard sheriff’s star, but upside down (212:3).

And then, on page 212, we encounter a long description of the Governor. Remind you of anyone?

Fuck You

Now, Webb wasn’t quite dead when Deuce and Sloat brought him into town, and so the buzzards have not yet begun their work when Reef arrives. He buys (or perhaps rents) a set of grappling hooks to ascend Webb’s tower. He manages to get Webb down just in time, and flees as the Marshal approaches.

As he rides back toward Telluride, he reflects on the possibility of Webb having been an Anarchist, the Kieselguhr Kid, and if that really were so, then shouldn’t someone “carry on the family business…?” He feels “some new presence inside him, growing, inflating” (214:18). At night, around the campfire, he takes to reading to Webb from a dime novel he’s had with him for a long time, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. He’s had the book for years, ever since finding it in the lockup in Socorro, New Mexico. As he read, he “enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro, and at the Pole” (215:12). Not only that, but he could read in the dark as long as he didn’t notice the absence of light.

And now, riding with Webb, he begins to feel some presence overhead, “as if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice…” (215:16-18). And as they ride for home, he and Webb exchange some words. Webb doesn’t know where he is. Reef says they’re outside of Cortez, but Webb retorts, “No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes”… (215:24-30).

They have a small funeral, missing only Kit, who’s Back East. Lake is wearing a black dress that seems more suited to quickening pulses than mourning the dead. Reef returns to Nochecita, where Stray has given birth to a son, Jesse. Reef contemplates the dangers of living the double life Webb had lived. “And Webb’s ghost, meantime, Webb’s busy ghost, went bustling to and fro doing what he could to keep things hopping” (218:31-2).

Questions & Curiosities

Some things to think upon and ponder. I’ve got a lot more to say about these chapters and all that I list below, but I will refrain for the nonce. I throw these out there now, and then I will, ahem, bustle to and fro in the comments to keep things hopping…

  • There are some delightful names (Lube Carnal; Sloat Fresno). And some ominous or even dreadful names (Nochecita; Mortalidad; Jeshimon). This is one aspect of Pynchon that I’ve come to see as peculiarly Dickensian. Pynchon’s names are often whimsical, but never entirely without significance. What do they mean, and what do they mean to you?
  • Anyone want to comment on the significance of Lube Carnal belonging specifically to the Missouri Synod? Oh, and does anyone else remember that old Emo Phillips thing of him talking to the guy who’s about to jump off a bridge? If I can find my old E=MO2 cassette (and a device that can actually play cassettes!) maybe I’ll transcribe choice bits…
  • Cooper is riding a motorcycle, which is not in fact an anachronism. His guitar is an Acme “Cornell” (which by a curious coincidence is the name of Our Humble Author’s alma mater). Note, too, the description around 202:29 of how Cooper hits “between the wrong frets.” Who else does that sound like?… Also, Pynchon’s songs hold a special place in the hearts of his readers. Cooper’s song is a lovely thing, and I invite any and all to reflect upon the lyrics. There are several other references to music throughout this section. Discuss.
  • Deuce and Sloat’s division of labor in their killings: body and spirit; each seeing the other as the sidekick. Jeshimon as a polarity. Reef’s dual existence. Webb’s secret identity; Webb, in death, insisting, “no, that’s not where this is.” Discuss.
  • Foax well-versed in other Pynchon works should feel free to drop by in the Add’l Discussion section. I’ve got some questions and comments over there…

Oh, and one more thing. Let’s all take a moment to think of one our Kindly Hosts, Mr Nedward L. Jingo — Without Whom, &c &c — who on Monday morning will be (carefully, carefully!) dismembered and remembered in order to have a new hip joint fitted into his delicate organic nether regions. I am sure I speak for all when I wish you a smooth and uneventful procedure, followed by a speedy and restful recovery!


Comments

A number of compelling crossovers have come to light in these pages. I want to point a few of them out to elicit replies from anyone who may have something to say on these matters. And of course, if there’s anything else you may be thinking about…

First, we have the Marshall of Jeshimon wearing an inverted pentagram, which we’ve already encountered in Mason & Dixon. And along with Carnal’s description of “their god” being winged, we’ve got ourselves a curiously strong collection of satanic images. This seems significant, given the broad theme throughout M&D of the Line carving through the dragon, the spirit of the place, throwing nature out of balance, and so forth. Thoughts?

Second, there are two ties to Vineland, one weak and and strong. The weak one is Sloat’s propensity for referring to Deuce as “li’l buddy,” right out of Gilligan’s Island, bringing to mind Hector Zuñiga, the TV addict.

The strong tie is that of Jesse Traverse. In Vineland, we learn that Prairie Wheeler’s mother’s mother’s father is named “Jess” Traverse. We meet him at the family reunion on page 369. The provenance works out, if a bit tight: If Jesse was born in 1902, his daughter Sasha could have been born anytime in the early 1920s and be old enough to have herself a daughter, Frenesi, in the 1940s. And Prairie was born sometime between 1967 and 1970.

Lastly, I’ve been thinking about that letter to his editor in 1964, where he said he was working on three books at once [1]. It is increasingly clear to me that the three books are Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. Furthermore, it seems to me that Vineland is something of a pullout from ATD — that Vineland as a whole may have come from a long digressive narrative originally meant for ATD, but cut loose because its action takes place so far outside ATD’s fairly tight chronology of 1893 to 1914.

My appeal to the High Chump Council, therefore, is for anyone who knows Vineland well to step forward and discuss for us any themes they may sense ATD shares with that much-maligned tome.

So: what say you all?

[1] Hmm, according to this article, Pynchon apparently spoke of being in the middle of four novels, one of which, I suppose, may very well be Vineland; after all, aside from Lot 49, he has only published four novels since that letter was written, since he’s always spoken of Lot 49 as a short story “with gland trouble” rather than a true novel…


By Way of Explanation, 28 June 2020

Shortly before Against The Day was published, I joined the Chumps of Choice as one of the guest moderators for a group-read of the book. We began in December of 2006 and ran through to December 2007.

I hosted four times, with one additional “side” post. In the interest of owning your own content, I have dredged the following five posts from the Chumps Blogspot archives to give them a new, permanent home here.

I was someone else then. Some posts from that blog will slowly be reappearing here at AFC, backdated with their original publication dates.

Here are links to the five ATD posts:

  1. Light and Pain pp 189–219
  2. “We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing” pp 318–335
  3. Against the Day pp 792–805
  4. Mindless Pleasures
  5. What I Tell You Three Times is True pp 976–999

And they all share the tag Chumps.


pynchon chumps


Previous post
I highly recommend this review. It is spoilerish, if that’s a concern as you read through Against The Day yourself. This is exactly how it feels to
Next post
“We Shall Pretend to Know Nothing” This week’s reading, pp 318-335, returns to Kit, who is still at Yale, which has been losing its charm. Like all too many serious students, he has