Ice cream, in tubs, across the sky.
Air Canada 899 Heavy asks Scottish for a ride report on flight level three six zero. Scottish is busy getting an oceanic from Iceland for KLM 601, but United 949 reports three six zero smooth.
I am eating ice cream aboard said United 949 London Heathrow to Chicago, listening to the chatter on channel 9 of the in-flight audio programme. It’s an addictive little bit of eavesdropping that United Airlines provides “at the captain’s discretion” and I suppose there is some comfort for the uneasy flyer (and are we all not, admit it, uneasy flyers?) that as long as you can hear it, there’s nothing amiss that you’re not supposed to be hearing. It’s a stream of information about chop, flight levels, handovers, and radio frequencies. I can think of no rational reason why I find it fascinating, but I happily pass on the music channels that are chopped into decades and the movie choices (Happy Feet, seen it; Night at the Museum, nuh-uh) to listen to a bunch of pilots talking endlessly about the weather. This is how we pass the time, in a world without Google.
I also have with me for company an RLB (Ridiculously Large Book), Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. Were it not Pynchon, I would never travel with a tome of this physical and intellectual weight. But it IS Pynchon, and given the need to occassionally stop, get your bearings, re-read, skip back to the appearance of this — where did HE come from — next of a dozen characters that have appeared in so many pages, or figure out how the narrative present of one first-person story has somehow morphed into a third-person history by a minor character who, wait, was actually the narrator a moment ago, well, it will be Christmas before I finish it if I don’t take these extended reading opportunities seriously.
It begins, funnily enough, with a flight to Chicago, though one conducted by Zeppelin in 1893 and featuring, instead of pilot chatter, the nicely self-referential opening “Now single up all lines!” as the Chums of Chance set out for the World’s Fair. Now the names of these particular chums will echo familiarly to readers of Thomas P, for there is Darby Suckling who must, by some winking Pynchonian logic, be related by plot if not by blood to the famous Pig Bodine, Seaman hero of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow and name dropped, if I remember correctly, in the Crying of Lot 49. And Miles Blundell? If I said his name aloud with a mouthful of ice cream, would the attentive listener not be forgiven for hearing Lyle Bland? Do I stretch? Very well, I stretch. But if I perceive a plot, dear reader, it is because I cannot shake the strangeness from my sight of this sentence, the first utterance of “the newest member” of the Zeppelin crew, Chick Counterfly, upon witnessing an unfortunate tripping incident involving Miles:
“Ha ha,” cried young Counterfly, “say, but if you ain’t the most slob-footed chap I ever seen!”
Professor Zibarna T Girfeld, in her exhaustive 10-volume work entitled “Entropy or Sloth: The Anagrams of Thomas Pynchon,” will note one day that the name of Gravity’s Rainbow’s dissipational Rocket-eroticist, Tyrone Slothrop, occurs in the constellation of letters “Counterfly” and “Slob-footed chap,” a fact that no self-respecting crossword puzzle solver or pursuer of similar mindful pleasures would miss. But the question that will eventually drive Professor Girfeld to the edge of obsessional will be whether this is authorial intent or mere coincidence? And by either measure, are we not invited — nay, compelled — to ponder the greater meaning of such an alphabetical allusion? Is it divine pattern? Or preterite prank? Or could it be some combination, by which the Pynchonian pen has been guided, through agencies unknown, crossed over from some land of light, ouija-like, to spell out the name of a ghost foretold, a character as yet unborn into this narrative presence, yet living simultaneously, in some parallel world of words that moves not with the arrow of time nor, anagramatically, with any respect for linearity at all?
Should we not pause to consider that authorial intent is but ballistics, and as all of us –fair met, fellows– good Pynchonians know, the narrative arc and all that occurs along its path, like the polychrome parabola in the wake of the Schwartzgerat, is only half determined by thrust and will, with the downslope described by invisible forces. “First the explosion, then the sound.”
62 north track alpha 47 west, airspeed fluctuations plus minus ten knots. Acknowledge Reykjavik Alpha Tango Charlie.
And as we arc toward Chicago, we fly over Iceland and into the Arctic Circle, just as the narrative arc of Against the Day finds its setting there… THERE… far below me. And I am in an airship over Iceland, reading about an airship over Iceland. And I come across this passage, one of those too-many-to-count Pynchonian paragraphs that you roll around in your mouth like a tart Merlot:
I was possessed by the dream of a passage through an invisible gate. It could have been a city, but it didn’t have to be a city. It was more a matter of the invisble taking on substance.
Kit nodded. “And…”
Fleetwood stood with his hands in his pockets, shaking his head slowly. “There are stories, like maps that agree … too consistent among too many languages and histories to be only wishful thinking… It is always a hidden place, the way into it is not obvious, the geography is as much spiritual as physical. If you should happen upon it, your strongest certainty is not that you have discovered it but returned to it. In a single great episode of light, you remember everything.
“Oh…” Following Kit’s glance, downhill, toward the invisible “big house,” the late sun on the trees. “There’s home, and there’s home, you know.”
United 949 is encountering some light chop at three six zero, requests descent to three five. ATC reports no Alpha-Ts. We will shortly be beginning our descent into Chicago.
Our ground time here will not be long.