Against the Day on Flight 949

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.

5 thoughts on “Against the Day on Flight 949”

  1. hey there,

    would you mind giv­ing me a page ref­er­ence for quo­ta­tion in which fleet­wood talks to our kit? it’s a good one…,

    best, hugo

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