Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind | The Nation


Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind

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2. Mathematicians, Magicians and Parapsychologists. These children of Hamilton, Tesla, Houdini and Blavatsky are all over the novel's world, from Cleveland, Colorado, Iowa and Yale to London, Iceland, Göttingen and Sarajevo. "Water falls, electricity flows--one flow becomes another, and thence into light," whose "revealed mysteries" drive mathematicians as mad as the Venetian mirror-makers. ("I want to know light," says one; "I want to reach inside light and find its heart, touch its soul, take some in my hands.") They imagine a map, somewhere in Riemann space-time, in which a linear axis becomes curvilinear, linear time thus becomes circular and eternal return is achieved. In the same way, the parapsychologists of T.W.I.T. (True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tetractys) seek in Orphic and Pythagorean mysticism, in Tarot cards, magic crystals and nut cutlets, a Golden Dawn of telekinesis and "a gateway to the Ulterior." Whereas magicians like Luca Zombini, with his "perfect mirrors" and Nicol prisms, wish merely to trick us into a disappearing cabinet.

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John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

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Where Quaternion meets Tetractys and Zombini is at the nexus of Iceland spar, a doubly refracting crystal that multiplies images so exactly as to unleash twinship and "the mysterious shamanic power known as bilocation" on an already schizzy situation. For mathematicians, magicians and mystagogues alike, not to mention double agents in all the information ministries, this refraction is a portal into an icy elsewhere--"pulses of color, dense sheets and billows and colonnades of light and current, in transfiguration unceasing"; "induced paramorphism," "ever-more-polycrystalline luminosities of meaning" and a "doubling of Creation." But also, much less cheerfully--"sinister unknowability," "unholy radiance," "nocturnal ghostways," "axes of sorrow and loss" and "a lethal impedance in the air, as if something malevolent were making every exertion to take form and be released upon the world in long, dry, cracking percussions, as if jarring the fabric of four-space itself."

I will not pretend to grasp all this. In a Richard Powers novel, I am almost persuaded that I could crack the genetic code myself, given his elegant instructions. In a Pynchon, I just go with the metaphoric flow, which turns out to be a long way. At least none of it is contradicted by the latest string theories, with their "extra" dimensions and "supersymmetry." It is suggested here that such fraught light, converted maybe into lasers, was somehow responsible for the Tunguska Event in Siberia in June 1908, where an explosion in the nuclear range, equivalent to ten to twenty megatons of TNT, felled 60 million trees over 830 square miles. Instead of comets, asteroids, earthquakes or ball lightning, why not Chernobyl--"the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation," after which, for a while, reindeer flew, clocks ran backward and wolves walked into churches to quote Scripture. But "we of the futurity" are not required to take this suggestion seriously. We know what really happened when atomic physicists went into the Los Alamos desert, took light in their hands and broke it like a pencil. And a lot of good it did us to quote Sanskrit.

3. Anarchists and Those Who Love Them. Instead of up in the air or abstractions, they are down in caves, tunneling for railroads, mining metals. Our hero here is Webb Traverse, who, as a hoistman, singlejacker and even assistant foreman in the Colorado silver mines, "never saw a minute that didn't belong to somebody else"; whose membership card in the Western Federation of Miners reads, as if auditioning for a part in the nostalgia craze, "Labor produces all the wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof"; whose clandestine identity is the Kieselguhr Kid, a dynamiter of anything owned by those "Plutonic powers" who "daily sent their legions of gnomes underground to hollow out as much of that broken domain as they could before the overburden collapsed, often as not on top of their heads"; who is murdered by thugs in the employ of the railroad tycoon Scarsdale Vibe; who must be avenged by his three sons, who are likewise stalked by assassins--Reef, a gambling man who leaves the country when the heat turns up, to tunnel in the Alps; Kit, a mathematician who goes first to Yale, then Göttingen and finally Tibet; and Frank, who spends most of this book fighting on the losing side in the Mexican Revolution.

As Vineland reminded us of a lost history of radical politics on the West Coast; of union organizing in mines, logging camps and canneries; of strikes against San Joaquin cotton, Ventura beets and Venice lettuce; of Tom Mooney, Harry Bridges and the '50s blacklists, so Against the Day gives us a remarkable sense of a working-class culture with "a shared dream of what a city might at its best prove to be," under permanent siege; of stockmen, gunsmiths, drovers, barkeeps, remittance men and pharmacy drummers "with giant sample valises full of nerve tonics and mange pills"; meat-packing scars, needlework squints, drift, squat, fatigue, foreclosure, unemployment and dispossession; scabs, militias, vigilantes, the National Guard and the Ku Klux Klan; bullpens and bayonets, Bakunin and Kropotkin, Joe Hill and Viva Zapata.

All that needs to be said of Yashmeen Halfcourt, girl mathematician; Wren Provenance, girl anthropologist; Dahlia Rideout, girl stage personality; and Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin, girl trampoline, is that women get in the way of vengeance. Already, from Gravity's Rainbow, you should know about Pynchon and kinky sex. What happens here belongs more to the sociology of Weimar Republic fetish clubs than to the political science of class war.

4. Bad Guys. They are capitalists, Pinkertons, diplomats and double agents. "Smite early and often," says Scarsdale Vibe. Since they have hollowed out the earth with their technologies of desire, we root for a hard fall and reciprocal sucking. But they almost always get away with it, so why give them any more time of day? Instead, I hold out a forlorn hope for the Tatzelwurm we meet in the tunnels between Switzerland and Italy, a snake with paws, a serpent of resentment, a "primordial plasm of hate and punishment at the center of the Earth." If Reef, Kit and Frank fail to avenge their father, maybe the Tatzelwurm will.

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