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, August 27, 2007

Of Masks and Murder: pp. 849-63

First, a little architecture: this week's reading covers pages 849 through 863, which is a single chapter -- the tenth in the novel's titular fourth part. Said chapter is itself divided into eight sections. What's more, being that "Against the Day" (the part, not the novel) is divided into twenty chapters (4:20, anyone?), the conclusion of this chapter marks Part Four's halfway point. Its content focuses primarily on the actions and interactions of Reef (first in Nice, France, then in Venice) and Yashmeen (in Venice, though with the odd flashback to Croatia).

The Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, 1910, source

The chapter opens with Reef riding the winds of chance, gambling and "drift[ing]" through Nice's haut hotels, but desirous of a good ol' explosion. Chance favors Reef's desire by reintroducing "his old Simplon Tunnel compañero Flaco, [who is] even more anarchistic and dynamite-crazy than before" (849). The two recollect old times and discuss Flaco's recent dealing's with Frank, whose message that he'd '''got one of them''' Flaco delivers to Reef who wonders which one was "got" (849). The two begin to discuss the possibility of Frank's following Flaco back to Mexico for the impending revolution when -- BOOM -- the bourgeois café at which they'd just sat down is subject to a "great blossoming of disintegration" as a terrorist's bomb detonates (850). There follows a passage of top shelf Tom describing with Bellowsian abundance the proliferated details of the explosion (850-51). It's these moments, more than anything else, that keep me devotedly following Pynchon. Following the boom, Reef and Flaco spend some time performing triage before seeking out medical attention for themselves from one Professeur Pivoine, a knife-obsessed surgeon under whose blade Reef has a consoling vision of Kit. Following a section break, we find Flaco ready to leave, Reefless, for Mexico. The two discuss the relative ethical values of ground war and assassination (Flaco's for the former; Reef the latter).

Image taken from a film by the Lumiere Brothers, albeit of Paris, not Venice, but hey, it was the best I could do, source

Following another section break, the narrative shifts from Reef to Yashmeen, specifically her possession of The Book of the Masked, a gift from Vlado Pynchon's baroque description of which might also serve as a fairly adequate description of Against the Day. There follows a flashback to Yashmeen receiving the book from Vlado and a discussion of it authenticity, then another break and a very brief paragraph-section describing their habit of moviegoing in Venice, specifically a Lumiere film shot near the site of the theater they frequented which the folks over at the Pynchon Wiki have identified as the early Lumiere Brothers film Panorama du Grand Canal pris d'un bateau.

A ballroom at the Hotel Excelsior, Venice, source

Jump cut back to Reef now searching in vain for Scarsdale in Venice, "where everything had gone off the rails" (854). There he meets Pino and Rocco, two "inland sailors" traveling "semimiraculous routes," borne on the back of a "a species of Adriatic sea-monster" (854). Together they all head to the Hotel Excelsior, which, the sailors inform Reef, is not, as its outward appearance might suggest, closed for the winter. Rather than being fueled by the discretionary wealth of summertime tourist lira, in cold weather the bar serves as refuge to those fleeing the hostile snows outside. And there, whom should he meet but Yashmeen and Vlado, themselves fleeing not only the exterior cold but Austrian gunmen and Theign, to boot. Unfortunately, the Excelsior proves less suited to keeping out the pursuers than the wind, and the whole lot of them flee across the beach with Reef employing his elephant gun to provide cover fire. Unfortunately, during the fighting, Vlado is shot and the others are forced to leave him behind, Yashmeen and Reef fleeing in a small boat towed by Pino and Rocco's submarine Il Squalaccio.

Venetian Carnevale mask, source

They seek shelter in Pino and Roco's apartment and Reef leaves Yashmeen alone while he goes out to try and get word of Vlado's fate. When he returns he finds Yashmeen scantliy clad and asleep, which sets him off masturbate, an activity which he eventually realizes Yashmeen has joined him at. They have some summary sex -- Reef apparently having gotten himself the better part of the way home already -- and then discuss Vlado's fate, which Reef has heard is as a prisoner in the Arsenale, which, Wikipedia informs us, "is a shipyard and naval depot that played a leading role in Venetian empire-building." This section, by now the longest in the chapter, ends with Yashmeen at the hair salon, having her hair cut and colored by Fabrizio, Venice's finest stylist, in an attempt to disguise her identity. Her hair, the narrator intrudes to tell us, she donates to Fab, who employs it in "an elaborate wig in the eighteenth-century Venetian style, appropriate for a Carnevale costume, as part of which it was to appear in the near future, at a fateful masked ball" (860).

The Arsenale, Venice, source

In the next section, we get a glimpse of Vlado's condition within the Arsenale, which ain't so hot. The section begins with an extended meditation on the role of the Arsenale in the Venetian collective psyche, wherein we learn that the walled shipyard represents a "mystery" no less alien to day to day life in the city than does that of the nearby San Michele cemetery. Even from the inside, though, the analogy stands, as Vlado feels himself to be very nearly a dead man. Questioned by Theign, he plays hardball, refusing to disclose any information about Yashmeen, though the narrator informs us, his position is not so cushy as, say, a man in a tavern with a gun to his forehead, where at least there is a chance of outside aid. No, "[a]ny bet made in here would be for the highest possible stakes" (862).

Gamblers in the Casino at Monte Carlo, c. 1910, source

The chapter ends with two brief sections focused on Yashmeen. In the first, she tries to explain to Reef that "she put her faith, like a good Emotional Anarchist, in the Law of Deterministic Insufficiency," which she elaborates, is "'[l]ike a card coming up that you could never have predicted.'" This Reef doesn't buy, so she starts trying to explain the underlying math to him, which has a decidedly soporific effect. She continues to whisper her theory to him, though, referencing Wilson's theorem, which has something to do with remainders, factorials and primes, though I personally am left a little lost in trying to understand its exact relevance. Strangely, the subliminal teaching seems to be effective, because Reef starts "to win at roulette far outside the expectations of chance" (863). Reef, meantimes, is trying to come to terms with his unfading desire for her, which he finds somewhat inexplicable.

An artist's rendering of The Book of the Masked, which only coincidentally looks exactly like the Necronomicon from Evil Dead, source

In the final section -- a single paragraph -- we learn that Yashmeen misses Vlado terribly and has begun reading daily, "like a devout person with a religious text," from Vlado's ''Book of the Masked'', the contents of which appear "to be a mathematical argument of the classic sort [. . .] except that everywhere terms containing time stood like infiltrators at a masked ball, prepared at some unannounced pulse of the clock to throw back their capes and reveal their true identities and mission" (863).

9 Comments:

At Tuesday, August 28, 2007 8:37:00 PM, Blogger brooktrout said...

The Book of the Masked? This feels like an anarchists New Testament, or like the decoder ring by which you could understand the Shadow's secret messages to the children of radioland. It sounds as impenetrably symbolic as John's apocalypse. Is it saying something about the nature of literature.? The way we mine literature as a way to cope with some great loss of direct experience. About the form and function of Pynchon's book?

New testament images include the last line from a recent chapter: "You have eaten my heart."

The mask image is particularly potent for me as I just listened to Zorro , on tape, by Isabel Allende. She is not a great writer, but the outline of the story is very appealing to me, the other, darker side of boy's adventures and dime novels, an early version of Batman, the Shadow, a darker version of Robin Hood. Vlado has some of this mystique.

 
At Wednesday, August 29, 2007 5:11:00 AM, Blogger Will Divide said...

Vlado has some of this mystique.

And a V name to boot. . .

Grammercies, Axio, for the insight into the Book of the Masked (thanks to a German/English online dictionary, Zeugnisbüchlein apparently means Testimony Book, a new testiment?)

Interesting how its four parts (M,M,L & J? A-and, yikes, recall that Venice is sacred to St. Mark, whose symbol is a winged lion with a book. It just never ends with this guy. . .) correspond to certain themes, perhaps very directly, in AtD.

We've already heard the voices of the dead, passed through the earth, found several invisible, or hierarchic, gates. But now, really, a task for the readers as much as the characters: To Recognize the Faces of Those with the Knowledge.

Is this perhaps the theme of our fourth book of AtD? While knowledge is a tricky construct, especially if you stick with the Vast Buddhist Allegory theory, it does bespeak a certain need, and goal, in seeking, and seeking is certainly a major theme in all of TRP's woiks.

Might mention in passing too that "the knowledge" is what London cabbies need to have (a complete mental street map of the city) before they are given licence to drive. So, tangentially, to recognize those with the knowledge means hail a cab in London.

Oi.

Also a question - Dally has disappeared from the Ca' Spongia. We don't know where, do we?

 
At Thursday, August 30, 2007 11:09:00 AM, Blogger sfmike said...

Nice summary, Mr. Apricot, and I love brooktrout's comparison of Vlado as an Ushkok Zorro, except in this case it's Zorro mixed with Tesla. And speaking of Tesla, he was also from the same strange Adriatic valleys as Vlado whose book contains "inks and pastels, of what Vlado had been visited by under the assaults of his home wind, of what could not be paraphrased into the strange holiness of Old Slavonic script, visions of the unsuspected, breaches in the Creation where something else had had a chance to be luminously glimpsed. (853:15)" As a.a. points out, Pynchon could easily be writing about "Against The Day."

Other favorite lines: (851:3) The description of the cafe bombing, which a.a. so enjoys, ends with the wonderful "Leaving these so abruptly wounded bourgoisie, crying like children, children again..." and Flaco's pragmatic take on the way of the world (852:27): "Maybe I'm losing faith in assassinating the great and powerful anymore, maybe all it is, is just another dream they like to tease us with."

Pynchon uses old-fashioned foreshadowing in this section almost comically. At the movie viewing (854), "She felt a tremor pass through Vlado's body" after the movie enters the Arsenale, and at the end of the fabulous Fabrizio the Hairdresser scene, we have "Yashmeen's hair was to have a peculiar and not altogether dishonorable fate...at a fateful masked ball. (860:14)."

Pino and Rocco are our old friends from Ostend, first introduced on page 529 with their Siluro Dirigibile as they planned the assassination of King Leopold on his royal yacht. I was glad to see them again, and read that they had fallen in love with their submarine and decided not to blow it up after all, but instead customize it for other purposes. By the way, a.a., it was very confusing, but Yashmeen and Reef don't go to Pino and Rocco's apartment in Venice after the shoothout, it's an empty place that belongs to friends of Reef's, "some boys from down the Amalfi coast, we've done business together, they keep it handy for whoever. (857:23)"

And Will, as far I can tell, we don't have a clue where Dally went.

 
At Saturday, December 24, 2011 9:38:00 AM, Anonymous need to buy a research paper said...

I think in the past, Nice welcomed many immigrants from Italy (who continue to make up a large proportion of the population), as well as Spanish and Portuguese immigrants

 
At Tuesday, June 26, 2012 3:27:00 AM, Anonymous mbiencegroup said...

The thing you're writing is a big blunder.

 
At Sunday, November 17, 2013 11:09:00 PM, Blogger kashif mughal said...

First, a little architecture: this week's reading covers pages 849 through 863, which is a single chapter -- the tenth in the novel's titular fourth part. Said chapter is itself divided into eight sections.

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