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 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).
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).