IT WAS MIDAPRIL, Carnevale had been over for weeks, and Lent was coming to a close, skies too drawn and pallid to weep for the fate of the cyclic Christ, the city having slowly regained a maskless condition, with a strange dull shine on the paving of the Piazza, less a reflection of the sky than a soft glow from regions below. But the silent communion of masks was not quite done here.
On one of the outer islands in the Lagoon, which had belonged to the Spongiatosta family for centuries, over an hour away even by motor craft, stood a slowly drowning palazzo. Here at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday began the secret counter-Carnevale known as Carnesalve, not a farewell but an enthusiastic welcome to flesh in all its promise. As object of desire, as food, as temple, as gateway to conditions beyond immediate knowledge.
With no interference from authority, church or civic, all this bounded world here succumbed to a masked imperative, all hold on verbatim identities loosening until lost altogether in the delirium. Eventually, after a day or two, there would emerge the certainty that there had always existed separately a world in which masks were the real, everyday faces, faces with their own rules of expression, which knew and understand one another—a secret life of Masks. It was not quite the same as during Carnevale, when civilians were allowed to pretend to be members of the Maskworld, to borrow some of that hieratic distance, that deeper intimacy with the unexpressed dreams of Masks. At Carnevale, masks had suggested a privileged indifference to the world of flesh, which one was after all bidding farewell to. But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.
1. Okay—I know it’s been like forever since I riffed on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (here, “forever” = a few weeks), but I took a week off from the novel, which turned into two weeks, which is a bad habit, yes, but here we are, and I’m nearing the end of the shaggy beast. I don’t think Pynchon is going to tie all the loose threads into some perfect picture for me, but I don’t think I’d want that anyway.
2. Where I am in the book: Cyprian, Cyprian, Cyprian. The beginning of The Great War. Just waaaaaay too much going on to even bother to begin to try to summarize.
3. Cyprian is surely the most fascinating character of Against the Day, but his somewhat late arrival in the text feels, I don’t know, lumpy or something. Something about reading such a long book—we make a kind of investment in certain plots, figures, characters, and Pynchon here sort of moves them into the background, or disappears them completely, for long, long stretches. I’m thinking about The Chums of Chance in particular, but also Lew Basnight, the Tunguska event, the Vibes vs. the Traverses, etc. Thematically it’s all there, but this stretch with Cyprian’s dark adventures, while fantastic, also feels almost like a novella shoehorned into the final chapters of an epic. This is not a complaint.
4. I’ve shared a few citations from Against the Day since my last riff, but the one above (my Kindle tells me its at the 82% mark, if that means anything to you) seems to resonate with what I take to be the major themes and motifs of the novel.
I’m thinking specifically of the final line: “But here at Carnesalve, as in espionage, or some revolutionary project, the Mask’s desire was to be invisible, unthreatening, transparent yet mercilessly deceptive, as beneath its dark authority danger ruled and all was transgressed.”
Invisible is obviously a key word in Against the Day, and the novel turns on concepts of doubling, masking, transgression, themes that the Carnevale-Carnesalve disjunction highlights (flesh vs. spirit, visible vs. invisible, etc.).
5. Actually, now that I think about it, Cyprian probably most embodies, or, rather, embodies most complexly, Pynchon’s themes of doubling, masking, and transgression. He’s his own doppelganger. (Even the name suggest a kind of bilocation — Cyprus, that ancient crossroads of East and West).
6. And —
The Carnesalve chapter culminates in a truly salacious sex scene, an S&M-fueled ménage à trois that somehow simultaneously punctures the novels structure of doubling (cause, uh, a three-way) at the same time it reinforces it (Cyprian as self-double). I’m not sure if any of this that I’m saying makes any sense at all.
7. The image at the top of this riff is a detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel.