By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 4, 2010

17. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon, pp. 525-553

Mason & Dixon: A NovelTwo: America; 54-55
The narrative abruptly shifts to first person, as our abductee tells us that one evening she was "taken to a Chamber, and there laced into an expensive Corset," her face was "painted ... into a wanton Sister of itself,"... and she was given "undergarments ... that might, Blondelle assur'd me, make a French whore think twice." She is to be taken to "the Chinaman."

If this sounds like porn, it is. Tenebrae "has discover'd the sinister Volume in 'Thelmer's Room, lying open to a Copper-plate Engraving of two pretty Nuns, sporting in ways she finds inexplicably intriguing." Ethelmer claims the book, which is "the next in the Ghastly Fop series," is "something of Cousin DePugh's." She wonders that "a young University Gentleman should find Affection between Women at all a topic of interest." He gives her a synopsis of the series featuring the Ghastly Fop, who to some "seems quite conventionally alive, whilst others swear he is a Ghost.... The Series runs to at least a Dozen Volumes by now, tho' no one is sure exactly how many, -- forgeries have also found their way into the Market." Ethelmer tells Tenebrae that he has read as far as "where she meets the Chinese Boy, and they plan their Escape." He says he will read the next chapter to her. "And so off they minuet, to become detour'd from the Revd's narrative Turnpike onto the pleasant Track of their own mutual Fascinations, by way of the Captive's Tale." 

The tale resumes with the captive's account of a dream, and then shifts to third person as the Wolf of Jesus realizes that the "Chinaman," Zhang, whom he has paired with the captive is fluent in Spanish. Moreover, Zhang is now preparing to escape from the Jesuits and the captive "understands when he will leave, and in the instant decides to go with him." She disguises herself as a boy, and they make their escape. He has with him a "miraculous Luo-Pan," a magnetic compass used in feng shui. They make their way to the home of Sir William Johnson, who recognizes Zhang after he "presents him a curious sort of Metallick Plate" and they "exchange a complicated Hand-shake." She reveals herself to be Eliza Fields of Conestoga.

Ethelmer proposes to skip a page of erotic stuff about Eliza and Zhang, but Tenebrae has already read ahead. Eliza and Zhang journey on, and at this point the fiction of the Ghastly Fop joins up with the narrative of the Mason-Dixon expedition: "they arrive at the West Line, and decide to follow the Visto [the line blazed by the axmen] east, and ere long they have come up with the Party." Zhang asks if she plans to return to her husband. "'Either to the Jesuits, or to him? -- That's my full list of Choices? ...' She twirls her Nose in the air, and departs."

Eliza bunks with one of the camp-followers, Zsuzsa Szabó, who does a show involving "Accordion musick, Dog tricks and Gypsy Dancing" with a machine that recreates the Battle of Leuthen. The surveyors meet Eliza in the tent, Dixon quite taken with the "Deerskin Costume" that she wears, and Mason stunned to discover in her a likeness, indeed a "Point-for-Point Representation," of his late wife. Both Mason and Eliza consult the chaplain of the party, which is Cherrycoke, who "speculates that the Resemblance so confounding Mason is less likely the Transmigration of a Soul, than the Resurrection of a Body, -- enough of its Particulars to convince him 'tis she." Mason is tormented by dreams of Rebekah, and one day concludes that since Eliza's hair has grown back in, she no longer looks like her that much.  Eliza tells him that she and Zsuzsa have decided "to go off and be Adventuresses," and if he passes near Conestoga to listen for the sounds of merriment that will reveal how much her husband, Seth, misses her.

Zhang, meanwhile, is criticizing the survey itself: "Terrible Feng-Shui here. Worst I ever saw. You two crazy?" He means that the straight line, the Visto, "acts as a Conduit for what we call Sha, or, as they say in Spanish California, Bad Energy. -- Imagine a Wind, a truly ill wind, bringing failure, poverty, disgrace, betrayal, -- every kind of bad luck there is, -- all blowing through, night and day, with many times the force of the worst storm you were ever in." Boundaries, he says, should "follow Nature, -- coast-lines, ridge-tops, river-banks, -- so honoring the Dragon or Shan within, from which Land-Scape ever takes its form." He is surprised that a people so given to religion as the settlers in America should allow it.

He tells them of his enemy, the Wolf of Jesus, Father Zarpazo, who is "sworn to destroy all who seek God without passing through the toll-gate of Jesus." Under his direction, they have particularly targeted practitioners of feng shui. Dixon is fascinated by Zhang's luopan, recognizing a fellow "Needle man." When he mentions that Mason is frustrated by the fact that the compass "never points to what he calls True North," Zhang says that Zarpazo is too. "The Impurity of this Earth keeps him driven in a holy Rage, -- Which is why he wants this Visto." He explains that the Visto will draw Zarpazo to it because "Purity of Azimuth is his Passion."

Dixon is puzzled that Zhang should be so opposed to their mission, but he reassures him that "my business is with the Jesuit. We happen to be the principal Personae here, not you two! Nor has your Line any Primacy in this, being rather a Stage-Setting, dark and fearful as the Battlements of Elsinore, for the struggle Zarpazo and I must enact upon the very mortal Edge of this great Torrent of Sha." But so obsessed is Zhang with the struggle against Zarpazo that he has become paranoid, convinced that Zarpazo, "a master of disguise, ... has actually penetrated the Camp, and only waits his moment to administer that poison'd Stiletto preferr'd by a Jesuit confronting Error." His suspicions also include Dixon because "'Tis widely assum'd that you are here on behalf of the Jesuit Le Maire." The Jesuits, he claims, want to "tap into the unremitting torrent of Sha roaring all night and all day, and convert it to their own uses."

Mr. Everybeet, the mineralogist, notes that "west of here, in the Hills 'round Cheat and Monongahela, are secret Lead Mines, which the Indians guard jealously." And that "who controls Lead controls the supply of Ammunition."

Mason and Dixon conclude that Zhang is "a few Links short of a Chain," especially when he begins transforming himself into the image of his adversary, Zarpazo. He wears black robes and begins to grow a small beard, and "Spanish phrases increasingly creep into his Conversation." Mason suggests that there might be trouble if Zhang's presence attracts Zarpazo and that Dixon is the only one who can get rid of him: "He already thinks you're a Jesuit Agent. All you have to do is advise him to stay, and he'll do the opposite." But Zhang claims to have an amulet against the Jesuit that will protect the expedition: "a dark Red sphere about the size of a Cherry" that he claims is a cyst that once grew in the brain of a cobra. "Therefore fear not the Advent of the Wolf, for here is the soul of the Cobra, yet living, yet potent." When Zhang displays it, "'I'll buy one!' Dixon cries. Mason looks upward, patiently."

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