Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Jim Knipfel has reviewed Pynchon's foreword to 1984. Here are some excerpts:

[...] Another way to catch people’s attention, the editors figured, is to commission a new foreword by someone who might have some special, unique insight into what Orwell envisioned. For the centennial edition of Animal Farm, for instance (which received a similar repackaging), they hired Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant. But who would be right for 1984?

Someone, maybe, who might feel a special bond with Winston Smith. Or O’Brien or Goldstein or Big Brother himself. Even Tillotson (you never hear enough about him). If it turns out to be an author who writes like no one ever has before—or ever will—then you’ve got a double bonus. People will pick up the dusty old novel not for the dusty old novel, but for the secret prize hidden inside, like the toy balloon gondolas and plastic cavemen that used to lie buried at the bottom of boxes of Fruity Pebbles. I never liked Fruity Pebbles much, but those gondolas were the best.

Plume couldn’t have done better than to snag Thomas Pynchon. While we all, in some way, have a stake in the implications of Orwell’s novel, I have to believe that Mr. Pynchon’s stake is a bit bigger.

Much as Orwell "foresaw" a world of electronic surveillance, falsified history and sham wars, Pynchon’s own writings (intentionally or not) have had a prescient quality of their own, envisioning everything from the internet to the convergence of computer technology, artificial intelligence and genetic research, which he presaged in his 1984 essay, "Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?". Pynchon is also, it goes without saying, well-versed in the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy.

Here, in his first extended bit of published writing since his introduction to Jim Dodge’s 1997 novel Stone Junction (an essay which also had quite a bit to say on matters Orwellian), Pynchon employs a language that’s simple and straightforward, yet plays with ideas that are (unsurprisingly) subtle. In the end, he’s produced the most insightful—and playful—analysis of the novel I’ve ever read. Pynchon weaves elements of Orwell’s biography together with various political and historical events of his day (and our own) to explain not only what’s going on in 1984, but why, and where it came from.

At the same time, he deals with the above-mentioned "snitch" controversy (without saying as much), dismisses other controversies (like recent claims that Orwell was an anti-Semite) and demolishes several overly simplistic readings of the novel.

[...] He does pause briefly at a couple of points to draw parallels between 1984 and 2003—the use of doublethink by modern-day politicians and media outlets, for instance. He even brings up parallels which aren’t usually brought up: the similarity between Oceania’s Ministries and our own Department of Defense (which wages war) and Department of Justice (which regularly stomps on human and constitutional rights). Early in the essay, he even hints (again without saying as much) at the events of September 2001 and the effect such events usually have on the political outlook of a nation. An attack on one’s own homeland can suddenly transform peace activists into dangerous subversives in the minds of most citizens. It was something Orwell witnessed during the Blitz, and something we’ve witnessed over the past year and a half.

As with most everything he writes, Mr. Pynchon’s essay flows easily through a remarkable range of topics—technology, historical precedent, Orwell’s situation and our own, the cuts the Book of the Month Club wanted to make before releasing the novel, various characters and the roles they play—and how fictional characters can develop the nasty habit of doing things the novelist himself never expected. He even hints in the closing paragraphs that 1984 ends on a note perhaps a bit brighter than most of us realize.

As always, it’s a delightful little ride and, all told, it’s less an introduction to the novel than it is a commentary written for readers already well familiar with it. [...] "

I like Knipfel's take on the foreword. Unlike a couple of trolls on PYNCHON-L, he seems to recognize that Pynchon's assignment wasn't to write a textbook or monograph about Orwell, and that Pynchon takes the opportunity to provide tantalizing glimpses into his own writing. Dave Monroe is right to say -- in his recent comments on PYNCHON-L -- that the foreword is at least as much about Pynchon and his writing as it is about 1984.

I suspect that the foreword points to Pynchon's current novel-in-progress, the way his 1993 essay Nearer My Couch to Thee provided a glimpse at what was to come in Mason & Dixon, published in 1997, with its talk of Franklin, time, dreams, and the fading of "the long-ago age of faith and miracle, when daily life really was the Holy Ghost visibly at work and time was a story, with a beginning, middle and end."

A Pynchon scholar friend suggests that the appearance of this Foreword may also be read as an alert that a new Pynchon novel could be on its way, the author doing what he can to raise his profile a bit -- without plunging into the celebrity author circuit -- in order to help with the marketing of his book. I hope he's right.