Thursday, May 08, 2003

Happy birthday, Thomas Pynchon!

"Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr was born to Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Sr. and Katherine Frances Bennett Pynchon on May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York."
--The Straight Dope

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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Pynchon has written a foreword to a new edition of Orwell's 1984. Some reviewers have praised it highly (just about the only place it's being trashed -- by a couple of the usual suspects -- is PYNCHON-L). The Guardian has published a slightly shortened version, but it's worth buying the book to read the Foreword in full.

Pynchon has strong words for post-9/11 U.S. Here's a sampling:

"[...] Now, those of fascistic disposition - or merely those among us who remain all too ready to justify any government action, whether right or wrong - will immediately point out that this is prewar thinking, and that the moment enemy bombs begin to fall on one's homeland, altering the landscape and producing casualties among friends and neighbours, all this sort of thing, really, becomes irrelevant, if not indeed subversive. With the homeland in danger, strong leadership and effective measures become of the essence, and if you want to call that fascism, very well, call it whatever you please, no one is likely to be listening, unless it's for the air raids to be over and the all clear to sound. But the unseemliness of an argument - let alone a prophecy - in the heat of some later emergency, does not necessarily make it wrong. One could certainly argue that Churchill's war cabinet had behaved on occasion no differently from a fascist regime, censoring news, controlling wages and prices, restricting travel, subordinating civil liberties to self-defined wartime necessity. [...]"

"[...] Doublethink also lies behind the names of the superministries which run things in Oceania - the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Truth tells lies, the Ministry of Love tortures and eventually kills anybody whom it deems a threat. If this seems unreasonably perverse, recall that in the present-day United States, few have any problem with a war-making apparatus named "the department of defence," any more than we have saying "department of justice" with a straight face, despite well-documented abuses of human and constitutional rights by its most formidable arm, the FBI. Our nominally free news media are required to present "balanced" coverage, in which every "truth" is immediately neutered by an equal and opposite one. Every day public opinion is the target of rewritten history, official amnesia and outright lying, all of which is benevolently termed "spin," as if it were no more harmful than a ride on a merry-go-round. We know better than what they tell us, yet hope otherwise. We believe and doubt at the same time - it seems a condition of political thought in a modern superstate to be permanently of at least two minds on most issues. Needless to say, this is of inestimable use to those in power who wish to remain there, preferably forever. [...] "

"[...] Prophecy and prediction are not quite the same, and it would ill serve writer and reader alike to confuse them in Orwell's case. There is a game some critics like to play in which one makes lists of what Orwell did and didn't "get right". Looking around us at the present moment in the US, for example, we note the popularity of helicopters as a resource of "law enforcement," familiar to us from countless televised "crime dramas," themselves forms of social control - and for that matter at the ubiquity of television itself. The two-way telescreen bears a close enough resemblance to flat plasma screens linked to "interactive" cable systems, circa 2003. News is whatever the government says it is, surveillance of ordinary citizens has entered the mainstream of police activity, reasonable search and seizure is a joke. And so forth. "Wow, the government has turned into Big Brother, just like Orwell predicted! Something, huh?" "Orwellian, dude!"

Well, yes and no. Specific predictions are only details, after all. What is perhaps more important, indeed necessary, to a working prophet, is to be able to see deeper than most of us into the human soul. Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not yet even come into its own - the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the Third Reich and Stalin's USSR, even the British Labour party - like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States? Moral superiority? Good intentions? Clean living?

What has steadily, insidiously improved since then, of course, making humanist arguments almost irrelevant, is the technology. We must not be too distracted by the clunkiness of the means of surveillance current in Winston Smith's era. In "our" 1984, after all, the integrated circuit chip was less than a decade old, and almost embarrassingly primitive next to the wonders of computer technology circa 2003, most notably the internet, a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about. [...] "

" [...] The interests of the regime in Oceania lie in the exercise of power for its own sake, in its unrelenting war on memory, desire, and language as a vehicle of thought. Memory is relatively easy to deal with, from the totalitarian point of view. There is always some agency like the Ministry of Truth to deny the memories of others, to rewrite the past. It has become a commonplace, circa 2003, for government employees to be paid more than most of the rest of us to debase history, trivialise truth and annihilate the past on a daily basis. Those who don't learn from history used to have to relive it, but only until those in power could find a way to convince everybody, including themselves, that history never happened, or happened in a way best serving their own purposes - or best of all that it doesn't matter anyway, except as some dumbed-down TV documentary cobbled together for an hour's entertainment. [...]"

"[...] There is a photograph, taken around 1946 in Islington, of Orwell with his adopted son, Richard Horatio Blair. The little boy, who would have been around two at the time, is beaming, with unguarded delight. Orwell is holding him gently with both hands, smiling too, pleased, but not smugly so - it is more complex than that, as if he has discovered something that might be worth even more than anger - his head tilted a bit, his eyes with a careful look that might remind filmgoers of a Robert Duvall character with a backstory in which he has seen more than one perhaps would have preferred to. Winston Smith "believed that he had been born in 1944 or 1945 . . ." Richard Blair was born May 14, 1944. It is not difficult to guess that Orwell, in 1984 , was imagining a future for his son's generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against. He was impatient with predictions of the inevitable, he remained confident in the ability of ordinary people to change anything, if they would. It is the boy's smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted - a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed. [...]"

Pynchon presents a nuanced argument, however, which is worth reading in the context of the entire Foreword. It also provides some tantalizing glimpses into Pynchon's writing practice, and sheds light on the novels, stories, and essays where Pynchon shares and responds to some of Orwell's concerns. So, buy the book and read Pynchon's Foreword, then go ahead and read 1984 again, too.