There are distinct themes that run through every book by Thomas Pynchon I’ve had the pleasure to read. These themes begin and end with the struggle of technology versus the natural world. Pynchon once wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review entitled “Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?”
“Now, given that kind of time span, it’s just not easy to think of Ned Lud as a technophobic crazy. No doubt what people admired and mythologized him for was the vigor and single-mindedness of his assault. But the words “fit of insane rage” are third-hand and at least 68 years after the event. And Ned Lud’s anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.”
That paragraph alone makes the essay worth reading. Pynchon seems to be obsessed with the idea of whether humans can actually coexist with technology. And I don’t mean cars and planes and the laptop I’m typing on; I mean the warplanes, bombs, drones, machines that are ruling our lives. This idea comes at an interesting time for me. While I’m drudging my way through “M&D” I’m also perusing P.W. Singer’s “Wired for War,” a startling book about the future of war as robotics and technology begins to shape and change it. Singer’s book is terrifying. He predicts a future where robots not much different from stormtroopers are used in war, and “Terminator” and “Robocop” are no longer fiction. I honestly believe that if he’s right—and experts time and again nod their heads in his general direction—we’re in for one helluva ride.
It’s the future Pynchon hesitates to embrace. In “Gravity’s Rainbow”—my favorite Pynchon novel—he spends most of his time dreading the idea of the “bad guys” might uncover the secret of the ”Schwarzgerät,” or “black device.” This mysterious “technology” holds all the power. Just as Singer suggests a future where a country with the latest technology could dominate on the battlefield, Pynchon suggests that it is a scary prospect to think what will happen if the “bad guys” are the ones in charge of it. 1
At first glance, this novel following Mason and Dixon in a wild journey to the New World in order to draw an imaginary line doesn’t have the first thing to do with technology and our relation to it.
But after the first 200 pages, I can’t help but believe that is certainly one of the underlining themes. “GR” was set in a time of great technological advance—World War II—while these men are traveling in a time where skepticism rules the day. To these men there’s nothing that isn’t possible in this turn of the 18th Century world. As I talked about last week, there is also a running theme of finding our place in the universe among the chaos.
Traditional views of the world are colliding with a more scientific view and Pynchon uses these “star-gazing” characters to push us toward questioning our role in this chaos. There’s some “Sirius business” unfolding in this novel. From Cape Town, the two men travel to the small island of St. Helena, a sort of “Purgatory,” after the “Hell” of Cape Town. 2 The island is ravaged by the natural world. Wind makes people go crazy and Mason actually hears his dead wife in the wind, telling him to “belong to the earth” and everything will be revealed. And St. Helena is located on a volcano, which the narrator points out could explode at any moment. As Mason hangs out on the island, Dixon heads back to Cape Town where the nymphos are still ravaging their prey. I can’t help but think that this obsession with sex—the ultimate physical contact, as it were—helps push along the connection with the natural world. Once again Pynchon places our dance with Nature at the forefront.
Of course he balances all of this with supernatural events: talking to the dead, a theory that a serpent lives in the volcano, and that there exists a “gigantick Equation” in the stars to explain the universe. I’ll be interested to see if technology somehow works its way into the story somehow.
I fell behind my schedule this week. In fact I’m 60 pages back from where I need to be. The last phrase in my notes from Friday reads “conspiracy everywhere.” One of the running themes in “GR” and definitely in “The Crying of Lot 49″ is the idea that there are always extraneous circumstances of which the masses and main characters are unaware. These circumstances or facts or events are always shadowy in nature.
As he says in “GR” in his list of “Proverbs for Paranoids: Paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.”
Mason and Dixon are both paranoid about how they ended being paired on this particular endeavor. Though Pynchon hasn’t directly tackled it, there is mention of a conspiracy to place them together for some (sinister?) reason. I can’t quite tell yet what this has to do with anything. And knowing Pynchon it might simply be his way of putting a paranoid—me—into a paranoid situation. Does that make any fucking sense? This book is infuriating.
One of my favorite bits of conspiracy are the clocks in Cape Town. The police actually believe that the clocks are there to keep tabs on them, to keep them on schedule. Even the Vrooms have a clock in their home. Guess what they call it? “Boet.” Which the narrator explains means “big brother.” How convenient.
It’s another of the fascinating parts of the book. Fortunately I’m not completely bored yet. Angry? Yes. But not yet bored. See you next week. But before I do here’s a Pynchon song about cheese.
“Here’s to the great, Octuple boys! the
Mon-ster Cheese of fame,
Let’s cheer it with, a thund’rous noise,
Then twice more the same,–
Oh the bells shall ring, and
The guns shall roar,
For the won-derful Octuple Glo’r….
Aye, all the Lads, who push and who-pull,
Ev’ry Master, ev’ry Pupil
Single-ton and married Coople,
Ev’ry minim, dram, and scruple
Of their Praise is Thine, Octuple!”
And, yes, the Gloucestershire cheese roll is very real.