Pynchon meets Orwell

Thomas Pynchon has popped up again. America’s premier literary practitioner of silence, exile and cunning—last heard from in 1997, when his massive and beautiful novel Mason & Dixon came out—has contributed a foreword to a new edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published upon the centenary of Orwell’s birth.

For Pynchon devotees, the tone of the foreword will be both familiar and strange. The paranoiac gleam, the lysergic flights, the Dantean swoops into the deeper circles of hell that delighted and freaked out a generation of readers and that continue to shadow the imaginations of up-and-coming writers, are long gone. They’ve been replaced by a voice that seems magisterially calm, centered and cheerful in that way some Zen masters are. It’s a voice that suggests Pynchon’s imaginative path—from the frenzied apocalyptics of his early work to the sky-blue, almost Prospero-like clarity we see in his work today—may one day look to us like one of the great brave spiritual journeys of the American imagination.

Not that Pynchon isn’t willing to lean into an argument good and hard. The animating idea of the foreword is to resituate our understanding of Orwell’s sullen blast of dyspeptic dystopia. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Pynchon says, is less about the threat of Soviet-style totalitarianism—Big Brother’s resemblance to Joe Stalin notwithstanding—than it is about the tendencies of Western socialism.

Even more bracingly, Pynchon believes Orwell was saying that the “will to fascism” that gripped Europe in the first half of the 20th century was perhaps just getting started. When Orwell was writing the novel in 1948, he understood, Pynchon writes, “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 … like first drafts of a terrible future. What could prevent the same thing from happening to Britain and the United States?”

Pynchon writes, for instance, that in America today “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.” And this: “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.” Pynchon could have buttressed the point with the simple phrase “weapons of mass destruction,” but he may have written this before our latest historical rewrite. He also might have mentioned the Fox News mantra, “Fair and Balanced. We report. You decide,” which, after an initial flurry of resistance from a press caught slack-jawed by Fox’s chutzpah, has evolved, apparently, into a perfectly acceptable brand of doublethink. And how about the Bush administration’s use of the word “war”? It’s a battle on many fronts, remember, a sort of endless one, just like Big Brother keeps fighting against shifting enemies.

Orwell, both as a man and a writer, had a suspicious incapacity for joy, so his novel is—man oh man—powerful but crawl-in-the-gutter depressing. Winston Smith, remember, knows that the minute he scrawls the words “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in a notebook, he is doomed, and because this comes on page 19 of a 323-page novel, he’s doomed a long time.

But then here comes Pynchon to the rescue, bless him. He notes that there’s an appendix to the novel—“The Principles of Newspeak”—supposedly written by a scholar explaining the totalitarian language Big Brother employs in Oceania. And he reminds us that the appendix is written in the past tense and that it shows no stylistic signs of having been influenced by Newspeak. Which means that Big Brother may have gained Winston’s love but that he lost the ultimate battle. For that, writes Pynchon, we can be eternally thankful.