H.P. Lovecraft: Misanthropy and the Anthropocene


The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H.P. Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

What would say H.P. Lovecraft say about climate change? His fanatical racism suggests that he would have found a great deal of common ground with Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon and countless others who have made a profession out of denying reality and scapegoating specific groups of human beings for its inconvenient incursions*. But Lovecraft would nonetheless have recognised (and, given his misanthropy, probably welcomed) the climatic transformation that is upon us, and (as the above quote suggests) would have understood our (lack of) reponse to it.

As it happens, he described the Age of the Anthropocene in (joyously unpleasant) detail:

Yet not at first were the great cities of the equator left to the spider and the scorpion. In the early years there were many who stayed on, devising curious shields and armours against the heat and the deadly dryness. These fearless souls, screening certain buildings against the encroaching sun, made miniature worlds of refuge wherein no protective armour was needed. They contrived marvellously ingenious things, so that for a while men persisted in the rusting towers, hoping thereby to cling to old lands till the searing should be over. For many would not believe what the astronomers said, and looked for a coming of the mild olden world again. But one day the men of Dath, from the new city of Niyara, made signals to Yuanario, their immemorially ancient capital, and gained no answer from the few who remained therein. And when explorers reached that millennial city of bridge-linked towers they found only silence. There was not even the horror of corruption, for the scavenger lizards had been swift.

Only then did the people fully realize that these cities were lost to them; know that they must forever abandon them to nature. The other colonists in the hot lands fled from their brave posts, and total silence reigned within the high basalt walls of a thousand empty towns. Of the dense throngs and multitudinous activities of the past, nothing finally remained. There now loomed against the rainless deserts only the blistered towers of vacant houses, factories, and structures of every sort, reflecting the sun’s dazzling radiance and parching in the more and more intolerable heat.

Typically in his stories, something terrible irrupts into our universe. Sometimes it is known by the name Cthulhu, described in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind”. It’s a non-human force, a possibly divine entity but one which is definitely not benign. Lovecraft drew on previous mythologies in creating his own. In inventing Cthulhu he was influenced by Tennyson’s poem ‘The Kracken‘**.

The first Lovecraftian stories I read were not actually by him, but by various writers about Lisbon. Their stories showed Lisbon as an emblematically Lovecraftian city, with its thousand-year history hiding all sorts of monsters. Some stories drew on the earthquake of 1788, with all that it drowned the city with and all that it buried. Lovecraft’s writing itself is extremely vivid and compelling. It lends itself particularly well to treatment by graphic novelists and is popular with creative misfits like Mark E. Smith of The Fall. The notoriously misanthropic French writer Michel Houllebecq wrote an excellent book on Lovecraft, a writer whose legacy is everpresent both in his work, while the current leading exponent and champion of Weird Fiction is China Miéville (who shares Houellebeqc’s assessment that racism is the driving force in Lovecraft’s fiction, the inspiration for his “poetic trance”).

Another fan was the critical theorist Mark Fisher (aka k-punk). In his final book (‘The Weird and the Eerie’) he writes of the ‘weird intrusion of the outside’ in Lovecraft’s fiction, the ‘traumatising ruptures in the fabric of experience itself’ occasioned by the appearance of phenomena ‘beyond our ordinary experience and conception of space and time itself’.

This echoed with something else I read recently: a book by the novelist and essayist Amitav Ghosh called ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ (you can read an extract from it here). In it he argues convincingly that the modern novel is underpinned by a philosophy of gradualism. The novels of great authors such as Austen, Chatterjee and Flaubert are set in reduced and largely self-contained social worlds in which it is taken for granted that everyday life is largely predictable and ordered. The standard plot involves a disturbance from inside or outside in response to which the world of the novel reconfigures and resettles itself.

While in the time before the modern novel, popular texts such as ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘The Decameron‘ “proceeded by leaping blithely from one exceptional event to another”, when we enter the worlds depicted in realist fiction we are conditioned to regard sudden cataclysmic events as contrived and implausible. This is partly because the real subject of such novels is not so much the events themselves but rather the details and stylings of the bourgeois worlds that the characters inhabit. Thus miraculous and exceptional events which overturn that world do not get a look in.

We can also see something like this in the form of soap operas. In their later years domestic dramas such as ‘Brookside’ and ‘Emmerdale’ were regularly ridiculed for using such attention-grabbing contrivances as plane crashes, fires and terrorist attacks. Such intrusions breaks the rules of realist narrative, which say that this is a stable, self-centred and largely predictable world.

How would a soap opera set in the Phillipines deal with a hurricane like Haiyan? Such increasingly commmon catastrophes undermine the dependable world of the telenovela. An interesting example of a partly anthropocenic soap opera is ‘Jane the Virgin’, which regularly features extreme weather events in order to provide far-fetched plot twists, and which works because it’s a post-modern (as in tongue-in cheek and preposterous) pastiche of the format itself.

Soap operas and the modern novel dramatise everyday life in societies which are presented as essentially stable. They are not able to portray a world which is more vulnerable to sudden cataclysm and in which events cannot be explained without making explicit our dependence on other times and places. One thing that makes Lovecraft’s fiction so frightening and unusual is its depiction of non-human forces, intrusions which challenge our agency and control as a species, and consciousnesses with which we cannot communicate or negotiate.

Of course, with what is usually referred to as genre fiction – principally fantasy and science fiction – magical and miraculous elements occur. Long before Climate Change became public knowledge JG Ballard was speculating about what an overheating planet would be like in works like ‘Drowned World’ and ‘The Drought’. The main proponent of the mini-genre apparently known as ‘cli-fi’ is of course Margaret Atwood, who has used the conventions of Science Fiction to depict a climate-induced dystopia in ‘Oryx and Crake’, ‘The Year of the Flood’ and (although I haven’t read it yet) ‘MaddAdam’.

Then there is the genre of adventure fiction with its interest in time travel, including century-old classics by Jules Vernes and HG Wells. Such works particularly inspired children’s fiction which was often set in a unchanging world whose social forms were so static no one even grows old. Thomas Pynchon parodied this form in ‘Against the Day’, which does qualify as a climate change novel given that it features Lovecraftian passages such as this:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”

Anthopocenic fiction will need to be considerably more radical than what still passes for fantasy. While it purports a world entirely other, ‘Lord of the Rings’ depicts a comforting world based on a conservative mythology. It may be that ‘Game of Thrones’ (which I’ve never seen) falls into the same category, in the sense that for all its shocking elements it conveys a fundamentally reactionary view of the universe, like an even more atavistic Downton Abbey. It may also be the case that the new form of soap opera which that programme belongs to – longform Netflix/Amazon dramas which develop over several dozen (or in some cases several hundred) hours – is able to accommodate new kinds and levels of human experience. Although I haven’t talked here about cinema (one film that bears repeated attention in this context is ‘Children of Men’), it seems clear to me that the worlds presented in dystopian Hollywood blockbusters such as ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Mad Max’ are not actually predictions but prescriptions of a future world which is short on resources but high on aggression and conflict. In the modern age it is partly through bigscreen fictions that we learn how to be human.

Will we (in the words of Lovecraft) “go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age”? The latter is what such films are selling. It’s no accident that the tropes they draw upon (dispensible peasants, bows and arrows, mortar and pestle) are largely medieval. Our cities already resemble those of the Middle Ages, with all their exclusions inscribed into both the visible and invisible frameworks.  Lovecraft’s misanthropy is as addictive and hugely entertaining as his racism is vile; let’s hope (no matter how horrifyingly compelling the phantasmagoric soap opera that is anthropocenic politics is) that atavistic tyrants such as Trump and Putin do not turn out to be the manifestations of Cthulhu in (barely) human form that they appear to be.

*This gave the title to one of China Miéville’s novels.
**Although relativising Lovecraft’s virulent racism appears to be a sub-hobby for a few of his fans, this is not an article about that subject. Please leave your comments requesting that his racism not be discussed at the end of this (excellent) piece instead.

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet


Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, a translator who took refuge in Rome but was murdered by Mossad in 1972. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation


“O disco amarelo iluminou-se” is the first sentence of the first novel I read in Portuguese: ‘Blindness’, by José Saramago. It means “the yellow light came on”, and (although it took for a few seconds to work this out at the time) it refers to a traffic light. The first driver in a line of cars has suddenly been struck by a mysterious blindness which will go on to infect all but one of the inhabitants of an unnamed city, causing the authorities to panic and impose martial rule as society breaks down more or less overnight. One key to the novel lies in the fact that the Latin word for ‘city'(civitas) is also related to ‘civilisation’; when the basic signs and codes that regulate civilised behaviour lose their meaning, we may as well all be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the novel I’ve read more times than any other. I’m always slightly surprised to come across people who haven’t heard of it as it has always struck me as a fundamental insight into the times we are living through.

Both the city and the country in the novel are unnamed, and the film of the book was shot in Tokyo, Toronto and São Paulo. Three of Saramago’s subsequent novels are set in similarly anonymous urban environments: ‘Seeing’, ‘All the Names’, and ‘The Cave’*. When, in 2006, a particular set of circumstances led me to take a Master’s course in Portuguese Studies which entailed writing a 15,000-word dissertation, I decided to connect those novels with an area I was becoming increasingly interested in: Urban Geography. I read writers such as Henri Lefebvre, Mike Davis, Teresa Caldeira and learned about the notion of the right to the city in a world increasing divided between neoliberal dreamworlds on the one hand and nightmarish slums on the other. The thinker I learned most from, however, was the world’s leading urban geographer, David Harvey, who actually looks a bit like a cross between Karl Marx and God. There are passages of his books you could dance to, punching-the-air kind of dancing. This video is a great visualisation of how his lucid style makes it beautifully easy to understand complex subjects.

The Master’s course was, then, a pretext to learn about the world through the prism of a limited range of countries. Learning about Portugal’s history of empire and loss of empire helped me reflect on my own country’s shameful past. Going back to writing essays after a 13-year break also made me reassess my relationship to ‘my’ language. My dissertation supervisor, who was from Mozambique but had lived and worked in English for more years than I had, once corrected something I had written, changing ‘in doing so’ to ‘in so doing’. Given that my livelihood is based on claiming authority over the English language, it was quite a salutary moment. (The difference is actually one of formality, but I thankfully had the humility not to try to pull rank.) Writing such a long-form piece helped me reflect on my command of written English. My natural style is actually not that different from Saramago’s, one which some people find rambling and irritating. The original title of ‘Blindness’ was ‘Ensaio Sobre A Cegueira’ (an essay on blindness), after the style of Montaigne, and his novels read like extended reflections, conversational in tone and consisting of digressive explorations of ideas rather than compelling plots and detailed characterisation. Writing about his work in an academic setting forced me to employ a more direct approach than I’m naturally inclined to adopt.

Throughout the course modules and during my dissertation research I learned about the depth and contours of my ignorance of the world and tried to fill in some of the massive gaps. The experience helped me learn that not everyone knows everything, and that knowledge in an academic context is often very specialised**. In around 2008 I got talking to David Harvey himself at an annual summer conference in Central London, and over a couple of pints and a LOT of crisps he said that my topic sounded interesting but he’d never heard of Saramago. I meant to put this information in the essay, along with a footnote boasting that it was revealed in a personal conversation, but sadly I forgot.

For a while I planned to turn my dissertation into a PhD but, although I did discuss the possibility during trips to Coimbra and Rio, it didn’t happen. Maybe that’s a good thing – I could quite happily waste the rest of my life in a good university library. While a friend of mine took 14 years to finish his PhD thesis, I reckon I would be the first to take 1,400. I did, however, end up back at the same university (King’s College London) in a working capacity. Last summer I was preparing Chinese students to take postgraduate courses, so I thought it would be fun to show them the short essay I’d written exactly ten years earlier when I was applying to do a Master’s at the same institution. (The essay is here, but it’s a bit crap.) Towards the end of the course, as we were working on writing abstract-style summaries, I proudly showed them the one I’d written for my eventual Meisterwork and was simultaneously chastened and impressed when they pointed out that among its 150 words there was a blindingly obvious typo.

I was already thinking that it might be fun to write something here about Saramago when it struck me as weird that something that took me so long to write has been read by so few people. Therefore I’m posting it here for the ages. It’s never been published (for at least two very good reasons) so it may be that someone researching or just interested in the topic will find it useful. I’m sure there are bits of it I would now change, with some sections underdeveloped and some overreliance on and/or misrepresentation of other people’s ideas, but in any case here it is, verrugas e tudo.

*Not that those are necessarily the best Saramago novels to start with, I would recommend ‘The Double’ if you’re not familiar with his work as it’s much more of a philosophical pageturner.

** For example, geologists often know almost nothing about climate science, especially those who are being specifically and handsomely paid for their ignorance of the topic.

Continue reading “Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation”

Why everyone should (at least try to) read Thomas Pynchon

Late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of. 

Reading Thomas Pynchon’s novels is hugely entertaining. It enables you to see the world in new and unexpected ways, to entertain new possibilities about reality. While poets often do this in an oblique way, Pynchon does it in a manner which teases the brain but is also relatively easy to make sense of. To get to grips with his novels nevertheless takes effort, but it’s one which is hugely pleasurable and deeply rewarding. That first quote was from his latest (and possibly last) novel, ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013). This is from his first, ‘V’ (1963):

The only consolation he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it.

And this from ‘Mason & Dixon’ (1997), from the mouth of a talking dog:

“Once, the only reason Men kept Dogs was for food. Noting that among Men no crime was quite so abhorr’d as eating the flesh of another human, Dog quickly learn’d to act as human as possible,— and to pass this Ability on from Parents to Pups. So we know how to evoke from you, Man, one day at a time, at least enough Mercy for one day more of Life. Nonetheless, however accomplish’d, our Lives are never settled,— we go on as tail-wagging Scheherazades, (…) nightly delaying the Blades of our Masters by telling back to them tales of their humanity. I am but an extreme Expression of this Process.”

Seeing as I am currently, while waiting for my wife to give birth to our first child, enjoying “that mysterious exemption from time that produces most internet content” (‘Bleeding Edge’, p428)*, I wanted to share with ‘the world’ just what a joyous experience it can be to read Pynchon’s work. Once again, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It took me, I would say, seven attempts over twenty-five years to get past the first few pages of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ (set during the Second World War, published in 1973). I’m very glad I did, because once you accept that those first couple of pages are almost certainly a dream sequence, on page 9 you get this:

With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, (…) crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter. . . .

Some internet genius has made a diagram in case you should want to recreate the banana breakfast:

banana-breakfast.pngAnd on the next page of the novel there’s a song about bananas:

There’s a constant strain of wackiness in all Pynchon’s novels. He uses a huge amount of humour and a lot of (often extremely silly) songs. Talking lightbulbs, mechanical ducks and a sentient (and actually very cute) ball of lightning called Skip all feature in his books. His characters often appear to be animated: that talking dog he describes as walking with ‘no more than one wag of the Tail per step’. He’s often using these tropes to talk about science: ‘objects’ that appear to be inert but may be more alive and conscious than we think. The science parts are apparently extremely well-researched or very elaborately made up and also eye-glazingly complex. Some passages test your patience and might make you inclined, on the first reading, to put the book down, walk quietly away and just pretend that you’ve read it. One disturbing secret about Pynchon’s novels is that you have to read them twice: the first time is practice.  You also need to concentrate, using what Daniel Kahnemann calls “System 2” thinking: not automatic and emotional but deliberate and attentive.

The stories he tells are open-ended and feature hundreds of characters, many of whom may appear only once or twice. It’s often a challenge to work out who is speaking: is this passage a memory, a fantasy, a dream? Whose it it? What happened to the person we were introduced to two pages ago? It helps that the characters’ names are entertaining. The narrator of ‘Mason & Dixon’ (which is set in the 1760s) is called Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. There are others called Fender-Belly Bodine, Sauncho Smilax and Mucho Maas. This works to help you remember the characters and also to remember that what you are reading is a work of the imagination. The main character in the book (and now film) ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009) is called Doc Sportello (‘sportello’ in Italian means counter, like in a bank. This may be important; it may not). Paul Anderson’s film is actually a pretty good introduction to Pynchon’s work, in that it’s huge fun to watch but it hurts nicely in the head to make sense of what’s happening. The best book to begin with, however, is ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ (1966, 142 pages), which features the funniest parody of a Jacobean revenge play in mid-1960s postmodern fiction.

For all his zaniness and occasional abstruseness (especially with regard to science), Pynchon’s work is concerned with very pressing themes. Although he may be talking about German colonialism in late 19th century Africa, 18th century myths about the hollow earth or recipes for potato salad, he’s also talking with disguised urgency about the world we live in now. That may be the reason he likes to use anachronisms. Pre-Independence America didn’t feature shopping malls, coffee chains or goth teenagers, but they all appear in ‘Mason & Dixon’. One major theme in all his books is history and remembrance. History is ‘at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud’ (‘Gravity’s Rainbow’). ‘History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers – nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the people’ (‘Mason & Dixon’). ‘Vineland’ (1990) insists on the need to remember. It was widely misunderstood when first published. Pynchon’s unofficial mentee David Foster Wallace hated it. There were complaints that is was superficial, obsessed with obscure details of popular TV shows, and vastly inferior to the immensely complex ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ seventeen years earlier. But actually it was an elaboration of the prediction in that novel: ‘there’ll be a thousand ways to forget’. One late ’60s hippy character comments:

“They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.”

Upon which Pynchon wryly editorialises: ‘It was the way people used to talk’.

‘Vineland’ had therefore a deeper message about the history of workers to survive in the face of brutal repression, and the ways in which (pace Gramsci) the dulling effects of TV serve to complement that repression. Pynchon’s novels depict and are in themselves attempts to map networks of power, and thereby to escape the wire mesh power throws over us so it can build upon us, to paraphrase the plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe’s terrifying speech at the end of ‘Against the Day’ (2006).

That novel is set around the turn of the 19th century but Pynchon was keen to stress that it is a book about now and the future**. In his own distinctive way, that is. This is the synopsis he himself appears to have written upon its publication:

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

That worldwide disaster in the context of the novel was of course the First World War and the novels shows the apparently inexorable drift towards it. It contains a warning:

“When peace and plenty are once again taken for granted, at your most languorous moment of maximum surrender, the true state of affairs will be borne in upon you. Swiftly and without mercy.”

Events converge in Pynchon’s work as they do in history and in life, often (to quote ‘V.’) ‘according to an ominous logic’. ‘Bleeding Edge’ is set around the time of both 9/11 and the aftermath of the dotcom crash. If events coincide, there must be some connections, some hidden logics which connect them. You might think that as it’s the only one of his novels to be set in the last 30 years, it would be the only one to address the Internet. You’d be wrong. The following quote comes from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, which was mostly written during the 1960s:

Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only medium of exchange?

…and this one from ‘Vineland’ (1984):

If patterns of ones and zeroes were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name — its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world. We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to sort of a standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.

A character in ‘Bleeding Edge’ elaborates on the remark in ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009, set around 1970) that “everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape”:

“(the) Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.

Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should ever get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”

The main character’s two children in the same novel are described near its end as:

…standing just like this, folded in just this precarious light, ready to step out into their peaceable city, still safe from the spiders and bots that one day too soon will be coming for it, to claim-jump it in the name of the indexed world.

And although these lines describe the atmosphere in the wake of 9/11, they may also strike a tone when we reflect on the role of hackers in the recent US election:

…the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.

Pynchon has also been extremely prescient when it comes to environmental questions – “for the living green, against the dead white”. Both that and this come from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ again:

Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . . though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker . . .

There are, even more than is the case with other Pynchon novels, several genres woven together in ‘Against the Day’. One is time-travel science fiction:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”

There’s a hopeful note in ‘Inherent Vice’:

“The good news is that, like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry.”

..and its hard to argue with the sentiments expressed by March in ‘Bleeding Edge’:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

In terms of 9/11, you don’t have to be a puerile internet conspiracy theorist to see that the planes did not fly into the World Trade Center by accident:

“The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market”

“A religious beef, you’re saying?”

“It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s populations–more cheap labor, more addicted consumers.”

…while, in this mood of paranoia which suffuses Pynchon’s fiction, other characters remark:

How could predicting market behaviour be the same as predicting a natural disaster?

“If the two were different forms of the same thing?”


“No matter how the official narrative of this turns out,” it seemed to Heidi, “these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

Pynchon is mostly renowned as a writer of conspiracy and paranoia, trying to discern those ‘secret lusts that drive the planet’. In his novels paranoia is a tool that helps us interpret reality. His characters (and therefore we readers) struggle to make sense of, to map reality, and the way in which those efforts conflict with ‘control’, the desire of power to index everything, to turn it (and us) into ‘ones and zeros’. Hence there is a libertarian strain to his work. It’s no accident that rumours spread in the 1970s (partly fuelled by his habit of avoiding journalists) to the effect that he might be the Unabomber. It’s even possible that there are some Pynchon fans who voted for Trump. I hope not. It would go against his respect for our human vulnerabilities and his insistence on holding open the possibility of other realities in the past, present and future.

At a certain point reading Pynchon (and similar literature) compelled me to start writing. Doing so is partly a form of reading more deeply, and also a way of finding others who’ve had the same experience and of trying to persuade more people to read (and think) the same things. What is, after all, the point in my having read these books? What do I do with the knowledge I’ve acquired? I’m privileged to have the time and education to read such books. Reading serious fiction is also a way of taking life more seriously; I know I have a culturally-derived tendency not to do so:

“On this island,” says Yashmeen Halfcourt, “as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it’s Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers—all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted. Nothing beyond. Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun,’ for it’s only combinations of letters after all, isn’t it.” (‘Against the Day’)

In the face of life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane (V.), if you want to learn to understand the world in 2017, need to find (as we all do) an antidote to Trump, and would like to have a huge amount of fun and frustration in the process, read Pynchon. Should you need some help from people who know even more about Pynchon than I do about wasting time writing pointless blogs, listen to the podcast. It’s also huge fun.


* I’m also trying hard to avoid thinking about earthquakes.

** ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was set during World War 2 but its relevance to the Vietnam era shouldn’t be underestimated.

*** Incidentally, a propos of nothing, occasionally nobody asks me where the quote at the top of each page is from. It’s from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.