…as I take part in the Thomas Pynchon podcast.
Photo borrowed from Pynchon in Public.
In Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ the character Oedipa Maas seems to discover an underground postal network known as W.A.S.T.E. and connected to a shadowy organisation with medieval roots called the Trystero. Or maybe it’s merely a conspiracy to make her believe that there is such a network. This is Pynchon, after all, and it is 1966, on the West Coast, where LSD was beginning to reveal hidden patterns and correspondences beneath the bland surface, “other modes of meaning beyond the obvious…like the matrices of a great digital computer”, another “separate, silent, unsuspected” America. Oedipa suspects she has stumbled upon:
a secret richness and concealed density of dream…a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system.
For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.
So far, so libertarian. The novel involves a complex metaphor which can be and has been picked apart in various ways*. Here I want to focus on communication in relation to the private and the State. As the reference to a computer suggests, Neoliberalism has realised Oedipa’s dream, in the form of the internet, also a long-term concern of Pynchon. Is it free or controlled, radical or repressive? Is Tristero the heterotopian deep, dark web, as explored in ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013), or is it Google, Facebook and Whatsapp? At a certain point it contained the potential to be both, and Pynchon explores those historical moments, unearthing the buried wires that could have gone in all sorts of directions.
While it’s hard to imagine a centrally-managed and state-owned internet, it’s not hard to remember when the postal service was run in such a way. When I was growing up there was a single state-owned postal network in the UK. If you wanted to post a letter or parcel, you went to the post office, and receiving post was a matter of waiting until a postman or woman, employed by the same organisation, turned up in the morning. It wasn’t perfect: sometimes he or she would be late, very occasionally missives wold go missing, there was no internet so you couldn’t ‘track’ what you’d sent, and often – horror of horrors – you had to stand in a queue at the post office itself, but on the whole the system functioned well. I never remember any of my friends or family suggested we scrap the whole thing and replace it with chaos.
With the ‘liberalisation’ of postal services around Europe and some other parts of the world, the sending and receiving of physical objects has, rather than being ‘liberated’, become immensely more inefficient and time-consuming. The fact that certain neoliberals love to boast about ‘disrupting‘ settled industries is exemplified in the amount of hassle involved in identifying which kinds of stamps can go in which kinds of post boxes, staying at home all day in the vain hope that whichever bunch of shysters has been entrusted with your package might deign to turn up at whatever time best suits their employers, calling round two or three mobile phone numbers in the hope that whichever subcontracted individual (working for a subcontracted subunit of a global cartel) has your parcel is still awake and hasn’t flown away to Ibiza for two weeks. By contrast, Oedipa’s system of wandering round the Bay Area all night on the lookout for tramps dumping handfuls of letters into posthorn-marked dustbins starts to look like a far more efficient and reliable system.
Still, onwards and upwards. Far more important than the need of ordinary people to dispatch and obtain goods and gifts is the sacrosanct desire of ‘entrepreneurs‘, those modern-day counterparts of Jay Gould, to profit by acting as entirely unnecessary middlemen (or perhaps that should be highwaymen) in any inter-human transaction. Following on from EU-wide deregulation, both Royal Mail and Poste Italiane are currently being privatised, after years of having been, in accordance with Noam Chomsky’s prognosis, run into the ground. For someone who comes from the UK and now lives in Italy, questa non è una buona notizia.
At a generous estimate, 30% of things that have been dispatched to us in Rome over the last few months of friends and family generously dispatching gifts for our new baby simply haven’t arrived. Others have taken months to turn up. On occasion, tracked packages have apparently arrived at the nearest delivery centre and sat there forlornly for several weeks despite my increasingly bad-tempered exhortations to the people personning the Poste Italiane Facebook page to ask someone to pick them up and bring them to the address written on the cazzo label. At one point I posted them a link to the Italian Wikipedia page about the film ‘Il Postino’, so at least they might understand what the purported function of their organisation was. A volta la ironia si perde nella traduzione.
Last month, the pursuit of a tardy passport delivery occasioned a visit to the local sorting office. Having negotiated the security system (bloke enjoying a ciggy, listens to my garbled explanation and nods me through) I made my way upstairs into a huge room contained what looked like avenues of undelivered parcels. It seemed to be a mausoleum of things that could be delivered, but probably won’t be. Like with gravestones, the names chiseled, printed or handwritten with misplaced optimism on the envelopes marked only a permanent resting place. Excitingly, on the other hand, it appeared that I could wander round and pick things up – I might even happen upon the parcel of baby clothes my sister sent over a month ago! Perhaps I would come across that book of poetry I’d ordered from a US website three months ago, or the TRUCK FUMP! t-shirt my wife had bought as a Christmas present! Sadly, given the enormous piles of pacchi in ritardo mounted up around the warehouse, untroubled by the attentions of the few yellow-tabarded staff standing around in a desultory fashion waiting for lunchtime, it seemed unlikely. It would have been like looking for a needle in a deregulated haystack.
Maybe I should have just asked them to send the parcels via W.A.S.T.E.
*Pynchon later expressed dissatisfaction with the novel: “I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up until then”.
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:
And 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’.
The film that LA reminds me of most is not ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Long Goodbye’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’, but ‘Tron’*. The absence of a specific centre is nicely disorientating, like a dream of a city with no centre, or with dozens of centres spread out across an undulating grid of (in theory) highspeed highways. Thomas Pynchon called LA “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts”; as it happens I quite like exploring concepts and I find LA surprisingly pleasant to move around. I am, after all, here on holiday. Those who live with its traffic jams and smog would probably question the impression created by the distortions employed here.
I’ve been to a number of cities modelled on or heavily reminiscent of the rhizomatic layout of LA (Johannesburg, Singapore and the Santa Fé part of Mexico City spring to mind), which have tended to be alienating and lacking in identity. But the original has a distinct character in that it’s suffused with images of itself, so I do feel that its history is present. It helps that I’ve just read Mike Davis’ incendiary chronicle of LA’s development, ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’. Davis writes like an Old Testament prophet, a West Coast Marshall Berman. The book was originally published before the riots of 1992, and mostly details the 20th century battles over local political power, water, and land, all conditioned by race and class. The history of LA is one of small-scale wars over land title and water rights, between newly-established communities and goon squads, vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers. One of those developers says in Pynchon’s novel (and subsequent film) ‘Inherent Vice’:
“Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave—a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”
The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saw LA as a mirage, a simulacrum, but if it is true that our mental images of LA screen out the real city at least they’re familiar ones. The city I come from is famous for one film, whereas LA is known for tens of thousands, many of which by no means show the city in its best light. I knew something about the water wars thanks to ‘Chinatown’ and have learnt about LA’s vice, drugs, corruption and racist police brutality from films like ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘LA Confidential’. Mike Davis writes that the film noirs of the 1930s onwards comprised an ‘ideological assault on the American dream’. Raymond Chandler was certainly not the most radical or critical of noir writers but neither ‘The Long Goodbye’ nor ‘The Big Sleep’ paints an idyllic picture of the city. A lot of the early noirs were written by exiled European writers, like Hans Eisler and Erich Maria Remarque, who hated LA’s lack of a civic centre and thought that the city ‘negated every classical value of European urbanity’. Bertolt Brecht simply called it ‘hell’. Nevertheless Theodor Adorno, someone who you might think, given his active antipathy to the culture industry, would have dedicated LA a particularly scathing Tripadvisor review, instead commented: ‘It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it’. And, in a different mood, Brecht once complained that his cottage was ‘too pleasant to work in’ .
In my case I’m surprised to find that there is, if not a centre, a downtown, and that it’s actually quite likable. The fact that it’s mostly Latino and that casi everyone is speaking Spanish is comforting: given that I’ve just popped up for a week from Mexico City (another city that’s often misrepresented as consisting of nothing but traffic hell but is in reality remarkably walkable), I enjoy the feeling of being doubly foreign. It’s something I regularly experienced going from Portugal to Spain, and also the time when, living in China, I flew to Thailand and bumped into some ‘other’ Chinese people. Downtown LA also has some food markets, tidied-up versions of the ones at home. We visit one of the best bookshops I’ve ever visited (The Last Bookstore), in which I first go a bit mental buying English language novels, and then can’t help but feel a bit disdainful on discovering that they have an entire department dedicated to colouring books for ‘adults’. Out on the streets there are some sights recognisable from Hollywood films depicting a dystopian future. Although we visit on a weekday, most stores are closed and shuttered, there’s evidence of people sleeping in pretty much every doorway and a couple of distressed individuals pushing shopping carts a la ‘The Road’. However, from a Mexico City point of view, it’s all quite familiar – it feels a bit like one of the more abandoned sections of Insurgentes. Down in Chinatown there’s actual streetlife – food stalls, a couple of buskers, and groups of people standing around chatting – and when we pass through the area known as Skid Row people are quite affable, even when they think I’m trying to take photos of them, which I’m not. Much.
The area where my friends live (Mount Washington) is extremely pleasant; it puts me in mind of the more lightly-gentrified parts of Hackney, like Lower Clapton. Some streets are like Dalston without all the ridiculous new apartment buildings. With its lowlit bars, ethnic restaurants, antique shops and hipsters, there’s a strong sense of quality of life. My friends have been here for about three years. When they arrived, she was pregnant and they were panicking about not having health insurance, but it turned out to their immense relief that the State of California has a scheme which meant they avoided having to pay out over one hundred thousand dollars just for giving birth. Even in terms of healthcare, the United States is a more complex society than I had assumed.
Another day we head down to Manhattan Beach, where I’m sort of hoping I might bump into Thomas Pynchon, even though I nor anyone else have seen any photos taken of him in the last sixty years and he hasn’t lived here since around the late ‘60s. ‘Inherent Vice’ is set here during that time. It’s a hippy noir whose detective is permanently stoned, which doesn’t help the reader or viewer make much sense of the shaggy dog plot with its dozens of characters. Like most good detective fiction it’s less about who did what to whom than a study of the texture of a particular time and place. There are police buying off hippies to protect millionaire property developers and a shady operation called the Golden Fang which appears to be some sort of mafioso cartel crossed with a secretive corporation. But the novel shows that the LA ruled by such forces is not the only one that might exist or come to exist: the epigraph to the book is the situationist slogan ‘Under the pavement, the beach!’. The ‘60s was a time when another LA, another California, another America threatened to burst through the paving stones of mainstream society. In ‘Vineland’, a previous novel set (conversely) fifteen years later, one whose characters are addled and incapacitated not just by weed fumes but also by cathode rays, Pynchon explores a similar history to Mike Davis’ book: union battles in the film studios, McCarthyism, the FBI’s attempts to control and buy off any burgeoning countercultural forces and impose authoritarian rule. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, from 1966, was written on the cusp of the hippy years, and has a lot in common with the critique of the situationists of the deadening effects of suburbanisation, bourgeois life and consumer spectacle. Pynchon apparently lived right down next to the beach and spent his time when not writing ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ driving round and discoursing to his hippy companions on LA and its dependence on the war machine. And it’s on the beach that I come across this:
From the beach we drive up to Malibu to a cheap fish and chip restaurant with ocean views and photos of Barbara Streisand, Rod Stewart and Dylan (Bob) on the wall. I pick up a brochure for local property but the prices are even more absurd than the ones in Dalston**. Although they’re very nice I’d actually pay more money not to have to tell people I live in a place which reminds them of one of the world’s most cloying drinks.
The megarich of LA have other concerns, however. Many of them spend their time worrying about the number of thetans they’ve built up, only to find after several years that the secret truth they were striving for involves some total bollocks about “a galactic overlord by the name of Xenu, a volcano, and souls that attach themselves to newborn babies”***. However, contrary to what a lot of people who spend too much online may tell you, Scientology is not the most dangerous and destructive aspect of the LA lifestyle. In the evening we go to a bar which is showing sport. As the commentators discuss the game a huge Volkswagen logo located right between them takes up roughly 80% of the screen.
Much more than Scientology or the dreamlife that LA sells us, the cult of the car is the city’s most pernicious export. One consequence of the failure of our species to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is that California is suffering from a massive and unprecedented (although not inexplicable) drought. There are notices of water restrictions everywhere. In Beverly Hills the locals have protested, however, explaining that they can’t reduce their water consumption because you know, they just need to consume that much water and anyway they’re rich so fuck off my lawn. You’d have to have the mentality of a cult member to think this kind of attitude has any kind of future.
Some people still see LA as representing the chance of stardom, despite all the cautionary tales told in movies and music from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to ‘Do you know the way to San José’. In a burger restaurant round the corner from where all the Hollywood Boulevard nonsense is, we meet a young Austrian who’s been here for three years doing an acting course. The fact that she prefers to speak in German with someone (me) who struggles to remember the word for burger suggests the course may not have been all she hoped for, although she puts a brave face on it (or at least I think she does, I can’t remember how you say ‘brave’). Subsequently I see several adverts for such courses; it seems that, like the UK wrt EFL, the US also has a burgeoning ripping-off-foreigners-in-return-for-fuck-all industry disguised as something to do with ‘education’. We also meet a more long-standing immigrant, a Russian taxi-driver who is inspired by our late-night request for somewhere to buy a couple of cans of beer to drive us halfway to Seattle and stock up himself “for the night!”. He buys 16 cans, at 2am.
LA has been called a commodity, a simulation, and a cultural desert, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find (pace Gertrude Stein on Oakland) that there is in fact a ‘there’ there. I can certainly see the appeal of living in LA, particularly up in the hills. Some parts of the city looks curiously like an area of my hometown, Sheffield. The ‘70s-built council housing in Gleadless Valley imitated Californian design to great effect. (If anyone thinks that this is nonsense please read this to verify). The wonderful place where my friends live, on the slopes of Mount Washington with a sweeping view across the train tracks towards downtown, puts me in mind of the 1970s, the LA of Tom Waits and Robert Altman’s version of ‘The Long Goodbye’, which are the sounds and images I most cherish from the city.
Nevertheless, the idealised LA way of life is one that doesn’t export well. Devoid of historical content and bereft of Los Angeles’ rich and complex set of visual associations, it produces bland suburbanisation, something far closer to what Baudrillard was talking about. In a word: Singaporisation. I find it hard to see the appeal of Dubai to anyone who has an alternative****. Such places seem to me to be much better simulations of dystopia, rendered worlds with no civic or public life, no libraries or bookshops or public squares or walkable streets. A bland, privatised architects model, an outdoor shopping mall where the only game to play is pretend-you’re-a-millionaire. At least LA has a history: one of desert, drought, corruption, rats in palm trees, film noir and race wars. It is a gigantic incoherent confluence of human ambition, creativity and destruction. The brightness and the darkness. It’s thanks to the imaginations of filmmakers and writers that Los Angeles exists in a way that many cities that imitate its form don’t.
* The original version, not the remake by Tim Burton or whoever.
** Nobody from London will believe this possible.
*** This is what it says in this South Park episode, accompanied by the words ‘This is what Scientologists actually believe’. I sometimes think of writing something similar on this blog just in case people think I’m doing this for a laugh.
**** Not that Dubai is lacking in intrigue. I think you’d have to be very brave to live there and go looking for it. One of my friends in LA wrote this excellent novel about oil business shenanigans.
Guanajuato is the kind of place where you spend most of your time hoping you can come back one day. The term Pueblo Mágico is somewhat overused in a Mexican context – you’d be hard pressed to find a reasonably attractive town of a certain size to which that classification hasn’t been applied – but the charms of this place are plentiful and immediately apparent: an undulating landscape of colourful roofs and baroque churches spread over several hills, from which a bird’s eye view swoops down to tight-knit labyinths of alleyways which put me in mind of Alfama in Lisbon or the Ribeiro in Porto, these twisting callejones opening suddenly upon laurel-lined colonial squares laid out in their own haphazard maze. Its effect was such that even though we have now left Mexico I still have the vague but somewhat vain hope that we will go back before we leave. Somehow.
We happen to be there during the Day of the Dead celebrations and there couldn’t really be a more appropriate place to visit. Many of the streets are carpeted in intricate tapestries in colours which surpass my vocabulary in any language, composed of various flora and foodstuffs depicting calaveras and other catrinas or commenting slyly but wittily on political events.
Although the notion that Death is more present or more acknowledged in everyday life in Mexico can be challenged on various fronts*, this is a city built on the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of silver miners. We descend to one of those mines and learn about the horrendous conditions endured (or not) by countless generations of mostly indigenous workers, and then we climb back up into the baroque ornateness of a church resplendent in the produce of all that toil. The whole of Guanajuato, it seems, was developed because the owners of the mines had nothing better to do with their money than build shrines to themselves. In the words of Walter Benjamin, there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
It wasn’t just indigenous workers who broke their backs digging up precious metals. A caption in the local museum alludes coyly to the ‘presence’ of African ‘workers’ who were brought in to complement the Nahuas, Michoacanos, Otomis, and Chichimecas commandeered from other parts of Mesoamerica. Nowadays there is a glut of workers for a far smaller pool of jobs in tourism and the culture industry, with something of an an oversupply of hotels. We are certainly well catered for. The owner of our rambling hillside guesthouse turns out to be a gringo, one who typifies a certain kind of voluble effusiveness particular to North Americans, a characteristic which I personally find very endearing. He is full of stories about how he and a small team of in-laws hewed the place out of raw rock. It is a genuinely staggering achievement, involving hauling hunks of stone up and down the hill and hacking out waterways where there were none. Talking to him I am reminded of Fitzcarraldo, or any number of mad semi-mythical geniuses who headed south, grabbed machetes and gouged out their visions in the tropics. The sprawling establishment has a lot in common with the local churches in that there is silver and steel everywhere, but the decorations do not depict angels or edenic scenes, instead they consist of rather macabre, twisted metal sculptures. It looks like a workshop where the stage set for the new Iron Maiden world tour is being welded and hammered together.Fittingly, my less-than-elaborate costume for the Day of the Dead itself is a Slayer t-shirt I buy for 100 pesos. Here you can see a photo of me in all my gothic grandeur.
Even more of a frightening sight are the mummies which have long been one of Guanajuato’s main tourist attrations. The corpses were perfectly preserved but a century or so of morbid gawping has worn them out a bit. It strikes me that so much of the histrionic shrieking and visceral iconography of heavy metal music are in part an unwitting parody of certain aspects of the Catholic Church. While most metal bands would probably describe themselves as nihilistic, they are actually for the most part deeply moralistic, albeit more id than superego, a celebration of all the sadistic and grisly elements that priests pretend not to enjoy. There are few passages as gothic and rich in potential death metal imagery as the description of the sermon on the eternal tortures that await the damned in hell in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’.
A clue to what lies behind all these representations of gore is on display throughout the city: many churches are covered with huge images of fetuses reminding anyone who needed reminding of the fervent desire of the medieval and neomedieval church to control women’s sexualities at all costs. The museum where the mummies are housed also houses a few preserved examples of desiccated embryos. It may be that the historic treatment of women by the church and the state has contributed to the development of a culture in which men feel free to seize and dispose of women’s bodies with impunity. After all, certain still-dominant elements of the church hierarchy do not regard women’s bodies as their own property, but rather as mere vessels for the next generation of male heirs and child-carriers. Just a few hundred miles south of here the Church is having women locked up for decades for the mortal sin of having a miscarriage.
It comes as something of a shock to discover several weeks after visiting Guanajuato that I had already, in a sense, visited the place before. Rewatching a documentary about Thomas Pynchon I learn that he fled here when running away from a journalist who had tracked him down in Mexico City after his first novel became an overnight success. Subsequently while rereading ‘About the Day’ I notice with a start that he even visited and described the mummies in some detail. It gives me an curious insight into how he composes his immensely complex and often encyclopedic novels, because while he was here in 1963, the novel didn’t emerge til 2006. He gives the impression that he writes down absolutely everything that he learns and experiences and it all goes into his books.
A far more bloodless place is only an hour away from Guanajuato on the bus: San Miguel de Allende. This is Mexicoland, the kind of place which someone like Bill Gates probably finds pleasant and safe to wander round in his polo shirt and chinos. It is awash with serious tourist money and the effect is somewhat bland, like a golf course whch just happens to be covered in colonial buildings. Nowadays the rich don’t build palaces, they acquire cultural capital instead. The streets are teeming with vapid art galleries selling tasteful but meaningless decoration. We are very glad that we reversed our original plan of staying here for five days and nipping over to Guanajuato for one. Está bien aburrido, guey! Guanajuato, por otro lado, es una maravilla macabra.
*On the last night in Guanajuato we met someone dressed as a ghoul, an American artist who has defeated death and now openly and joyously taunts it.
** All but three of the photos in this piece were taken by the author. Anyone who can guess which three stands to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the bathroom.
*** This is part of an ongoing occasional series of reflections inspired by cities I have been to recently. Other entries can be found tagged below under Cities.