In the wake of WWII, George Orwell is said to have handed over the names of several potential communist sympathizers to the British government. This dirty little secret, first revealed several years ago, raised a bit of a shitstorm in certain intellectual circles. How could a man whose work condemned such behavior in no uncertain terms have become such a willing tool?
In his introduction to John Reed’s anti-Orwell Animal Farm satire, Snowball’s Chance, Alexander Cockburn argued that Orwell had been not only a rat, but a fascist at heart. In Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens rejected such claims, saying that Orwell was an adamant anti-Stalinist and hated totalitarianism in any form. (The controversy was covered in some detail by John Strausbaugh in these pages last year.)
Be all that as it may, there’s not going to be any getting rid of Orwell, rat or not, anytime soon, nor should there be. No matter how many dozens of articles argue this way or that in the political magazines, nothing is going to change the fact that George Orwell (who would have turned 100 this year) has become a solid and unshakeable part of the culture, primarily on the virtues of two little books: his cautionary fable, Animal Farm, and his grim masterpiece of quiet personal rebellion, 1984. The latter especially, the strength and significance of which has been driven home all too well these past 20 months, as the march toward "homeland security" has left headline writers scrambling for references that aren’t in some fashion Orwellian.
I’m assuming that we’re all familiar enough with at least the gist of the book. That in itself creates an interesting problem for publishers who are trying to sell yet another edition of Orwell’s dusty dystopian classic. Apart from junior high kids who are going to be forced to read it, how do you get regular folks to pick it up? How to make a book that has become so cliche seem fresh and interesting again? And how do you sell a new edition when there are already a dozen editions of the book on the shelves (and online)?
Well, first thing the folks at Plume did was repackage a beautiful "new" edition, which reproduces the original 1949 cover art and flap copy ("Though the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four takes place thirty-five years hence…").
Another way to catch people’s attention, the editors figured, is to commission a new foreword by someone who might have some special, unique insight into what Orwell envisioned. For the centennial edition of Animal Farm, for instance (which received a similar repackaging), they hired Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant. But who would be right for 1984?
Someone, maybe, who might feel a special bond with Winston Smith. Or O’Brien or Goldstein or Big Brother himself. Even Tillotson (you never hear enough about him). If it turns out to be an author who writes like no one ever has before—or ever will—then you’ve got a double bonus. People will pick up the dusty old novel not for the dusty old novel, but for the secret prize hidden inside, like the toy balloon gondolas and plastic cavemen that used to lie buried at the bottom of boxes of Fruity Pebbles. I never liked Fruity Pebbles much, but those gondolas were the best.
Plume couldn’t have done better than to snag Thomas Pynchon. While we all, in some way, have a stake in the implications of Orwell’s novel, I have to believe that Mr. Pynchon’s stake is a bit bigger.
Much as Orwell "foresaw" a world of electronic surveillance, falsified history and sham wars, Pynchon’s own writings (intentionally or not) have had a prescient quality of their own, envisioning everything from the internet to the convergence of computer technology, artificial intelligence and genetic research, which he presaged in his 1984 essay, "Is It O.K. to be a Luddite?". Pynchon is also, it goes without saying, well-versed in the mechanics of paranoia and conspiracy.
Here, in his first extended bit of published writing since his introduction to Jim Dodge’s 1997 novel Stone Junction (an essay which also had quite a bit to say on matters Orwellian), Pynchon employs a language that’s simple and straightforward, yet plays with ideas that are (unsurprisingly) subtle. In the end, he’s produced the most insightful—and playful—analysis of the novel I’ve ever read. Pynchon weaves elements of Orwell’s biography together with various political and historical events of his day (and our own) to explain not only what’s going on in 1984, but why, and where it came from.
At the same time, he deals with the above-mentioned "snitch" controversy (without saying as much), dismisses other controversies (like recent claims that Orwell was an anti-Semite) and demolishes several overly simplistic readings of the novel.
1984, he explains, is much more than a point-by-point critique of Stalinism. Sure, Big Brother is clearly Stalin and Goldstein clearly Trotsky, but beyond and beneath that it’s a reflection of Orwell’s own unease concerning the political moves being made by the Allied nations in the aftermath of WWII.
He also derides (but with good humor) those who would read 1984 as a collection of "predictions" about the world in which we’re living. There’s a difference, Pynchon writes, between prediction and prophecy, and Orwell wasn’t making predictions so much as he was looking deeper into the human soul and projecting where the behavior he was witnessing in the seats of power would lead us, should it continue unchecked.
He does pause briefly at a couple of points to draw parallels between 1984 and 2003—the use of doublethink by modern-day politicians and media outlets, for instance. He even brings up parallels which aren’t usually brought up: the similarity between Oceania’s Ministries and our own Department of Defense (which wages war) and Department of Justice (which regularly stomps on human and constitutional rights). Early in the essay, he even hints (again without saying as much) at the events of September 2001 and the effect such events usually have on the political outlook of a nation. An attack on one’s own homeland can suddenly transform peace activists into dangerous subversives in the minds of most citizens. It was something Orwell witnessed during the Blitz, and something we’ve witnessed over the past year and a half.
As with most everything he writes, Mr. Pynchon’s essay flows easily through a remarkable range of topics—technology, historical precedent, Orwell’s situation and our own, the cuts the Book of the Month Club wanted to make before releasing the novel, various characters and the roles they play—and how fictional characters can develop the nasty habit of doing things the novelist himself never expected. He even hints in the closing paragraphs that 1984 ends on a note perhaps a bit brighter than most of us realize.
As always, it’s a delightful little ride and, all told, it’s less an introduction to the novel than it is a commentary written for readers already well familiar with it. That’s an important thing. Because the real reason to pick up 1984 and read it (or reread it) now has nothing to do with any parallels to our own time, or any big smarty-pants controversy. The real reason to read the novel is because it’s such a fucking great novel. I hadn’t read it in over two decades (it was one of my favorites as a kid). Going back to it now (admittedly via audiotape), I was astonished at the savage clarity of Orwell’s prose, his brilliant language-play, his eye for necessary detail, the depth and complexity of his characters and, above all, his skills as a storyteller.
When most people think of 1984 nowadays, they’re thinking less of the novel itself than what the novel has come to signify. Forget political allegory and historical parallels for a moment (though those are certainly unavoidable, like trying to watch the 1964 version of The Killers without thinking of Reagan as president). Instead, try reading it as a great, exciting and profoundly sad story—and one of the most compelling novels of the modern era.
1984 (Centennial Edition)
By George Orwell
Foreword by Thomas Pynchon, Afterword by Erich Fromm
Plume, 368 pages, $14