Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel – a sprawling 1200 page piece of serious, often intellectual picaresque – has as its most consistent characters an American Anarchist miner/ dynamiter, Webb Traverse, at the end of the 19th century, and his sons who, in different ways and in Europe as well as the USA, carry on the tradition. Pynchon is often labelled as a cult writer, and sometimes the passages of whimsy and pastiche can be tedious, sometimes very funny. But what critics and fans of Pynchon seem to miss is the anger that informs his best writing. In Colorado at the turn of the last century it was class war as war, and Webb is assassinated on the orders of corporate bigshot Scarsdale Vibe who gives the American capitalist viewpoint unvarnished.
“…The invasion of Chicago, the battles of Homestead… the San Juans. These communards speak a garble of foreign tongues, their armies are the damned labour syndicates, their artillery is dynamite, they assassinate our great men and bomb our cities, and their aim is to despoil us of our hard-won goods… what we need to do is to start killing them in significant numbers, for nothing else has worked.”
The novel is not wholly centred on anarchists. In oblique fashion, sometimes irritating, often not, a picture of the period is painted which takes in excitements in the world of mathematics; airpower developing through ballooning; and in Britain and other parts of Europe the ruling class’s mix of greed, mysticism, and elitism. The sons of Webb Traverse are counterweights to this, capable and resourceful in a variety of worlds and finally comfortable with the power of women. The position of women in the anarchist world, articulated late in the book in an anarchist commune is linked to its problematic relationship with violence. In late 19th century Colorado there is no choice. Either you’re a scab or you fight and it’s clear whose side we’re on, but even then there are contradictions, starting with dynamite itself, which is the tool that oppresses the miner as miner, but also a weapon against that oppression. The fight seems to be never-ending, not able to break out of the cycle determined by the oppressors. At this point one son, Reef, is presented as a personal version of the dilemma.
“Sometimes he was just after the explosion, it was like telling them in a voice too loud to ignore, to fuck off.” Later the mother of his child sees him setting one off. She is not judgemental or hostile, but “What a man gets for opening his heart and sharing his feelings. Reef knew his days in the family dynamiting business were numbered, though there had to be other ways to fight the fight apart from setting off explosions.”
This is not some schematic women not violent, men violent thing. It is another woman character, Dally, who explains Alexander Berkman’s mistake in his assassination attempt on the butcher of Homestead. “Aiming for Frick’s head was Brother Berkman’s big mistake, classic Anarchist mistake of assuming that all heads contain brains, when in fact there wa’n’t nothing inside Frick’s bean worth wasting a bullet on. People like ‘at, you always go for the gut.” She goes on to show it is also poetic justice in witty style.
It’s not schematic but time and again this sprawling novel, full of digression and confusion, comes back to the question of violence and anarchism. There is for example the agent-provacateur bombing (as we know from Italy in the late 20th century). Here the sympathetic detective, Lew, “only slowly would it occur to his ultra-keen detective’s reasoning, that these bombs could have been set off by anybody, including those who would clearly benefit if “Anarchists” however loosely defined, could be blamed for it.”
But his concern is much more about winning and losing. “Though the outlook for Anarchists in a shooting revolution is never too promising, Flaco was determined to go back to Mexico.” Flaco is a veteran of the post-opera house bombing repression in Barcelona, but it’s the first half of the story that tells the story. It is said in the same spirit as Durruti saying that if the Spanish Civil War was not won quickly, then whoever won nominally, it would still be a defeat, organized military force having a dynamic of its own.
In so many instances in the world there has been no alternative to violent opposition to the violence of the state and capital, but what he is getting at is what happens when this becomes war, including war in which there is no side to take.
Thus, back in the anarchist commune on the eve of the First World War towards the end of the book, the character Yashmeen says:
“‘Well why not let them have their war? Why would any self-respecting Anarchist care about any of these governments with their miserable incestuous stew of kings and Caesars?’
(And is answered)
‘Self-interest .Anarchists would be the biggest losers wouldn’t they. Industrial corporations, armies, navies, governments, all would go on as before, if not more powerful. But in a general war among nations, every small victory Anarchism has struggled to win so far would simply turn to dust. Today even the dimmest of capitalists can see that the centralized nation state so promising an idea a generation ago has lost all credibility with the population… If a nation wants to preserve itself, what other steps can it take, but mobilize and go to war? Central governments were never designed for peace. Their structure is line and staff, the same as an army. The national idea depends on war.’
The speaker goes on to say that they’ve chosen more of a coevolutionary role which is:
‘The replacement of governments by other, more practical arrangements, some in existence, others beginning to emerge, when possible working across national boundaries.’”
I love that ‘practical’. Who at this time are the real wishful thinkers?
Against the Day, Vintage Books, 2007. £10.