Days Between Stations

By Tom McCarthy, 13 January 2004

Tom McCarthy samples the mainline stations on Literature's Techno Express1605: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza stand in pitch black in front of mills whose grinding and moaning Quixote mistakes for the sound of monsters. He's right, of course: the mills are monsters, the vangard of the age of mechanised industry that's lurking in the night of the future, two centuries away. Sancho Panza loses control of his bowels.

1818: Mary Shelley writes Frankensteinin response to Luddite workers turning on the weaving machines that have replaced them.

1821: De Quincey, pondering opium, has visions of happiness being bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket, portable ecstasies being corked up in pint bottles, peace of mind sent by gallons on mail coaches: the commodification of the abstract. Like all good writers on drugs, he's not actually writing about drugs: he's writing about industrial capitalism.

1907: Science, Ossipon tells Verloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, is “the sacrosanct fetish of the day.” Their plan to blow up the Greenwich observatory backfires, splattering Verloc's brother-in-law Stevie over the first meridien.

1909: Marinetti stays up all night writing the Futurist Manifesto, in which he sings the beauty of great crowds pouring into factories whose strings of smoke suspend them from the clouds, the nocturnal vibration of arsenals and shipyards under violent electric lights, the sleek flight of aeroplanes etc. In the morning he crashes his car into a ditch whose industrial sewage he laps up lovingly. “It reminded me of the breast of my Sudanese nurse.”

1932: Celine's Bardamu does a stint in a Ford factory, and describes workers bent double over their machines like slaves, hammering and calibrating. “We didn't love the earth enough, so we had to turn it into something useful.”

1932: Faulkner leaves the painterly style of The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying behind, cultivating a more photographic aesthetic in Light in August. Figures appear frozen for short instants in car headlights, “like a kodak print emerging from the liquid.”

1939: Joyce, who several years previously has organised the first ever cinema screening in Ireland, uses dream-like film sequences again and again in Finnegans Wake. “Roll away the reel world.”

1964: Burroughs presents western culture as a teched-up recording studio in Nova Express. Storm it: playback time.

1973: Tyrone Slothrop, hero of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, has his penis inextricably linked to Imipolex G, the rubber used in the construction of the V-2 rocket bomb (the novel's first of which lands exactly where Conrad's Stevie died). His journey to 'the Zone' to observe his own – and his own time's – assembly ends with nuclear bombs falling on the Los Angeles cinema in which we all live.

1973: The same year, Ballard's Crash crafts a stylised vision in which sex, speed and death are also mutually inextricable.

1980s: Vollmer, Gaddis, Foster Wallace: the Systems Novel. Literature has now totally internalised (post-) industrial, cinematic and even information technology processes. Sancho Panza's shit still smells.