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17 Aug

2 Chapters on Pynchon in the Making

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and BioShock Infinite as Intermedia Twins: Urbanity, Multiple Realities, and the American National Project

It has been widely accepted that the first game in the BioShock series (2007) heavily draws on (and critiques) Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957). In my proposed chapter, I will take a closer look at the third game in the series and trace the links between BioShock Infinite (2012) and a novel that can challenge the length of Atlas Shrugged and whose scope arguably far exceeds Rand's book, Thomas Pynchon's novel Against the Day (2006). Indeed, mass media outlets noticed connections between the novel and the video game right upon the latter's release, with Entertainment Weekly, for example, remarking that BioShock Infinite feels "like a secret adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day!"

While these two works would offer plenty of material to explore, my proposed chapter will focus on two interrelated aspects: Infinite and Against the Day's use of the 1893 White City and of alternative realities. As I will demonstrate, both works employ the symbol of the White City to similar ends, for they suggest that a hermetically sealed off city does not result in harmony and order. Rather, the architectural construct comes to embody the fault lines at the heart of America. While in Against the Day, the White City emerges as an ideal projected into the future (rooted in the past and created in the present) that one may aspire toward, but which can never become reality, Infinite's Columbia seeks to transform the idea of the White City into lived reality. However, in either case, the idea remains little more than a utopian promise slated to remain unfulfilled, like the American national project. This fantastic character also presents the link to the use of multiple (quantum) realities in both texts—always 'true' and 'false' at the same time, like a dream projected into the real world.

In the course of my exploration, I will thus argue that both the novel and the video game express a critical stance toward America. Beyond that, I will suggest that the intertextual relation between Infinite and Against the Day substantiate the video game's critique of American culture, for the open textuality that emerges from the game text's intertextual connections even more explicitly confronts players with their limited agency (the lack of openness on the ludic level, that is), turning this gameplay experience into a reflection of (and on) their situation in the real world.

"Two Distinct Worlds"? Maintaining and Transgressing Boundaries of the Human(imal) in Mason & Dixon

Narrated by Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke in a Philadelphia house in 1786, primarily set between 1763 and 1767 (albeit filled with anachronisms), and published in 1997, Thomas Pynchon's postmodern historical novel Mason & Dixon may not be the first book that comes to mind when contemplating the ecogothic in the long nineteenth century. However, as my proposed chapter will argue, Pynchon's book suggests that the resolution of the border dispute between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware is a "Zero-Point of history" from which "all the Marvels" would "follow" (152); the "beginning of the West" (445). Especially the mythic "line straight through the heart of the Wilderness" (8)—the utility and meaning of which is questioned as early as page four of the actual narrative when Cherrycoke remarks that the demarcation line was "ultimately meaningless" (8)—emerges as a powerful, polysemous symbol scholars have read in numerous ways: for example, as a metaphor for the insignificance of borders in a transnational world (Pöhlmann 2010), as a vehicle to explore the dividing lines between rationality and the belief in the supernatural (McEntee 2003), and as the central image in humanity's subduing of nature through science (Ireton 2011).

My proposed chapter will draw on the latter idea and argue that the line also harbingers the Westward Movement of the nineteenth century. Of course, this expansion toward the (mythical) West had started when the New World was "discovered" (or even earlier, for that matter), but it took full force in the nineteenth century. Indeed, by referring to the group surrounding Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon as an "Engine of Destruction" (11) that leaves behind a "slain Forest" (172) and a "tree-slaughtering Animal" (678), Mason & Dixon emphasizes that although its narrative may be based on historical reality, the novel weaves a much more expansive semantic web, as Mason and Dixon's progress toward the west becomes a microcosm of events that would unfold "unto the year 1900, and beyond" (324). Furthermore, expressions like "Engine of Destruction" and "tree-slaughtering Animal" imply that Mason and Dixon's westward journey (and the westward journeys which would follow) functions as an ecological allegory, for the line they draw "inflict[s] upon [the Earth] a long, perfect scar" (526). The line thus comes to represent the line separating humanity from nature. And, indeed, this line between the human and its Others, as I will demonstrate, takes center stage in an ecologically-oriented reading of the novel. Such a reading is supported by the existence of talking dogs who have "learn'd to act as human as possible" (22) and automatons which simulate animals. Tellingly, these Others the humans (i.e., Whites) in the novel joyously "hunt[] and slaughter" (60) and seek to expel from their conception of the world come to haunt the explorers (for example, the Digesting Duck becomes the manifestation of such a haunting, as it decides to 'haunt' a French chef "whose celebrity is purchas'd with the lives of [the duck's] Race" [375]). On the other hand, the human characters repeatedly confront the animal within, not only in the wilderness, but also in the 'civilized' spaces of human settlements, such as when Dixon "feels like a predatory Animal,—as if this Town were … his Hunting-Ground" (78) or "become[s] a Werewolf, or … some New World Creature without a name" (491).

Effectively, Mason & Dixon suggests that the violent establishment of the Anthropocene, which leaves behind "a clear sign of Human Presence upon the Planet" (219), brought forth specters that still haunt mankind to this day. Tellingly, Jacques Derrida claimed that to discuss specters is "to speak … about certain others who are not present, nor presently living … in the name of justice. Of justice where it is not yet, … where it is no longer, … and where it will never be" (xviii). While Mason & Dixon draws on this notion of (the lack of) justice, the novel also highlights that if "Progress Westward were a journey, returning unto Innocence," the journey's "Limit" would be "the innocence of the Animals" (427). Although this suggestion presents an idealized view of animals, the statement still not only underlines the significance of non-human animals to the construction of the human, but also implies that justice may still be a distant possibility.