Dys
By Thomas Pynchon

“Pynchon's Dystopia”
Review By Dan Geddes

A new Thomas Pynchon work is always an event, and his devoted readers will treasure his latest effort, Dys. More than his earlier works, Dys fits the genre of negative utopian fiction, but it is still a Pynchon work more than anything else — a wickedly funny masterpiece about power, history, and conspiracy. The picture of encroaching fascism in America that Pynchon sketched in his underappreciated Vineland has been painted more luridly in Dys.
Americans in Dys live in constant fear and shock, in a state of perpetual war, and under the eyes of increasingly penetrating electronic surveillance. The skies are policed by millions of pesky VD’s (flying Video Drones), which spot-check everyone’s behavior. But Americans have taken the surveillance in stride; the home version of VD’s (packaged as flying pigs) are hot sellers in the burgeoning personal reconnaissance market.
In Dys, all but the super-rich live under VD surveillance, the images of which are streamed to digital TV broadcasters, and available live on television to anyone who tunes into a person’s frequency. Everyone watches everyone else (and themselves) on TV. If Vineland described the mind-deadening banality of TV, TV in Dys is mostly surveillance footage, war footage, or COPS Around the Clock™.
Like many Pynchon works, the story is a quest, this time of a young woman (Ginger Vitis) looking for her husband (Ellsworth Vitis), a leftist writer captured from their Florida home by paramilitary forces in a Pre-Dawn Raid. Ginger works her way through labyrinthine bureaucracies encountering only stony silences about the incident. The Federal Police finally produce some pieces of “evidence” concerning his disappearance, but these Ginger identifies as crude forgeries, including Ellsworth’s “prophecy” that he will be captured by Muslim militants posing as paramilitary police, or his obviously doctored “suicide note.”
Frustrated by attempts to discover her husband’s whereabouts, Ginger begins researching Constitutional Law in order to determine her legal strategy. She soon learns that the Patriot’s Freedom Bill has dissolved the Bill of Rights. (“Wow! That wasn’t on TV,” she laments.) She begins to devour works about the 1960’s, a time before her birth that she believes represented the American people’s final attempt to resist state power. Watching the Video Drones hover outside her window, she is comforted by the thought that a free society was once possible.
With her life destroyed, Ginger accepts the offer of her college roommate, Dizzy Trollope, now a graduate student in history, to visit her in Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, Ginger and Dizzy are free to talk, even if their passports have embedded GPS technology to track their whereabouts, and most of the city center is under VD surveillance. In Dizzy’s apartment, they smoke semi-legal Dutch marijuana, while Dizzy, who has been researching The Conspiracy for years, describes for her friend the True History of The World.
Dizzy has penetrated the archives of a secret society now known only as The Plot. The Plot has undergone many name changes, but was started in 18th century France by a group of seminary students devoted to interpreting Nostradamus’ Centuries. The exegetes violently debate the meaning of some quatrains, discovering evidence of themselves in the esoteric texts. Extremists vow to actively fulfill the prophecies. Not content with passive measures, a committee creates a secret blueprint for world domination, a plan they estimate will take about 250 years to execute. The seminarians vow to infiltrate secret societies, international banking and diplomatic circles, the press, The Church, and global intelligence operations.
Dizzy’s long monologue traces The Plot from the French and American Revolutions through the present day. Even “the Holy Sixties themselves,” Dizzy says, were just another State Media Production of The Plot, however real the revolutionary vibes seemed at the time. The countercultural leaders were usually CIA operatives.
Ginger is dubious about most of these theories, and she is further confused after listening to still other theories from Dizzy’s Amsterdam friends. While conspiracy buffs may drink in these tantalizing suggestions like mother’s milk, others are left uncertain as to Pynchon’s intentions. While we share his concerns about civil liberties, how much of Dizzy’s pot-addled conspiracy does Pynchon (expect us to) take seriously? Is he encouraging us to research history, or is he only trumpeting his theme of history as fiction?
We’re not sure, but at least Pynchon allows his characters and readers a spark of hope. The deeper Ginger and Dizzy probe into the conspiracy the more they encounter the forces of entropy undermining the totalitarian leviathan. Even among the Elite, the 100 families that Dizzy believes run the world, there remains a refreshingly human tendency for intrigue and internecine warfare. For a determined truth-seeker such as Ginger, the system actually proves porous enough that she finally discovers Ellsworth, still alive, albeit with some sinister connections to pharmaceutical companies.
Pynchon maintains his high standards for density, allusion, and humor. He can describe dark settings and actions, and also display a more ludic side. Pynchon here is as multi-dimensional as usual. But some readers may find his habits irritating. He relishes spoofing TV shows, as well as including humorous lyrics. He gives his characters flat, silly names that slightly weaken their emotive impact.
Despite these criticisms, Pynchon is clearly one of the few living masters. Dys is a dense textual tapestry. Urgency informs this work, as if Pynchon is aware that his efforts to warn us about encroaching state power are too late. Pynchon himself, despite reports that he lives openly in New York, remains a recluse, almost an underground man. Dys gives us strong suggestions of how Pynchon views our new Orwellian distortions, such as the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, or the Axis of Evil and the War On Terrorism.

(Entry by Dan Geddes)