A local contractor has been building a house next door to us for more than a year. Just digging and pouring the foundation took six months. This is glacially slow, even by Nantucket standards. I pointed out to him a while ago that it took four hundred and fifty days to construct the Empire State Building and waggishly asked (but after all, we have had to listen to his beep-beep-beeping earth mover for months),
“What day are you on?”
He’ll eventually finish, but the edifice that rises over his foundation will be a cheap and shoddy split-level trophy house impersonator. Whereas the competition soars a hundred two stories high and has been striking awe into the hearts of tourists, hard-nosed New Yorkers and fictional great apes alike, since 1931.What interests me about this lop-sided comparison today is the similarity of their actual foundations – in all but scale.
Plot works the same way. The basic supports and footings seem to be universal: chains of causality with gradually rising stakes, and ever more serious consequences. From there you can build a cheesy little chicken house like The DaVinci Code, or a cathedral like 1984.
I re-read Orwell’s masterpiece this week, as I try to do every year when the first “bright cold” days of April approach. This time I was studying it mainly for its plotting and only incidentally for the architecture of thought, feeling and political philosophy that Orwell conjured from that sandy pit of Aristotelian rebar.
The plot of 1984 is a tight little death machine. Winston Smith believes he has scraped a tiny little pocket of privacy for himself in the barbed wire and concrete totalitarian society of Oceania. The writing desk inn his tiny flat fits into an alcove originally intended for bookshelves. Sitting there he is invisible to the telescreen, which monitors everyth9ing he does, within its visual range. How often or by what system any given telescreen is monitored there’s no way to know. But he has to assume that everyone is being watched all the time.
Winston writes in a journal with creamy cotton fiber pages purchased illegally in the Proletarian section of Airstrip One (formerly London). He writes with an antique fountain pen, spurning the scratchy ‘ink pencils’ in common use. The diary is secret, or so he thinks. In fact, every move he makes has been scrutinized intensely for years.
The same is true of his love affair with Julia, his co-worker at the Ministry of Truth. She has been conducting successful clandestine romances for a decade and knows every trick and subterfuge. It’s only when she gets involved with Winston that her fate is sealed. From the moment she passes him a note with the words “I love you” scribbled on it, through theuir carefully worked-out assignations and the rental of a little love nest above the antique store where Winston purchased his diary, to their contact with the rebel organization known only as The Brotherhood – and their pledge to do litearally anything for the cause of insurrection – members of the Inner Party are toying with them, building a case against them and orchestrating their ruin. O’Brien, the Inner Party member who initiates them into this diabolical sham, is part of the conspiracy, as is Mr. Charrington, the kindly store owner who rents them the apartment. Everything Winston says and does further incriminates him and undercuts his efforts to take the moral high ground during his interrogation in the Ministry of Love. So he’s ‘better’ than the Party he despises? O’Brien has him on tape, pledging to throw acid in a child’s face to help the cause.
Every scene in the book pushes Winston closer to the torture chambers of the Ministry of Love, those vast “ramifications” below street level, and eventually to his ultimate self-treason in Room 101. Every “free” action adds another brick to his prison.
In a sense 1984 is a genre novel, and there have been other genre novels that chart this kind of merciless downward spiral: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, John LeCarre’s The Spy ho Came in From the Cold all ring down an inevitable doom on their hapless characters. But nothing in any of these novels comes close to the more impact and majestic tragedy of 1984. And the plot of this magnum opus, the trail of clues that lead Winston Smith ever deeper into the scrutiny and control of forces he cannot understand, the escalation of suspense as love makes him reckless and the Thought Police close in? Well it holds everything else together, supports all the sky-scraping levels of thought and feeling. It’s startling, in a way – this mundane blueprint hardly seems connected to the lavish atriums and soaring roof gardens of the finished building.
But it was the plot that pulled me through the book the first time I read it – that and the cheesy Pocket Books cover showing a slutty Julia with her Junior Anti-Sex League scarf wrapped around her waist and the spooky white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth looming in the background. I was in the eighth grade. I actually thought Winston might win, somehow, back then. It seemed like a reasonable assumption: the good guys won in all the other stories I read. The Fantastic Four won, the Hardy Boys won, James Bond won. Even Lad, A Dog managed to save the day by the last page. So I was primed for a rouser I fell for every trick, as clueless and obsessed as Winston himself. I believed O’Brien was an ally. I loved the ‘curiously civilized’ way he resettled his spectacles on his nose. I barely noticed the sublime descriptions ( Winston was “gelatinous" with fatigue? Ordinary chocolate tasted like “The smoke from a rubbish fire”? Wow), or the clever details (Like the tobacco falling out of Victory Cigarettes when you hold them vertical); I skipped reading Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism entirely.
I just wanted to find out what happened next.
When I got to the end, I was devastated (Just as my mom had warned me I would be); and I immediately started reading it again. It’s easy to forget that childish fury of curiosity while poring over the Newspeak Appendix or studying Orwell’s tough, working class no-nonsense prose. But the man who changed his name from Eric Blair was a story-teller first and foremost. That he managed to engineer so much political acumen, so much prescience, such an Empire State Building of heart and heartbreak over the humble foundation of his plot -- that’s his true achievement.
His 450 days were well- spent.
When I try to study precisely how he did it, I feel like a sleight-of-hand trickster, poring over Videos of the The Great & Mysterious Blair for some professional tips. But after a while I start to develop the awestruck and demoralizing suspicion that there’s nothing there for a work-a-day con-man like me to learn.
Because Orwell’s magic is real.