The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Literatures in English

By Brian McHale; Randall Stevenson | Go to book overview

Introduction
On or about December 1910,
London

Brian McHale and Randall Stevenson


Stories of the Street

One dream in particular … he would find himself alone in a long street in the middle of the
night … This street stretched as far as one could see. It had on either side lamp-posts which
burned with a steady staring illumination, long rows of lamp-posts that converged in the far-
thest distance.

(Mackenzie 1983: 45)

Repeatedly endured by Compton Mackenzie’s hero in Sinister Street (1913–14), this dream seems to recur for the central characters in Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), disturbed by the prospect of an

abstracted Street … [of] mercury-vapor lamps, receding in an asymmetric V to the east where
it’s dark … the street of the 20th Century, at whose far end or turning – we hope – is some
sense of home or safety. (Pynchon 1973: 2, 303)

Visions of a dark, ‘abstracted street’, dotted with pools of clear illumination, turn up significantly often in the half-century separating Sinister Street and V. They figure in the regularly spaced, talkative streetlamps described in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ (1917), for example, and perhaps in the ‘series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged’ Virginia Woolf mentions a few years later in her essay on ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919/1925; Woolf 1986–94: 4: 160). Graham Greene’s It’s a Battlefield (1934) likewise envisages a ‘battlefield’ indefinite in dimensions and area, and ‘made up of nothing except small numberless circlets commensurate with such ranges of vision as the mist might allow at each spot’ (Greene 1980: 5). Further down the century, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) continues to describe ‘clusters and constellations of data’ in cyberspace as ‘Like city lights, receding’ (Gibson 1984: 67).

Looking back now, from the ‘far end, or turning’ Pynchon anticipated, the recurrence of such dreams and images seems one of many symptoms of fragmentation, of fracturing of vision or illumination, so central to the century just completed, and so distinctive in its art. For Mackenzie, doodling the names of First World War battlefields in the margins of his manuscript while finishing Sinister Street, or for Pynchon, following the century’s experience as far as the Second World War and Suez in V. – or for a great many other writers – such

-1-

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