People, I swear, trains might be the center of history: war, peace, travel, song, the L, the T, the Peter Pan, Mussolini’s punctuality, John Henry (steel-driving man), Boxcar Bertha, those freakishly unsettling Thomas toys, and how come the North won the Civil War? and what happened to Anna Karenina? and what’s going on in the Heart of Darkness with all those imperial railroad designs, Conrad’s image of unfinished rail lines cutting through sweaty African jungle? Forced labor, Belgian aspirations to world power, engines driving the future. Sebald goes on about this in a few books, always weaving the train and the train station into some thick fabric of humanity, you know? Plus, the famous schedules—God, the schedules, redefining time in man’s image, standardizing time, industrializing society. There are your fascists-in-the-making.
What gets me is the annihilation of space and time: the catchphrase for the railroad. What gets me about what gets me is that’s the same catchphrase for the Internet.
So go here: mid-‘90s, West Coast U.S.: Bill Gates is a famous man who says the Internet makes the world smaller. It’s on a website that he says that, of course (which is everywhere and nowhere). Other people say the Internet makes the world larger. It either takes us really far away—so the world is large—or it gets us where we want to go really fast—so the world’s small. I’m saying, again with the annihilation of time and space.
Now here: same time, rural France. Three guys squat over three holes in the ground under a leaky roof beside a so-called train station. Stage Left goes on about some webpage that led the backpack-addled Let’s Go crappers to this spot, with his newfangled Netscape browser, on that thing later called the Internets. Stage Right, being folksy, ponders how Oriole Mike Mussina’s season is coming along. Stage Center (author) cares not for either conversation. The place stinks. But let’s Dan Brown this story up a bit. Don’t avoid the pun—you can damn near smell the intersection of those two things known for intersections, known for annihilation: Internet and railroad.
Go back, 1800s: railroad magnates got together in the 1880s and invented time zones; we have time zones because of trains, or at least because of robber-baron-ish railroad magnates, rubbing their white-gloved hands together, taking a break from their Monopoly-box-cover photo shoot. They couldn’t manage the schedules otherwise. High noon is right out, since the earth turns, so high noon is maybe eight minutes later just that far to the west, and that messes up the schedules: i.e., whose high noon are we talking about? You’ve got a train with 13 clocks on it, one for each station, set anew at each station’s high noon. They have to set up some system to tell time. They do. The French want it to be Parisian Mean Time. It’s Greenwich Mean Time. Lesson: the French always lose.
Span the 1900s: what a brilliant line in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Dedalus is rolling across the countryside on a train and he looks out the window at the telegraph and he says, “Silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraphpoles held the galloping notes of the music between punctual bars. This furious music allayed his dread and, leaning against the window ledge, he let his eyelids close again.” A few weeks after the rural France debacle, one of us Let’s Goers was reading that same Joyce as we rolled north in England, and he set the book on his lap and he looked to the window and he reproduced the exact sensation Joyce described earlier that century. It was deep. At the same time—this is real—the Song of the Week on our train-bound pre-iPods (they were called Walkmans) was the Dead’s train-tripping “Terrapin Station.” (Plus, let’s don’t forget Joyce’s “The Dead.”)
You could annihilate other things, too, like people (Indians) and animals (bison) and forests (the interior of a continent). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, once recommended by the McSweeney’s front office, is good on this. Take a look at crap like America’s transcontinental railroad, Chinese workers from the West meeting Irish laborers from the East by the late 1860s. That was after the Civil War, which was a bad thing, where a lot of people died. Like in the Congo, and later in the Mekong, when Coppola reworked Conrad’s Congo story for the apocalyptic Vietnamese set.
Leland Stanford, one of those railroad barons, of the Central Pacific, one of the guys who needed those time zones, Governor of California, he drove the golden spike in Utah in 1869, filled his pockets, and the continent was all connected. Then he started a whole college with all that transcontinental money (Mike Mussina went there a century later), right near that Silicon Valley they say has something to do with those Internets, right close to where Jerry Garcia, humming “Casey Jones,” wrote “Terrapin Station” on some famous bridge to Sausalito, right in the center of history.