The space train of Winesburg: Galaxy Express 999 and grotesques

“Anderson evokes a depressed landscape in which lost souls wander about; they make their flitting appearances mostly in the darkness of night, these stumps and shades of humanity.”

Irving Howe, Introduction to Winesburg, Ohio

One of the most challenging parts of writing these analysis pieces is coming up with an introduction. Sometimes I settle on something personal, and sometimes I pull from the text or my reaction to it.

In this case, I’m going to start with talking about a book that I’ve read multiple times but I’ve never completed — Winesburg, Ohio.

The collection of vignettes focus on the characters in the imaginary Ohio town. In some cases, he tells stories about seemingly harmless people and some seemingly deeply morally compromised. Each one meets and talks with George Willard, a young reporter, who keeps their stories.

Each of these people is a “grotesque.” In the opening of the book, we get an explanation of what that means. Anderson couches this as a narration of a young writer talking to an old writer. The senior writer shows him a book. We can assume that is the book we’re about to read; that book is his collection of grotesques.

Anderson explains that there wasn’t such a thing as truth in the beginning of creation, just a great many thoughts. And when first found truths, they were still composed of vague thoughts. And thousands of these truths were able to exist at the same time.

That is Anderson’s ideal world. A world where the “truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift of profligacy of careless and abandon” exist next to each other. None of them has a greater significance or importance.

We see the problem when people take a single truth, according to the introduction.

“It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

Winesburg, Ohio

One of the essential things about Anderson’s grotesques is that they aren’t always bad people. In many cases, they’re lonely or on the outside of normal society. They’ve just grasped their truth so hard that it’s become a falsehood. In most cases, they are objects of pity rather than anger.

And here’s where I want to bring in Galaxy Express 999.

A Parade of Planets

Yes. I know. I’ve already compared Galaxy Express to a mythological journey. What am I doing comparing it now to an early modernist collection of stories?

Well because, there is a parade of grotesques on these planets, or at the very least a parade of planets where people take a single truth and take it to an extreme where it’s a lie. 

The earliest example of this comes on Titan. This half-episode story starts with Maetel and Tetsuro getting off the train on a world where above all else, they value “freedom.” 

It’s important to note here that Matsumoto considers freedom and self-determination virtues in many other places. Tetsuro doesn’t want to stay with Ryuz because he wants to freedom to achieve his goal by himself. We see it again when Hanako gives Tetsuro his freedom. We also see it when Maetel of the Mud challenges her fate so that she can have independence.

We even get a hint of this as they are approaching Titan, and we are told that it’s bluer and greener than Earth, but this immediately comes with a warning from Maetel that it’s beautiful and dangerous. 

As soon as they exit the train, they marvel at the beauty. While they do that, someone is shot. And no one does anything. Because in a world where freedom is everything, there are no laws to stop people. 

Shortly after they arrive, Maetel is kidnapped. The rest of the story is about Tetsuro going on a mission to save her and finding she didn’t need to be rescued because Maetel is a secret agent. 

(I’m telling you, that woman has more tricks than MacGyver and more moves than Bourne.) 

What we get when they’re leaving is a statement from the narrator who tells us that Titan was founded by “pure-hearted people” but is now populated by people who don’t understand freedom. Much like Anderson’s grotesques, the people of Titan have taken hold of a truth so hard that it’s become a lie. 

The narrator’s statement

We see another example of grotesqueness at The Kingdom of Atonement. Here we are approaching a planet where they ring bells as the train is nearing the planet. (Yes, they are ringing bells in space. That is what this show is. Just go with it.) 

They are doing it to advertise how pure they are and how pure are they? 

Maetel calls them “sickeningly pure.” 

In this story, the conductor gets to go on vacation, and as he’s wandering around, he’s mugged. The thief takes his money and disappears. 

Well, Maetel and Tetsuro find him soon afterward, and they talk about what they can do. We soon learn that this planet has no police because why would police exist on a world with no crime. 

Tetsuro notices the contradiction right away. I mean, how can a planet be pure if there are thieves around?

We soon learn that the planet is very fond of victim-blaming because the “Cleanliness Committee” decides the best way to deal with this problem is to kidnap the conductor, Maetel and Tetsuro and wipe their brains. 

When they can’t do that, they try to kill them, and when that doesn’t work, they beg them to get off the train. In one hilarious move, the head of the Cleanliness Committee offers Tetsuro a handful of giant lollipops.

But here again, we see a planet that took one truth and clung to it to the point where it became false. 

My final example of this, and the reason I thought about this, comes from the Memory Planet. On this planet, a bunch of “professionals” have come to live out the end of their days. 

They do this in an absurd caricature of doing a job. A cartoonist draws pages and then tosses them on the floor. A gunsmith stands in a pile of discarded guns as he continues to make more. A professional hole digger stands in the bottom of a hole with two others nearby. There is no rhyme or reason why they are doing this. 

They are just doing it because a real professional is dreadful and terrifying. 

(I admit that this part made me wonder what part of Matsumoto’s life this came out of because it was kind of silly. It did ring a little bit of being frustrated with the older generation clinging to positions of power.) 

But really, this was a whole planet of grotesques, who were so caught up in their truth that they didn’t care if it was meaningless. They would continue to do it because they didn’t know what else to do.

No extremes

There is a long tradition of stories of people going on trips and finding bizarre people. I started this series off by talking about the Odyssey, but we can also look at Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

Swift and Gulliver predate Anderson by nearly 200 years, and while I don’t understand the references, I know that it was a satirical story filled with silly people who held on too tightly to their truths. 

What I think is different between Anderson and Galaxy Express 999 and Swift and, to a lesser extent, The Odyssey is that Anderson and Galaxy Express 999 are not moralizing. They aren’t telling you that one truth is correct and another truth is false. 

The people of Titan are wrong, but not because freedom is terrible. It’s because clinging too hard to freedom is wrong. At some point, freedom is no different than anarchy, which ends up being a different kind of tyranny.

It’s not that having order is wrong. It’s that clinging to the idea that you are the “orderly planet” means that you don’t impose order where you need to and try to set order where you don’t 

That is even truer with the planet of the professionals. None of them are wrong; they’re just so committed that they’ve become absurd. 

The same is true with Anderson’s grotesques. Many of them are lonely and sad, but they aren’t bad people. They’re just so obsessed with something that they can’t let go of it. 

Many science fiction stories show how greed, racism or anger can turn a beautiful world ugly, and Galaxy Express 999 also does this. 

What they don’t usually do is take a virtue to a point where it becomes perverted. That is typically the venue of dystopias, which Galaxy Express isn’t. 

While I am still early on in the series, what I would say so far is Matsumoto prizes moderation above all else. A world of freedom, empathy, industriousness, and order balances out each other and balances out other virtues and vices. 

It’s not strange to me that of the few stories that end happily, they feature characters who embody this centrist attitude. 

I just want to end with this passage from the opening for Winesburg, Ohio. 

“The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.” 

Winesburg, Ohio

As always, thanks for reading. 

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