¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 So, to recap: The anxiety of obsolescence, a cultural pose struck by the beleaguered postmodern novelist, has at its root three discourses with which it is mutually constitutive. These discourses–the death of the novel, the threat of new technologies, and the rise of postmodernism–all bespeak obsolescence in the interest of creating a protected space within which a threatened form might continue to flourish, but do so in highly suspect ways, ways that reveal a certain desire to submerge questions of social hierarchy within a more comfortable cultural framework. All that remains, before setting out to examine the anxiety of obsolescence in its primary texts, is to consider just who that postmodern novelist is.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My investigation into the novel of obsolescence takes the work of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo as a metonym of sorts for the work of a larger cluster of postmodern U.S. writers concerned with the relationship between the novel and television. While other authors and texts enter my analysis at key moments, I focus on these two novelists in no small part for practical purposes; fully examining the instances of this discourse as it recurs across the literature of the period (much less across multiple genres and national literatures) would no doubt require a multivolume set. To analyze this discourse in sufficient detail, the field must of necessity be narrowed. However, the choice of these two novelists is significant–as, arguably, the two most important U.S. literary novelists of the late twentieth century, their work has wielded huge influence over the development of the contemporary U.S. literary scene. Many other novelists have written many other very important novels, and yet Pynchon and DeLillo remain, arguably, the Hemingway and Faulkner of the postwar period; no understanding of the era can be complete without a full accounting of their influence.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I hope, however, that my focus on these two novelists might be understood in contradistinction from what has come to form a second-order post-modern debate, a constant wrangling among critics and writers over which practitioners and texts can be properly considered “postmodernist.” Within the debate that revolves around the novel, one finds numerous articles that have defined a core set of writers who together are considered the postmodern “canon,” insofar as such a thing can be said to exist. Among others, and in no order but the alphabetical, these writers include, in addition to Pynchon and DeLillo, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William S. Burroughs, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut (see, e.g., Hassan; Barth “Replenishment”). Further complicating matters is the work of more recent critics whose revisionist investigations of the postmodernist novel explore the writers left off the canon-forming lists but whose stylistic and thematic concerns warrant their inclusion, such as Kathy Acker, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Leslie Marmon Silko, and so on (see Harper; also Hite and W. Steiner). Given the very size and diversity of these lists, it appears evident that, despite the presumed death of the novel, despite the depredations of technology, and despite the hopelessness of the postmodern, novelists have not stopped writing, nor have they stopped making an impression on contemporary culture. As the editor of Bold Type suggests, the novelist’s supposedly precarious existence on the edge of contemporary culture might actually be a benefit: “In this more marginal context, it may be that writers will be liberated and literature as an art form will flourish anew” (Weissman). Indeed, as we have seen, life at the margins has its consolations.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 It is particularly to the point, then, that the Bold Type editorial begins with Don DeLillo’s claim that we live in “a period of empty millennial frenzy” (“The Power of History” 62, qtd. in Weissman). John Barth, as we have seen, distinguishes the novelist’s millennialism from that more frequently associated with mystics, pointing out that “if you took a bunch of people out into the desert and the world didn’t end, you’d come home shamefaced, I imagine; but the persistence of an art form doesn’t invalidate work created in the comparable apocalyptic ambience” (“Exhaustion,” 32). The novelist is not immune from his own millennialism; his sense of his imminent demise and disappearance is of a piece with the querulous cries of that prophet in the desert that the world–or at least the “Western civilization” part of it–is coming to an end. But he has the luxury of putting his “empty millennial frenzy” to creative use. In 1997, the literary world saw the release of huge new novels–huge in both size and reception–by both DeLillo and Pynchon, while also watching the launch of WebTV. This was a significant coincidence. This study confronts the uncomfortable coexistence of these two writers and the electronic media, exploring through the connected discourses of television as machine, television as spectacle, and television as network, these writers’ engagement with their own anxiety of obsolescence.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is because this study draws primarily from the work of Pynchon and DeLillo that the novelist of obsolescence as I have described him thus far has been so relentlessly masculine. In addition to this pragmatism of signification, however, there are larger, more theoretical reasons for suggesting that the novelist confronting the anxiety of obsolescence is male. First, this novelist is following in the tradition of Bloom’s always-male poet, confronting, doing battle, and engaging in other such masculinist metaphors of contest and conquest. But more importantly, many of these readings of DeLillo and Pynchon should be extrapolated outward to connect with other members of that “canonical” group of white male writers whose texts form the core of what has, until recently, been considered the “postmodern.” One critic of the postmodern novel, in attempting to delineate this canon, has posited two contrary forms of postmodernist fiction: the aesthetic and the oppositional (see Francese). This distinction casts into opposing camps formal experimentalists such as John Barth and politically motivated writers such as Toni Morrison. The flaw in this model is most clearly revealed when considering Pynchon and DeLillo, two novelists who significantly cross the line, as both combine late-modernist experimentalism with pointed commentary on the condition of postmodernity.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 There nonetheless remains reason to separate these writers from a novelist such as Toni Morrison, whom I consider in the final chapter of this volume. This separation is based not on an essentialized authorial identity (white men versus a woman of color) but on the socially situated subject positions that their narratives construct. Moreover, such a separation cannot be made contingent upon a split between a false dichotomy of aesthetic postmodernism and oppositional postmodernism, as each set of writers clearly interacts with both categories. Rather, we might best be served by returning to my characterization of the split between cultural postmodernism and social postmodernism. Pynchon and DeLillo, like Jameson, repeatedly demonstrate in their highly formalist novels an obsession with the macro level systems of technology and economics, the movement of politics on a national and international scale, the global sweep of war–systems that engulf the individual and render him powerless. Morrison, by contrast, puts very similar techniques to work in exploring the local and familial effects of systems of domination that function to construct the marginalized subject in its contingent specificity, systems that do not obliterate but create the individual. Simply put, writers operating within a socially oriented postmodernist perspective, like Morrison, do not, by and large, show evidence of the anxiety of obsolescence in their texts. Such writers’ interactions with and representations of television have much in common with Harper’s description of the African American subject and its decenteredness; rather than a once-centered self now decentered, the “historical status of such a subjectivity is precisely that of never having existed“ (11, emphasis in original). So with the electronic media: rather than once having had a voice and now finding themselves silenced in the cultural realm by these new technologies, such voices’ historical status is that of never having existed. And just as Marianna Torgovnick suggests that the death-of-the-novel discourse requires economic and social privilege to make any sense, so the anxiety of obsolescence requires cultural privilege (see Spilka and McCracken-Flesher 361).
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This does not mean that postmodernist critiques, whether theoretical, critical, or fictional, bear no import for the writers I describe as social post-modernists; as bell hooks suggests, such critiques can “open up new possibilities for the construction of the self and the assertion of agency” (par. 10). However, where such critiques are used to undermine the notion of agency, and where they appropriate the language of marginalization, these critiques have the (perhaps unintentional) effect of closing down the possibilities for radical liberation on the part of previously disenfranchised subjects. Harper argues that “the subjective disorientation entailed by social marginality is implicated in dominant conceptions of the generalized postmodern condition, with the political consequence that its specific sociopolitical import is obscured in discourse in and about contemporary culture” (28). I suggest something slightly but crucially different: Pynchon and DeLillo deploy the discourses of cultural postmodernism with the effect not simply of appropriating the experience of marginality to the writer’s cultural position, and not simply of obscuring the specific sociopolitical import of social marginality, but with the further effect of camouflaging an at times troubling set of sociopolitical concerns. In this paradoxical fashion, the return of the anxiety of obsolescence’s repressed winds up not obscuring but rather highlighting questions of social marginality. In the end, the novel of obsolescence functions as a contemporary version of the “melodrama of beset [white] manhood” defined by Nina Baym, in which the threat that television poses to the novelist functions as an acceptable cultural scapegoat for what is a much stickier social issue: the perceived dominance on the contemporary literary scene of fiction by women and racial and ethnic minorities (see Baym).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 For the moment, I’d like to look at two key instances in which Pynchon and DeLillo figure most clearly the altogether circumscribed spaces they imagine remaining to the writer in the age of television. Writers still abound in the postmodern novel–in fact, for many of the novelists of obsolescence, the writer is the quintessential postmodern figure, postmodern precisely in his presumed decenteredness. Thus one encounters repeatedly in the novel of obsolescence the presence of the novelist as a character within his own text–“John Barth” in LETTERS, “Richard S. Powers” in Galatea 2.2>, “Paul Auster” in The New York Trilogy–suggesting both the author’s reduction to the mere creation of his work, on the one hand, and his attempts to keep that work under control through his presence, on the other. This decenteredness becomes not only a danger to the author but also a badge of honor that marks his cultural marginalization; in fact, as we shall see in thinking about Don DeLillo’s Mao II, the most “successful” postmodern novelist is ironically the one who does not publish.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 while others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and God as a human form with beard measured in light-years and nebulae for sandals, Fausto’s kind [poets, that is] are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the “practical” half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits and fits of contrariness as they.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Poets have been at this for centuries. It is the only useful purpose they do serve in society: and if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry. (326)
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Thus the job of the poet–and by extension, the novelist, who works with the same metaphors on a larger canvas–is to clothe what is essentially inhuman in the trappings of the human, to keep the world convinced that it runs on a human principle, without which deluded conviction all culture would fall into utter ruin. Writers are, in this view, the only members of society able to see beyond that veil of “comfortable” metaphor, and thus have been charged with the responsibility for upholding it. One might well ask two questions here, however. First, who is living the necessary lie? Arguably, Fausto’s delusions of grandeur regarding the importance of poetry in a dying world are what keep him moving forward; it may be his own conviction of his importance to the world that is deluded. Second, if the job of the writer is the maintenance of the illusions of metaphor, has Pynchon himself not violated the code by giving us all this blurred peek behind the curtain?
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 In fact, Pynchon’s writerly strategy across his career has been an absolute inversion of Fausto’s insistence on allowing humanity to “continue in the Great Lie” so that poetry itself may live on. Pynchon pulls back the cloak of metaphor, pointing out the determination of the twentieth century by the machine and the image, declaring at every opportunity that those things that made us human–including poetry, and potentially the novel–are at an end. The responsibility of the writer, in Pynchon’s estimation, is not making society comfortable with its delusions, but rather maintaining a profoundly political opposition to the dominant culture. The response of that culture to the writer’s work only reveals the necessity of his continued opposition. Take, for instance, Winthrop Tremaine, army-surplus dealer, in The Crying of Lot 49: –‘Books.’ You had the feeling that it was only his good breeding that kept him from spitting. ‘You want to sell something used,’ he advised Oedipa, ‘find out what there’s a demand for'” (149). The demand for books, according to this representation, is gone from the world, though Tremaine’s pleasure in the surge in demand for surplus rifles and swastika armbands gestures toward the lingering need for the novel’s political work.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In Mao II, DeLillo creates an extended portrait of the contemporary writer as prophetic voice in the desert. Mao II‘s writer-protagonist is Bill Gray, a novelist whose retreat from the world has augmented his status as cult figure. In fact, an argument can be made that this status has actually been created by his reclusiveness; as Scott Martineau, his creepily obsessive but nonetheless brilliant assistant, insists:
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Bill is at the height of his fame. Ask me why. Because he hasn’t published in years and years and years. When his books first came out, and people forget this or they never knew it, they made a slight sort of curio impression. . . . It’s the years since that have made him big. (52)
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This is the paradox that the contemporary writer must face, a world in which a writer gains fame by not publishing, by refusing to interact with the surrounding culture. Years earlier, in DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star, the tortured novelist Jean Venable explicates the conundrum:
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 There’s a whole class of writers who don’t want their books to be read. This to some extent explains their crazed prose. To express what is expressible isn’t why you write if you’re in this class of writers. To be understood is faintly embarrassing. What you want to express is the violence of your desire not to be read. The friction of an audience is what drives writers crazy. These people are going to read what you write. The more they understand, the crazier you get. You can’t let them know what you’re writing about. Once they know, you’re finished. If you’re in this class, what you have to do is either not publish or make absolutely sure your work leaves readers strewn along the margins. This not only causes literature to happen but is indispensable to your mental health as well. (410″“11)
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 This friction between author and audience, between author and culture, becomes literalized in Mao II. Bill Gray, in his reclusiveness, in his cult status, in his long silences between novels, but also in his desire to have an impact on the wider culture, is arguably DeLillo’s portrait of Pynchon–but also perhaps an idealized portrait of himself, that writer who reportedly circulated at the 1998 National Book Awards dinner while handing out cards that read “I don’t want to talk about it” (see Atlas).
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Scott works actively to keep Gray in hiding, to discourage him from publishing his latest novel. But Gray manages, in the course of the book, to elude Scott’s watchful protection, emerge from his seclusion, and enter the electronic culture, a world for which he is utterly unprepared. This world doesn’t conform to the romantic images he holds of it; as his editor says, during their first meeting in decades:
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 “You have a twisted sense of the writer’s place in society. You think the writer belongs at the far margin, doing dangerous things. In Central America, writers carry guns. They have to. And this has always been your idea of the way it ought to be. The state should want to kill all writers. Every government, every group that holds power or aspires to power should feel so threatened by writers that they hunt them down, everywhere.”
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Gray’s regret–that there isn’t, in this image-based, media-driven culture, a real threat attached to the person of the writer–suggests the contemporary locus of such a threat. It is Brita, the photographer, who must travel under assumed names, who is in mortal danger; it is the terrorists who pose the threat to society that Gray feels should come from writers.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 For some time now I’ve had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game. . . . What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. (156″“57)
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Gray, in his determination to “live out the vision,” to find a way of evening the score in this “zero-sum game,” seeks a place where writers are in danger, where he, as a writer, can ride forth and save one held captive by a fundamentalist sect determined to punish what it sees as blasphemy. We follow Gray on his delirious reenactment of the Quixotic quest, stepping into the light of day in a world he has not lived in for thirty years, attempting to save a political prisoner, and the connections in our minds are almost laughably absurd: Thomas Pynchon riding to the rescue of Salman Rushdie.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 But ridiculous as this quest may sound, translated into the terms of our own literary figures, it appears to be the only way for Gray, and thus for the novelist as novelist, to reassert his own preeminence in the age of television. The need to engage with contemporary culture in Mao II is inextricably linked to a need for renewed masculine potency, for engagement with the threat of violence. This attempted return of the writer to action is also, for Bill, a return of the writer to writing. There is some ambiguity within the novel, at least at first, as to whether the passages that record the thoughts of the tortured poet-prisoner are in fact the novel’s observations in free indirect discourse, or whether these are the creations of Bill Gray, the novelist. When finally we recognize that these passages are Gray’s work, we discover the true purpose of his foray into this world; these passages represent the first new writing he has produced aside from his third novel, which he has worked and reworked for the last twenty-three years. He is able to write again, able to be a writer, only by emerging from his solipsism and confronting the bomb makers and gunmen. “There was something at stake,” he acknowledges, “in these sentences he wrote about the basement room. They held a pause, an anxious space he began to recognize. There’s a danger in a sentence when it comes out right” (167). As Hawthorne sought to masculinize the profession of writing by separating it from those “scribbling women,” so Gray, in entering the world of terrorist violence, attempts to restore not just pertinence but danger to writing. While DeLillo arguably levels a critique at Gray via the novel’s satire, this critical effect is minimized by the inevitable connections drawn by the reader between the writer inside and the writer outside the text; the glorification of one, struggling against his age, cannot help but reflect upon the other. Moreover, though this move is not tainted by the overt misogyny of Hawthorne’s denunciation, by seeking the danger in writing, the text makes it once again part of the specifically masculine tradition of rugged individualism.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Gray succeeds only insofar as he is able, temporarily, to think writing dangerous again. Ultimately, however, Gray’s literary helplessness in coping with the electronic, visual world leads him to his own destruction. Early on in his journey, in London, Gray marvels over the logic of the pavement signs on the street corners: “It was so perfectly damn sensible they ought to make it the law in every city, long-lettered words in white paint that tell you which way to look if you want to live.” Later, in Athens, we realize that Gray’s reliance upon the word as a form of communication is near total, and deadly, as he is unable to interpret–does not even look for–the visual clues that would enable him on his own to keep from getting killed. He blithely walks off the unlabeled curb and is promptly hit by a car. He is helpless without the words to guide him, and even the words are not much help, when given visual, material form: He has to “[remind] himself” to read the signs when they do exist (120).
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Then again, after the accident, his reliance upon the literary and his inability to interpret visual clues worsen the situation; the outward signs of his injury are slight, so he assumes no damage has been done. Finally, in Cyprus, he is able to discover the true extent of his injuries only by approaching a group of British veterinarians with a textual question: “See, I’m doing a passage in a book that requires specialized medical knowledge and as I need a little guidance I wonder if I could trouble you for a minute or two” (205). The veterinarians, a bit puzzled at first by the human/animal category mistake that Gray has apparently made, nonetheless comply, finding the entire thing somewhat amusing. Gray, for his part, must lead them through the events of his accident and his subsequent symptoms, but must treat his symptoms as textual choices that he, as writer, has made, thus attributing to himself a much greater degree of agency than the situation–or the age–would warrant.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 “Why not change it to the left side and do the spleen?” the bearded vet said. “It would actually bleed nonstop, I expect. Might be a nice little bit you could do with that.”
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Gray, the obstinate writer, still awash in the belief in his own omnipotence in a world he stubbornly insists on imagining to be text based, ignores the advice of the veterinarians to get his character to a doctor and instead sails for Lebanon, convinced that he can create for himself a new ending. Instead, in his last moments, he comes to realize that “it was writing that caused his life to disappear” (215). Doomed by his inability to view the world or his life outside the boundaries of the textual, doomed by his attempts to become a writer who writes, rather than a writer famous for not writing, Bill Gray dies alone in a cabin on the boat, his passport and identification stolen, his disappearance from the world complete. No one will ever be certain whether he is really dead.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 DeLillo’s vision of the doomed writer coupled with Pynchon’s portrait of the novelist as the marginalized voice of reason forms the backbone of the anxiety of obsolescence. For both Pynchon and DeLillo, the most apparent strategy for contending with this anxiety is its novelistic reproduction, thematizing the anxiety in the very works in which the electronic media seem to have destroyed their faith. Each rejoices in his putative marginality, claiming that, contrary to our expectations, “the writer is working against the age . . . and so he feels some satisfaction in not being widely read. He is diminished by an audience” (DeLillo, qtd. in Aaron 73). There is, of course, a level of disingenuousness to this depiction of the novelist’s joy in being ignored, much less in his inevitable demise; Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s very successes give the lie to that death. But perhaps the novel, in thematizing this anxiety, serves a talismanic purpose, magical thinking that both valorizes the novelist’s marginalization and creates the conditions for his return to the center. Or, as Bill Gray tells Brita during their photo session,
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 It’s the self-important fool that keeps the writer going. I exaggerate the pain of writing, the pain of solitude, the failure, the rage, the confusion, the helplessness, the fear, the humiliation. The narrower the boundaries of my life, the more I exaggerate myself. If the pain is real, why do I inflate it? Maybe this is the only pleasure I’m allowed. (37)
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 Thus, as John Barth suggested, writing about the novel’s end paves the way for a new beginning. But while Paul Mann argues that “death-theory” is used within the avant-garde to “terrorize” writers into finding the new within the conditions of its own impossibility, the novel of obsolescence’s manipulations of “the pain of writing” seem to indicate a certain joy in anxiety, made possible by the knowledge of a much deeper safety. Perhaps an exaggeration of the novelist’s anxieties, the depiction of a world in which we all have much to fear from the writer’s cultural displacement is indeed one of his last pleasures, and one that makes it safe for him to keep writing.