Einstein once said that the only physical theory that will never be overtaken is the thermodynamic principle that the entropy of the universe is always increasing. In other words, our universe is constantly moving toward a state of increased disorder and chaos. If our post modern culture has any correlation to the physical world, I am inclined to agree. The basis of post modern literature is the theme of infinite regress, which echoes the laws of entropy and universal disorder.
The most important novels of our time must originally and clearly deal with the issues of a society ordered by chaos, while reflecting the universal trend toward isorder. Of the five novels we read this quarter, Mao II deals, most directly, with issues relevant to contemporary society. Repetition is a major theme of the novel that DeLillo uses to reflect some of these issues.
In the text he uses the repetition of words and phrases to continually draw the reader back to the starting point, as if the characters, for all their action were never really getting anywhere new or making progress toward anything new. Mass media such as news broadcasts, billboards for Coke II in war torn Beirut, and Andy Warhol silk screens, give all of his haracters and events the feeling that who they are and what they do is both inescapable and repetitive. His characters loose their identities in the crowds of homeless in New York City, and the mass wedding ceremony at Yankee Stadium.
Just as Warhol used repetition of common place objects such as Coke cans and Campbell’s soup labels to single out an object into a long line of meaningless lonely repetition, DeLillo uses repetition of American culture in the novel to speak to the loneliness and solitude of a generation surrounded by masses of people and advertisements and world news reports. None of it is personal or related to the characters individuality. The people that make up the crowds have no more unique identity than Warhol’s duplicate Campbell’s soup cans.
In contrast to the saturation of post modern American culture DeLillo gives us, Norman Rush sets his novel, Mating, in a feminist African utopia project. Rush gives us a love story plot to talk about ideas like feminism and socialism. We can relate to the characters specific stories of childhood and perhaps know them better than we know any of DeLillo’s characters because of all the background information and complex character evelopment Rush gives us. However, Mating is a novel of intellectual ideas and intellectual love, it has none of the universal themes or experiences of Mao II.
Feminism and Socialism don’t have much to do with mainstream American commercialism and independence. While Rush does a good job of dealing with these issues and even taking a new approach to the utopian novel, his themes are just not broad enough to be relevant to American culture as a whole. For most of his readers then, his book becomes less of a social commentary and more of a pure love story. Mating belongs to the genre of the utopian novel. This establishes a link between this and other great works such as A Brave New World, and 1984. Unfortunately, narratives of social utopianism fall under suspicion in our post modern society.
This puts all of Rush’s social, religious, and scientific commentary under suspicion as well. Rush recognizes the need to replace the religious narrative with a more secular, even scientific, moral commentary. He calls Mating an “anthropodicy”, or a justification of mans ways to man. Post modern morality, however, has more to do with what feels right or wrong and what seems fair than with any standard universal right r wrong that such an anthropodicy would involve. So, again, Rush is not speaking to post modern America in a style that our culture can accept without reservation.
A style that our culture has no trouble identifying with however, is the sort of three-ring circus of multi-media, multi, 20-second blurb evening news, story line that we get in Mao II. Mixed media is one of the defining characteristics of post modern novels. DeLillo combines the prose of first person narration with several forms of visual imagery. The flashing images of evening news, the silk screen of Mao Zedong, Brita’s hotographs, are all examples. One story line follows a prose writer, another follows a poet, another example of mixed media.
Jumping from one story line to another is a characteristic of the post modern novel that imitates our cultures forms of mass communication. Thirty-minute television programs interrupted by commercials, and the 20-second information bytes you get on the evening news are reflective of this. The fact that DeLillo uses several different characters to provide first person narration appeals to our culture as well. The omniscient, godlike narrator opular in nineteenth century literature fell under suspicion along with the religious narrative, and the single first person narrator is hardly trustworthy either.
One of the most important things DeLillo does for us in his novel is to define the function of the novelist in our society. As societies faith in the religious narrative fell apart during the Age of Enlightenment, a rational model of social commentary took its place. Rationality and science, however, don’t need much improvement from the field of literature, and the sheer volume of moral commentary we are exposed to puts any one oral narrative you can write under the scrutiny of all the others. This is where Rush’s idea of the novelists’ function in society falls apart.
He notes that every structured set of doctrinal alternatives has collapsed, leaving us in a very strange place, which the novelist must sort out. His solution is to have a narrator the reader can identify with confront some set of social problems and resolve them in the end. This sounds simple and plausible, but whatever moral school of thought you use to solve the conflict excludes all the others, alienating half of your readership. In ight of post modern metaphysical views, you can’t have any real resolution, because there are no ultimate truths to base that resolution on.
This does indeed leave the novelist in a very strange place. DeLillo’s solution is that the author’s function is not, as it has been, to tell us the right way to think, but to give what he calls a “democratic shout”. In other words, either the novelist puts the ideas of the masses into the words they can’t find themselves, or the masses become the novelists. He believes anyone can write one good novel. Either way, he gives a voice to the masses, all of them. A voice that is full of, “contradictions, ambiguities, whispers, hints… “(DeLillo, 159), not certainties.
As he sees it, the novelist serves the same role as the terrorist. The novelist stirs up interest like a terrorist does, awakening society to what is dangerous, either by exposing it or becoming it. In this way the novelist and the terrorist expand human consciousness by drawing our attention to something we weren’t previously aware of. The novelists relevance in our society, then, is based on his ability to awaken us and catch our attention with the force of the terrorists bomb. To be effective in either occupation, you have to hit the right target.
As a novelist this means dealing with issues that are relevant to today’s society. No matter how big your explosion is, if you don’t hit the target, no one pays any attention. It isn’t enough to just get societies attention, however. The novelist must also represent some part of our culture with a democratic shout in the universal language of chaos, much like the explosion of a terrorists bomb. DeLillo makes use of this universal language in a way that Norman Rush fails to do, making the democratic shout of the novelist his target.