Tag Archives: Thomas Pynchon

The Hysterical Realism Of The Young And Iracible David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace
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A MASTERFUL AMERICAN writer and novelist was found dead in his California home by his wife last week. His name was David Foster Wallace. His universally acclaimed magnum opus, a 1100 page tome published in 1996, called Infinite Jest was an immediate sensation. It immediately joined The Boomer Bible by RF Laird as my all-time favorite reads of the 1990s. The novel was set in a tennis academy and a nearby drug rehab centre in a parodic version of Organization of North American Nations, or ONAN, where traditional calendar years were renamed after sponsoring companies to become "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" and "The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland." Some have stated that the novel circulated on a lost film cartridge called "Infinite Jest" that is so entertaining that unwary viewers lost interest in everything else in life. I found other threads more compelling, such as the Alcoholics Anonymous culture, the academy, the family dynamics of the author, and simply the whirling language of the author, the footnotes, his debilitating sense of irony, and inside-the-box dead pan humor.

Among other titles, the writer, originally from Illinois, also authored other such enviable short story collections as "Girl With The Curious Hair" and a smaller, less rambunctious novel called "The Broom Of The System." Wallace's death at 46 by hanging was ruled a suicide. He will be infinitely missed.

2005 Kenyon Commencement Address by David Foster Wallace
May 21, 2005

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on.
IF ANYBODY FEELS like perspiring [cough], I'd advise you to go ahead, because I'm sure going to. In fact I'm gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon's graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I'm supposed to talk about your liberal arts education's meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let's talk about the single most pervasive cliché© in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you're like me as a student, you've never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I'm going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché© turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we're supposed to get in a place like this isn't really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I'd ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

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If Words Had Scales
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

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Infinite Jest cover I have...
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education—least in my own case—is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché© about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché© about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many cliché©s, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I'm talking about.

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A Quote, All He Wrote
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

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How can she not wear smiles?
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

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DFW Can't Read
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliché©s, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible -- sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

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Last Sentence
I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché© turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

All So Lovely And Fine

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HEY LIV. BROADCASTING FROM WASHINGTON, DC. Cute, colorful, and as complex as a single flower in the sun, Olivia Pantelidis is the name I immediately loved, and loving with the prattling passion of history, I presumed it to be Greek in nature. Perhaps I am wrong. Yes, Olivia Pantelidis, I just had to write it again, the other names are all so lovely and fine, Liv and Okimikko (Japanese-flavor I note), but it was your whole given name which drew first blood. Thanks for writing back. Despite those terse beginnings, we have materialized much fun playing among the words.

Meanwhile, to answer your question, I live in Washington, DC, a block away from the stadium where the REDSKINS footballers used to play until moving to a new expensive facility in the suburbs last year. Good riddance I say, but I'd really love to see a baseball team play there for many reasons which I will spare you for now.

...like a whisper among the rapids. I write many words on many pages and build my websites one page at a time. Desperation is the poet's business. And my poems rot because I haven't put very many online yet, but the space is allotted, and some poems are planted there.
There's also a public hospital, a large highschool, a single small Ma & Pa grocery store, and the National Guard facility in my immediate neigborhood. Nothing else but old rowhouses, many in slum condition, offer my life much urban immediacy. Litter and glass plague these neighborhood streets and alleys. Gunshots are not so rare. Graffitti slang, not EVEN artistic, is sprayed wildcat upon this wall or that building. Wearing my social engineering cap, I lust for new business sections to open up down here, in well-designed heavy commerce worthy of a vibrant city just bursting to emerge from this neighborhood. My property is about half a mile from the River Anacostia flowing just the other side of the stadium. We are prime commercial, but alas, the city suffers and rages and dies, arguing poorly for residential nothingness. There are few wise men here. A city of imposters and ugly metaphors. Fakes and spastic manipulators. Tyrants and suit salad liars. The city is withering on the vine of potential growth. Down here they call it a race issue. It's really an ego issue. Meanwhile, we wither no differently than the ivy on the pole.

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Peggy Nix, Gabriel Thy, Sue Hedrick
It's no secret I too curl up among my words and the books that publish them. My own few favorites are scattered around my website. You can visit the Scenewash Project 20003 and click to THE LITERARY CHIP. Still not a whole lot there yet, but I aim to establish a little here, a little there, and take heed that I am slowly bringing it all together. This is practically all I do in my miserable life among the mobs of malcontention, but that might be exaggerating ever slightly, like a whisper among the rapids. I write many words on many pages and build my websites one page at a time. Desperation is the poet's business. And my poems rot because I haven't put very many online yet, but the space is allotted, and some poems are planted there. Check around. Be my Australian friend. I don't have one yet.

It seems like we've damned near established some sort of literary correspondence, and while I get really busy sometimes, I do appreciate an interesting correspondence. I freelance, and work several current clients on a sporadic basis. I work and take great peace and ponderance in my garden, and am enlisted in the minds that matter to fight back all the garbage entropy and grime have a way of bringing to my attention . . .

She's a 63 year old junior at Oglethorpre University in Atlanta, down in the state of Georgia, so go figure. She loves school, and has never been happier in her life! She studied Nietzsche this past quarter and now feels driven to discuss a poem with me...
I do all this from home, and in fact, rarely leave the Dollhouse & Grill [our pet names for the house & yard], and am somewhat agoraphobic in that way. I live here with two others. Peter and Sue. You can read about them on the website as well. I'm currently trying to finish Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. You really should read this book, without question. It is a rare instant classic, much better than (Gunter) Grass's The Rat, which I only mildly found amusing or interesting. In fact I was disappointed, I must say. Perhaps the title was not indicative of Gunter's other work, but it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, and although I love Pynchon's earlier work, Vineland and this latest book, Mason and Dixon (a much difficult read, and I have read very little of it frankly.) leave a lot to be desired. Vineland kicked its own ashes down the road as far as I am concerned, a pale shimmer of past literary glory, this book. Mason and Dixon is something altogether different. Written in Olde Englische, I don't know if it's worth the read or not. But for now it remains on my shelf, a gift from Sue, barely opened.

Don't use Netscape, eh? Which browser DO you use? Tell me about your computer, if you've a mind to go there. I work from a Power Macintosh, of course, an 8500/120, but I hope to upgrade to a G-3 soon. Anywaze, it's been fun chatting widja . . . keep it cool, and we'll just play this mystery, word by word. As some unknown poet wrote some time ago, twig by twig we build a language. That reminds me, my mother wants to discuss a poem I just had published, but one I had written a while ago. She's a 63 year old junior at Oglethorpre University in Atlanta, down in the state of Georgia, so go figure. She loves school, and has never been happier in her life! She studied Nietzsche this past quarter and now feels driven to discuss a poem with me, so I suppose I must oblige her. I've got to write her now, so tiddly widdly, until the next time we meet, Olivia, just call me...

[1998, Washington DC ]

No Gang, No School

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Making No Sense Of It All
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Originally published on September 8, 1996. I elected to publish Tom's entire note to me since it was one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking emails I ever received from him, and will follow with my response in a separate file with link below.

Thanks for that insight note on joint projects. I have softened my stance after reading one of your first drafts of Autonomous Gazer and listening, rather than continuing to think of what I was going to say next, to your admiration for Thomas Pynchon and the concept of the modern Mega-novel. But I still haven't read his Gravity's Rainbow but seek refuge in genre writing. That's my gang, Lenny understands genre assignments and slips easily into the yoke, and most important to us, the audience understands the genre, has certain expectations from it, and we writers deliver the goods.

But there you are, no gang, no School, not even a salon. One thing about your work that I do relate to is the desire to put it all on the web, I had a very productive day putting all kinds of esoteric info that I thought was important up on the web, that is until Tracy (Styx) came by, restless and bored, to call me away from the computer and out into the cool night air, steps the Great Pretender.

Yes, that's true, newspaper journalism is definitely one of the genres and you have plyed the trade. But I never considered e-mail anything other than a fast sloppy, disposable medium, always short, full of typos and mispellings—meant to be quickly read (cyber-surfers gets hundreds of them) and instantly deleted—but wait, what's this? GT is sending long, thoughtful E-MAILS??? And then saving them, along with their responses? And the e-mail style that's arisen, why is almost everything a flame? The insular anonymity of e-mail makes everyone so insulting, quick, shallow responses, knee-jerk flames, is this any kinda medium to make your mark?

"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here..." Abraham Lincoln said that.

"They'll talk about me plenty when I'm gone." GT said that, with a deferenial nod to his Bobness. So far they're mostly talking about your outrageous behavior in public. Your strange and cryptic comments while under the influence of beer swill and private demons. But I know you better, I know something (very little actually) of your writing and desktop publishing and poetry and private library and such flotsam and jetsom of pornography & punk that have washed up on GSIS's shores and mingled with the sublime truths of long dead philosophers, I see you walking along the littered shore line of the twentieth century, looking for treasures in the trash. This is a tired and cynical age you live in, it will be tough to break through to anyone, anywhere—there's a lot of noise in the channel.

—Tom Howell

American Fictions: The Mega-Novel

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Blue Man
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© 1985 Frederick R. Karl

THE PUBLICATION WITHIN THE NEXT YEAR or two of Joseph McElroy's Women and Men and William Gass's The Tunnel would be auspicious under any circumstances. But beyond our interest in their very long and intricate achievements, it is possible to see their novels as fitting into a larger frame of reference, what I call the Mega-Novel and which may be defined as a phenomenon peculiar to postwar American fiction. It is an aspect of fiction running parallel to two other postwar developments: Abstract Expressionism in painting and aleatory or random experimentation in music. While exploring the potentialities of the Mega-Novel, this article suggests that it may well be the dominant element in our fiction, neither a subgenre nor an offshoot.

Nomenclature first: The hyphenated word Mega-Novel has a certain vulgarity to it. It recalls its origin in the financial world, of MegaBucks. Yet the vulgarity of the word gives it an American quality or presence, defines it as a native product. Mega-Bucks are limitless, almost infinite in implication—if a person has MegaBucks, not only is he/she rich, he has unrestricted independence of movement and behavior. The Mega-Novel possesses a good deal of that. William Gaddis's JR—perhaps the great unread novel of the postwar era—is a perfect blend of such Americanism: a Mega-Novel about making Mega-Bucks, the protagonist not Huck Finn seeking to escape civilization but a sixth-grader learning how to become an insider, how to make big money in America. The pressing cultural and literary question is how the contemporary American Mega-Novel—long, involved, interwoven with innumerable threads—differs from past blockbusters, whether the super-novels of Fielding and Richardson, or those by Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot. In our own era, Gravity's Rainbow or Giles Goat-Boy may be cited as Mega-Novels, while The Magic Mountain or even Proust's Remembrance are not. To complicate matters: a fiction such as Norman Mailer's recent Ancient Evenings may qualify in length—in wordage it rivals most of the above works—and yet it does not seem to be a Mega-Novel. Length alone, surely one of our criteria, does not appear to be the determining factor, although it must remain a factor.

"It has no continuous style. There are continuous shifts of style. It refuses to place its people even, and some of the characters are caricatures..." Gass stresses the importance of the page "as a pason, a place, a particular") the increase in pages is more important than the mere putting together of a novel. The Tunnel 'is a field of words.' Gass says that the numbering and consecutive nature of the pages is itself in doubt, something we may recall from Joseph McElroy's first novel, A Smuggler's Bible.
The Mega-Novel seems to be a different phenomenon from the merely long novel, or the three-decka we associate with an earlier age. Yet the Mega-Novel does have length, breadth, spatiality; it is oceanic, and its vibrations are waves of indeterminate force. It also has an uncertain mass, and thus the comparison to Abstract Expressionism and aleatory music. This much we know from Gaddis's The Recognitions, one of the earliest and most innovative of the postwar Mega-Novels, as well as JR, twenty years later. As for others: Barth's Giles, and his more recent Letters, possibly The Sotweed Factor. Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow would be everyone's example, a model Mega-Novel in most respects—the 70s version of what Gaddis attempted in the 50s in The Recognitions. The two novels are linked by more than length and ambition. To these, we should add Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy, a lesser-known dreadnought of merely a quarter of a million words by an able contemporary of Gaddis, Barth, and Pynchon. With his forthcoming Women and Men, he will become a charter member.

This is not an exhaustive list. I have deliberately omitted the sizable novels of more popular writers such as James Michener and Leon Uris, since they are writing in imitative traditions, not as innovators; the immense popularity of their work has moved them beyond whatever reviewers, critics, and scholars may say. They are what is called, in the trade, review-proof. The novels brought forward for consideration here as genuine Mega-Novels generally receive poor reviews, although afterward they are lauded by more serious critics and other creative writers.

The Mega-Novel is somehow a response to postwar America as an indeterminate, problematic, unfixed place—not the America of political parties, racial conflicts, cold war ideologies. In The Recognitions and JR, in Giles Goat-Boy and Letters, in Gravity's Rainbow and Lookout Cartridge, in what we have learned so far of Gass's The Tunnel, we have a virtual literary movement isolated not only by dimensionality but by fictional ideology from the shorter and more popular works by Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, and others writing more conventionally. American fictions have divided themselves into two very different camps, and when they speak to each other, their tones are mainly disdainful. Still another assumption lies here. Unlike the serious long novels of the past, the Mega-Novel cannot achieve popularity. It is separatist or elitist in ways even Proust's Remembrance or Mann's The Magic Mountain are not.

These are stories of America, but the America of such fictions lies outside character, scene, and narrative, somewhere in the seams; and all of those are necessary to expose the seams to visibility. Once again, we think of Abstract Expressionism or the premises of aleatory music: to place "content" in such different contexts that we cannot respond to it as our conditioning dictates. Order is redefined as arrangement and composition.
The contemporary Mega-Novel differs from most previous examples of the long novel—whether Clarissa or Dos Passos's USA—in that it does not attempt to be inclusive. This appears to be a paradox: that despite great length and vast numbers of characters, the MegaNovel has forsaken inclusivity in favor of indeterminancy. Its aims are decentering or deconstructing, rather than gathering in. It is more mass than content. It gives up melody for the sake of (often) unheard harmonies. Previous long novels were works clearly inclusive—to gather in; not only to set out a given story, but to limn the general outlines of a discernible society and culture, whether the squirearchy in Fielding and the clash of classes in Richardson, or London in Bleak House, Paris society in Proust, the rarefied world of illness, death, and recovery in Thomas Mann, even an invented culture in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In an interview published in CONJUNCTIONS: 4, William Gass, attempting to prepare the ground for his own Mega-Novel, The Tunnel, speaks of its lack of narrative structure. "It has no continuous style. There are continuous shifts of style. It refuses to place its people even, and some of the characters are caricatures..." Gass stresses the importance of the page "as a pason, a place, a particular") the increase in pages is more important than the mere putting together of a novel. The Tunnel 'is a field of words.' Gass says that the numbering and consecutive nature of the pages is itself in doubt, something we may recall from Joseph McElroy's first novel, A Smuggler's Bible.

Granted that "A Fable" does not have the extreme length we associate with MegaNovels, it does have the stress on sentences and paragraph problematics connected with the form. Words, sentences, paragraphs are not utilized chiefly for informational or narrative purposes, but for the quality of the language, or the illumination of the immediate area. Areas are developed in isolation from each other—examples follow below—and then somehow connected as molecules are linked in models of molecular composition. Words become part of a field, not of a sequence; to put it another way, words are massed as if for an attack, which may never come.
Our contemporary Mega-Novels have floated free of social/cultural concerns into another area which they have defined for themselves) as if, for them, American fictional life has drifted free of community and evolved into some kind of unique, self-defining, self-conscious society. Content is atomic, not coherent. This is a phenomenon quite different from self-reflexiveness, or the self-referred novel and poem. We are moving toward a distinct consciousness, a behavioral pattern, a restructuring of fictional activity which reflects another kind of America—an America which resists definition except as it is reflected in these verbal monuments. These are stories of America, but the America of such fictions lies outside character, scene, and narrative, somewhere in the seams; and all of those are necessary to expose the seams to visibility. Once again, we think of Abstract Expressionism or the premises of aleatory music: to place "content" in such different contexts that we cannot respond to it as our conditioning dictates. Order is redefined as arrangement and composition.

Largeness in our contemporary examples is really another form of minimalism) it is the minimalist vision of silence writ large, or strung out. That is, it surrenders less as we relentlessly pursue it. The light at the end of the tunnel recedes the closer we get. The seeming randomness of scenes not only subverts inevitability) it threatens order itself. Since the Mega-Novel is a field or mass, it is almost always self-defining, despite its vastness and reach. It denies or frustrates every effort to describe a given society, certainly not American society in any specific way; whereas earlier long novels, whatever their differences, brilliantly atomized a society, were profoundly rooted in what they described and prescribed. We could, if we wished, almost certainly read back an ideological stance from the vast doings and apparatus; now, we are hard put to comprehend any ideological bias behind the Megaworks, any social or political stance.

The contemporary Mega-Novel has many associations with allegory and fable, that is, despite its linkage to many aspects of the real world—military, or business, or professions—it nevertheless presents them so wrapped in a self—oriented language that such dimensions of the real world become closer to fable than to realistic novel. The mention of "fable" carries us back to William Faulkner's single effort at a Mega-Novel, A Fable, which took him nearly ten years to complete. Although Faulkner had equally other momentous themes—as the period of national division in Absalom, Absalom! for instance—it was in A Fable that he approximated a MegaNovel. That was the consequence of his having slipped away from conventional elements of plot, character, even motivation—the staples of the traditional long novel—and intruded into the indeterminate world of associations, compositions, relativities. Granted that A Fable does not have the extreme length we associate with MegaNovels, it does have the stress on sentences and paragraph problematics connected with the form. Words, sentences, paragraphs are not utilized chiefly for informational or narrative purposes, but for the quality of the language, or the illumination of the immediate area. Areas are developed in isolation from each other—examples follow below—and then somehow connected as molecules are linked in models of molecular composition. Words become part of a field, not of a sequence; to put it another way, words are massed as if for an attack, which may never come.

In the same interview, Gass speaks of seeking some notational form for fiction, comparable to Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. Schoenberg was able to deploy the twelve tones like pieces on a chessboard, in rows, or inverted, or reversed, or reversed and inverted. The layout of the MegaNovel has something of that in it. In Gravity's Rainbow, we find not quite a notational fiction, but a series of borrowings from chemistry, in the molecular structuring of the novel. Pynchon is concerned with Du Pont's discovery that he could rearrange nature, by creating new plastic effects, through the introduction of aromatic rings into the polyamide [the chain made up of polymers]. Through a series of steps, scientists developed Imipolex G, that insulatory material for rockets. But what Pynchon is really getting at here is not weaponry, but the way in which his novel can be structured, with the chemistry of plastics as model. We have here in this molecular analog the architecture of the novel's own style.

That configuration which Slothrop senses—"that smell again, the smell from before his conscious memory begins, a soft and threatening smell, threatening, haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world"—lies, actually, within the provenance of the cartels. These international monopolies develop by horizontal and vertical accretion, acquiring not only the means to peddle their product but virtually every aspect of what their product is made of: forests for lumber, ships for transportation, steel to make the ships, pulp mills, hotels and restaurants.
The molecular alteration into different forms—whether for civilian plastics or military rockets—provided Pynchon with a means of accretion and modification. He could hold together the original and at the same time transform it into a new product. Pynchon is able to convey the sense of constant urgency) the novel of flow, of spatial and temporal process. Joyce used an enclosed spatial and temporal unit [Dublin, houses, whatever!] in order to create its opposite) whereas Pynchon moves across the cosmos, gravity's rainbow, for much the same effect: to join individual fortunes with those vast temporal and spatial engines which, by contrast, dwarf human life. Joyce expands human possibility by starting with something relatively small) Pynchon encloses human potential by beginning with something huge. Pynchon found in the molecular method of accretion and modification, of putting a "different face," so to speak, on that unit, the means by which he could repeat, cross over, dip back. Schoenberg's twelve tones are not far out of mind.

Molecular structure is very significant for the Mega-Novel, and it has distinct advantages over the more traditional picaresque, which is episodic, linear, somewhat formless around the edges. Mega-Novelists must bind together their material less haphazardly and suggest a sense of tight form despite great length, breadth, and seeming randomness. Pynchon's molecular structure—which we can find as well in The Recognitions, among others—allows for change within constants: he utilizes spatiality with almost abandon, but the atomic structure retains the nucleus or clue. Tyrone Slothrop becomes, at one stage, Ian Scuffing, and yet the new name and new role as correspondent are not a nuclear change, only a molecular one. The center or nucleus, the identifying element, remains, while the actual molecular structure is altered to allow for narrative progression.

In still another way, the molecular structure takes on a crucial role, in the association of those gigantic cartels with individuals, whom they control. The cartels are an essential element in Gravity's Rainbow, since they supervise chance. Whatever their precise role, they serve the function of Zeus in ancient drama, and their presence, even when not felt directly, is a hovering shadow. That configuration which Slothrop senses—"that smell again, the smell from before his conscious memory begins, a soft and threatening smell, threatening, haunting, not a smell to be found out in the world"—lies, actually, within the provenance of the cartels. These international monopolies develop by horizontal and vertical accretion, acquiring not only the means to peddle their product but virtually every aspect of what their product is made of: forests for lumber, ships for transportation, steel to make the ships, pulp mills, hotels and restaurants. The cartel, like the molecule, retains the nucleus and yet it transforms itself by way of changes in its structure.

What emerges is not "content" as we traditionally describe or discuss it, but architecture, form, arrangement, composition, associational matter, mass and cluster. If we attempt to paraphrase a Mega-Novel, we are surprised by how few words we need by how little it takes to recapitulate half a million words of fiction. The Mega-Novel, then, is incomplete, despite its great length. This means it can be extended indefinitely, or as long as the author's energy holds out. There is little in the Mega-Novel to indicate an ending—it has no sense of closure. It is all middles, often with little or no beginning.
It is, in large part, the molecular method which permits Pynchon such sweeps of space without disruption of controlling line. His novel of seemingly endless chaos is, in reality, tightly organized. Pynchon extends the molecular makeup of the cell to language itself: "How alphabetic is the nature of molecules." Like the polymers in plastics, our words "too can be modulated, broken, recoupled, redefined, copolymerized, one to the other in worldwide chains that will surface now and then over long molecular silences, like the seen parts of a tapestry."

Gravity's Rainbow is many other things as well: Pynchon moves in and out of his own earlier work, V and The Crying of Lot 49, as if Gravity's Rainbow were itself a molecular change from the basic structure of Pynchon's canon; or, in another way, as if spatiality were itself a universe which must be pieced out, by individuals, rockets, roleplaying, and forgery. The overall response Pynchon elicits from us as readers is that of infinite notational sequences problematically linked, and this development of what is basic to the Mega-Novel may be his major contribution to fictional theory and practice below.

And yet co-equal with the above points is another which seems to indicate, together, just as physical laws bind the universe, that the Mega-Novel is incomplete and must remain so. The form uses its great length, often an overbearing length which only a few readers can endure, to suggest incompleteness; it accomplishes this by stressing associations and composition, the adrifts rather than the base. Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night, A Traveler has these qualities, and, although quite brief as these things go, it gropes toward Mega-Novel status. Society or culture is internalized into form, and form is part of the Modernist stress on arrangement. The Mega-Novel, despite its broad content, is in the line from High Modernism, from Cubism and Abstraction, providing in verbal arrangement what line and color provided earlier. Surfaces in the Mega-Novel are so crowded and complicated because these surfaces carry the weight) what is beneath is submerged in much the way a tall building has a substantial part of its construction underground. What emerges is not "content" as we traditionally describe or discuss it, but architecture, form, arrangement, composition, associational matter, mass and cluster. If we attempt to paraphrase a Mega-Novel, we are surprised by how few words we need by how little it takes to recapitulate half a million words of fiction.

The Mega-Novel, then, is incomplete, despite its great length. This means it can be extended indefinitely, or as long as the author's energy holds out. There is little in the Mega-Novel to indicate an ending—it has no sense of closure. It is all middles, often with little or no beginning. Such novels are like an expanding universe. Gaddis's JR is all middle constructions—it begins, apparently, only because words appear on the page, and it moves in a seeming arbitrary way, providing the middle of a young boy's experience, but no inside to it. Or as Gaddis puts it: "...how could I be inside, there isn't any inside!" Without an inside, there is no ending.

One problem with this is that such a novel is all dimensionality unlike most "total novels," even other Mega-Novels, it has little matter. It is nearly all phenomenology. McElroy moves directly toward dimensions, levels, layering. Reality lies in the intermeshing of elements, not in the elements.
Similarly, in Gravity's Rainbow and Leners, and especially in McElroy's Lookout Cartridge, "insides" are dispensed with. In that latter novel, the opening is emblematic of the theme. A helicopter, its computer malfunctioning, hovers over a grid-like area—its uncertainty in space in contrast with the clearly demarked area below. The line of narrative lies somewhere between conscious and subconscious: thus the sense of dimensionality or spatiality which the novel commands. Our recall of the novel is of an oceanic experience, and while reading it, we sense lines themselves preparing for flight. McElroy tries to discover a realm of narrative line which is both within and without, one that describes external events, but always in the whisper and hesitation of an observer who is uncertain of what he has perceived. Uncertainty of observation foreshadows the uncertainty of all systems; suggesting that antisystems, by analogy, may mirror survival. Dimensionality is achieved not by inclusion (life, death, marriage, eternity, etc.), as we find in older long novels, but indirectly, through metaphors of existence which remain suspended: the filming of episodes, the loss of the film, attempts to recall it, threats to the filmmaker, the very questioning of what is by way of its image. McElroy comes at life by suggesting its opposite, its reflection in a modern obsession, filming it, even by way of its denial. The novel is a giant litotes. In McElroy's novel, all objects become subjectified—as we can note in the excerpts from his new novel, Women and Men. Very little has objective existence once it has been transformed into material for, successively, (1) film, (2) diary, (3) memory. Tucked inside, made into an insert or a cartridge, objective data have taken on different functions. Lodged away, they can swell and contract. One problem with this is that such a novel is all dimensionality unlike most "total novels," even other Mega-Novels, it has little matter. It is nearly all phenomenology. McElroy moves directly toward dimensions, levels, layering. Reality lies in the intermeshing of elements, not in the elements.

Comparably, in an earlier novel, Hind's Kidnap, which is, despite its relative brevity (534 pages), also a Mega-Novel, McElroy is as concerned with de-kidnapping as he is with the actual act. Everyone connected to Hind is associated with the kidnapping and must be emptied out of his or her role in it. The opposite of things creates huge spaces of doubt and uncertainty, suggestions of what is by its absence. Everything is internalized, so that those huge spaces could be part of an interior world as much as they are part of the external pastoral of the search for the victim. Part II, for example, is all reverie, of Hind's pastoral background. McElroy's idea is to interweave the kidnapping with earlier years and to try to observe how Hind became obsessed with what might never have occurred. The aim is to turn Hind from object to subject, and then to relocate him as object. Since the idea is a "stream" or "flow," not unusually it begins in Joycean stream of free associational terms.

The novel is also a critical commentary on Barth, an alternate route, a rerouting of the reader, and the author's way of showing the reader what he has missed. Barth has turned his previous fictions into stories which need connecting to be understood; and Letters gives us the material which fell between which had no other way of emerging. In other words—and words are almost always "other" here—Barth has added another system purportedly to explain previous ones. Of course it does not: it simply accrues.
It is in Lookout Cartridge, however, that McElroy was attempting to write a total novel, in the way associated with the fictions mentioned above, or with One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Tin Drum in mind. Yet while total novels usually deal with a society or culture, or with the process of breakdown, McElroy's novel gains its totality through spatiality—matters of arrangement and composition, filming, as he puts it. This kind of fiction, despite its great length (or the sense of great length), lacks closure, since its very function is postponement. Space and spatiality are not resolvable, except in death, and yet the Mega-Novel seems to deny even that.

One of the fullest representatives of this postwar phenomenon is John Barth's Letters, which had an almost predictable reception. It is, dearly, not the kind of novel to be handled by staff reviewers, for it does not fit into schedules) nor should it be considered a conventional novel, but rather as a prose Mega-Fiction. It appears shapeless and yet not disorganized) disordered within a great sense of order and arrangement; almost haphazard and yet composed) and seemingly endless, a test for the reader. Since it also lacks what Derrida calls "ground," it creates special problems of patience and endurance; and to review it (even when the reviewer has read it through) in the company of Bellow, Mailer, Roth, and other more popular serious novelists, is to deflect its major function. That function is, of course, to say something about fiction itself, as much as it is to prove something about life: it is not a life novel, but a fiction novel.

The plot of Letters is really Barth, both the comic Barth and the serious one. Letters is a summa, of his career and in a way of the entire self-conscious, self-reflexive Mega-Novel of the postwar era. It is, as with so many other Barth works, a capstone to a kind of fiction or a cultural pose. One of the characteristics of the Mega-Novel is its insistence on strategies over conventionalities: how to introduce the material to the audience is as difficult as what there is to say once it is presented. Not a very original idea, but Barth offers it with an intense devotion to his craft and to himself which is unique. Another characteristic, which Barth is master of, is the losing of the story—he delivers us from narrative and provides instead crossovers, exchanges of information, maelstroms of words. Other novelists are comparable: in Pynchon's case, inventing information theories) in McElroy's, demonstrating ways in which transmission of information can become possible) in Gaddis's, a means by which information, material, narrative stuff can be squirreled away from any use we may wish to make of it. Gass's new novel promises much of the same. Mega-Novels thrive on vast, intricate systems, not systems which they resolve but which they interpose into other systems. The Mega-Novel stresses coils of significance—Pynchon's Tristero system of mail deliveries in The Crying of Lot 49 was a trying-out for the Mega-Novel systems of Gravity's Rainbow. What Barth has done in Letters is to make use of subterranean trenches) and his novel is a printout of what Barth is and has been in his previous fiction. The novel is also a critical commentary on Barth, an alternate route, a rerouting of the reader, and the author's way of showing the reader what he has missed. Barth has turned his previous fictions into stories which need connecting to be understood; and Letters gives us the material which fell between which had no other way of emerging. In other words—and words are almost always "other" here—Barth has added another system purportedly to explain previous ones. Of course it does not: it simply accrues.

In the Mega-Novel, at its best and its most trying, we often do not know the derivation of the voice—it may develop from a context, but is not directly associated with it—and we do not know what the voice signifies at a given time, even when the voice is the author's. Mailer lets us know where the voices are coming from and what weight they bear, whereas the Mega-Novelist is all disguises, veils, mists. His voices lose grounding, become problematic.
Merely to write a lot of words, as Mailer did in The Time Of Our Time, whatever else one may say for or against it, is not necessarily to write a Mega-Novel. The latter confronts another paradox: however lengthy it is, it is never long enough. One may argue that Ancient Evenings is all length, it goes well beyond what it must be, and it could have been closed off well before it is. In the Mega-Novel, while we may be exhausted by the reading task at hand, the material yearns for more. After such a great size, we recognize we have barely begun.

There is still another dimension to the Mega-Novel, and that is the demand made upon the reader by its language. We know that problems of language have made tremendous demands on the author because such novels usually have long periods of incubation: Gaddis takes twenty years between The Recognitions and JR; Pynchon produces a novel every decade or so. McElroy has struggled with his forthcoming Women and Men since at least 1976, Barth's Letters was the product of an entire career. Our best example, perhaps, from an earlier period when incubation and writing approximated our present condition, comes with Joyce, whose Ulysses was eight years in the making and whose Finnegans Wake consumed seventeen years, almost the rest of his life. For more other long novels, however, there is only the usual interval—a long novel incubates differently from a MegaNovel.

Yet couldn't we argue that if Mailer allowed The Time Of Our Time to incubate for more than a decade and this would, perhaps, qualify it for MegaNoveldom? If we use language as our criterion, we can say Mega-Novels have developed their own languages of difficulty, and while Mailer writes a thorny line, it is a different degree of difficulty. Although it is full of skewed imagery and intricate wordplay, we know where it is coming from: it has a clearcut voice, and the tone is unambiguous. In the Mega-Novel, at its best and its most trying, we often do not know the derivation of the voice—it may develop from a context, but is not directly associated with it—and we do not know what the voice signifies at a given time, even when the voice is the author's. Mailer lets us know where the voices are coming from and what weight they bear, whereas the Mega-Novelist is all disguises, veils, mists. His voices lose grounding, become problematic.

This phenomenon, as we have seen, has distinguished itself by its inconclusiveness, its lack of closure, its self-conscious languages—particularly voice and tone; its determination to evade resolutions, its fragmentary quality despite great length, its resistance to social and even political and cultural ramifications, its determined deconstruction of novelistic materials. It is, at least for this writer, the main literary stream in postwar American fiction, not a subsidiary element superseded by the more popular Bellow, Mailer, et al. It would appear that when our contemporary period becomes a historical one, the Mega-Novel will be perceived as our unique contribution to postwar fiction. What remains to be answered is why America at this time produced this phenomenon? While reviewers and critics have hooked onto categories of Jewish novelists, gays, Black writers, female authors, another kind of novel has emerged: written mainly by white Protestant males. Yet the question insists: what in the culture permitted or forced something like the Mega-Novel to emerge, and at this time? Do, say, works such as USA by John Dos Passos qualify as pre-war examples and upset our view of the Mega-Novel as a postwar phenomenon? While innovative and even experimental, the Dos Passos—although quite lengthy when the three parts are joined—is conceived of in segments, brilliant segments, and that denies the Mega-Novel conception of arrangement, composition, subversive linkages, conspiratorial, veiled reflections.

While Barth seems to enclose himself, Pynchon appears to be arcing out into the beyond, and Gaddis hides in the seams of his narrative, they are in actuality running parallel to each other, glimpsing an America that no matter how far it sweeps beyond itself is always returning in wonder.
The idea of a fiction without closure represents the spirit of the country. Problematics are cultural. Except for The Recognitions, the Mega-Novel is a 60s and after development, and we should not lose sight of the 60s spirit as a hovering presence: its overwhelming sense that we were on a frontier) that we had glimpsed, however imperfectly, another kind of experience; and that this experience was open—ended, spatial, expansive, resolute but without resolution. Critical of the country and even negative as most of these novels are, they are profoundly American, intensely representative of the American spirit—these white Protestant males write very close to what America is, and they recognize that America can be understood only when it is abstracted. That is, as metaphor, symbol, reflection, role—playing, as a process of diverse realities—an America which can be caught [but not trapped] in the labyrinths of the Mega-Novel.

We can say, further, that the postwar American novel as a whole has been a distinct phenomenon, made up of deeply American elements intermixed with European Modernism—and nowhere more than in the Mega-Novel do we find that mix. Yet whereas several American novelists for the sake of accessibility or as the result of temperament ignored more severe European Modernism in its technical, strategical phases, Mega-Novelists took their reading to heart and assimilated European strategies to American materials. Although issues are complicated, we can say the Mega-Novel is following the matter of America as a large, sweeping, generalized discoverer of itself. All roads in Barth's Letters may eventually lead back to him—the Mega-Novel is, as we have suggested, dramatically narcissistic—but that journey back leads us through the byways of America and American history, of which the War of 1812 is a metonymy. While Barth seems to enclose himself, Pynchon appears to be arcing out into the beyond, and Gaddis hides in the seams of his narrative, they are in actuality running parallel to each other, glimpsing an America that no matter how far it sweeps beyond itself is always returning in wonder.

McElroy's Hind's Kidnap appropriately offers us just such a way of perceiving ourselves. In attempting to solve a kidnapping which may not have even taken place, Hind turns his life into a maze. He is separated from his wife, for whom his obsession with the kidnapping is no small cause; he visits friends, but less to see them than to pursue leads, to voice suspicions; and he revisits old haunts, to seek out new information after all these years. Each time he visits or revisits someone, the tale of kidnapping is retold, kept fresh through repetition. Everyone is suspected—each character functions as a potential perpetrator. The labyrinth is circular, and Hind is trapped [energized?] in what his own ingenuity and concern have created: he has been kidnapped by his obsession. Application to an artwork is apparent. Hind creates, discovers, shapes, seeks motives, pursues, and is wound in his own bobbin of imagination. The Proustian play on memory is rejuvenated in American backgrounds—a pier, a rural setting, a golf course, a university, and so on. Memory works in circular fashion, molding conscious and sub—or unconscious elements, creating a continuous narrative from disparate materials. Kidnapping functions here somewhat like counterfeiting in The Recognitions, rocketry in Gravity's Rainbow, the War of 1812 in Leners.

Instead of the American literary classes desiring to continue on this journey of learning for themselves, to find awe in their own discoveries, they prefer to be exhaustingly entertained with a quick read and a predictable story with x-number of plot twists behind door numbers one through three. Today's most avid readers are the sunbather, the train or plane passenger, and the kid curled up on the sofa next to his action boxes for when he gets bored with any particular superhero, heroine, or monster.Gabriel Thy

The Mega-Novelists have avoided the individuation of ethnic, gay, female (or even strictly male) experience and sensed the country as a whole) that in itself insures length, volume. Now the postwar energies are becoming exhausted, the question remains whether the MegaNovel will also pass: McElroy and Gass are completing extremely long novels, excerpts from which mark them as Mega-Novels; but Gaddis has recently submitted a short fiction, and Barth's Sabbatical indicates just that—a one—year break after six years of labor, an "entertainment." Yet what remain are eight or ten representations of what must be classified as more than a subgenre in the postwar novel, very possibly the genre, wherein the rest of more accessible postwar fiction is the subgenre.

What really does constitute the mainstream of serious postwar fiction? Has the Mega-Novel pre-empted more popular serious fiction as the distinctly American mode of the postwar era? Where, in fact, do our ideas of Modernism fit in here? When we assert Modernism is over, how do we account for the Mega-Novel? If we leave such evaluations to reviewers, then the choice has already been made: for the book that provides a "good read." That is, for those reviewers who actually read the books they review (until recently, one-third of the daily Times book staff did not). There can be no other reason for the phenomenon of William Kennedy's "Albany trilogy"—short, readable books in the minor mode, hybrids of American tough guy fiction. We should have moved on from there a long time ago.

END