A few days ago I finished reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), a rather bleak look at the postmodern predicament centered on a professor of “Hitler Studies” who fears death. The self-consciousness about one’s own self-consciousness about one’s own self-consciousness occasionally gets annoying, but passages like the following make up for it. Here (these are the opening two paragraphs of the book) DeLillo does for postmodern life what Cormac McCarthy does for the Old West.
The station wagons arrived at noon. a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-Up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped. students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hair dryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows, the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags-onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties. Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.
I’ve witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years. It is a brilliant event. invariably. The students greet each other with comic cries and gestures of sodden collapse. Their summer has been bloated with criminal pleasures. as always. The parents stand sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction. The conscientious suntans. The well-made faces and wry looks. They feel a sense of renewal. of communal recognition. The women crisp and alert. in diet trim. knowing people’s names. Their husbands content to measure out the time, distant but ungrudging. accomplished in parenthood, something about them suggesting massive insurance coverage. This assembly of station wagons. as much as anything they might do in the course of the year. more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.
It’s certainly worth reading. but runs into all the problems of other professor novels (e.g. Saul Bellow’s Herzog): in being explicitly about philosophy, they fail to do philosophy. Instead they parody it, equate it with navel-gazing. They also link over-self-consciousness and failure to realize the full horror of senseless violence, which comes to seem like a viable escape path. These kinds of novels can point out that it’s not, but they can’t do much to suggest what is, or what such an escape would require. To bring together the isolated postmodern individuals, the novel can offer only, at the beginning, a college dormitory, and at the end, a smog-induced sunset.
Before this I read Tim O’Brien’s fictionalization of his Vietnam experiences in The Things They Carried (1990), which I liked a great deal less, not because it was bad–the writing was nothing if not vivid–but because his digressions defending his use of “story-truth” over “happening-truth” angered me. I find it difficult to say exactly why.
Perhaps it was this: O’Brien equates “uplifting” war story with “false” war story, saying that even if, as a matter of fact, a soldier jumped on a live grenade, sacrificing himself to save his friends, that would not be a true war story, while a true war story would be if he jumped on the grenade, but it killed his friends anyway, and him of course, and as they were dying they exchanged wittily nihilistic banter. On one level, this is just more of the same 20th century rejection of “dulce et decorum est,” the same assumption that because the causes of the violence are senseless, there’s no sensible response to them apart from irony. I’m too bored with that argument for it to anger me, but in saying that even if it happened (and it does sometimes happen) it would be a “false” war story, he seems to cross a line. I’m not sure what line.
But more than this, the way he mixes fact and fiction and calls it all “true” bothers me because it reduces his fellow soldiers–and himself, for that matter–to fictional constructs. He seems to be gesturing towards a “stories tell us” position, but in doing so he asserts the right to determine who his fellow soldiers are, and for the ones that died, I’m not comfortable granting him that right. Nor do I want to let him say who he is. He is what he has done, not what he says he has done.
Finally, a few months ago, I read Denis Johnson’s Angels (1983), a novel about the violent fringe of American life, drifters and small-time criminals and the like. It’s a good novel, not as good as White Noise, but certainly worth reading. I mention it here mainly because it, too, is a novel from the 1980s about how postmodern existence seems caught between self-conscious stasis and senseless violence, with the only escape, in this novel at least, coming through reflection coming after downfall and impending death. Indulging in while condemning senseless violence–is this how postmodernism ends? If so, I guess the moral earnestness of metamodernists isn’t that surprising. These writers seem on the cusp between the two.
We might also include Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) in this survey, and perhaps others–but how much does grouping them together like this tell us about the novels themselves? I consider Blood Meridian the best of them, by far, and I think what it does is very different from what the others do, even if it does have certain similarities. These sorts of historical groupings can be dangerous, if we take them too far.