Fiction and Social Change

Tony Christini

Contemporary writers of culturally critical fiction who depict troubled conventional lives in largely dead end realms of culture undertake a necessary but not sufficient task for encouraging and contributing to social change through fiction. The social impact of these fictions, having recounted the hopelessness and despair systemic of modern culture without attempting to explore crucial causal factors may even be largely regressive, discouraging action or deeper thought. Certainly the impact, the insight and the art could be greater if in addition to degradation, more fiction focused on regenerative aspects at the fringes of culture—more hospitable activities, environments, institutions, beliefs, mindsets and operating principles of culture.

Contemporary novels that have cultural critique as a main focus often plausibly show that an apocalypse of sorts comes every day, that we are living in a sustained and possibly sustainable apocalypse. People are abused. They face social and personal pressures that leave them frequently hopeless, helpless, confused, afraid, hurt, and not infrequently dead. While such works satirize, ironically note, and otherwise record this difficult daunting reality, they often seem themselves to be part of an implicit and overt cultural hopelessness, given the very limited exploration of both progressive social change and other personal-insight-as-it-relates-to-the-public (and vice-versa), that is, psycho-social insight.

On the upbeat side, the novels typically communicate something relatively worthy like, the world is terrible, but if we get “tight” enough with each other, it can still be a special place. Yet little or no movement toward institutional social change is touched on that might aid and protect such hospitable personal (let alone public) life. The books seem to propose that we come together in this socio-cultural wasteland, this technological tundra, and . . . just be. “Cruise cool and alert” (Pynchon). Just don’t get zapped. Be cool. Don’t let it get to you, ’cause no way are you going to get to it. It ain’t gonna change. In Don DeLillo’s renowned novel, White Noise, the narrative reads, “There was nothing to do but wait for the next sunset, when the sky would ring like bronze” (321). Nothing to do. And sure enough, that is all the characters seem to plan on doing. The sunset was bronzed by a corporate, technological disaster, a toxic chemical spill. That we need better industrial and environmental regulations seems a plausible thought, but DeLillo’s characters give it only passing attention, if that, and base no action upon such an idea—something readers might learn a lot from and be wonderfully enthralled by, personally and otherwise—nor does the narrative counterpoint very much with characters or perspectives more insightful, and yet White Noise, especially representative of a current dominant ethos in fiction, is one of the most praised contemporary novels. That White Noise and other novels here discussed are highly accomplished I take as a given. What I discuss are the, at least, equally striking, and unnecessary, limitations of such novels and such fiction.

Excerpts from the last paragraph of White Noise also show an apparent surrender or defeat in the face of modern “too much to process” culture (Pynchon 314). DeLillo writes:

The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat.  (325)

This is an apt description and a workable metaphor for people helplessly, mindlessly adrift in society, but the metaphor becomes horrific, despite its soothing tone, in a couple of lines toward the end of the paragraph. DeLillo observes, “In the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly” (326). This is a nifty way of saying that computers control the world and every “item,” including humans, in it. Who, one wonders, controls the computers, and the economic systems and related cultural institutions? An insightful notion of the controllers is generally absent from the minds of the characters, and is not otherwise presented by the author, so these are not the most interesting or helpful characters existing in the United States (or world) today, in the sense of cultural perceptivity, especially given the lack of other narrative perceptivity. These characters are not portrayed adequately for the larger task of deep social and thus personal insight. The characters and narrative are little interested in public causes of personal states, let alone any subsequent personal impact, or lack thereof, upon the public. Kellner and Best agree in Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations that such novelistic critiques “tend to be self-consciously superficial . . . and fail to conceptualize some of the underlying dynamics of contemporary capitalist societies” (294).

Very near the end of this long last paragraph, DeLillo writes, “And this [the checkout line] is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks.” DeLillo likely intends to be critical of any such satisfaction and is therefore writing ironically—after all, who is satisfied by slow lines? And while we are being supposedly so satisfied and satiated, or so knowing about people who are, one abuse after another is perpetrated across the land, with the most massive abuses caused by the undemocratic inegalitarian economic system that attempts to shape people to be so mindless. But to what effect this irony, since readers and characters learn little or nothing of the roots of these dangers or possibilities for eliminating them from novels like White Noise? Instead, such novels seem to delight in little more than being witty about pressures and problems that poison and benumb. After DeLillo has thoroughly rubbed readers faces in the delusional and abject nature of being techno-narcotized or culturally disturbed, he ends the book, ends the story, leaving readers (along with characters) quite oblivious to possibilities of cultural change and any related personal change. The characters are either alienated from or addicted to social conditions that oppress, and they see no hope for social change. No one learns much of anything regenerative about how and why the social realms so badly affect the personal ones let alone how people might respond to affect social change, nor is anyone meant to learn anything along these lines, it would seem, least of all the readers. DeLillo’s art is accomplished, in that, it may entrance the reader with the culture that entrances its characters, and that has apparently enchanted the author, who essentially propagates to the reader what the occasionally observant and sane main character, Jack Gladney, struggles against throughout the book—a sense of desperation, confusion, fear, alienation. A mere witty repackaging of grim and short-sighted reality is not so much “news that stays news” as it is daily life rendered as cheap spectacle. In White Noise, life as witty spectacle is DeLillo’s way of portraying an the too typical mess of life, sometimes called reality. As for reality, Rebecca West wrote decades ago that “one of the damn thing is ample” (131). She went on to add that “only an extraordinarily massive stupidity could keep [certain types of artists] in a position which the rest of humanity has left so far behind, so naturally their works have a disgusting quality as of a person too grossly fat to move.” Even while expressing exasperation at the mess and sometimes empathizing with the people caught up in it, DeLillo seems to glory in it mainly, since he gives readers no glimpse of much of anything beyond his desperate cul-de-sac of a world.

DeLillo’s narrative reads as if it were delivered by a figure superior to Professor Murray, the character who is a professional critic of American culture, the professor of public icons, who seems to glory in the spectacle of it all. Murray and DeLillo in different ways take the mundane and the mass-produced, and elevate these to a sort of art form, grotesque or witty. But such glorification of trivial and corrosive and disturbing mass phenomena can easily build high levels of tolerance for crap, and an insensitivity to it, even a warped, unhealthy, or suicidal appreciation of it. The American cultural emperor wears plenty of toxic garments, or simply diseased skin, which such novelists seemed entranced by, like naïve adolescents beginning to comprehend the corrupted ways of their elders for the first time or somehow delighting in the corruption as wondrous toxic turn-on, to be rendered witty.

Many contemporary characters stumble around dazed to little or no narrative point, and to little or no exceptional psycho-socio insight. Jack Gladney is dazzled and stunned by Murray’s glib conceptualizations about society. One gets the sense that Jack is rendered impotent in his relations with other people and the world. When a scientist sells happy pills to his wife and otherwise takes advantage of her, Jack is driven by despair and Murray’s influence to try to exact revenge by an attempted murder, which for a moment Jack seems not even aware he attempted. In the novel’s final two scenes, Jack seems no longer to struggle against what bothered him about his surrounding world. He has not discovered what upset him, instead, he has given in to it, apparently, and become part of “the fragmented trance” of shoppers wandering the supermarket, still occasionally “disconcerted” but ultimately satisfied to gaze at the tabloids. I wonder, in the time we spend in lines looking at the tabloids in America, how many rapes, murders, toxic spills and institutionalized thefts occur? How many emotional, mental, physical and spiritual breakdowns occur that are attributable to economic and other cultural systems like those that produce the tabloids and the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.  Is DeLillo satisfied, like Jack and Murray, with this culture, their culture?  Doubtful. Yet these authors show a dim fascination with private and public realms that are degraded and essentially unredeemed, in which they seem subsumed. Growth from this limited obsession might take us beyond corruption and degradation in more ways than one. Authors often show how non-sensical society is, though most people know already. Why not show why society is so messed up—especially public life in detail, as it affects people—and what is being done to make things better? What could be more personally dramatic than explicit penetrating struggles in public realms?

Jack and Murray are addicted to the culture apparently, and they don’t realize it. It thrills or satisfies them. It seems readers are meant to both empathize with and distance themselves from these characters, their plight and their often thwarted lively impulses, but are there no other figures in the world who might reveal other sides of themselves to which readers could look up, sides that are remarkably giving, strong, and knowing especially in relation to the public? And might there not even be instances where such characters or narrative perspectives are not only existing but thriving and directing public aspects of culture rather than being drowned in it. Most characters in such fiction seem to have all they can do to swim, let alone locate the direction of any steady and able group of swimmers, let alone any hospitable public shores, a reality which does not even accurately reflect much of life. Where are the street smart, more cognizant and capable characters and elements of culture against which Jack, Murray, and the others may be contrasted?

How can readers be expected to recognize that these sympathetic but pitiful characters must be viewed ironically, if the readers, like the characters, are unknowingly addicted to, deluded by, or foolishly accepting of a corrupt culture? Who, then, is DeLillo’s audience? To the culturally addicted or deluded, unbeknownst to them, DeLillo is a drug dealer peddling sophisticated, artistic dope to those who are already dying from it, those he appears to empathize with or find comic, people who are clearly struggling and could use more help than novels like White Noise attempt to give. More disturbing is the possibility that DeLillo may think these characters are living about as knowing and healthy a life as is possible and desirable for them to live—nevermind that, as he hints accurately in part, the world is careening along its inhuman, potentially apocalyptic way. DeLillo has portrayed such disturbing and dangerous vectors in some depth. Why not go just as far and father down other more insightful, potentially regenerative vectors, for the sake of the many, and for the sake of storytelling as well.

To readers who understand that the private vice of capitalism cannot be counted on to yield comprehensive public gain, quite the apocalyptic opposite, to those that the cynical “realists” often call naive, White Noise is a well-crafted tragedy, a very grim, ironic tragedy (when not comic). As such, it portrays a cultural dead end, which at best might propel readers into some sort of reconstructive social action though wholly disconnected from anything in the book, since no such phenomena or insight is portrayed.

An excess of contemporary novelists are busy documenting the descent of society and culture, it seems to me, leaving it hanging in bizarre rhetorical shreds around readers’ ears and eyes. Meanwhile comparatively few authors explore stirring stories of personal and cultural regeneration.  Perhaps the audience of these dead-end cultural dredgings has not been larger in part because readers prefer any cultural illusions to the authors’ cultural shreds. After all, if little or nothing can be done about much of anything social and public, as White Noise would have it, it may seem sensible to get lost in some fantasy world, any fantasy world—fundamentalisms, celebrity worship, sports obsessions, contemporary trivia, and so on—a dangerous, socially-suicidal course. It would bode well for everyone if authors attempted to show that it makes much sense when exploring the problems of reality to simultaneously explore the equally challenging (and artistically ripe) ways in which characters can live well personally by working for better social conditions. There may well be drawbacks, but doing so has its rewards. The undermining of virtually all potential positive social meaning from life and action, especially public life, makes for desperate art, no matter how clever. What should be obvious is that it is not sufficient for characters to redeem or save themselves privately, because public conditions often affect personal conditions as much as private conditions do, often moreso. Public collapse can destroy personal life as totally as private collapse. The same goes regarding uplift. Unfortunately, so many contemporary novels have written off much meaningful public engagement, knowledge, and achievement, as if the public arena is not understandable and compelling, as if it does not massively and dramatically affect our personal lives and vice versa.

White Noise comes across as comedy of despair, not happiness, and as satire inevitably defeated, not ultimately victorious socially. Classic comedy understands that after a series of troubles and obstacles are overcome, basically things works out in the end—in that case, Jack Gladney and his wife Babette would reconcile, become stable, the children would grow and adapt and be a lively constructive part of the future. However, in White Noise, the coming future, as DeLillo implies with the Airborne Toxic Incident, consists horrifically of encroaching, apparently irresistible, disaster, which is essentially incomprehensible. Nothing is to be done. Nothing can be done, as White Noise has it, but to go reasonably and politely along with disaster and madness, at least on the public level. (Private disaster may be somewhat managed, White Noise indicates.) Such a perspective is a recipe for wholesale collapse involving the destruction of private realms beneath the public ones. There are no characters grappling with such situations in any way that is constructive for attempting to prevent them, or to scarcely mitigate them socially. Thus, in this sense, White Noise might be the work of a quite talented but relatively naïve, rather isolated high school student. Is this typical of DeLillo’s work? A quick scan of DeLillo’s novels and reviews of his work does not lead me to think otherwise. I assume DeLillo knows more. One may wonder what prevents him from writing about it.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night are two non-fiction narratives of remarkable personal and social insight that are as rich as any fictional narrative of the past century, and possibly richer than any fictional narrative that has attempted explicit, detailed psycho-socio critique. That culturally critical fictional narratives need not be inferior to culturally critical non-fiction narratives is indicated by the subtitle of Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History. As novelist George Orwell showed in his great non-fiction narrative Homage to Catalonia, illustration of regenerative social engagement is necessary and powerful, much like the Spanish anarchists’ social acts of cooperation helped to successfully replace Republican Spain’s oppressive liberal capitalism, while holding off the fascism of Franco, for a time at least, as detailed in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a work that is one of the great narratives of the twentieth century no matter the genre, fiction or non-fiction.

Contemporary novels like White Noise are comparable to the work of a corps of engineers who seem obsessed with superficially studying the deterioration of dangerous, lethal bridges rather than studying the rebuilding of better ones or looking deeply into the causes of deterioration. Even if authors do a better job of avoiding shallow generalizations about people and culture, they can come only to a limited understanding of how to build a better bridge by dramatizing the horrifying decay of such structures and the morbid constrained acts of people who have little incisive and constructive social knowledge. Along with artful documentation of the degradation of modern culture, creative artful explorations into the possibilities of cultural renewal could significantly enhance political, economic, scientific and cultural dialogue and knowledge, activities and environments, helping people to regenerate themselves and their societies.

Is such a process possible in life, let alone in fiction? British interview Peter Jay asks linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky about this sort of regeneration: “How far does the success of libertarian socialism or anarchism as a way of life really depend on a fundamental change in the nature of man, both in his motivation, his altruism, and also in his knowledge and sophistication?” Chomsky responds:

I think it not only depends on it but in fact the whole purpose of libertarian socialism is that it will contribute to it.  It will contribute to a spiritual transformation. Precisely that kind of great transformation in the way humans conceive of themselves and their ability to act, to decide, to create, to produce, to inquire. Precisely that spiritual transformation that social thinkers from the left Marxist tradition, from Luxemburg, say, on over through anarcho-syndicalists, have always emphasized. So on the one hand it requires that spiritual transformation, on the other hand its purpose is to create institutions which will contribute to that transformation.

Culturally critical contemporary novelists would do well to transform themselves and their writing also to be better able to create works of art that are far more part of this personally and socially transformative movement. Unfortunately, it seems that most contemporary novelists focus on surface snapshots of cultural oppression with little or second-hand, indirect regard to cultural success stories. In Vineland, one of Pynchon’s characters says, ” ‘Soon they’re gonna be coming after everything . . . anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that. And they will. . . .  Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted. . . .’ ”  Pynchon adds, “It was the way people used to talk” (313-314). Pynchon should realize that it is the way people still talk and they are getting less and less sloppy about it. In People-Centered Development, a work critiquing the industrial era and its profit-centered logic and goals, David Korten explores transformative activities and environments:

The objective of building power for people-centered development is best served through action to hasten creation of the new, rather than through political confrontation to hasten the passing of the old.  The gestation process is already well along—an outgrowth of a collective act of human creation that has no visible organizational structure, no headquarters and no budget; knows no national boundaries; and transcends traditional ideological and political affiliations. Its participants act not as formal office holders, but as individual human beings seeking the creation of a more humane society. They come from among the marginalized and the powerful, the poor and the wealthy, the illiterate and the well-educated. The majority are found outside the halls of power and the pages of the leading news magazines. Less in the limelight and thus less pressured to provide immediate solutions, they have more freedom to experiment in the creation of the alternative ideas, social techniques, and technologies. . . . (309)

Similarly, contemporary authors could benefit by acting on Korten’s call for experimental “creation of the new” (though “creation,” social or otherwise, sometimes involves a simultaneous “confrontation,” “political” or otherwise) because the material involved in any constructive transformation is seminal and interesting, vital, necessary. As Korten suggests, the gestation period is advanced, and ever ongoing, therefore theoretical and practical subject material are abundant as evidenced by the flood of currently, though quietly, practiced “alternative ideas, social techniques and technologies.” Contemporary authors could help this ever renewing experimental and regenerative culture assert itself, and figure itself out by lending and borrowing its voice and character, thereby preventing authoritarian media and literature from co-opting it and subverting it to the uses of the dominant culture to which it runs counter. The cast of characters involved are plentiful and colorful, as Korten suggests, coming from all classes, status and walks of life. Korten quotes Guy Gran in his book, Development by People:

to the extent that such a democratic vision more accurately crystallizes and works toward the breath of real human concerns, it will attract adherents from the sterile materialism of capitalism, the unrealistic utopianism of state socialism, and the oppressive bureaucracies of both. (146)

Allow this repetition: “to the extent that such a democratic vision more accurately crystallizes and works toward the breath of real human concerns. . . .” So many contemporary novels seem to dwell deep in the polluted, engulfing mists of the slavish corporate age; call it modern, call it postmodern; one thing such feudal visions cannot be called is post-corporate—when surely “one of the damn thing” is enough.

These novels are not close to the lives and boundaries of the many people deeply engaged in countless regenerative socio-cultural activities, environments, possibilities—marginally and in whole. The novels do not even touch on the root problems that so affect the characters. Boundaries and causality are where scientists dwell. If scientists undertook understanding the world in as blind a way as critical novels like White Noise undertake understanding the cultural world and affected persons, science might not have advanced beyond the stone age. Are contemporary novelists too timid to step to the regenerative perimeters and deep roots of culture, or too ignorant, or both?

In novels like A Confederacy of Dunces, The Terrible Twos, Continental Drift, and Worlds End, where character after character struggles against the degradation and oppression of monolithic corporations or other owners, there is scarcely a single attempt made to show characters struggling to counter this condition by engaging in decentralized self-owned or group-owned and operated modes—that is truly democratic modes—of livelihood? (A marginal exception occurs at the end of A Confederacy of Dunces—the author of which, John Kennedy O’Toole, killed himself in his early thirties after unsuccessful attempts to get the novel published.)  Or would the portrayal of such developments, as Frank Lentricchia writes in a book review of DeLillo’s Libra, be too much in the “trivial didactic sense of offering programs of renovation, or of encouraging us to go out and ‘do something’” (6)? He notes approvingly that DeLillo does not do this. I wish he would, if not do this, at least portray characters who do or approach doing this, because until he is blue in the face, DeLillo could describe, as Lentricchia notes, “what large and nearly invisible things press upon the private life, the various coercive contemporary environments within which the so-called private life is led” (1), just as the engineers staring at the deteriorated or fallen bridge could talk about “what large and nearly invisible” forces “press upon” the bridge structure, the varying, corroding physical “environments” in which the bridge feebly hangs or has fallen. Critique of degradation is useful and necessary, but it is not sufficient. It leaves progressive new cultural structures and processes to go unexplored dramatically, rhetorically, experimentally. Until that happens on a quality widespread and consistent basis, culture will remain firmly in the grip of the owners and remote centralized system-makers, whether capitalist or “communist” or “socialist,” so-called, or some other form of totalitarianism—undemocratic and anti-democratic centralized domination, to what monstrous effects we know too well.

Experimental alternatives from the socio-cultural fringe must be articulated, discussed, demonstrated, dramatized on a mass basis, otherwise why tear down the old bridge? If we tear down the bridge first, do we not run the risk of driving over the edge? The new must be built alongside the old, incrementally taking its traffic, until the old is abandoned or falls of its own weight and the new stands tested and ready. Why should and how could people-centered development (democratic development) replace authoritarian-centered culture any differently? It cannot. Something must go up, probably before and certainly as everything else is going away. But in the flood of novels that are roughly like White Noise, though they are otherwise accomplished culturally critical novels, no such transformative process is much hinted at, let alone dramatized. Readers can easily begin to wonder if the authors are as ignorant, hapless, and fatalistic as the vast majority of the characters.

Along with many of today’s and yesterday’s “development” critics and progressive analysts, John Dewey claimed yeas ago in The Public and Its Problems that “the problem of securing diffused and seminal intelligence can be solved only in the degree to which local communal life becomes a reality” (217).  In other words, the lack of regenerative communal knowledge—face-to-face knowledge, fingertip knowledge—is a major problem faced by those working or eager to work toward creating a more hospitable culture. Some of this sort of knowledge has long been available in a wide variety of places, yet it is not pervasive, not alive and passed along like gossip—or a gripping good read. Placing a priority on this sort of experience in serious fiction, one would think, would be greatly attractive and useful to authors and readers alike, especially when one considers the omnipresent distaste for the oppressive “they” (controlling owners or forces) that resounds through all of these novels. Unfortunately, the authors do little to reveal such choice or opportunity by leaving readers with their characters’ sense of dread, hopelessness, depression, and ignorance, because these stories are of characters thoroughly ensconced by the dominant culture, not characters who live at cultural frontiers, or see deep into cultural roots, or even get there once in awhile in body or mind. Such characters are interesting in a superficial ironic sense but quickly disappoint because they are not counterpointed by any progressive or deep insight. The progressive socio-cultural fringe is the last and eternal frontier, yet it too often goes unexplored in fiction. Dewey notes, “The local is the ultimate universal, and as near an absolute as exists” (215). How horrifying that contemporary authors frequently portray the local as something to flee while rarely showing characters engaged in making the local something worth living in for all, something that needs to be healed and transformed given that it is intensely infected and corrupted by authoritarian power and other inhuman ways. 

In The Public and Its Problem, John Dewey states, “There is something deep within human nature itself which pulls toward settled relationships. That happiness which is full of content and peace is found only in enduring ties with others . . . this, we repeat, can be found only in the vital, steady, and deep relationships which are present only in an immediate community” (213-214). Similarly, Thomas Pynchon affirms the communal in the end of Vineland, though the novel ultimately comes close to bankruptcy in this regard. By the end, all the characters are drawn to Shade Creek, the realm of the “Thanatoids,” where the image of a neighborly, not utopian, community is portrayed. However, Pynchon leaves readers with an illusion of a community, as if ending a story of characters crawling through a desert just as they hallucinate and see a mirage of an oasis. Though the conditions of some of the character’s lives are probably on the upswing, the attractive linguistic painting of the Thanatoid community leaves dangerously false impressions of peaceful cultural conditions. While it might be, as Pynchon intends, a refuge for Sixties (Seventies, Eighties, Nineties…) cultural dissenters, rebels, misfits, it is also firmly within the grasp of dominant social forces, with uncaring criminal aspects and media (TV) narcotization. In this way, Vineland’s end is strikingly similar to the end of White Noise, only made more romantic, perhaps, by an earthy separation from the high consumption white collar world, and by the more connected relationships among characters, written in a superb flourishing style. (At the sentence level at least, Pynchon can write circles around DeLillo.) But, probably, like all three of Jack Gladney’s children, the generation born into Vineland will feel a creeping alienation and react in different, more or less psychologically disturbed ways like Jack’s kids, the only difference being that Vineland’s children will react out of a different economic class and geographic scene. Otherwise, the culture of the Gladneys and the Thanatoids is very similar. As Pynchon describes it, the Thanatoids became “waiters and waitresses, baggers and checkout clerks, tree workers, truckdrivers, and framers . . . all in the service of others, the ones who did the building, selling, buying and speculating” (321). They became, once again, dependent on the dominant social forces, making Shade Creek a breeding ground for frustration, depression and violence among the next generation who, having fled from nothing (being born into it), will have a markedly different subjectivity of their surroundings than the adults who have found a sort of refuge in their current encampment. 

All of these novels are chock full of condemnation of repressive dominant cultural traits. This is a useful and necessary thing. It is not, however, sufficient. In World’s End, T. C. Boyle evades or belittles progressive modes. He ineffectually restricts the mind-sets of his characters, including those of ambiguous mind-set. This makes it tremendously easy (and some think funny) to ridicule all of his characters and thus any hope for regenerative culture. The young vegetarian who lives in a shack in the forest, Boyle calls mockingly, “the saint of the forest,” for example, leaving readers with the impression that there are no vegetarian movements in which people are making a real and lasting difference. The authors seem compelled to emphasize failure and futility, as if they were censoring themselves, doing the work of Big Brother for Him—Big Brother and Big Brother Incorporated. All humans contain contradictions, to paraphrase Emerson, and the most interesting and promising ones know it and work to eliminate those that are debilitating, but Boyle refuses his characters this. World’s End is largely a tale of buffoons; it stereotypes humanity in a miserable, narrow way. Again, it seems strikingly immature. Like DeLillo, Banks and so on, Boyle does not approach an exploration of positive human potential within this culture and does not posit the possibilities, in fact the quiet contemporary real features of regenerative, progressive culture.

Contemporary novelists share many of the weakness of contemporary, so-called postmodern, critics. As Kellner and Best claim in Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations:

Though the postmodern emphasis on disintegration and change in the present situation points to new openings and possibilities for social transformation and struggle (286) . . . it lacks positive notions of the social (283) . . . .  It ignores the reality of phenomena such as substantive grass roots politics in countries like the United States (284). It promotes nihilism and pessimism “as the only possible basis of historical emancipation,” while having no conception of what could or should emerge from the detritus of modernity.  Finally, it has not formulated an adequate political response to the degraded contemporary conditions described. (Kellner and Best 285)

Reading White Noise and the other novels intensifies the daily inhospitable cultural experience. In a way, it is good art. In another way, it is like ingesting rat poison. Russell Bank’s Continental Drift is somewhat like White Noise in its understated, angrier way. While moments of tragedy in White Noise are encountered within webs of ironic energy, Continental Drift is more of a linear sad depiction of life, a gloomy human line drawn as if through a bleak landscape with the skulls and bones of dead animals strewn about. T. C. Boyle’s World’s End, extremely visual and metaphoric, is about a young man, Walter, who crashes against the bad tides of history, his own blood history and others’. It is a story about property conflict, ownership and tenancy, and those who must live with its crippling legacy. The legacy is near total tenancy in the present day where there are still the two classes—the owners and the owned—as if there is no functioning alternative, nothing independent or communal and cooperative, even in part. These works are bleak to the hilt and seemingly free of independent, progressive insight, let alone drama. Dominant institutionalized forces need not feel threatened.

If contemporary fiction is to weave some transformative poetry into the inhospitable fabric of much of our corporate-ruled culture and lives, it may need to gain a better grip on systemic analysis and social change to reveal and re-vision our increasingly authoritarian and militarized society. Dominant social systems and networks and behaviors must not only be scrutinized for the inhospitable affects they produce systematically on people, they must be both explored and re-visioned so that people may better produce more hospitable consequences in the public and culture generally. There is a great need for novelists to dramatize the most healthy efforts and the most daunting difficulties of progressive efforts. Otherwise, as Russell Baker of The New York Times says of much corporate officialdom, serious fiction leaves us in “in the hands of men who make no music and have no dreams,” who either cannot see or care not to.

Reconstructive cultural priorities must be gleaned from the fermenting cultural fringes where characters may be found, imagined, and shown to be acting away from the oppressive priorities of the anti-democratic dominant culture, corporate authoritarianism not least. Characters could dramatically be shown struggling with human, animal and environmental value orientation, environmental simplicity and understanding, cooperative livelihoods, low material throughput and the spiritual, mental and emotional possibilities of a thick, relation-rich, highly viscous society—all of which is occurring in part on local and global levels that these authors are surely not entirely ignorant of or incapable of rendering as moving art. Such examples are, after-all, the greatest condemnation of the dominant culture and may well have wider audience appeal, spreading beyond privileged classes to the less sheltered masses, portraying sorely needed ways of re-visioning the world, not somewhere between the centralized bureaucracies of capitalism and socialism, as noted by Guy Gran, but away from both towards a decentralized democracy emphasizing individuals in networks and communities taking care of their own and each other, working to dramatically decrease U.S. militarism and global environmental destruction, while expressing and acting on universal solidarity regarding the welfare of others, sharing free flows of travelers, art, information, knowledge, experience and other liberating activity. Where are the socially constructive contemporary characters weaving and sharing vibrant life conditions, decidedly, knowledgeably, and experimentally in the process of subverting inhospitable culture, regenerating culture and themselves? They are scarcely to be found in contemporary fiction. They are found nearly everywhere else, experimenting, creating progressive moments, lives, and societies of their own. Such stories would be instructive and marvelous to create and behold. Such voices, such stories, could help us all.



DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. 

Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problems. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1985. 

Gran, Guy. Development by People: Citizen Construction of a Just World. New York: Praeger, 1983. 

Kellner, Douglas and Best, Steven. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London: Macmillan Education LTD, 1991. 

Korten, David and Klaus, Rudi. People Centered Development. New York: Kumarian Press, 1984. 

Lentricchia, Frank. Introducing Don DeLillo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991. 

Pynchon, Thomas. Vineland. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. 

West, Rebecca. The Strange Necessity: Essays and Reviews. Essex: Virago Press, 1987.


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