Postmodernism & Pynchon / DeLillo

Postmodernism is, according to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a reaction to the “assumed certainty of scientific, or objective efforts to explain reality.” The real understanding of life, according to postmodernism, is what one’s mind — in its own personal reality — tries to figure out and decipher about life. Moreover, postmodernism is very suspicious of explanations that “claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races” and instead it focuses on the truth each individual discovers (PBS). Additionally, it is important to note that postmodernism relies on “concrete experience over abstract principles,” and the postmodernist person knows the outcomes of life’s experiences will likely and necessarily be “fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal” (PBS).

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Postmodernism & Two Novels

Retired professor of English Robert Murray Davis explains that literary postmodernism — “at least as a visible force” and “at least in the U.S.” — is over (Davis, 2001, p. 295). Audiences change, Davis asserts, younger readers dig into books not as “revelations but as assignments” and writers get older and hence movements like postmodernism transition into something else. But Pope and Swift died long ago yet the Rape of the Lock and a Modest Proposal live on and “still surprise us and delight us,” Davis continues. Hence, so will the greatest works of the postmodern era, including the Crying of Lot 49 and White Noise, among other works by those authors. This is not to say that the two novels critiqued in this paper will have the literary and emotional clout that works by Pope and Swift still have; but the Pynchon and DeLillo writings will be sustained through their reflections on culture during the time they were front and center.

Thomas Pynchon and Postmodernism

Thomas Pynchon has been more than a substantial, innovative and revered literary figure in recent American history — he actually is noted because his writing marked the “passage from modern to postmodern literature and culture” (Best, et al., 2001). What Pynchon has done is create literary innovations using social and political “concerns” — including the issues of emancipation and domination — within the context of technology, bureaucracy and the media world.

Best explains that Pynchon’s vision, his modern institutions and structures “invariably give way to chaos” and that chaos produces new forms or order, or on the other hand it produces “dissolution, entropy, and ultimately death” (24). Moreover, Pynchon’s work often “undercuts the positivist belief that scientific experiment and laws will incrementally supply knowledge [Which will] enable the scientist to control the most minute aspects of life” (Best, 25).

The Crying of Lot 49

The plot of this novel follows the life of a California housewife, Oedipa Maas, who becomes involved in a complex series of mysteries after she is named the co-executor of the estate of a former lover. Pynchon creates a fascinating story revolving around Oepida’s discovery of a set of stamps that could have come from some underground post office service called Trystero. One day Oedipa believes that Trystero is truly an 18th century postal service still alive today and the next day she is a non-believer.

The Trystero could be just a gag someone dreamed up, or it may be a real conspiracy, but the Trystero symbol — a seemingly muted trumpet of some kind with a circular loop attached underneath — keeps showing up, confusing Oedipa, and leading her deeper into the murky deceptions. In time she is involved with a therapist that once worked for the Nazis — helping Jews to become insane — and meets a man who is part of a group that helps people avoid being in love. It is a bizarre tale, and in some ways it satirizes American society, which is one of the fairly consistent themes in postmodernism.

Meanwhile, critic Mark Decker understands why critics have suggested that Pynchon’s novel the Crying of Lot 49 could be thought of as an “exuberant ribbing” of all things California in the Sixties — pop culture turned to music and decadence, and the “wreckage of taste that our machinery produces in abundance” (Decker, 2000, p. 1). He wonders, though, if the novel was intended to satirize California life in the middle of the 1960s, would it not have lost its relevance in the sense of political and pedagogic value, once the world put some “theoretical distance” between the time it was published and the turn of the 21st century? (Decker, 1).

That having been covered, what Decker sees in this postmodern novel is a well-constructed series of metaphors that delve into the “collective fascination with the changes in society that globalized, decentralized capitalism has wrought” (1). The critic believes that what Pynchon had in mind as he wrote this novel is to have the heroine, Oedipa, show readers that the best way to “fight a system dependent on efficiency is through inefficiency” (1). Moreover, Oedipa creates some diversity in order to disrupt the machine, and fights back as best she can.

On the 4th page of Decker’s essay he discusses the link between Oedipus and Oedipa; while the names are startlingly similar — which is certainly not by accident — there is a reason for the similarity between Oedipus at Colonus and Oedipa in the Crying of Lot 49. Oedipus, while having a quite human wish to live in a world that could be understood and explained, actually did believe, Decker continues, that he was fully understanding of the experience he was living. On the other hand, Oedipus (who killed his father, he claimed, out of self-defence, and subsequently married his mother) knew that he was just “executing the will of the oracle” and through his understanding of his own pre-determined path he began thinking new thoughts related to the “formulations that provide an example for others” (Decker, 4).

Oedipus then becomes a person that E.F. Watling writes is “a person set apart, a sufferer in whom others may find redemption” due to the wisdom he accrued through his challenging ordeal (Decker, 4). As for the beginning of the story, Oedipa, like Oedipus, fully believes that she understands her life and just about “everything knowable seems already known” to her (4). Her life is “a fat deckful of days which seemed (wouldn’t she be first to admit it?) more or less identical” (Pynchon, 11). Since she believes all that is to be known is already figured out it tends to hide “the true nature of American society from her” (Decker, 4).

In this way Oedipa is within the genre of the postmodernism approach to life, because she is basically eschewing the things that she doesn’t need to understand, and is relying on her own interpretation of things around her. She doesn’t know the real truth of Trystero, so she settles for believing it could be a number of things; it could be a hallucination, a true historical phenomenon, a fantasy, or even “an elaborate plot mounted by Inverarity” (Decker, 5).

Critic Paula Geyh sees some great “icons of postmodernism” early in the novel, as Oedipa stands on a high hill overlooking “San Narciso” (San Francisco), surveying a “vast sprawl of houses” (Geyh, 2003, p. 1). She reflects back to the time she opened her transistor radio to replace the battery and saw “her first printed circuit” which looked much like the urban sprawl of San Francisco in the Sixties: “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her” with the same “astonishing clarity as the circuit card had…” (Pynchon, 1966, 13).

This passage, to Geyh, with the two images (printed circuit and urban sprawl) — and their “superimposed linkages” — are “icons of postmodernism” since the transistor radio’s printed circuit symbolizes technology and the ugly sprawl that real estate developers delivered to America in the 1960s are both to be rationalized and even rejected out of a lack of understanding and a dearth of desire to understand. Does anyone today — novelists, scholars, Apple salespeople or post-graduate students — really understand how a message sent via email arrives four thousand miles away in a minute or less? This era today may be a period when postmodernism seems passe, but humans still are baffled and the scientific reality of our technologies cannot be understood by the layperson’s mind, hence we interpret the way things work according to our own perceptions of reality. To a degree, we in 2012 seem to be behaving like Oedipa.

White Noise — Don DeLillo

The novel’s setting is a midwestern college called “” and the protagonist is professor Jack Gladney, who delves into studying the life of Hitler. Gladney has been married five times to four women and he and his current bride, Babette, fear death with great intensity. The novel uses satire to poke a little postmodernism fun at the academic side of life. The second part of the book features a chemical spill that causes toxic clouds of gas to hover over Jack’s community — causing an evacuation and causing Jack to come to terms with his mortality. In the third section of the book Babette is cheating on Jack, hoping to gain access to a drug (Dylar) that treats people who fear dying. Clearly DeLillo is playing off of society’s fear of death. Eventually Jack kills the man Babette was having liaisons with.

White Noise was published in 1985, which makes DeLillo something of a clairvoyant because the author reflects on “the way the mediations of television map the realm of desire in the space of the supermarket and the shopping mall” — and today’s Home Shopping Network offers exactly “the intertwined spheres of desire that DeLillo’s novel so suggestively connects” (Duvall, 2003, 188). Beyond those links, Duvall references critic Paul Cantor who believes White Noise is in a very real way “concerned with showing parallels between German fascism and contemporary American culture” (188).

Critic Mark Conroy believes that Jack Gladney’s life is coming apart — and has been “in severe drift for many years” — because it needs what Conroy terms “several registers of traditional authority in order to stay together” (Conroy, 1994, 1). Those registers of traditional authority are under “attack” not from an American revolution but simply from “those acids of modernity” (Conroy, 1). The postmodern writer uses characters like Gladney and situations like Gladney finds himself in to build a case for cynicism vis-a-vis society’s failings and challenges.

Conroy goes on to assert that there are four “master narratives of cultural transmission” in the universe that Gladney is living in: a) the “familial” (people are linked to their forebears through “blood tie”); b) the “civic” (this is the culture relating to traditions and duties in the community that people are expected to fulfill); c) the “humanist” (this relates to the “patrimony of western learning held in trust by the university”); and d) the “religious” (this links to that “larger lineage from the ancestral dead”) (Conroy, 1).

The scattered marriage legacy of Gladney represents a family tree that Conroy suspects has “no trunk” and indeed, rather than passing on “of wisdom” that society expects of older generations, Gladney and Babette cling to the television as their main source of “information and even guidance” (Conroy, 1). Here again postmodernism peeks out from within the narrative to critique the obsession that Americans have with television, and the mindless, constant litany of silliness and pathos that is gained from television.

As to the college town, “Blacksmith,” it isn’t like contemporary college towns that readers may be aware of. it’s shabby and run down, and the houses are showing signs of “neglect,” Conroy continues. Conroy projects that in fact, “Blacksmith” is nothing but a “backdrop for the careers of the professors” and the College-on-the-Hill is a “phony establishment” where Gladney happens to be employed. The miserable condition of the town of Blacksmith is a “sign of the times,” DeLillo writes, on page 170. And so, the juxtaposition of Gladney and Babette gaining knowledge and insights from the television tube while the college is nothing but a phony place where professors are made to feel import is clearly taking a page from postmodernism.

Signs of the pretentiousness that some uppity — yet pithy — professors have been known to exhibit can be clearly seen in this novel, as Gladney never really presents highly intellectual or challenging Socratic dialogue to his students. Indeed, his “flights of rhetorical exuberance” in front of his students “have little to do with the Third Reich” (his supposed field of expertise). Rather they have a lot to do with his own “neuroses and obsessions,” Conroy explains (3).

Conroy presents a passage from Gladney that poignantly illustrates his neurosis: “I found myself saying’All plots tend to move deathward. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer to death every time we plot’ “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?” (DeLillo, 26). Readers see again his obsession with death, but Conroy wonders appropriately why didn’t Gladney ask himself these questions prior to saying them out loud? He can’t be a complete idiot, given that he actually got the degrees to climb the ladder to professor.

One answer could potentially be that given his apparently flimsy intellect and superficial knowledge — DeLillo’s metaphor for phoniness in America’s intellectual circles in the 1980s — the sound of his own voice uttering these pathetically shallow lines makes them “portentous rather than silly by virtue of his having spoken them” (Conroy, 3).

In Conroy’s view of why DeLillo presents Gladney as such a faker, the critic figures that the “professoriate, like the media idols they study and strive to emulate,” achieve a sense of authority and power “not from any innate ability or from credentials but from personal magnetism” (Conroy, 3). If not from magnetism, then a professor like Gladney may come by his apparent authority merely because he stands up there in front of a class of presumed learners in an “enunciatively role” — i.e., just being there brings a sense of power and authority albeit he is a pathetically phony person wearing the clothes of competence and knowledge (Conroy, 3).

And according to critic Lou F. Caton, Gladney isn’t the only character showing signs that the educational system is spurious at best. The cars that students drive “as a stream of machines slowly weaving through a pastoral landscape” suggests that the students attending the college are cookie cutter creatures, products of “an assembly-line culture” (Caton, 1997, 1). In the procession of station wagons that DeLillo writes about seems to Caton to mirror a kind of “mechanical pilgrimage or industrial wagon train” (2).

This scene brings thoughts of a “metallic snake sliding and easing itself into the center of the university,” an apparent “residue of the industrial age,” Caton continues (2). Even the students are part of the as they “spring” out of their cars. And DeLillo refuses to provide the reader with descriptions of the students’ emotional or personal issues; instead the author defines them by “the stereo sets, radios, personal computers” and more, including “styling irons” and “hairdryers” (which implies superficiality).

In conclusion, both these novels are excellent examples of postmodernism because they basically deny optimism, and they use the power of metaphor and parody to point to a skewed sense of reality. Moreover, the novels present a skeptical view of America, which is part of the definition of postmodernism. The characters’ realities are presented through the interpretations they come up with, which in many instances are not based on how the world really is, but rather on what they perceive through lenses that are out of touch and beyond repair.

Works Cited

Best, Steven, and Kellner, Douglas. The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the third Millennium. New York: Guilford Press.

Caton, Lou F. “Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from Don DeLillo’s

White Noise.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 143, Detroit:

Gale Group (2001): Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.

Conroy, Mark. “From Tombstone to Tabloid: Authority Figured in ‘White Noise.’” Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 35.2 (1994): 1-8.

Davis, Robert Murray. “When was Postmodernism?” World Literature Today. 75.2 (2001):


Decker, Mark T. “A Proliferation of Bad Shit: Informational Entropy, Politics and the Crying

Of Lot 49.” Pynchon Notes (2000): 1-8. Retrieved from Literature Resource Center.

Duvall, John N. “Notes” in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, H. Bloom, Ed. New York:

Infobase Publishing.

Geyh, Paula E. “Assembling Postmodernism: Experience, Meaning, and the Space in-

Between. College Literature 30.2 (2003): 1-16. Retrieved from Literature Resource


Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). “Postmodernism.” Retrieved February 13, 2012, from