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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In an effort to ensure that I have a complete listing of my conference papers on my site, here is an abstract from the last International Pynchon Week conference at which I presented:

In his recent examination of Against the Day, Luc Herman finds a ’social relevance’ in what is surely one of the most obvious connections of the text: anarchism and contemporary terrorism.[1] However, through a parallel analysis of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, I would like to demonstrate how this connection runs far deeper than is to be expected and that the focal lens through which contemporary terrorism is actually viewed is the Cold War.

Such an allusion to the nuclear age is established, in Pynchon’s text, through the aeronautical rivalry between the Chums of Chance and their Russian counterparts aboard the Bol’shaia Igra. When placed in parallel with the multitudinous references to Chernobyl and the stylistic features of the Tunguska Event and the Q-Weapon that suggest a nuclear detonation, a new context emerges. While such a parallel between terrorism and the Cold War would also, by itself, be of little significance (continual war is, after all, a prominent theme of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, to which Pynchon was moved enough to write an introduction), it is the depiction of interdependence between capitalism and an omnipresent hostile other that is of interest; an economy purportedly against, but intrinsically allied with, death.

This is easy to highlight in DeLillo’s text for, as with Pynchon’s rail-road owners, terror is generated, not only by the clandestine, subnational agent, the Texas Highway Killer (or The Kieselguhr Kid), but by the state itself as a means of rationalising a severe restriction of individual autonomy in the furtherance of its own economic predicates. Furthermore, the capitalist system is associated with religious fundamentalism. Pynchon, for instance, deploys an extended metaphorical parallel between Mr. Ace, the traveller, and America’s Puritan founding fathers, thereby highlighting, through the well-known thesis of Max Weber, the underlying religico-mystical nature of capitalism. Similarly, DeLillo represents the state through the nun, Sister Edgar, who desires to teach her students fear in order to cement her own identity. Consequentially, the potential harm caused by humans to one another through free market capitalism makes the state that depends upon it, also dependent upon terrorism.

This proposed paper will consist of three parts. The first will establish the context of the Cold War, contemporary terrorism and capitalism in terms of irrational escalation of conflict, the ideological clash embodied in the Truman Doctrine and the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction. The second will demonstrate how Pynchon and DeLillo align their presentations of terrorism – anarchist and state – with such an environment. The final part will consider, through reference to Baudrillard, how an interdependence between capitalism and its other develops, how this is masked beneath a veil of simulation and deception, and how humanitarian precepts are forgotten amid a state of perpetual war.

It is important to acknowledge that Pynchon’s text is a world set aside from ours. Yet, if, as Herman hopes, we can find a reflexive, paramorphic commentary upon the world we inhabit within these novels – a social relevance and empowerment – then it is important to note that, for Pynchon and DeLillo, the systems of capitalism and terrorism ’sure’s hell looked like war’. The war that it resembles is the war that bolstered capitalism against the other that it required. The war it resembles, is the Cold War.

1 Luc Herman and Bart Vervaeck, ‘Narrative Interest as Cultural Negotiation’, NARRATIVE, 17, 1 (January 2009), 111-129 (p. 124)

Featured image by pheezy under a CC-BY license.