restricted access Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1043-1045

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Book Review

Beautiful Chaos:
Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction


Gordon E. Slethaug. Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction. Albany: State U of New York P, 2000. xxix + 205 pp.

Slethaug introduces his book with a bold, and arguable, statement: "It is surely chaos theory that can help to explore, if not entirely explain, the mysterious and complex in narration, culture, and life." Over the past two decades, several works have demonstrated the ways in which various physical theories can bear on language and text; the value of Slethaug's book lies in its being the first to examine a range of contemporary American fiction--by Michael Crichton, Carol Shields, Robert Stone, and others--through the lens of chaos theory. His preface provides a lucid introduction to orderly and dynamic systems that allows the reader unschooled in chaos theory to engage his argument. He surveys all the critical processes around which his ensuing nine chapters are organized: entropy, stochastics, feedback loops, bifurcation, flow, dynamic theory, and strange attractors. Focusing each chapter on discrete aspects of chaos theory permits Slethaug to show the multifarious ways that different facets of the theory can highlight different parts of, in many cases, the same text. He returns to John Barth's On With the Story, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and Don DeLillo's White Noise repeatedly in several chapters.

Slethaug distinguishes between these "explicitly" chaotic works and works that are "implicitly" chaotic in "fragmenting 'normal' narrative forms [. . .] by presenting pastiches that explore multiple perspectives. Thus, he details Barth's engagement of systems theory through metaphor and simile and Barth's specific references to "the jargon of systems analysis." He discusses the relationship between the subversive W.A.S.T.E. and government mail systems in The Crying of Lot 49 and the relationship between technology (a closed system) and the natural environment (an open system) in White Noise to illustrate the ambiguous boundaries in competing systems and system transgression, a "major issue in system theory." The strength of such readings is their making plain that, as N. Katherine Hayles has noted, "postmodern" art and the "new science" are produced out of the same cultural context.

However, it is unclear how the lens of chaos theory illuminates the fiction. In Barth's metafictive tale "Waves," for example, the characters [End Page 1043] assess their relationship in terms of the particle-wave paradox ("Are we particles . . . or waves?") and moreover define the theory they employ--suggesting to the reader, that is, how to read the story. An external analysis of systems theory, thus, does not provide a fuller understanding of the relevant story elements. Slethaug's readings of Pynchon and DeLillo function similarly. Slethaug often quotes the fictive text, then applies a chaotic-theoretical vocabulary to it. He explains that Pynchon's account of a mistaken confrontation between a US ship and Soviet boat--"the ripples from those two splashes spread, and grew, and today engulf us all"--"is a classical description of the butterfly effect"; but this information elucidates nothing that the text itself does not. Likewise, the "airborne toxic event," a chemical spill that produces a toxic cloud and results in evacuation and disorder--is at the center of DeLillo's book. Do we need systems theory to tell us that technology permeates living ecosystems in White Noise? Slethaug's extension of the boundaries issue to an implicitly chaotic work is less profitable. He highlights the "fragile barrier between life and death" in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Beloved's metaphorical representation of "the 'dead' civilization of African Americans"--two plot points inherent in Beloved's identity as an incarnate/carnate ghost who reminds Paul D of slavery's dispossessed and who has experienced the Middle Passage.

Indeed, Slethaug's project is most worthwhile when he uses fiction to read chaos theory. For instance, chapter two closes with a summary of Oedipa's attempt to track the W.A.S.T...