- Gatsby's Party: The System and the List in Contemporary Narrative
Before opting for abstraction, Patti White begins with an anecdote. She recalls an acquaintance who spent a summer memorizing the roster of guests whom F. Scott Fitzgerald delivers to Jay Gatsby's party. Like a Muslim hafiz who demonstrates his piety, and power of recall, by retaining all 114 suras of the Koran , a dedicated reader who can repeat details of a secular text serves a certain function within a literary culture. White ponders that function as well as the role that lists themselves play within literary systems. Invoking the systems theories of Gregory Bateson, Norbert [End Page 161] Wiener, Claude Lévi-Strauss, George Lakoff, Michel Foucault, N. Katherine Hayles, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and others, Gatsby's Party offers a brief and elegant meditation on textual cybernetics, chaos theory, indeterminacy, and pattern recognition in contemporary narrative.
White's argument is based on an elaborate and productive metaphor, the contention that: "A narrative system is a device for maintaining order in the face of encroaching chaos." She applies this premise to the inventories, itineraries, and lexicons that help generate The Great Gatsby as well as four more recent novels—Don DeLillo's White Noise , Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow , John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor , and Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot. She argues that DeLillo's penchant for three-word patterns, Pynchon's variations on banana breakfast concoctions, Barth's information overload, and Barnes's modeling of museums and encyclopedias provide metafictional keys to how each novel is constructed as well as to the general nature of narrative and even perception.
"The line between a delusional structure and a coherent one is very fine," contends White in her discussion of Pynchon's narrative paranoia. Fine, too, is the line between pondering overdeterminacy and indeterminacy, order and disorder, information and noise, redundancy and absence and merely being ponderous. Some of White's more turgid's formulations cross that line. "A narrative system instantiates itself through ordering processes; the maintenance of relations between its substantive components not only creates it as both system and narrative, but systemic processes actually increase the amount of order in a particular region, thus reversing (locally) the entropie motion of the universe," she declares, in an unwitting illustration of Wallace Stevens' axiom that a violent order is disorder.
Wittily deconstructing itself, Gatsby's Party ends by discussing Gatsby's funeral, an event that no one on the list of party guests attends. But most of White's crowded text concentrates on recent fiction and contemporary theory. Her examination of literary systems might have benefited from some allusion to the categories of Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and Vladimir Propp, just as the catalogues of Homer and other epic bards might have provided a larger context for understanding those of Barth. Among contemporary authors, Walter Abish, Samuel Beckett, Robert Coover, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Joseph McElroy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Vladimir Nabokov might have been as useful for exemplifying the dynamics of an information system as those whom White selected. Though particularly intrigued by "totalizing" texts, pandictic works that aspire to cite everything, she omits any mention of the battologies of John Cage, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce, Henry Miller, or the Marquis de Sade. It is a testimony to the fertility of White's concept that readers will be inspired to generate their own lists. [End Page 162]