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In The Anxiety of Obsolescence Kathleen Fitzpatrick observes that pronouncements about the death of print literacy at the hands of electronic media have become so frequent that they are rarely questioned. However, Fitzpatrick not only calls into question the accuracy of these pronouncements but also the motives of those who announce print’s death. In light of the fact that “more people are buying more books than ever these days” (4), she wonders, “[w]hat purpose does the discourse of the death of print serve? And, more pointedly, why has this discourse been picked up by those presumably least likely to benefit from it—contemporary novelists such as Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo?” (3). Identifying Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s novels as part of a contemporary subgenre she refers to as “novels of obsolescence,” Fitzpatrick finds that running throughout these novels are representations of conflict between the novel and electronic media, especially television, “in which the novelist serves on the front lines of a cultural war” (5). Rather than accepting contemporary novelists’ [End Page 895] anxieties about electronic media at face value, Fitzpatrick instead contextualizes this anxiety within discourses of technophobia, the literary novel, and postmodernism and seeks to uncover what cultural work is performed by vilifying television in literature.
Fitzpatrick’s title and discussion of the anxiety of obsolescence bears an obvious resemblance to Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence; however, she uses this similarity primarily to signal what she perceives as a significant shift in contemporary literature and criticism. In contrast to an anxiety of influence, Fitzpatrick contends that postmodern novelists such as Pynchon and DeLillo are more concerned with “what’s coming next” rather than with what came before (6). Although Fitzpatrick focuses on Pynchon and DeLillo throughout her study, she suggests that the anxiety of obsolescence is reflected in contemporary criticism as well, and criticism serves as an important secondary focus in the book. In the book’s first chapter, “Three Discourses in the Age of Television,” Fitzpatrick explores areas of cultural conversation related to the anxiety of obsolescence: the recurrent declaration of the death of the novel, the perceived threat of new technologies, and postmodernism. In addition to establishing a context for her subsequent analyses of Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s novels, this chapter also provides a cogent analysis of three quite distinct discourses, which in Fitzpatrick’s view work together to create the particular circumstances giving rise to the discourse of obsolescence in contemporary literature and criticism. She explains that even before contemporary novelists adopted a discourse of obsolescence, obsolescence was central to discussions of the novel and to postmodernism in general.
Fitzpatrick uses the critical lens established in her first chapter to analyze a variety of novels by Pynchon and DeLillo, building on and expanding scholarship on these two important contemporary authors in doing so. She traces a thread of anxiety running throughout their novels related to three concepts about new forms of technology: “technologies of mechanization have produced concerns about dehumanization; technologies of image production have been greeted with concerns about illusion and ideology; and technologies of interconnection have confronted concerns about the loss of the individual” (27). At the heart of The Anxiety of Obsolescence are chapters devoted to the machine, the spectacle, and the network. Each of these chapters focuses on several novels by Pynchon and DeLillo; Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, V., Mao II, White Noise, and Underworld receive particular attention. In each chapter, Fitzpatrick is sensitive to ways in which Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s concerns about technology evolve throughout their fiction and also ways in which the authors differ from one another. For example, in her chapter on the machine, Fitzpatrick [End Page 896] contrasts scenes from Pynchon’s V. and DeLillo’s Americana in order to illustrate how differently Pynchon and DeLillo represent the threat of mechanicity. In Pynchon’s V., Fergus Mixolydian invents and grafts into his arm a sleep switch that connects him to his television, while in DeLillo’s Americana, David Bell describes...