restricted access Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 860-861



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Joseph M. Conte. Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2002. xi + 271 pp.

Rejuvenating a once distended dialogue between the arts and the sciences for those who work in contemporary fiction and cultural studies of science, Conte's Design and Debris recasts postmodern American fiction in terms of a generative exchange between the emergent concepts of Edward Lorenz's strange attractors and Benoit Mandelbrot's fractal feedback loops, which he encapsualtes in the metaphor of "design and debris," taken from John Hawkes's Travesty (1976). In the spirit of the former, he alternates discussions of the work of postmodern "proceduralists" (Hawkes, Barth, and Coover), with discussions of the latter through the fiction of postmodern "disruptors" (Acker, DeLillo, and Pynchon).

Conte distinguishes the proceduralists as those who write from a "deeper sense of design within the chaotics of their materials." Like Lorenz's butterfly effect, in which the flight path of a single butterfly measurably changes entire weather patterns in unpredictable ways, strict adherence to a simple narrative design leads to complex results that cannot be deduced from the initial conditions. And it is here that Conte's analysis is important. Such fiction reveals an inherent complexity that is not reducible to the sum of simplistic or unitary parts. For example, his discussion of Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association (1968) uncovers recursive, generative patterns within the rules of the fictional game itself that are not predictable by the game's fictional designer, the author of the novel, or its reader. Rather than falling victim to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (itself the strange attractor around which Conte's discussion orbits) and the eventual heat death of the universe, proceduralist fictions reveal their own negentropic forces that concentrate energy over time, rather than disperse it.

But rather than obstruct this genesis with recourse to more critical sorting according to type, Conte merges the "disruptive" trend in postmodern fiction with the immanence of the procedural. Through discussions of Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless (1988), Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985), and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), he demonstrates how narrative surface complexity often obscures a deeper, self-organizing principle in disruptive fiction. Often analyzed in terms of nonlinear dynamics or dissipative structures, Conte recasts Acker's complex "literary terrorism," for example, as the postmodern, parallel evolution of a post-Joycean artist. Inverting the downward spiraling helix of disruptive fictive DNA through this new, dual conceptual matrix of order within chaos and chaos [End Page 860] within order (typified in the work of James Gleick and Ilya Prigogene, respectively), Conte arrives at the rebirth of the fictive form from the ashes of the technological revolution in print media.

Declaring that the paradigm shift from print to digital culture is "the defining aspect of postmodernism," Conte reconciles the implications for fiction in the digital age in the closing chapter of his study. Feigning the modernist tendency to draw ontological distinctions, he develops epistemological strategies for analyzing print and electronic media in tandem. For example, he describes the late twentieth-century push towards a "paperless society" in terms of the long-lived coexistence of painting and photography, radio and television. Against the monopolistic supplanting of Betamax technology by VHS, he sees the presence of hypertext "affect[ing] the manner and matter of the novel, making the compelling fictions those that generate associative logic instead of causal sequence, parallel structure . . . instead of serial." Similar in method to Walter Benjamin (whom he does not cite) and Jean-François Lyotard, Conte's project acknowledges that the superabundance of seemingly unassimilable information in the twenty-first century, rather than eclipsing the archaic medium of postmodern American fiction, will only reveal its "palliatives."

If Conte is correct, if we are all Luddites even in our own disciplines thanks to the sheer volume of information in any one of them, then the "chaotics" of postmodern American fiction that Conte constructs at least partially heals the rift...


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