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  • Raids on the Conscious: Pynchon’s Legacy of Paranoia and the Terrorism of Uncertainty in Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star
  • Glen Scott Allen

“Terror: from the Latin terrere, to frighten; intense fear; the quality of causing dread; terribleness; alarm, consternation, apprehension, dread, fear, fright.”

Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary

“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of culture. Now, bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”

—William Gray in Mao II

Terrorism has played an important part in nearly every novel Don DeLillo has written to date. While the terrorists of Running Dog (1978) are essentially cartoon figures in search of a hypothetical pornographic film made in Hitler’s bunker, the more realistic terrorists in Players (1977) assassinate stock brokers and attempt to convert (albeit apathetically) disillusioned upper middleclass New Yorkers. The Names’ (1982) use of terrorism is more complex, positing a terrorist group—or perhaps cult is closer to the mark—whose assassinations are either random or based on an arcane understanding of a “pre-linguistic” language, depending on what they believe that day; and White Noise (1985), with its “airborne toxic event” extends this unpredictability factor and presents terrorism as something perhaps beyond the control of human agency at all. Libra (1989) suggest that terrorism of a bureaucratic but inherently uncontrollable nature lurks at the heart of the Kennedy assassination. And finally DeLillo’s most recent novel, Mao II (1991), returns to an human terrorist, Abu Rashid, and suggests a complex and almost hypnotic symmetry between his praxis and that of a famous but disillusioned writer in the novel, William Gray. This symmetry is of course not unique to Mao II; the extended meditation about “solitary plotters” in Libra posits that both the scheming terrorist and the struggling writer are at root “men in small rooms” seeking to reconnect with a society from which they feel alienated, and so they both must “write” themselves back into the world.

Terrorism in DeLillo seems an integral component of the postmodern condition, its ubiquitousness aiding and abetting in the construction of a subject for whom paranoia is not so much a neurosis as a canny adaptive strategy of survival; a strategy which has “evolved” from what we might call its classical form in the works of Thomas Pynchon, especially his magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Terrorism in GR is figured as the product of increasingly omniscient institutional surveillance over the increasingly impotent and isolated civilian. While the agents of this surveillance are obscure, still they are agents, coherent sites of surveillance and control. In DeLillo’s work, however, terrorism seems to have evolved beyond the need of human agency, to have seeped into the very texture of contemporary life. DeLillo’s response to this postmodern dynamic of terrorism and paranoia argues for an almost romantic return to the sovereign powers of the individual, an entity considered essentially extinct in postmodern fiction. This resurgent individualism is in fact not only a rejection of the paranoid strategy for postmodern survival formulated in Pynchon, but it also represents a rejection of the postmodern subject (as figured in the works of critics like Benveniste, Jameson, and Beaudrillard to name only a few) as something nearly inseparable from the semiotic “signal soup” of postmodern life.1 For instance, Kaja Silverman singles out the writings of Benveniste as an example of the representation of this spectral postmodern subject: “[In Benveniste’s] writings, the subject has an even more provisional status . . . it has no existence outside of the specific discursive moments in which it emerges. The subject must be constantly reconstructed through discourse.” (Silverman, 199). But I will argue that DeLillo seems to feel our only hope for redemption from a self-perpetuating cycle of terrorism, repression and paranoia is in moving away from formulations of the subject which work to deny or subvert classical conceptions of the individual as the primary site of responsibility and authority.

Typically when we speak of terrorism we’re referring to violence committed by a minority in demonstration of its status as victim: of political repression or geographic isolation or “cultural ghettoization...

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