Imperial Blind Spots
September 10, 2011 2:39 PM   Subscribe

The September 11 attacks spelt the end of the 'systems novel' and the rise of a more diverse and meaningful literary landscape. The systems novel has been put to the test here and although it predicted the world we would live in, it cannot be used to capture it today. This end of the systems novel is, however, not such a bad thing; it marks a necessary end to a fiction about a kind of fiction. ... it bears repeating: the end of the systems novel is a good thing because it is a chance to remind American readers that the most interesting things often happen at the margin. In this case the margin would be at the fringes of American power. posted by chavenet (22 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, the 9/11 attacks spelled the end of the systems novel, except for all those systems novels which have been written since then.


This is strange framing for a post. Why lead off with an article which declares a form dead and then supply supporting links in the [more inside] which don't support that thesis?

Anyway, the main article in the FPP felt oddly masturbatory to me, and didn't really offer up much in the way of support for its thesis.

Still, I'm always glad to see Pynchon discussed on The Blue, so carry on.
posted by hippybear at 2:48 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seems like this guy is using the marketing cache of the 9/11 tragedy to blurb his favorite authors/friends who happen to be authors.

If Safran Foer is the leader of this guy's parade, I want off the float.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:10 PM on September 10, 2011

(I don't own a lawn, but...)
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:11 PM on September 10, 2011

I wholly disagree with the main article. The notion of the "systems novel" was new to me, but once it was explained, I felt the article was really missing an argument for why systems novels are rendered impossible post-9/11. The perspective shifts; that doesn't kill the project.

The only piece of argumentation I could find for the thesis was that "Osama bin Laden proved that a spectacle could be more powerful than any narrative, especially in a world in which signs and symbols travelled much faster than words and stories." Since everything that resulted after 9/11 was due to placing the spectacle in narrative context, I don't follow why this poses any problem for the systems novel. Symbols have always traveled faster than words and stories. But they still need a narrative context to have power. The systems novel is, and has been, an attempt to capture exactly that context.

Excellent post.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:16 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Even though I've never heard the phrase before (I think of them as "kitchen sink books," as in "everything and the kitchen sink"), I apparently like "systems novels," I guess. Still, I really wish people would stop trying to use 9/11 as a Poignant Symbol for Loss of Innocence & the Human Condition or whatever. I'm very sorry if you lost anyone in the event, or if it affected you directly in any way, and I do feel compassion for anyone caught up in the event (watching this brought me to tears this morning; really do not watch this if you're feeling faint of heart), but I feel it diminishes the actual historical event whenever someone tries to transform it into A Symbol (or worse, A Rallying Symbol).

So, yay kitchen sink books/systems novels!
posted by byanyothername at 3:16 PM on September 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

DeLillo is eerily prescient, I still view Cosmopolis as a great insight into high finance as death cult, it is not about making money but the thrill of the coin toss. What could be more exciting than tossing it all away.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:18 PM on September 10, 2011

"In other words, this generation of postwar novelists foresaw how alienated we would all feel. They imagined our pain and dislocation."

Um, no, I don't feel alienated, nor pained, nor dislocated.


posted by Ardiril at 3:20 PM on September 10, 2011


it is a chance to remind American readers that the most interesting things often happen at the margin.

I doubt most american readers heard of any of those writers, and of those who have, few have read anything they wrote. The absence of their stylizations makes virtually no difference.
posted by Ardiril at 3:24 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I got the the phrase where he describes DFW as "dependent on antidepressants" and had to stop. Yuck.
posted by humanfont at 4:30 PM on September 10, 2011

Astonishing, Ardiril. The first of your responses exploits the word "all" for a bit of obtuse grandstanding (not to mention, you are almost certainly lying about how you feel). Your second response assumes a "most" that isn't there, pish-poshing literary criticism via quasi-populist juvenility. But really, the worst thing about these contributions is how little you care about the subject; your effort in typing those comments far outweighed your effort in reading the articles or thinking up a response. The absence of your comments would make virtually no difference.

Yes, I know this isn't much of a contribution either. In sports threads someone often comes in and says "well I went to high school and jocks are dicks! Sports suck amirite?" Same thing here, no less annoying.

I do think the linked article oversells the 9/11 angle, but I hadn't come across the Systems Novel term. Of the listed authors I like Gaddis the best; I've always compared him to Dreiser, not that his novels are an integral part of a campaign for social justice of some sort, but in the way they seem to show such a detailed cross-section of their very large subjects.

That there are several spectacular novels about 9/11 does not, as this piece asserts, spell the end of the System Novel (or at least, while this piece differentiates these two strains in recent American literature interestingly and well, it doesn't make much of a case for one eclipsing another).

But if it makes more people read JR, well, that's just great.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 4:41 PM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

The September 11 attacks spelt the end of the 'systems novel' and the rise of a more diverse and meaningful literary landscape.

Osama B. Laden as impassioned literary crusader. Suddenly everything makes so much more sense.
posted by philip-random at 4:51 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

What I love about that sentence, philip-random, is the idea that the systems novel had completely overwhelmed all other forms of writing and there was absolutely nothing else happening across over 50 years of literary novels, and that it required some planes running into some buildings to end the tyranny of the six (count them SIX) novels named in the article.
posted by hippybear at 4:55 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I always thought John Freeman was smarter than this.
posted by incessant at 5:05 PM on September 10, 2011

FWIW, asserting that your fellow mefites are lying about their own feeling is pretty crappy and would be better not done. Carry on.
posted by cortex at 5:26 PM on September 10, 2011

I'm pretty sure the "mindful pleasures' blog post defining "systems novels" is the product of a well tuned "lit crit bollocks" generator.

"The systems novel takes as its explicit subject matter "that systematized and disembodied nightmare" of contemporary life, depicting a world in which human beings are formed, informed and deformed by ideological systems that compete, collide and collaborate across a novelistic canvas that can sometimes seem as vast as the world--or even the universe. (I should perhaps clarify that when I speak of "ideological systems" I mean not merely the commonly understood 'political' ideologies, but also 'ideology' in the broader Barthes-ian sense of "what goes without saying" at a given cultural moment.)"

This can only be satire, but it's very well done.
posted by joannemullen at 5:55 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Main article doesn't seem very good, not least because he doesn't actually seem to have bothered to read Gaddis. Still, really nice to see Joseph McElroy on here – evidently Cannonball, his Iraq novel, is coming out soonish?
posted by with hidden noise at 5:57 PM on September 10, 2011

I have no problem asserting simultaneously that (a) almost all of those books are among my very favorite novels and (b) that blog post is absolute crap.

When you assert that the second best way to define "systems novel" is via a turgid paragraph that begins "The deeper justification for the use of the linguistic model or metaphor", and that the first best way is a bare enumeration, I conclude that either you are not interested in presenting definitions in a way that a non-specialist audience would care about, or else you're just bad at it.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 7:14 PM on September 10, 2011

The term "encyclopedic novel' has been around much longer than "systems novel."

Many of them are about multiple systems of the world and competing epistemological systems. Some of which are conspiracy theories and some of which are lies.

Tying this to 9/11 is just silly and as already noted, the evidence doesn't support it. If somebody wants to talk about 9/11 and fiction, then Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy is a good place to start.
posted by warbaby at 10:20 PM on September 10, 2011

It never fails to amaze how quickly certainly literary authors will take credit for (or very ostentatiously not take credit for) influencing, or being uniquely influenced by, an entire cultural zeitgeist. Yes, I'm sure the fallout from 9/11 has had an effect on the American novel, but that effect is a footnote at best on the whole story of the last decade.

This can only be satire, but it's very well done.

Unfortunately, that could well be genuine. Real literary criticism has gotten (at times) ridiculous enough that anyone intentionally trying to satirise it would need to be more obviously ludicrous so as to avoid being thought earnest. (Either that or the author isn't being serious, and will continue to claim to not be serious right up until the point someone writes a serious rebuttal in a reputable venue, at which point he will write a frothingly serious reply to the effect that his critic is a big poopy head. But with more florid language. Christ, academic can be depressing...)
posted by anaximander at 4:34 AM on September 11, 2011

I think the Mindful Pleasures post is pretty good.
posted by jayder at 6:42 PM on September 11, 2011

joannemullen, why can it "only be satire"?
posted by jayder at 6:47 PM on September 11, 2011

After all, they all presume a world in which the US is the centre; all of them narrate a tale in which whiteness is the neutral value; their leaps to the other side, the US within a US that does not see itself as part of a dominant narrative

The poor, the weak, the rest of the world, in many ways, are absent from their pages

Is the author really including Gravity's Rainbow in this mix? Pynchon's point in GR is exactly to raise those who were brought down by the excesses of global capitalism, people that he calls the preterite. Yes, the pomo "systems novels" were written by white boys, but at least some of them were capable of pushing back at these exact same "imperial blind spots," and indeed supplied much of the vocabulary and ideas that this John Freeman is using to call out these novelists.
posted by no mind at 10:56 PM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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