The Art of Excess

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1571

Tom LeClair’s The Art of Excess is an important contribution to American literary criticism. In an age of minimalist art and, consequently, of minimalist criticism, LeClair tackles seven of the longest works that have been produced in American fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), William Gaddis’ J R (1975), Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), John Barth’s Letters (1979), Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), and Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1987). LeClair’s goal is not merely to wrest sense from fictional works that, by their size alone—these average more than seven hundred pages apiece—are intimidating to critics and readers alike. Rather, LeClair’s thesis is that these huge works are the literary byproducts of that complex scientific movement known as “systems theory”: “My claims in this book are that systems theory or systems sciences influenced most of the novels I discuss, and that systems theory provides the best way to understand and appreciate all of these ambitious and sometimes neglected works.”In his long introductory chapter, “Excess, Mastery, and Systems,” LeClair describes the basic tenets of systems theory, tracing it back to the Austrian- Canadian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy (a name that rings remarkably of a Pynchon or Gaddis production). Von Bertalanffy fathered the paradigm shift represented by systems theory, which, with the development of the computer (which could posit larger world models) and the aid of what are today called information theorists, became the new epistemological model for understanding the increasingly complex modern world. Essentially, systems theory relies on whole structures, process, and open systems (as opposed to earlier static and mechanistic models) to comprehend the world or parts of it—for example, the ecosystem: “The Deep Ecology movement is probably the most visible manifestation of systems ideas,” LeClair writes. “Their only political expression is the fledgling Green movement in the United States.” Systems theory is an alternative method of explaining a world that is increasingly threatened by a future of self-consumption; the old paradigms for describing the world have not worked. Systems theory holds out the possibility not only of comprehending the world but also of saving it.It is as systems of information that the novels master—comprehend, represent, and critique—the world, for the world, as systems theorists recognize, is largely composed of huge systems of information, both ideological and institutional, that exert power over individuals and their groups.

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The connection between scientific theory and narrative fiction is even more organic. We are dominated, LeClair argues, by huge hegemonic institutions—patriarchy, monopoly capitalism, individualism, and the like: Only these huge novels of “excess,” these “masterworks,” are comprehensive enough to challenge that mastery. The “Mastery” in LeClair’s title is thus working in two senses, both against the institutions that are dominant and in representing the potential that these novels have to liberate humans, to give people mastery over their own world:Systems novels achieve mastery of the world because they proceed from, include, and frame information that most novels ignore. Both in their extrinsic references and in their intrinsic information, the systems novelists go outside the traditional sources of information in realism—personal observation, journalism, psychology, and sociology.

Systems writers, LeClair claims, are postmodern American naturalists, writers who hark back to earlier naturalistic novelists such as Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, and Ralph Ellison. The seven here are, in fact, only representative; LeClair could as easily have picked other late twentieth century American writers (such as Tom Robbins or Marge Piercy) who bear out his premises. Without exaggeration, LeClair also recognizes the direct line to earlier American writers of “extravagance” such as Herman Melville, Henry James, and William Faulkner.

Systems novels are not defined only by their size but also by certain “aesthetic strategies” that LeClair spells out in greater detail in the specific analyses of later chapters: These novels are all highly rhetorical, share the comic mode, are “more often oral than textual,” and call attention to their process of synecdochic selection. Further, they have “multilayered, digressive, and looping structures rather than linear ones,” are “dense with detail, discontinuous, dissonant and dialogic,” and “employ multiple framing devices and metafictional pointers ... to help guide the reader through their masses of data.”

The proof of such claims lies in the analyses of these seven works themselves, and, on the whole, LeClair’s theses hold up well. His second chapter, for example, discusses the novel that a number of critics agree is the masterwork of postmodern American fiction, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, an encyclopedic work about alienation that actually alienates readers themselves in the narrative process. Earlier criticism also reveals how little reviewers and literary historians understand the real accomplishments of Pynchon’s novel and its necessary links to systems theory. LeClair analyzes these links using I. E. Lovelock’s Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979), a key work in systems ecology, and goes on to show how Gravity’s Rainbow “is a profound systems-influenced version of an old and newly conceived Earth.” The novel’s formal devices, LeClair suggests, can be traced to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, a “theater of excess that alienates in order to instruct the viewer in the ways of power and alienation.” Pynchon’s mastery in Gravity’s Rainbow, as LeClair demonstrates in dazzling detail, lies in “performing a deconstructive and reconstructive act at the same time, using an excess of alienation to express new integration.”

Other chapters contain similar illuminations and make further connections to systems theory. In his analysis of Heller’s Something Happened, for example, LeClair traces the novel’s ideas back to Gregory Bateson and R. D. Laing (as in the notion of the “double bind”). LeClair recognizes the powerful political novel that Coover’s The Public Burning truly is, but he also unearths the deep structure of anthropological material and methodology in the novel (here using the tools of anthropologist Clifford Geertz to dig up the evidence). Similarly, LeClair traces the anthropological sources of Le Gum’s Always Coming Home.

The difficulty with The Art of Excess is LeClair’s own excessive claims for the novels and novelists with which he is working. Heller’s Something Happened, LeClair argues, is a better novel than the writer’s earlier Catch-22 (perhaps because it fits the new paradigm better). Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men—a massive tome that few readers (or even reviewers, one suspects) have managed to complete—is “the most significant American novel published since Gravity’s Rainbow” and is “the masterwork of the 1980’s.” Le Gum’s Always Coming Home, LeClair hopes, will be “a handbook of the next century.”

Like all literary theorists, perhaps, LeClair has an idea to peddle, but he pushes it too far. His analyses of these seven novels clearly establish their links to various important aspects of systems theory, but he is steeped so deeply in what he calls the five-thousand-page “systext” these seven works collectively represent that he cannot see that he would win his argument without exaggeration. He also fails to recognize strongly enough how self-indulgent these writers can be, how often they overwrite and overexplain. Finally, LeClair’s theses work better with some novels than with others; Something Happened certainly does not fit here as well as the other six novels. Yet, on the positive side, LeClair argues his case forcefully and clearly; The Art of Excess is on the whole a persuasive exposition of his positions. His thesis is an extremely important one. As LeClair acknowledges, American literature seems dominated today by minimalist, realist writers: The stories of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, to cite but two examples, teach by not explaining; the world, they imply, is finally beyond our ken. LeClair shows, on the contrary, that our world can be comprehended, and that these novelists (and others like them), in their excessive and often distorted art, are trying to master it. Rather than being aberrations, these seven huge novels are connected, through their links to systems theory, to other contemporary attempts to grasp and finally control our world. The systems paradigm, like the novels it influences, “helps writers and readers master—understand, measure, and evaluate—the ecological, political, economic, technological and other systems in which we all exist.”

It is an effort worth applauding and, if LeClair sometimes gets caught up in his own exaggerated claims, his basic premise is a radically important one. After this work, critics must take these texts more seriously and look more deeply and critically at other long fictional works being produced in this country, for they, too, may be connected to the systext: “My thesis throughout this book is that the systemic paradigm and its new scale of information require the artist to shift methods and require the critic to recognize the functions of these methods.” If our fragile ecosystem is to be saved, the effort may come, at least in part, from these large literary efforts to effect mastery over the world. Concerned more “with exerting influence over the culture as a whole rather than with finding a niche in the literary canon,” these novels may represent an effort at the world’s salvation.

LeClair’s three-page bibliography at the end of the book outlines where readers can locate further criticism on these novelists and, more important, on the systems theory upon which his work is so intelligently based.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, September 10, 1989, p.16.

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