The Art of Excess

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1571 words.)


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