THE CONTEMPORARY AGE
NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY
1950 – THE PRESENT
As it left the Second World War behind, the Unites States set its sights on forgetting the misery and depression that had taken root for over a decade following the economic collapse of 1929. While Europe was slowly reconstructed in the late 1940s and ‘50s with the help of American investments, the United States began to take on its role as leader of the Western world. In foreign affairs it emerged as the main opponent of Soviet and Chinese –inspired communism and at home it became a laboratory for new social and lifestyle trends that would be copied all over the western world and beyond.
In the 1950s the United States saw a marked increase in the birth rate and the children born during this baby grew into a generation that profoundly changed the nature of American society.
The first winds of change were felt during the 1960s as young people started to rebel against the values and traditions of previous generations. Both the term ‘teenager’ and ‘generation gap’ were coined in these years to describe the rebellion of youth which made its voice heard in many fields.
Women won the right to control birth through the use of artificial contraception and in 1973 abortion was legalised for the first time. The feminist movement continued to promote women’s welfare and made great strides in obtaining equal opportunities for women in all walks of life,
Of similar if not even greater impact on American life was the Civil Rights Movement which demanded equal rights for black Americans and subsequently all non-whites.
The two major political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, regularly alternated periods in power without greatly upsetting or changing general social and economic trends. Meanwhile, the United States consolidated its position as the most powerful economy in the world and continues to dominate world trade.
As the United States enters the new millennium, it holds a pre-eminent position in the world. The small cluster of north-eastern colonies, that gave birth to a new state in the 18th century, has grown and expanded to become the most powerful country on earth both militarily and economically. It has become a multiethnic nation in which people of all races and religions live and to which the rest of the world looks as a major partner in plotting the future of humanity.
NORTH AMERICAN LITERATURE
On a general cultural level America has had and continues to have enormous influence on Britain. America has also led the way in certain artistic fields. Of undoubted significance was the emergence of Pop Art in the 1960s as championed by Andy Warhol, who used the styles and themes of popular culture to create a new form of visual expression.
In the world of English letters America also continued to be a major protagonist. This was particularly true in the field of fiction, as writers from different ethnic and social backgrounds produced novel that reflected the complex and varied structure of American society.
The late 1950s and 1960s witnessed a sociological revolution that had profound repercussions in literary circles. The philosophy of ‘make love, not war’, the acceptance of the use of recreational drugs and a hostile attitude to any form of authority were the hallmarks of the Best Generation.
THE CRYING OF LOT 49 – THOMAS PYNCHON
Thomas Pynchon was born on Long Island, New York, in 1937. He served in the navy and graduated from Cornell, after which he worked as a technical writer for Boeing Aircraft. During this time, he turned to fiction writing and published his first novel, V., in 1963, to rave reviews. He followed up this novel two years later with The Crying of Lot 49, a short but extremely complex novel. In a sense, The Crying of Lot 49 was a type of dress rehearsal for his long novel that succeeded it, Gravity's Rainbow, which won the National Book Award and is perhaps the best-known long novel to emerge after World War II. Pynchon's fourth major novel was called Vineland, and two years ago, he published his historical novel Mason and Dixon. Through all of these books, with his use of surrealism and creation of vast, varied, and incredible conspiracy theories, Pynchon has remained one of the most original and important of American novelists.
Almost all works by Pynchon are deliberately complex. The plots are often difficult to follow both because of their intricate twists and turns and their sometimes incredibly esoteric subject matter. Pynchon's characters, furthermore, can be hard to relate to. Pynchon has a tendency to fill his novels not with real characters but rather with facades or brief cameo figures that exist in the novel only for some specific purpose, after which they disappear. Indeed, Gravity's Rainbow has over 400 of these types of characters. In The Crying of Lot 49, examples of such characters are Manny di Presso and Jesus Arrabel.
The Crying of Lot 49 is thought by many to be Pynchon's best work. Others surely disagree, arguing that The Crying of Lot 49 is simply Pynchon's most accessible work, its short length and streamlined (for Pynchon) plot allowing the reader to follow along with less work than his longer novels require. But no matter where The Crying of Lot 49 stands within Pynchon's body of work, there is no doubt that in its humor, story, and deep insight into American culture and beyond, the book is an American landmark.
The Crying of Lot 49 was written in the 1960s, one of the most politically and socially turbulent decades in U.S. history. The decade saw the rise of the drug culture, the Vietnam War, the rock revolution, as well as the birth of numerous social welfare programs after the Democrats swept Congress in the 1964 elections. This was also the decade of John F. Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King's assassination, Civil Rights, and, to some extent, women's rights. The novel taps into this explosion of cultural occurrences, depicting a dramatically fragmented society. The Crying of Lot 49 contains a pervasive sense of cultural chaos; indeed, the book draws on all areas of culture and society, including many of those mentioned above. In the end, the novel's protagonist, Oedipa Maas, finds herself alone and alienated from that society, having lost touch with the life she used to lead before she began her attempt to uncover the mystery of the Tristero. The drug culture plays a big part in this sense of isolation. The world around Oedipa seems to be a world perpetually on drugs, manic and full of conspiracies and illusions. And though that world is exciting and new, it is also dangerous: drugs contribute to the destruction of Oedipa's marriage, and drugs cause Hilarius to go insane. Oedipa hallucinates so often that she seems to be constantly high, and ultimately, this brings her nothing but a sense of chaotic alienation.
Many of the problems with chaos found in the novel are tied in to the idea of communication. The major symbol of order in the novel, Maxwell's Demon, cannot be operated because it requires a certain unattainable level of communication. Letters in the novel, which should be clear and direct forms of stable communication, are ultimately meaningless. The novel also contains a mail-delivery group that requires its members to mail a letter once a week even if they have nothing to say. Indeed, the letter Oedipa receives in chapter one may itself be meaningless, since it is the first step in what may be nothing more than a big joke played on Oedipa. The religious moment Oedipa experiences in chapter two seems for a moment to promise the possibility of some kind of communication being communicated, but the process breaks down. Religion, language, science, all of the purveyors of communication, and through that communication a sense of wholeness, do not correctly function in the novel.
Related to the theme of the problem of communication is the novel's representation of the way in which people impose interpretation on the meaningless. It is very telling that Oedipa wants to turn the mystery of the Tristero into a "constellation," which is not really an example of true order. Solar systems are simply mankind's way of imposing an artificial but pleasing order on the randomness of outer space. It is, furthermore, an imposition of a two-dimensional structure onto a three-dimensional reality. Oedipa's quest to construct a constellation seems to indicate that she is only looking for a superficial system. Indeed, she never succeeds in figuring out the meaning behind the Tristero, and, further, the novel ends with the very strong likelihood that the mystery may hold no mystery at all. And just as she is unable to piece together the puzzle of the Tristero, she is similarly unable to refashion her life after it begins to fall apart. Even the United States government, which tries to impose an order on the world of mail delivery, cannot prevent side groups from springing up to undermine its work.
There are two concepts underlying all this: puns and science. The novel is full of puns and language games of all sorts. For instance, the odd names of the novel's characters are a type of play on different words and their symbolic baggage. Another example is the concept of the word "lot" in the title, which actually occurs several times in the book but does not relate to anything in the story until the last few pages. Also, we see that Mucho's radio station spells "fuck" when read in reverse, forming another little language game that does not have necessarily any inherent meaning but does indicate an interest in manipulating language for intellectual enjoyment. Language is the means through which the story is communicated, and Pynchon has chosen to use a language full of jokes, puns, and satires. Science seems to stand in opposition to the chaos of language that all of Pynchon's manipulation suggests. Science is ordered and coherent and offers a body of definite knowledge that all can study. And yet, even the coherence of science is undermined in the existence of Maxwell's Demon and the figure of Dr. Hilarius. Though pure science may offer coherence, the uses to which that science is put, the interpretations imposed on that science, can scatter that coherence to the wind.
More than anything else, The Crying of Lot 49 appears to be about cultural chaos and communication as seen through the eyes of a young woman who finds herself in a hallucinogenic world disintegrating around her.
The process of entropy leads to the inevitable progression of a closed system to patterned, chaotic sameness. In thematic terms, entropy represents Pynchon's concern with our culture's movement toward intellectual inertia. In Maxwell's Demon, Nefastis created a machine which works directly with Pynchon's theme of entropy. The sorting inherent in the machine would actually preserve a world able to remain heterogeneous. By dividing the two types of molecules into different compartments so that heat is created and maintained, the molecules do not have a chance to share properties until an equilibrium is reached. As Grant comments, "ŒSorting,' therefore, becomes an absolutely central metaphor, and the fact that Oedipa singles this concept out for objection is an indication of her intuitive grasp of her own predicament." The closed system will move toward entropy in the same manner that the entire universal system will, both existentially and rationally. In tune with the allusions to Narcissus, the world is contained within itself and has become an egotistical system moving toward a chaotic sense of orderlessness.
Post-modernist examination of textual versus metaphorical literary significance
The majority of recent critics, such as Tanner, seem to believe that Pynchon's many allusions are partially red herrings. They are an attempt by Pynchon to lead the reader into drawing the easy references and falling into the traps readers so often do when they reach for allusions in order to find significance. Pynchon is possibly leading the reader into assumptions which they are all too likely to make so that they realize the error as they proceed within the postmodern novel which espouses a theme of non-categorization and structuralism. We are taken on her journey because the search for self and meaning and connection is insatiable, even when it is being parodied as is often the case with Pynchon. Is the search of meaning and analysis then a fruitless attempt to grant significance to an increasingly grey ash type of modern society or is the only escape in a system which is decreasingly transmitting communication to forge new, alternate means of informing and differentiating human beings?
Excluded middles: the grey ash / what has been thrown away as valuable
The entire idea of waste is concurrent with Pynchon's theme of excluded middles, in this sense, where the grey ash of life is often tossed away in order to hold onto the overly extreme binaries. A consumer society disposes and dispossesses more of life than it keeps. Often more questions are raised then answered and for every binary presented, an inversion of the duality is also usually suggested. One of the most common terms thrown around in literary criticism concerning Crying is the "excluded middle." The progression toward dichotomy is also a progression toward the questioning of what lies between the two extremes. The grey area is very significant, while also asking the reader if it is significant only because the human being cannot be satisfied without an attempt at pointing significance. Largely, though, it points to the waste, the disinherited of society, as symbolized by the amount of underground networks who have felt unrepresented by the official postal system. These are the people, the lives, the core of humanity disregarded and dispossessed. Mucho Maas is haunted by nightmares of these grey ash leftovers of humanity and so, in its way, is the entire novel.
Man versus modernity/consumerism/consumption
At the start of the novel, Oedipa is not working. She attends a Tupperware gathering, a clear symbol of mid-twentieth century American housewifery. As some critics have noted, the fact that the host of the party had likely put too much kirsch in the fondue shows that the party signifies superficial consumership in material America more than any type of sincere communal bonding as the hostess felt the need to get her attendees drunk in order to entertain them. Oedipa's search for information and cohesion within the world at large is symbolized by her entrapment by commercial society. Parallels have been constructed between the green bubble glasses that Oedipa wears when crying as she views the painting in Mexico City and the lone green eye that is a metaphor for the television screen. Furthermore, expanding the theme of disillusioning modern commercialism, Oedipa notes that in her vision, Pierce only reaches the top of her tower when he uses a credit card to shimmy his way up. In the mass consumer society in which Oedipa lives, the individual is in dire need of revelation, another term which is used often by Pynchon.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE – KURT VONNEGUT
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born in Indianapolis in 1922, a descendant of prominent German-American families. His father was an architect and his mother was a noted beauty. Both spoke German fluently but declined to teach Kurt the language in light of widespread anti-German sentiment following World War I. Family money helped send Vonnegut’s two siblings to private schools. The Great Depression hit hard in the 1930s, though, and the family placed Kurt in public school while it moved to more modest accommodations. While in high school, Vonnegut edited the school’s daily newspaper. He attended college at Cornell for a little over two years, with instructions from his father and brother to study chemistry, a subject at which he did not excel. He also wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun. In 1943 he enlisted in the U.S.Army. In 1944 his mother committed suicide, and Vonnegut was taken prisoner following the Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.
After the war, Vonnegut married and entered a master’s degree program in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He also worked as a reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau. His master’s thesis, titled Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, was rejected. He departed for Schenectady, New York, to take a job in public relations at a General Electric research laboratory.
Vonnegut left GE in 1951 to devote himself full-time to writing. During the 1950s, Vonnegut published short stories in national magazines. Player Piano, his first novel, appeared in 1952. Sirens of Titan was published in 1959, followed by Mother Night (1962), Cat’s Cradle (1963), God Bless You, Mr. Rose-water (1965), and his most highly praised work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Vonnegut wrote prolifically until his death in 2007.
Slaughterhouse-Five treats one of the most horrific massacres in European history—the World War II firebombing of Dresden, a city in eastern Germany, on February 13, 1945—with mock-serious humor and clear antiwar sentiment. More than 130,000 civilians died in Dresden, roughly the same number of deaths that resulted from the Allied bombing raids on Tokyo and from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, both of which also occurred in 1945. Inhabitants of Dresden were incinerated or suffocated in a matter of hours as a firestorm sucked up and consumed available oxygen. The scene on the ground was one of unimaginable destruction.
The novel is based on Kurt Vonnegut’s own experience in World War II. In the novel, a prisoner of war witnesses and survives the Allied forces’ firebombing of Dresden. Vonnegut, like his protagonist Billy Pilgrim, emerged from a meat locker beneath a slaughter-house into the moonscape of burned-out Dresden. His surviving captors put him to work finding, burying, and burning bodies. His task continued until the Russians came and the war ended. Vonnegut survived by chance, confined as a prisoner of war (POW) in a well-insulated meat locker, and so missed the cataclysmic moment of attack, emerging the day after into the charred ruins of a once-beautiful cityscape. Vonnegut has said that he always intended to write about the experience but found himself incapable of doing so for more than twenty years. Although he attempted to describe in simple terms what happened and to create a linear narrative, this strategy never worked for him. Billy Pilgrim’s unhinged time—shifting, a mechanism for dealing with the unfathomable aggression and mass destruction he witnesses, is Vonnegut’s solution to the problem of telling an untellable tale.
Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five as a response to war. “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he explains in Chapter 1, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” The jumbled structure of the novel and the long delay between its conception and completion serve as testaments to a very personal struggle with heart-wrenching material. But the timing of the novel’s publication also deserves notice: in 1969, the United States was in the midst of the dismal Vietnam War. Vonnegut was an outspoken pacifist and critic of the conflict. Slaughterhouse-Five revolves around the wilful incineration of 100,000 civilians, in a city of extremely dubious military significance, during an arguably just war. Appearing when it did, then, Slaughterhouse-Five made a forceful statement about the campaign in Vietnam, a war in which incendiary technology was once more being employed against non-military targets in the name of a dubious cause.
Analysis of major characters
Billy Pilgrim is the unlikeliest of antiwar heroes. An unpopular and complacent weakling even before the war (he prefers sinking to swimming), he becomes a joke as a soldier. He trains as a chaplain’s assistant, a duty that earns him disgust from his peers. With scant preparation for armed conflict, no weapons, and even an improper uniform, he is thrust abruptly into duty at the Battle of the Bulge. The farcical spectacle created by Billy’s inappropriate clothing accentuates the absurdity of such a scrawny, mild-mannered soldier. His azure toga, a leftover scrap of stage curtain, and his fur-lined overcoat, several sizes too small, throw his incongruity into relief. They underscore a central irony: such a creature could walk through war, oblivious yet unscathed, while so many others with more appropriate attire and provisions perish. It is in this shocked and physically exhausted state that Billy first comes “unstuck in time” and begins swinging to and fro through the events of his life, past and future.
Billy lives a life full of indignity and so, perhaps, has no great fear of death. He is oddly suited, therefore, to the Tralfamadorian philosophy of accepting death. This fact may point to an interpretation of the Tralfamadorians as a figment of Billy’s disturbed mind, an elaborate coping mechanism to explain the meaningless slaughter Billy has witnessed. By uttering “So it goes” after each death, the narrator, like Billy, does not diminish the gravity of death but rather lends an equalizing dignity to all death, no matter how random or ironic, how immediate or removed. Billy’s father dies in a hunting accident just as Billy is about to go off to war. So it goes. A former hobo dies in Billy’s railway car while declaring the conditions not bad at all. So it goes. One hundred thirty thousand innocent people die in Dresden. So it goes. Valencia Pilgrim accidentally kills herself with carbon monoxide after turning bright blue. So it goes. Billy Pilgrim is killed by an assassin’s bullet at exactly the time he has predicted, in the realization of a thirty-some-year-old death threat. So it goes. Billy awaits death calmly, without fear, knowing the exact hour at which it will come. In so doing, he gains a degree of control over his own dignity that he has lacked throughout most of his life.
The novel centers on Billy Pilgrim to a degree that excludes the development of the supporting characters, who exist in the text only as they relate to Billy’s experience of events.
The Destructiveness of War
Whether we read Slaughterhouse-Five as a science-fiction novel or a quasi-autobiographical moral statement, we cannot ignore the destructive properties of war, since the catastrophic firebombing of the German town of Dresden during World War II situates all of the other seemingly random events. From his swimming lessons at the YMCA to his speeches at the Lions Club to his captivity in Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim shifts in and out of the meat locker in Dresden, where he very narrowly survives asphyxiation and incineration in a city where fire is raining from the sky.
However, the not-so-subtle destructiveness of the war is evoked in subtle ways. For instance, Billy is quite successful in his postwar exploits from a materialistic point of view: he is president of the Lions Club, works as a prosperous optometrist, lives in a thoroughly comfortable modern home, and has fathered two children. While Billy seems to have led a productive postwar life, these seeming markers of success speak only to its surface. He gets his job not because of any particular prowess but as a result of his father-in-law’s efforts. More important, at one point in the novel, Billy walks in on his son and realizes that they are unfamiliar with each other. Beneath the splendor of his success lies a man too war-torn to understand it. In fact, Billy’s name, a diminutive form of William, indicates that he is more an immature boy than a man.
Vonnegut, then, injects the science-fiction thread, including the Tralfamadorians, to indicate how greatly the war has disrupted Billy’s existence. It seems that Billy may be hallucinating about his experiences with the Tralfamadorians as a way to escape a world destroyed by war—a world that he cannot understand. Furthermore, the Tralfamadorian theory of the fourth dimension seems too convenient a device to be more than just a way for Billy to rationalize all the death with he has seen face-to-face. Billy, then, is a traumatized man who cannot come to terms with the destructiveness of war without invoking a far-fetched and impossible theory to which he can shape the world.