Sunday, January 16, 2011


The best way to begin any generic definition is to list several members of the presumptive genre. Here, then, is a list--exemplary but hardly exhaustive--of systems novels:
  • Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Against the Day.
  • Don DeLillo, White Noise, Libra, Running Dog, Underworld
  • William Gaddis, The Recognitions, JR
  • David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
  • William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels
  • William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
  • Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  • William Gibson, Neuromancer
The second-best way to begin defining the "systems novel" is to consider this passage from Fredric Jameson's thought-provoking early book, The Prison-House of Language:

The deeper justification for the use of the linguistic model or metaphor [Jameson is writing about the 'linguistic turn' in 20th-century philosophy, specifically Structuralism] must, I think, be sought elsewhere, outside the claims and counterclaims for scientific validity and technological progress. It lies in the concrete character of the social life of the so-called advanced countries today, which offer the spectacle of a world from which nature as such has been eliminated, a world saturated with messages and information, whose intricate commodity network may be seen as the very prototype of a system of signs. There is therefore a profound consonance between linguistics as a method and that systematized and disembodied nightmare which is our culture today.

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. The dominant ideology of our time, for example, is neither Conservatism nor Liberalism but a Corporatism that contains them both. We have difficulty seeing this for the same reason that an intelligent fish would have no concept of "wetness." Corporate capitalism is not a ballot line; it is the matrix in which we live. American Conservatism and Liberalism are, respectively, its fundamentalist and pragmatic political manifestations.) The ideological systems these novels focus upon are as diverse as their authors: the military-industrial system (Pynchon), the corporatist-technological system (early Vollmann, Wallace, Gibson), the tragically routinized, systematic lifestyles of addiction (Burroughs, Wallace), politico-religious totalitarianism (Zamyatin, Orwell, Atwood), the highly-insular system that is the art world (The Recognitions), the world capitalist system (JR), the hermetically sealed absurdity of military systems (Catch-22), the nightmarish 50-year battle of mutually exclusive imperial systems that was the Cold War (DeLillo). All these diverse fictions are united, however, in their focus upon the essentially dehumanizing effect of the systems that define our world. Given this emphasis, the affinity between the systems novel and the science fiction genre should come as no surprise. Many systems novels might be categorized as science fiction (most of Pynchon's work, Vollmann's Angels, Infinite Jest, Burroughs), but it's probably more interesting to note that almost all science fiction novels can be classified as systems novels. Since science fiction is one of the ways in which our culture thinks about our technological world, and since that world is defined by its systems, this too should come as no surprise. We might consider science fiction the ur-genre of the systems novel, the pulpy matrix from which it emerged into 'serious' literature. The obvious influence of pulp SF on the generically seminal works of Burroughs and Pynchon seems to confirm this idea. The best SF works of Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing, et al. can be added to the above list. And this thought leads to an overwhelming question: Do we need the category of the "systems novel" at all? Isn't "systems novel" simply a literary snobs' euphemism for science fiction, akin to the absurd 'graphic novel,' a phrase invented for people afraid to admit that they read comic books? The answer to the second question would seem to be 'not entirely' (The Recognitions and Catch-22, for example, have little of SF about them), so I think the abstraction "systems novel" is justified as a way of expressing the quality that unites all the novels and novelists mentioned above. More importantly, the idea of "systems" foregrounds the important element of cultural criticism in these works. To read them as critiques of our systematized world--rather than as clever fantasies, surreal comedies or brainy literary games--is to release their most radical energies.

(My list of exemplary systems novels is almost entirely American. Is this a result of personal prejudice, or are the most obvious examples of the systems novel American novels because America is the paradigmatic corporate capitalist state? What are the major non-American, non-English language systems novels?)


Geoffrey said...

You might say that Europeans have more of an affinity for totalizing philosophers/intellectuals: Lukacs, Lefebvre, Sartre, Habermas etc.

Louis said...

Thought provoking idea. I'd agree, largely, with the implicit commonalities of the list, & the reasoning for its pre-eminent American quality.

Without thinking too deep or too long, the specifically British cousins could be divided into two groups; the overtly SF satire/utopias from the Scottish wing - Banks & McLeod specifically; and the more fantastical London group, whose most obvious representatives wd be early Ackroyd, Sinclair, & Meiville. Alisdair Gray would fall somewhere between the 2.

London itself is a monument to the pre-history of the corporation, of course, and I think one of the reasons why the writers I mention chuse the fantastical (or as in Meiville a fusing of science-magic) over the more clearly science fictional is an awareness of how far back the roots of our present situation go - gothic & victorian nightmares underlying the systems of today.

Oh, and I would suggest adding John Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' to the exemplary novels.

Michael Keever said...

Glad to see the "systems novel" is still being discussed. You might have mentioned my book-length study of the phenomenon, "The Art of Excess."

Tom LeClair

BRIAN OARD said...


When you're right, you're right. I should indeed have mentioned both "The Art of Excess" and your "In The Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel."

Leo Walsh said...

Isn't "Systems Novel" just another meaningless concept placed between a reader and the artist? Though I like most of what you've listed as Systems novels (with the exception of Burroughs, who seems like an immature teen who just wants to gross you out -- sort of a high-brow and ineffectual "South Park), I find the term meaningless.

Writers tell a story. And through art, build a world. It can come as an avalanche of Ginsberg-like images (like "Gravity's Rainbow), or a relatively straight-ahead literary tale that had been re-written and simmered down to the basics (like "Handmaid's Tale" or "Neuromancer").

I find a big difference, though, between these masterworks (Though I still rank "Gravity's Rainbow" at a mere 4-stars for pure length and allowing language, with Pynchon's penchant for piling metaphor upon metaphor, to get in the way of his telling what should be the funniest story told since "Don Quixote." I mean a guy whose erections dictate where a V2 rocket will fall. Marching through Europe wearing a stage Valkyrie hat? With a better editor, or a less self-absorbed writer, that should have been funnier than it was.

My sense is we need less meaningless categories to pigeon-hole works in. And a greater appreciation of stories being, well, just stories.