‘I Shop, Therefore I Am: Consumerism and the Mass Media in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland
Eigeartaigh, Aoileann N
This thesis argues that consumerism and the mass media wield an unparalleled influence over contemporary North American society, and that these forces constitute the primary means through which identity is constituted. The historical and theoretical developments that have led to the foregrounding of these forces are outlined in the introduction - developments, it is argued, that are intrinsically connected to the social upheava1 that characterized America in the late 1960's and early 1970's, while their presence in and effects on the fiction of four contemporary North American writers - Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Bret Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland - are examined in the main body of the thesis. Chapter I focuses on Pynchon whose novels, it is argued, are the product of a uniquely post-1960's America, which mourns the sacrifice of traditional ideals to the corporate mindset which has been prevalent since ths 1980's Pynchon's dominant metaphor for the direction in which he believes American society to be moving is the thermodynamic concept of entropy, which stipulates that all prqress is towards death. His novels abound with characters who disintegrate due to the information overload fostered by their media-based world. However, he retains his faith that a return to historical values and traditions will stem and even reverse the entropic tide DeLillo, a close contemporary of Pynchon's, draws on a different aspect of the legacy of the 1960's, for his writing is overshadowed by the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy and the years of turbulence that ensued. His novels are ultimately more pessimistic because his characters do not succeed in escaping from the repressive narratives of consumerism and the mass media in order to reassert their own personalities. One reason for this failure, it is argued, is that DeLillo's characters represent a metaphorical dramatization of the dichotomy between the modernist desire for structure and the postmodernist embrace of fluidity and uncertainty. The fictional characters of the younger authors, Ellis and Coupland, inhabit this postmodern world where all experience has been rendered depthless and traditional ontological and epistemological certainties have been collapsed Ellis' characters fluctuate between the extremes of apathy and violence as they search for a way of preventing their psyches from disintegrating amidst the surrounding chaos. Neither one of these options brings - any relief. Coupland is more optimistic about the ability of his characters to survive and even prosper in the contemporary world. He arms them with the linguistic and technological skills necessary to adapt to the rapid social and technological changes. Most importantly of all, he draws on the sense of objectivity fostered by his own background as a Canadian in order to provide them with an alternative and a sense of escape from the media-saturated environment of the American West Coast. What is perhaps most remarkable about these four authors as a group is that in spite of their obvious insight into the nature of the contemporary postmodern world, they are unwilling - or perhaps even unable - to fully relinquish their hold on a number of traditional metanarratives, most notably the ideal of the stable, supportive family unit. This implies a degree of uncertainty and perhaps even of fear on their parts about fully committing to the fluidity of contemporary culture.