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Eric Rasmussen (University of Illinois- Chicago)
Bill Gray, the reclusive novelist in Don DeLillo’s Mao II, asserts, “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings.” In Mao II DeLillo asks readers to consider the possibility that the literary and artistic avant-garde has failed, and that terrorists, not writers or artists, wield the power to defamiliarize reality on a grand scale. While critics have commented extensively on the alleged obsolescence of the literary avant-garde and the notion that today—in the postmodern West, a cynical culture excessively influenced by the simulations circulating in its electronic media—terrorism trumps art, they have remained relatively silent about Gray’s assessment of Beckett’s oeuvre as being tragically successful. My paper, then, takes Gray’s remark seriously by raising several interrelated questions: How did Beckett shape the way we think? How did Beckett shape the way we see? Was Beckett truly the last writer to alter the way we conceptualize and perceive reality? More significantly, why might another writer (either the fictional Bill Gray or the real Don DeLillo) make such a hyperbolic claim? In the process of answering these deceptively straightforward questions, I aim to situate Beckett’s work in relation to recent postmodern American fiction and theory, writing that foregrounds the materiality of communication and in so doing ontologizes experience.
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