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Eric Rasmussen (University of Illinois- Chicago)
‘An Excess of Language’: American Fiction After Beckett

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.

Focusing primarily on The Trilogy and to a lesser extent on Krapp’s Last Tape, I will explain how Beckett’s treatment of three interrelated topics—(1) the linguistic basis of communicative failure (2) the self/subject as a product of communicative failure and (3) the attempt to use language and other communications technologies to integrate a divided self—presents an enormous challenge for subsequent literary writers who aspire to narrate the aporias attendant to the process of subjectivization. My claim is that a paradigmatic ‘postmodern’ understanding of language as nonrepresentational, affective force can be traced back to Beckett’s texts. I extrapolate it from a remark that Jacques Moran makes in Molloy: “It seemed to me that all language was an excess of language.” But while the validity of Moran’s comment seems to be corroborated by the plethora of failures recounted in Beckett’s Trilogy, what are the aesthetic and ethical implications of the communicative model of language as performance that it implies? What does it mean to suggest that language is inherently excessive? Does this excessiveness effectively render meaning irrelevant? These are the sorts of questions raised by Beckett’s staging of the dialectical process of subjectivization, that is, the process by which Molloy, Moran and Krapp retroactively try to reintegrate themselves through their respective narratives of failure. Whether they are aware of it or not, those who aspire to write serious fiction after Beckett must struggle with these failures which, as DeLillo clearly recognizes, have contributed to the ‘excessive’ form and content of much postmodern fiction.

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