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Cult Fiction: “Good” and “Bad” Communities in the Contemporary American Novel

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2008


This article examines the way in which three contemporary novelists have interpreted the proliferation of cults and other independent communities in the USA. Thomas Pynchon's Vineland is read as a critique of individualism that regrets the loss of collective identity and purpose. A subsequent reading of Katherine Dunn's Geek Love demonstrates the destructive consequences of individual submission that draws parallels between the dynamics of “cult” communities and mainstream society. This is developed further in a discussion of Don DeLillo's Mao II, which is represented as an attempt to reconcile libertarian and communitarian discourses, while remaining mindful of the dangers of both.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 Robert Booth Fowler, Allen D. Hertzke and Laura R. Olson, Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture and Strategic Choices (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999), 260.

2 Jones was leader of the People's Temple, the cult that committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978; Koresh led the Branch Davidian sect that met its end during the siege by federal agents at Waco, Texas in 1993; and Applewhite was the leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that committed mass suicide at San Diego, California in 1997.

3 Porush, David, “‘Purring into Transcendence’: Pynchon's Puncutron Machine,Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 36, 4 (1995), 93105, 97Google Scholar.

4 Thomas Pynchon, Vineland (London: Secker and Warburg, 1990), 204.

5 Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the Sixties,” in Patricia Waugh, ed., Postmodernism: A Reader (London: Edward Arnold, 1994), 125–52.

6 Throughout the 1990s it was tempting to dismiss the pathologically sadistic Vond as an exaggerated representation of right-wing villainy. This seems less tempting in the time of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison.

7 The disaffected youth of the counterculture identified by Pynchon can be compared to Douglas Coupland's disaffected protagonists who, in novels such as Generation X (1991) and Microserfs (1996), are involved in a quest for “authenticity” and “meaning” as an antidote to the ills of life within consumer-age America. Ironically (and revealingly), it is frequently the baby-boomer generation (and so, by implication, the 1960s counterculture) that is held responsible by Coupland's characters for the parlous state of the latter's situation.

8 Pynchon, 269.

9 Ibid., 273.

10 Ibid., 347; punctuation in original.

11 Eva Karpinski writes that the ending of the novel “represents a certain paradigm shift within the postmodern discourse, with emphasis shifting from negatively valorized dreams of essentialized identity to more positive dreams of social transformation through communitarian and ecological effort.” Karpinski, Eva C., “From V to Vineland: Pynchon's Utopian Moments,Pynchon Notes, 32–33 (1993), 3343, 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Bret Easton Ellis, Less than Zero (London: Picador, 1986), 180–81.

13 Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (London: Picador, 1991), 237.

14 Irmer, Thomas (“Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and its submerged references to the 1960s,A Quarterly of Language, Literature and Culture, 41, 4 (1993), 349–56Google Scholar) demonstrates the way in which Ellis links the social and personal malaise affecting Bateman in the 1980s to libertarian impulses from the 1960s that have ostensibly become corrupted and commodified during the intervening years. This is also apparent in Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) – that other gestalt-novel of the 1980s – during the episodes in which the former radical lawyer Vogel regrets the political and historical ignorance of contemporary college students, and in which the yuppie broker McCoy recalls his days of giving a black-power salute before going to work on Wall Street.

15 Rorty selects Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) and Leslie Marmon-Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991) as instances of the cynicism and nihilism deemed to be a distinguishing feature of the contemporary American novel.

16 The tentative nature of Putnam's own political stance is revealed by his denial that the decline of American communal feeling can be blamed upon the nature of American capitalism. America has always been capitalist, he claims, therefore the variability of communal participation cannot be blamed on the constant of capitalism. It is doubtful, however, that what Putnam is describing is in fact constant. The period over which he makes his analysis begins with the New Deal and the Second World War, both of which demanded considerable collective effort and intervention within the workings of the free market. It is therefore arguable that the high point of social engagement from which Putnam charts the process of decline also represented the point at which American capitalism had been restrained by collective imperatives more than at any point in its history. If the ensuing relaxation of these imperatives can be held to have contributed to the fact of communal decline, then this suggests that there is indeed something about late twentieth-century capitalism that is hostile to communal life. In other words, it is the type of capitalism that has been unleashed upon American society since the late 1970s that, in providing a contrast with the “New Deal” that Putnam appears to use as a default, furnishes the variable that he requires.

17 Katherine Dunn, Geek Love (London: Abacus, 1999), 8.

18 Ibid., 116 and 201.

19 Martin Amis, The Information (London: Flamingo, 1996), 313.

20 Robbins, Thomas, “Cults, Converts and Charisma: The Sociology of New Religious Movements,Current Sociology 36 (1988), 1248, 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Peter Brooker (New York Fictions: Modernity, Postmodernism and the New Modern, Harlow: Longman (1996), 56) contends that a positive, anarchic spirit can be traced in American literature from Thoreau, Twain and Melville through Dos Passos and the beats to Pynchon. This, Brooker claims, represents nothing less than “an ideal of democratic self-government associated with the pioneer ethic and the Nation's beginnings.”

22 Thomas Kaczynski, “The ‘Unabomber’ Manifesto” (paragraph 57) available at

23 Kimmel, M. and Ferber, A. L., “‘White Men Are This Nation’: Right-Wing Militias and the Restoration of Rural American Masculinity,Rural Sociology, 65, 4 (2000), 582604, 594–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Ibid., 603.

25 Dunn, 255.

26 Ibid., 213–14.

27 Ibid., 251.

28 Rachel Adams (“An American Tail: Freaks, Gender and the Incorporation of History in Katherine Dunn's Geek Love,” in Rosemarie Garland Thompson, ed., Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 277–90, 279) argues that, far from rejecting the values of mainstream society, Arty offers his followers “fetishized models” of the human body that function merely as an inversion (and therefore an implicit affirmation) of the way in which the cosmetic, diet and fitness industries develop their own power bases around the “cult” of the “perfect” body.

29 Dunn, 305.

30 Don DeLillo, Mao II (London: Vintage, 1992), 89.

31 Ibid., 7 and 8.

32 Green, Jeremy, “Last Days: Millennial Hysteria in Don DeLillo's Mao II,Essays and Studies, 44 (1995), 129–48, 135Google Scholar.

33 DeLillo, 14.

34 See (for example) Rorty's Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

35 DeLillo, 159.

36 A similar point about the “death wish” inherent in inward-looking, exclusive communities is made in DeLillo's The Names (1992).

37 Gary Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (London: William Heinemann, 1988), 386.

38 Lindsay, Stan A., “Waco and Andover: An Application of Kenneth Burke's Concept of Psychotic Entelechy,Quarterly Journal of Speech, 85, 3 (1999), 268–84, 271CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 DeLillo, 14. Similarly, in Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor (1999), a custom of the novel's “Creedish” cult is said to be the amputation of the little finger, while in Paul Auster's Mr. Vertigo (1994), the young protagonist Walt is told to amputate a finger joint by the illusionist Master Yehudi. (Strictly speaking, Auster's novel is not about a cult but, like Geek Love, it deals with a travelling show and with the total submission of Walt to a dominating, charismatic figure.)

40 Lindsay, 272 and 279.

41 Bizzini, Silvia Caporale (“Can the Intellectual still Speak? The Example of Don DeLillo's Mao II,Critical Quarterly, 37, 2 (1995), 104–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar) writes that Gray's dilemma has arisen as a result of the collapse of all authority not based on either physical force or the closed ideological system.