Beautiful Chaos

Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction

By Gordon E. Slethaug

Subjects: American Literature
Series: SUNY series in Postmodern Culture
Paperback : 9780791447420, 238 pages, November 2000
Hardcover : 9780791447413, 238 pages, November 2000

Alternative formats available from:

Table of contents


1. Dynamic Fiction and the Field of Action: Mimesis, Metaphor, Model, and Metachaotics

2. Orderly Systems: Growth, Competition, and Transgression

3. Entropic Crisis, Blockage, Bifurcation, and Flow

4. Turbulence, Stochastic Processes, and Traffic

5. Energy, Noise, and Information

6. Juxtapositional Symmetry: Recursion, Scaling, and Fractals

7. Iteration

8. Strange Attractors

9. Synoptic Study: “The Coded Dots of Life”




Explores the way chaos theory is incorporated in the work of such writers as Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, Don DeLillo, and Michael Crichton.


Beautiful Chaos is the first book to examine contemporary American fiction through the lens of chaos theory. The book focuses on recent works of fiction by John Barth, Michael Crichton, Don DeLillo, Michael Dorris, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Carol Shields, and Robert Stone, all of whom incorporate aspects of chaos theory in one or more of their novels. They accomplish this through their disruption of conventional linear narrative forms and their use of strategic tropes of chaos and order, but also—and more significantly for an understanding of the interaction of science and fiction—through their self-conscious embrace of the current rhetoric of chaos theory.

Since the publication of James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science in 1987, chaos theory has been taken up by a wide variety of literary critics and other scholars of the arts. While considering the relationship between chaos theory and recent American fiction, Beautiful Chaos details basic assumptions about orderly and dynamic systems and the various manifestations of chaos theory in literature, including mimesis, metaphor, model, and metachaotics. It also explains particular features of orderly and dynamic systems, including entropy, bifurcation and turbulence, noise and information, scaling and fractals, iteration, and strange attractors.

Gordon E. Slethaug is Chairman, Program in American Studies, at the University of Hong Kong, and author of The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction.


"I think the great contribution of this book lies in the range of literary texts that it covers. Although other authors have previously argued for the importance of chaos theory to literary study, this book has the virtue of discussing a number of texts not previously associated with chaotics, thus demonstrating its applicability to contemporary literature in general." — N. Katherine Hayles, author of Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science