Erik Larsen, “Entropy in the Circuits: McTeague’s Apocalyptic Posthumanism” (pp. 509–538)

This essay reinterprets Frank Norris’s novel McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (1899) as a depiction of the annihilating effects of entropy on human and material systems. Focusing on McTeague’s lengthy and underanalyzed conclusion, in which McTeague flees into the heart of Death Valley, I argue that Norris’s descriptions of the desert identify an irresistible and destructive force guiding the disintegration of individuals, relationships, and ultimately the Earth itself. Drawing on the record of cultural anxieties surrounding the laws of thermodynamics in the nineteenth century, the essay demonstrates how McTeague exemplifies an “apocalyptic posthumanism” with implications far more disruptive to human exceptionalism than those of traditional biological determinism. The essay also interprets social, biological, and material systems in the novel as attempting, unsuccessfully, to resist entropic decline by channeling and diversifying forces through systems resembling electrical circuits. In this context, gold is read as the “current” or “currency” subtending California’s economic and social worlds, but also that which drives them to greater and greater states of entropic disorder and eventual collapse.

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