Fragmentation in Postmodern Novels

John Hawkes once divulged that when he began to write he assumed that “the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme”. Certainly many subsequent authors have done their best to sledgehammer these four literary cornerstones into oblivion. Either plot is pounded into small slabs of event and circumstance, characters disintegrate into a bundle of twitching desires, settings are little more than transitory backdrops, or themes become so attenuated that it is often comically inaccurate to say that certain novels are ‘about’ such-and-such.

‘Too many times,’ as Jonathan Baumbach observes in a short story in The Return of Service (1979), ‘you read a story nowadays and it’s not a story at all, not in the traditional sense.’

The postmodernist writer distrusts the wholeness and completion associated with traditional stories, and prefers to deal with other ways of structuring narrative. One alternative is the multiple ending, which resists closure by offering numerous possible outcomes for a plot. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles is the classic instance of this. The novel concerns the love of respectable amateur naturalist Charles Smithson (engaged to the daughter of a wealthy trader) for Sarah Woodruff, an outcast rumoured to have been scandalously involved with a French lieutenant. Although the book is set in Lyme Regis in 1867, and follows several love story conventions, it is far from being a regular historical romance.

Fowles disrupts the narrative by parading his familiarity with Marx, Darwin and others. He directly addresses the reader, and even at one stage steps into the story himself as a character. The multiple endings are a part of these guerrilla tactics. Fowles refuses to choose between two competing denouements: one in which Charles and Sarah are reunited after a stormy affair, and the other in which they are kept irrevocably apart. He therefore introduces an uncertainty principle into the book. He even dallies with a third possibility of leaving Charles on the train, searching for Sarah in the capital: ‘But the conventions of Victorian fiction allow, allowed no place for the open, the inconclusive …’

Another means of allowing place for the open and inconclusive is by breaking up the text into short fragments or sections, separated by space, titles, numbers or symbols. The novels and short stories of Richard Brautigan and Donald Barthelme are full of such fragments. Some authors go even further and fragment the very fabric of the text with illustrations, typography, or mixed media. As Raymond Federman puts it in the introduction to Surfiction: Fiction Now and Tomorrow (1975): ‘In those spaces where there is nothing to write, the fiction writer can, at any time, introduce material (quotations, pictures, diagrams, charts, designs, pieces of other discourses, etc.) totally unrelated to the story.’

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1967) by William Gass does just about all these things in its sixty-odd pages, and is a postmodernist text par excellence. The pages themselves come in four different colours: jotter blue, khaki green, strawberry red and glossy white. The nude woman lounging full-frontal on the title-page is Babs. She is a frustrated spouse who figuratively embodies the language/ lovemaking equation examined by Gass. Multiple typefaces (bold, italic), fonts (Gothic, script), characters (musical symbols, accents), and miscellaneous arrangements (columns, footnotes) jostle for air alongside some visual jokes (coffee-cup stains, huge asterisk). In a review, Ronald Sukenick called it ‘a cloudburst of fragmented events’. ‘Monsoon’ is nearer the mark.

With works such as these by Fowles, Brautigan, Barthelme and Gass it is difficult not to be reminded of the famous epigraph to E. M. Forster‘s Howards End: ‘Live in fragments no longer. Only connect.. .’ We can counterpoint this with an utterance by a character in Barthelme‘s ‘See the Moon?’ from Unspeakable Practices. Unnatural Acts (1968): ‘Fragments are the only forms I trust.’ These two statements evince a crucial difference between modernism and postmodernism. The Forster phrase could almost be modernism’s motto, as it points to the need to find new forms of continuity in the absence of the old linear plots. Conversely, Barthelme‘s gem hints at postmodernist fiction’s wariness of wholeness.


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