Iconoclastic and irreverent, the postmodern novel is by definition a radical experiment that emerges when a writer feels the customary tropes of fiction have been exhausted. For the postmodernist, the well-worn genre of the novel is insufficient and no longer capable of conveying the imagination of the writer or the magnitude of historical events.
Several critics agree that postmodern fiction is a product of the post-World War II period. At that time, many of the major modernist writers, such as Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, had died. Other writers, including William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, had ceased publishing innovative and experimental work. Critics also tend to concur that postmodernism is an extension of rather than a decisive break or deviation from modernism, the defining literary movement of the twentieth century.
Many different authors have been labeled postmodernist. These writers include Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Thomas Pynchon, Peter Ackroyd, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, and Umberto Eco. Most critical discussion, however, focuses on American writers publishing since the late 1950’s.
Like the modern novel, the postmodern novel is subversive; that is, it counters traditional notions of plot, narrative, chronology, and character development. Postmodern novels are often described as self-reflexive— that is, they center on the nature of fiction itself and are written as though fiction is independent of society, reality, and any realm outside itself. The origins of the “autonomous” postmodern novel can be found in the essays of early modernist writers such as Oscar Wilde, who argued against Aristotle’s premise that art imitates life. On the contrary, Wilde contended that life imitates art.
Novelists spent most of the twentieth century elaborating on Wilde’s thesis of art for art’s sake—the idea that for art to be art it had to be independent of society and of political or extraliterary considerations—because the novel had been so thoroughly grounded in realism. Realist novels originated in the eighteenth century and featured, among other literary devices, narratives that imitated the structure and style of biographies and histories so that their characters seemed real. That this realism, however, was only a kind of pretense, or willing suspension of disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it, was recognized early on by other eighteenth century writers, such as Laurence Sterne. In his novel Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), Sterne commented on his own fiction-making. In other words, he shattered the realistic frame of his own story to call attention to himself as narrator. Sterne’s example, in the short term, earned him few followers, and it was not until James Joyce’s playful introduction of the artist as narrator and character in the figure of Stephen Dedalus that modern novelists and their postmodernist successors focused on fiction as a self-sustaining universe of its own.
The Postmodern Novel as Pastiche
Because literature itself is often the subject of postmodern novels, it is not surprising that genres such as the historical novel are parodied and satirized and become the subjects of pastiche. Thus, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975) introduces historical figures such as anarchist Emma Goldman and high-society player Evelyn Nesbit and has them interact in ways that would seem improbable in conventional historical fiction, in which the novelist is usually quite careful to portray history accurately. Referring to one scene in the novel, an interviewer asked Doctorow if Goldman had actually given Nesbit a massage, in “real life.” The interviewer wanted to know whether or not the two had even met in real life. Doctorow responded with “they have now.”
Doctorow’s point was that fiction creates its own reality, a kind of truth that is not historically documented yet is of inestimable value. In this case, Doctorow was commenting on the gap between a romantic figure such as Nesbit and a down-to-earth radical such as Goldman, who also was a feminist who would have found Nesbit’s plight as a sexual object deplorable. Nesbit needed the kind of care Goldman offered. That the two women never met would be irrelevant to the postmodern novelist, and that the two women should occupy such different places in society and be perceived as having nothing in common was precisely what Doctorow found as a fault in the world outside his novel, thus his creation of a parallel universe. Rather than slavishly repeat the historical record, the postmodern novelist seeks to invent a story that critiques the “real world.”
Certain critics found Doctorow’s work disturbing precisely because he would not respect their rigid ideas of fact and fiction. However, to the postmodern novelist, such distinctions make no difference because written history and novels are both narratives, a species of story. The language both genres share means that a fictional character or scene can seem as real as the so-called factual account because both are the product of words.
The Postmodern Novel and Historical Fiction
Doctorow’s willingness to employ historical figures is part of the postmodern novelist’s revisionism. Like the modernist, the postmodernist seeks to overturn or disrupt conventional ways of apprehending history to demonstrate that the past is, in large part, an invention of the present and a projection of the story the novelist wants to tell.
Perhaps no postmodernist writer has subverted the conventions of the historical novel more than Susan Sontag. In The Volcano Lover (1992) she transforms the story of Admiral Nelson and Sir William Hamilton and his wife, Emma—the stuff of romantic fiction—into an inquiry about the nature of heroism, art collecting, and imperialism, and about a narrator who speaks in a voice close to Sontag’s own. This method of narration provokes an exploration of the way narrative itself subsumes the content (the history) on which the narrator meditates. Similarly, In America (2000), based on the actual story of a famous Polish actress who established a community in California, begins with a preface in which Sontag identifies the writer featured in the novel. In doing so, Sontag shares much of her own biography and invites the reader to see the actress’s story as exemplifying the career of ambitious women, including Sontag.
Other postmodern novels include John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977). In The Public Burning, narrated in part by Richard M. Nixon, history itself is overturned so that Nixon lusts over convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg. Nixon’s politics become a tormented psychodrama revealing the suppressed sexual tensions and paranoia that get displaced by attributing a society’s anxieties about itself onto an external threat: in this case, the communist menace.
In The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth spoofs many of America’s foundation myths—especially the sentimental story of Pocahontas and John Smith. A secret history of Jamestown (fabricated by Barth) reveals Smith’s pornographic behavior, including his ability to enlarge his penis, which becomes the source of his power over American Indians.
Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated novel Slaughterhouse- Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), considered his postmodernist masterpiece, is in part an explicit autobiography (which already marks a departure from novelistic conventions). Vonnegut opens with an account of his experience in Dresden, when the German city was firebombed during World War II. This horrendous event that destroyed a civilian population for no strategic purpose was seared into Vonnegut’s memory. For more than twenty years, he explains, he sought a way to tell the story of his outrage and shame. Trying to convey the significance of what he saw to an Army buddy’s wife, and recoiling from her accusation that he will tell the story in a conventional way—another one of those tales of how Americans survived the war—Vonnegut invented a narrative and character that constitute a repudiation of the traditional war novel. Whereas most war novels provide a chronological and panoramic structure with a cross section of representative characters (a good example is Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, 1948), Vonnegut focuses on a single protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who is not merely a product of his place and time. Indeed, Pilgrim is introduced as a person who has “come unstuck in time.”
What follows in Slaughterhouse-Five is part observation of Vonnegut’s contemporary world and his World War II past and part projection into the world of aliens, with Billy as the abductee. Consequently, Billy bounces around in time but is never simply a product of that time. Somewhat like Burroughs, who uses the world of drugs to gain a perspective on the monolithic and uniform blandness of his age, Vonnegut uses aliens, the Tralfamadorians, as a way to defamiliarize the contemporary world and make Billy see his surroundings in a fresh way. Slaughterhouse-Five is liberating, a break from the imprisoning perceptions of cant, the weight of history, and the rule of orthodoxy. Just as Vonnegut has liberated himself from the established genre of the novel, so he expects his reader to eschew the crutches of chronology and plot. Meaning is not sequential but cyclical, so that events in Slaughterhouse-Five are repeatable and time becomes a kind of canvas on which human consciousness imprints itself. Rather than the form of history or of the novel being fixed, this fluid nexus of character and event promulgates a postmodern freedom for writer and reader alike.
The Postmodern Novel as Metafiction
Ishmael Reed’s utter disregard for verisimilitude and the irreverent verve with which he subverts the historical record in Flight to Canada (1976) has led critics to label the novel metafiction; that is, Flight to Canada is a novel that does not merely counter the conventions of literary realism but also insists on the primacy of the novelist’s fictional universe. Thus, Reed concocted a novel based on the conventions of slave narratives but also on anachronistic language and discussion of modern inventions such as the airplane. The novel exaggerates the way past and present are mixed and confused in contemporary consciousness. History is not a linear continuum from past to present but rather a chaotic mélange of different periods and sensibilities that coexist and contradict one another in the reader’s mind.
This elevation of the novel as its own justification, so that it is unconnected to any reality outside its pages, links the postmodern novel to le nouveau roman, or the New Novel, developed in the 1950’s in France by writers including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute and dramatists Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Their self-reflexive fiction served as the model for contemporary postmodernists.
Two more examples of the postmodern novel as metafiction—Sontag’s The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967)—reject the American realist school of fiction. Sontag is not concerned so much with the manners and mores of contemporary society as she is with literature itself; that is, she pursues a form of narrative turned back on itself in which the narrator makes the idea of reality problematic and fictional. Perhaps the best example of her technique is to be found in Death Kit, in which she leaves the reader wondering if her protagonist, Diddy, really did murder a railroad worker or if the entire action of the novel is taking place in his mind. This doubt questions everyday perception. Similarly, The Benefactor focuses on the consciousness of its narrator, Hippolyte. To a great extent, he makes his world by fictionalizing it, transforming his friends and family into projections of his sensibility.
Perhaps the quintessential postmodernist novel is William S. Burroughs’s controversial Naked Lunch (1959). Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), one of the defining works of modernism, Naked Lunch was deemed obscene by many courts in the United States. Sexual perversion and drug addiction are central themes in the novel, representing a shocking refutation of traditional moral values and literary conventions. Indeed, Naked Lunch contains far more extreme pornographic elements than Joyce’s own novels that experiment with the language of illicit literature.
Naked Lunch had its champions in the literary community when it first appeared, and it exercised considerable influence on writers as diverse as Mailer and Sontag. Many older, more traditional writers, such as Rebecca West, however, deplored Burroughs’s themes and style because he seemed to be attacking the integrity of the novel as a genre. Naked Lunch has no plot, no chronology, no realistic setting, and no conventional grammar to guide confused readers. The postmodern orientation of the novel is clear: Burroughs is dramatizing and criticizing the raucous and profane commercialization of a contemporary world that is brutally exterminating individuality.
Burroughs’s style and ideology would later reach its political apogee in Coover’s novel The Public Burning, which took a historical event—the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War—and made it into a surrealistic event, a public burning, to emphasize the hysteria over communism in the early 1950’s. A frightened, conformist population consented to the scapegoating of the Rosenbergs—so Coover’s argument goes—rather than speak its own mind. Burroughs’s own recovery from drug addiction led him to write a book in which he uses his own sickness as the root fact about a contemporary world that is conspiring to deprive human beings of their dignity. Drugs, to Burroughs, are just one more product in a consumer society that promises alleviation of suffering by chemical means. The antidote to this world is the energy of the novelist’s postmodern style. The greatest minds have always broken the rules, Burroughs implies, and have resisted the technicians of society who try to enforce bland and complacent behavior.
Naked Lunch still shocks readers with its originality, brutality, and profanity, for Burroughs assaults readers with a postmodern style that can never be fully digested. Indeed, this is his fundamental point: All too much is digested in contemporary society. People have become accustomed to quick-fix products—from junk food to microwave ovens. Burroughs’s narrator, William Lee, gets a “junk-cure,” a naked lunch that provides, as poet Allen Ginsberg told the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, clarity. The lunch in question, Ginsberg argued, would be the naked and raw meal of reality that society works so hard to camouflage.
A strong element of fantasy, too, distinguishes postmodern novels also linked to science-fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Samuel R. Delaney. Thomas Pynchon, while relying on many of the tropes of science fiction, writes massive novels taking on nothing less than the entire course of world history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, exploring how science and its technological implications have come to dominate society. Modern inventions such as hot-air ballooning in his Mason and Dixon (1997) or the bombing of London in the waning days of World War II (in Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973) become metaphors of humankind’s Faustian need to seek dominion over a world that is falling apart, subject to the laws of entropy regardless of the never-ending race to renew and invent. Magical Realists, such as the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez and the Brazilian Jorge Amado, conflate history and fantasy and bridge both the modernist and postmodernist eras in their novels.
There is no critical agreement on how postmodernism diverges from modernism. The divergence is, perhaps, made of nuance and subtle distinctions. One influential argument has been advanced by critic Brian McHale. Whereas modernism has an epistemological focus (what one can know about the world), postmodernism questions the very status of reality and the world. In postmodern fiction, in other words, characters can literally inhabit more than one world—as Billy Pilgrim does by residing both on Earth and on the planet Tralfamadore. Ontology (how one exists) replaces epistemology in the shift from modernist to postmodernist fiction. In the specific terms of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, humans are wrong to suppose that what can be known can be counted on because it represents only the known world and not others that are beyond human perception or knowledge. What is real and what is really going on are not so easy to separate in the postmodernist novel.
Coleridge’s famous formulation that a reader suspend disbelief to engage with a work of imaginative literature has been replaced, argues McHale, in postmodern literature by a suspension of belief. In other words, the reader can no longer take for granted that there is a settled and solid world by which the novel can be measured. Thus, it is difficult to come to any sort of resolution in a postmodernist novel, in which, it seems, questions about reality are far more important than any knowledge the novelist might be able to convey.
More traditional novelists, including Gore Vidal, deplore postmodernism, arguing that it is merely a fashionable academic game that always leads to the same predictable conclusions about the unknowability of reality. For Vidal and other traditionalists, the novel remains a prime vehicle for making sense of history, regardless of the novelist’s perspective. Postmodernism, for all its impressive achievements, has not displaced conventional fiction or the desire of most novelists to seek coherence, not chaos.
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