Tuesday, June 23, 2009
notes on postmodernism and Fiction
Post modern fiction at best is by writers who have a faith beyond their own understanding that the novel will work to their creative convictions--DeLillo, Gaddis, Pynchon, Erikson, Vollmann, Didion and many, many others who've tweaked and commented upon the form their using in the execution of their work, have books that are red hot because they work as novels, first and foremost. The experiments end up in areas that are outside the middle class expectations of its audiences, the prose demonstrates a mastery of language that creates room for human response even as the writer--dead or alive--tries to imagine it's inability to step outside itself, out of it's prison house.
The term is central to many liberal arts and humanities programs, but its propagation results in bad criticism, the sort of pseudo-science that makes equivocation seem respectable. As theory, post modern thought is unsatisfying because it finally reveals cowardice in trying to uncover meaning in experience, or to try to enter into a debate what it is that makes the human experience worth thinking about.
It is this absenteeism on the political front that has enabled the Right to gain a high road in the area of values: our Republican opposition insist on talking about how we ought to live, while the Left, such as it is in the University departments, snort and insist that it's a more subtle, pervasive, insidious set of conditions that effect that The World. The Big Picture , Lyotard's "grand narrative", has a virtue as argument only if it has imagination to burn its concerns into the consciousness of the Culture it’s trying to enlighten. The blindered relativism and rudderless , entropy-grasping adherents of post-modern theory are producing an unreadable nonsense that no one who's worried about their schools, or their sewer systems , can respond to.
But post modernism, as style expressed in books, films, and theatre, will have a lasting mark on the landscape. If nothing else, the novels of Don DeLillo and Pynchon will stand for decades to come--their greatness is Faulknerian, Proustian-- as masterpieces of their time, as will others, no doubt. The judgment of History will separate out who will ultimately be with us, in some form, at the end of this century. Fred Jamieson has maintained that pomo is actually an extension of modernism's style: Eliot's style and concern with how cadences go together are hardly less radical than what the Beats, or the Language Poets have devised under their separate extreme energies, and Gertrude Stein, the mistress of Modernism if their was one, wrote in ways that are post-modern by the current lexicon.
But it has less to do with precursors foreshadowing a creative habit that would become coherent much later in the century: rather, it has more to do with a kind of continuity that postmodernists are loathe to admit, that the efforts of recent and younger artists are extensions of ideas that have found full expression in an earlier, perhaps more exiting time.
Much of post moderns' flashiest writers seem as they are trying to berserk themselves into genius: Harold Bloom is on point with his idea of the anxiety of influence.
Much of the sex and sizzle of recent work seems willfully, unnaturally expanded and encyclopedic: there's a worrisome dread under DF Wallace's work that refuses to stop trying top it's last page, an awareness that every sentence he writes is in competition with the history of Literature, in total. This insistence on being brilliance makes the work impossible to relish, savor. It bores with its marching bands and fireworks.
In his book City of Words, the late critic Tony Tanner maintained that reality in the 20th century had simply become too fantastic for fiction to simply be a slightly "exaggerated" replication of it: that realist project was indeed used up. Rather, the current novelist should cease trying to render a facsimile of actual experience, coded, as such, with a convenient moral and metaphysical argument behind it, and simply become more fantastic, fabulist, genre-leaping.
It was his notion that the novel, to really be anything at all, need to become 'word' structures, the titled city of words, and re introduce some things such as wonder and paradox, simply fantastic things, and to skillfully play with the archive of literary conventions to infuse their fantastic tales with a verve that he saw as lacking in the then current state of the novel. An interesting, ground breaking book on the rise of what's become known as the post-modern novel, and a succinct argument for the need.
One of the long standing praises sung in behalf of The Modern Age was the speed with which the affairs of the world were suddenly conducted, with the advent of air travel, the telegraph, radio, and eventually television. It was believed, as McLuhan did in his Musings in Understanding Media and, inevitably, The Medium is the Message, that this acceleration of real time and the shrinking of the world would produced comprehension and clarity of a reality that formerly with held it's secrets.
That is finally a large hope for what's considered to be one of Modernism's great aims--to produce art, literature, and technologies that transforms the way the world is experienced. Your experience with this obscure composer fulfils that promise, somewhat: you, and the thousands you speak of, shared the experience, did their research with the technology at their disposal, and finally wrote about it in the same few hours. A little more of the world's culture was known and shared at the same time, little different than the first live television broadcast , coast to coast, where thousands of Americans viewed the same scene at the same time. An quintessentially modern event.
The criticism that pushes forth post-modernism as a movement distinct from modernism certainly isn't lacking in moral force. It is the claim of the academic left that writes these tracts that the skeptical rigor they're applying to literature will aid, somehow, in the liberation of oppressed cultures, over turn falsifying ideologies, make absent cruel and crushing economic systems that extort, exfoliate, and waste, and enable us to experience a freedom that our current , binarily limited conceptions prevent us from achieving. There is certain righteousness to this cloudy, fence-sitting prose that reminds one of old catechisms. Scary.
For the force of post-modern writers, I'd say it's not the job of the writer to offer moral instruction to a reader, but rather to deal with the subject of being human in whatever contexts and conflicts that offers a narrative worth following. If morality is the author's intent, I say fine--Saul Bellow still brings me the uniform joy of writing superbly with his smug , Harold Bloomian classicism--but randomness, playfulness, and even amorality are welcome. What matters is whether the writer assumes his tasks with an idea of what he wants his art to accomplish at the end of it, of what sort of tone they want to leave resonating with the reader. De Lillo does this. So does Pynchon.