Friday, February 12, 2010

When Narratives Shrink

I find myself again leafing through the brown  pages of college texts, most having to do with the string of Gordian knots called Contemporary Literary Criticism, the variety that infiltrated American English Departments in the Sixties and drove out the last vestiges of Romanticism and killed whatever taste their was for New Criticism. These are things I've pondered on the run since getting my degree in 1981, riffing on matters reducible to Lyotard's book The Post Modern Condition.

Do postmodern writers avoid grand narratives? Hardly, as the point of post modern writing was to confront the formerly dominant notion of master narrative and investigate the inconsistencies in the conceits, and to devise alternative ways of telling big stories and conveying big ideas. The doings of Pynchon, DeLillo and Barth seem not to want to destroy the grand narratives as such, but instead to re-tool it, re-build, tweak and switch-and-swap styles, one for the other, in the practice of pastiche and parody, in order to extend the potential of fiction with interesting accounts of either Historical processes, or the banality of daily life. The points posted about Pynchon being particularly strong with knowledge of history are well taken, since his fictional project is to imagine and elaborate on the gaps and alienated niches left out of an allegedly all- encompassing narrative sweep, the events and personalities otherwise that reside at the margins of, the periphery of the storyline. A task of postmodern fiction, among other ploys, is to bring the trivialized and the ignored to the center of the action, and weave them into the structure as elements no less essential to what ever conclusion a novelist might come to than are the efforts of Presidents, Kings, or Philosophers directing hypothetical History to some final, defining resolution.

The narrative is not made less grand, but bigger, denser, more intriguing to suss out. It's not that either Pynchon or DeLillo had set out to debunk the notion of that fiction can give a reliable accounting of history or the resonance of real-life; it would seem that both remembered that what they want to do is write fiction, after all, and that neither they, nor their fellows, are required to produce work that attempts verisimilitude. Grand narratives aren't shunned by post modern writers, but are played with, expanded, adapted to new shapes and intentions; this demonstrates resilience, not exhaustion, and the undertaking is more interesting for the fiction-writing post modernist. I am of a mind that philosophers of post modernism have different sympathies than postmodern novelists. It's not as though all postmodern writers are set on debunking or re-tooling grand narratives. Quite the opposite. Other writers, arguably post-modern, settle on smaller realities, dioramas of kind, worlds self-contained within their own subset: Burroughs, Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Ron Sukineck, among others of more recent vintage do their work at the borders, creating a vivid narrative sense with their particular experiments that mirrors, I think, a tradition of short stories and novellas, life in obscured corners brought to light. Skewed, though, skewed and wacky, a post modernist signature.

Why then would you think of Pynchon at all as a PM while Steinbeck is considered the quintessential Modern? There seems to be no difference. Pynchon would be postmodern because there is a knowingness about his virtuoso use of myth: besides the fact that he mixes his cultural dictions, high to low and middle brow in the center, he's aware of the ultimate transparency of myth as being just another good yarn one may play with however one decides. Steinbeck, in his faith in the final truth of narrative function, sees myth as containing symbolic Truth about human nature that resists critique. Pynchon’s' use is playfully skeptical, though Steinbeck’s' best work is no less compelling for his use of archetypes.

Richard Rorty, in "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity" defines an "ironist" as someone who realizes "that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed" Are postmodern writers this kind of "ironist"? No more, it would seem, than any other writer scribing under the modernist tenet of "making it new", or to another extreme, 'defamiliarizing" (from Bahktin) recognizable settings, characters and schemes in a language that's meant to provoke readers to see their world in new ways. This is a modernist habit that the new, cubist, cut-up, stream-of-conscious takes on the world will sweep away past aesthetic interpretative models and lead one to a the correct formation of the world-- there remains a faith that language and other senses can apprehend and describe a tangible, material world and capture its complex composition, a "metaphysics of presence" that art can unearth. Irony, in this sense, is usually contained within the story, a result of several kinds of narrative operations coming to a crucial moment of ironic intensity that then drives the story into directions one , with hope, didn't anticipate.

Post modern writers start off with the intent of being post modern from the start, and rather than have their inventions gear us for a challenge to see the world in a truer light (contrasted against previous schools of lovely language but false conclusions), the project is to debunk the idea of narrative style all together. Irony is intended to demonstrate some flaws in character's assumptions about the world, a description of the world that emerges contrarily after we've been introduced to the zeitgeist of the fictionalized terrain. Post modern writers are ironists of a different sort, decidedly more acidic and cynical about whether narrative in any form can hone our instincts. A professor I saw in a lecture point out that something becomes art once it is framed, no matter what that object may be .This Marcel Duchamp’s' idea, a classic dada gesture he offered with his ready-mades, such as urinals hoisted upon gallery walls, and snow shovels on pedestals. The point, though, was that the object became an aesthetic object, denatured, in a manner of speaking, from its natural context and forced, suddenly, to be discussed in its very "thingness". The object becomes art by the lexicon we wrap around it, a linguistic default.Whether the object is art as most understand art to be--the result of an inner expressive need to mold , shape and hone materials and forms into an a medium that engages a set of ideas about the world, or unearths some fleeting sense of human experience -- isn't the point here. Ironically, art, generally defined as something that is absent all utility, any definable function, is suddenly given a use that is sufficiently economic, which is to keep an art industry in motion; it is the sound of money. Duchamp, and other Dadaists who sought to undermine this idea of art and its supposed spiritual epiphanies for the privileged few, instead furnished a whole new rational for art vending.


  1. I agree that there's a difference between postmodern novelists and postmodern philosophers. The latter seem more interested in radically challenging metanarratives (which becomes its own sort of metanarrative), while the former are interested in mining the inability of metanarratives to fully reflect lived experience. Pynchon, as a writer interested the detritus of history, is the perfect example of this mining.

    But the project of this mining does mark an important differnce in literary history. I'm curious about your statement comparing Steinbeck and Pynchon. I think you're spot on in saying that Steinbeck has a "faith in the final truth of narrative function"; I think you're also correct to say that Pynchon is "playfully skeptical," but I take this difference pretty seriously. Pynchon doesn't accept a final truth; he establishes the provisionality of truth, its variety and variability. While he may not be utterly destroy narrative, he certainly seems to bust it up into many narratives.

    Anyway, great post. It got me thinking.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Joshua.
    Steinbeck is of the generation that arrives just after the Muckrakers,Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis, who thought that fiction was something of a sociological/anthropological tool in getting at the skewed relations between races and classes in a capitalist economy. Some larger truth, discovered by a focus imagination, could get beyond supposition and provide the correct vision for reform. Steinbeck had the spirit of reformer as well and sought to give an unsentimental account of the working poor in this country; but sentimental he remained, a quality that mired much of his other work besides "Grapes of Wrath". His drive to give the truth in story form needed to be fueled by tangible emotion, and so his tales take on familiar rise-and-fall themes we find in conventional tragedy. Pynchon is perhaps the novelist version of Chaos Theory, which is to say that all is not chaos at all but rather that the relationships between all narrative angles, as in the relationships between all biological systems, are far more intricate and intertwined than a conventional accounting would have us know. Pynchon steps back several yards from his subject and masters the rhetoric of any style he fancies to pay attention too, and is able to grasp the eternal absurdities of plot lines are made to perform. His aim, I guess, is to the notion of Grand Narrative is actually too modest a term; the tale that's told has multitudes only now being counted, each with a distinct and determined story to tell.

  3. I might add that writers since Steinbeck's day -- and especially those who would willingly be termed postmodern -- are content to reach a smaller and smaller slice of the reading public. No, scratch that -- they are HAPPY to only reach an elite readership. This is unhealthy, the equivalent of inbreeding. It would seem to be an inherent part of the postmodern approach...its concerns are not the concerns of most potential readers. "Make it new"? No, make it crimped, dwarfed, like a starved little weed behind the garage of a house on a dead-end street.


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