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Sunday, 27 November 2011

Postmodernism: or, How I Learned to Stop Categorizing and Love Contextual Definitions

Reading tastes vary wildly by individual. One person's classic is another's airport paperback. Thats fine with me, I have no want to argue the merits of the so called classics and where they stand in the pantheon of "great literature" or any such nonsense. To do so is an exercise in foolhardy blowhardism to which I haven't sunk in days. It just so happens, though, that many of my favorite authors and books fall into a certain broad, nebulous non-genre known as postmodernism.

What images are conjured when one rolls the word postmodern around their brain as if sucking on a lozenge? To me, the worst part of art and writing, ironically, come to mind. I picture gigantic pencil sculptures, nonsensical prose, and art installations meant to fulfill the onanistic desire of the artist and no one else. These images are not without merit, sadly, but to dismiss postmodernism entirely based on preconceived notions is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I will address postmodern literature solely and not pretend to know enough about art to justifiably fill an entire blog post worth of ramblings based solely my own ignorance.

So, where and with whom do we start? Great question, I am wondering that myself.

Well, definitions are fun! 

 post·mod·ern·ism   [pohst-mod-er-niz-uhm] noun( sometimes initial capital letter ) any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity.

 Well there you have it. Postmodern refers to anything that isn't established modernism. Need a definition of that? We could go on and on, falling down a rabbit hole of OED definitions in a Sisyphean task of defining something that simply cannot be defined. How very postmodern. Some claim that the playfulness of modernism as a means to an end yields to the playfulness in postmodernism as an end unto itself. Certainly a fuzzy boundary, as ones attempts to parse out T.S Eliot's The Wasteland and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and put them on opposite sides of a malleable spectrum. 

In order to gain purchase on such a spectral idea, we must look to examples of what is commonly referred to as postmodern literature and attempt to form a skeleton on which to hang our ad hoc definition. Which brings us back to the question, where do we begin? 

Thomas Ruggles Pynchon. That's where I will begin, since it's damn near impossible to have a conversation about postmodern lit without his inclusion. The notoriously camera shy author is the poster boy for many of the most popular facets of postmodernism. The combining of genres. The historical touchstones. The impenetrable narratives. The mixture of high and low art. The random asides. Even Pynchon's most linear works like The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice are ripe with postmodern flourishes, but if you want to dive in head first, tackle his magnum opus, Gravity's Rainbow

Seeing as entire books have been written attempting to elucidate to the reader what exactly Gravity's Rainbow is about, this blog will focus not on plot machinations (and if you've read it you'll know why) but on certain aspects that make it "postmodern". Gravity's Rainbow is funny. It's hilarious, really. It's full of moments of great physical comedy (the book centers around erections, after all) and endlessly quotable dialogue:

Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.

Black humor and irony are touchstones of postmodern lit. Other works that come to mind that embrace jet black humor are Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (don't read either while sitting in a coffee shop, people will begin to question your sanity since you'll be cackling like the Joker). Both Gravity's Rainbow and Slaughterhouse Five also view historical events (in both books, WWII) through a lens of science fiction and fantastical occurrences. Time travel is treated as an common occurrence, and a single, sentient lightbulb named Byron is given a complete life story. Flourishes such as these don't really stick out in a postmodern novel, though. They simply are woven into the dense fabric of the prose. 

Density is often cited as another postmodern touchstone. This is not referring to the size of the book (although postmodern works can be very, very long) but rather to the knotty, often impenetrable plots and seemingly random characters that populate the story. Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is a relatively slim novel, but is so packed with asides, frayed plot threads, paranoid rumblings, and random songs that it takes a lot of concentration to wade through it all. One Hundred Years of Solitude is another relatively small novel (at least in comparison to tomes like Against the Day and 2666) often cited as postmodern (and the figurehead of a subsection of postmodernism called magic realism) that reads like it was twice as long since it blends so much together (an entire family tree from roots to canopy). 

This post could continue picking out aspects of postmodernism and highlighting the novels that exemplify the genre, but Jesus my eyes are getting sore staring at this screen. Honestly, it is exhausting just thinking about postmodern lit, since most of the books I enjoy are folded into it for so many different reasons. Murakami.  Vonnegut. Pynchon. DeLillo. McCarthy. Roth. Irony. Black humor. Intertextuality. Pastiche. Satire. Is this a testament to the breadth of postmodern qualities, or to my narrow reading list? Who knows for sure, but I suspect the former rather than the latter. 

When it really comes down to it, if a book that was published post 1941 (the year both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf died, which to some signifies the end of modernism and by definition the beginning of postmodernism) contains any element that makes it odd, unique, or individual, you can wrap it up in a nice postmodern packaging and slot it neatly away. And this nonsense about postmodern novels using "playfulness" as an end rather than a means, as if the author was writing it solely to puzzle readers and be dissected by scholars, well that's a load of tripe. Vonnegut wrote about his experiences during WWII the only way he could, and Slaughterhouse Five is filled with as much melancholy, heartbreaking emotion as any Brontë or Dickens novel. And the density of some novels, specifically those by Pynchon, should be embraced. Who says everything has to be neatly laid out, from point A to point Z, in a digestible, linear fashion? It's tremendous fun to be lost in a labyrinth; adrift in literary puzzle where structure is eschewed in favor of flights of imagination, regardless to whatever locked doors or dead ends they may lead to. 

I suppose my gripe with the word postmodern is that it describes so many genres and styles that it describes nothing at all. Besides, what comes after postmodern? Post postmodern? Yes, actually. This type of naval gazing can go on and on ad infinitum, becoming an unwieldy ouroboros bent on making a mockery of the entire literary classification system as a whole! Sigh. It's time to wrap this post up. 

Take home message? Read books. A lot of them. By lots of different authors, alive or dead. If you like a book by a certain author read more by them. If you don't like a book by a certain author, seek other authors out. If you don't like Gravity's Rainbow, don't assume you won't like any other postmodern work by any other author. They vary so wildly in terms of plot, writing style, and character that it's moot to clump them together at all. 

Oh, and read lots and lots of Philip K. Dick. His books will make you a better person. I know they did that for me. 

That is all. 

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