It is generally agreed that the postmodern period of world literature begins immediately following the end of World War II and extends at least through the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991). Perhaps this period of the novel’s development is identified most of all with experimentation. Worldwide, postmodern novels have flown in the face of much that preceded them, yet the novel remains an evolving, thriving genre. Testimony to its vitality is the fact that this formerly Eurocentric, male-dominated genre of literature now counts among its preeminent practitioners women from countries not traditionally identified with the novel at its best.
To appreciate such a turn of events in the novel’s development, one must know something about the history of the novel and its traditions. The novel is the only genre today that cannot also be found among the classical literatures of Rome and Greece, although these societies had their own forms of long fiction. The novel emerged as a budding literary form while philosophical thought and everyday life were undergoing changes of staggering breadth during the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth century. The Enlightenment championed human reason at a time when God and the Church had begun to recede from the forefront of European consciousness as the defining elements of human existence, as evidenced by philosopher René Descartes’s dictum, “I think, therefore I am.” A new formulation of value and worth was in the offing as well, one imposed by humanity rather than by the heavens. Rising in tandem with the gold standard, international trade, and modern economics, the novel found its initial audience and practitioners amid a flowering, newly educated, secular middle class of people who had begun to appear on the horizons of mercantile Europe.
Like the flourishing mercantile environment from which it sprang, the novel traditionally championed individual initiative, choosing for its protagonists not high-ranking nobility, as was true of the literatures of ancient Rome and Greece, but rather unremarkable, often common men and women with recognizable emotional and physical desires. These characters resembled the reader. With their capacity to reason, such protagonists were given the opportunity to understand the world around them and, through such understanding, the chance to satisfy their physical needs and emotional desires by choosing one alternative over another. What brings readers to a novel may well be the chance it gives them to participate in the wishes, dreams, desires, and emotions of its characters, but what propels a novel forward are the characters’ decision-making processes and their capacity to make well-informed choices. By bringing what they have learned in the past to bear on their current situations, the protagonists of traditional novels have opportunities to control their destinies in ways that would have boggled the minds of the ancients, held in the grip of the fates as they were. The linear concept of time—that is, that a past bears directly on a present that allows one to determine a future—came hand in hand with a new sense of space that emerged with the Enlightenment thought of Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. As world trade flourished and as the globe became navigable through spatial coordinates such as longitude and latitude, this new and relatively sophisticated sense of space was reflected in the novel as a literary form.
The conventional novels that grew out of the Enlightenment reflected the age’s confidence in the human being’s ability to navigate a world based on scientific laws. Conventionally, the first 10 to 20 percent of a novel introduces the major characters, especially the protagonist, and locates those characters in a particular time and a particular spatial realm. Then follows an event, choice, or dilemma—something that sets the plot into motion. Plot development begins as a character responds to this initial event, choosing A over B in an attempt to resolve a dilemma. That choice is usually successful only in part, resulting in a new event, choice, or dilemma to which the protagonist must respond. How well characters fare in manipulating their circumstances to achieve their goals is eventually determined by some central and final occurrence, the climax of the plot. The reader’s identification with the characters compels the reader’s interest. Moreover, novels suppose not only an ever-changing world but ever-changing characters as well. The reader expects the characters—at least the central characters—to change and evolve emotionally and intellectually as they live through the experiences the novel puts before them.
The novel after the Cold War
The post-Cold War novel, which includes much of what is called postcolonial literature, comprises the work of novelists such as Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet, 1979) and Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses, 1988), who explore the cultures of developing nations as they emerge from domination by declining world empires. The term has also been used more loosely, however, to categorize Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), an American Civil War epic that chronicles with methodical detail the realities of nineteenth century battle, and David Guterson’s popular Snow Falling on Cedars (1994), which blends a World War II-era history of the American Northwest with an oddly lyrical murder mystery.
The novel after the Cold War changed from its earlier modernist and postmodernist manifestations. Postmodernism has been identified with a period of history during which the fate of the world was defined by the tensions between two new superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. This brings up questions of whether the collapse of the Soviet Union has caused the world, and its literature, to change diametrically and whether a new era, a “post-postmodern” era, has begun. What is certain is that novels are changing, and they will continue to be much richer than the categories that have been employed in attempts to appreciate them.
By privileging gender and ethnicity, critics may well have created categories that obscure as well as inform an understanding of literature. The concerns of women and people of color, as well as others claiming their place in the literary arena—gays and lesbians, people of different faiths, members of different socioeconomic classes—may well be part of something still more profound, an attempt to find alternative means of understanding human experience. The novel no longer has full faith in what the Enlightenment had to teach. Reason is more limited than one might suspect for negotiating a confused and confusing world. Logic can take one only so far.
When it was first published, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984) was hailed as his generation’s anthem to life on the fast track. In retrospect, it may be something more. It may well be in line with precisely this sentiment. With the failure of his brief marriage and the departure of his bride, the protagonist loses his job and surrenders to a devastating cocaine addiction that he has been battling. Only after he has lost everything of value near the novel’s climax does he begin to understand his dilemma. It is not the loss of his bride that has brought him to this point, but rather the death of his mother and his estrangement from his own family. He has brought disastrous values to the fast track of upwardly mobile, big-city life, and this has left him unprepared to cope with daily living. In the book’s final moments, he is in front of a bakery at dawn. Strung out on drugs, he is reminded by the smell of baking bread of his last visit home while his mother was alive. A deliveryman throws him a bag of bread as one might toss such a bag to an indigent. The novel ends with these words: You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.