The Postmodern Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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,...

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The postmodern novel as pastiche

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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The postmodern novel as metafiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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Other influences

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Aldridge, John W. Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992. Aldridge, a critic of American fiction, examines the nexus between modernism and postmodernism in the novels of Jay McInerney, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Brett Easton Ellis, and others of the post-1960’s generation.

Docherty, Thomas, ed. Postmodernism: A Reader. 1993. New ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2003. Excellent anthology of postmodernist theorists and critics, including Fredric Jameson, Ahab Hassan, Jean Baudrillard, and Richard Rorty. Topics covered include the relationship...

(The entire section is 575 words.)