Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Postmodern Conundrum

During one memorable episode of The Simpsons, Moe the Bartender revamps his tired dive bar to keep up with the times.When Homer swings by his favorite watering hole, he's confused by the upside down bar stools bolted to the ceiling and the televisions showing only a blinking eye. He asks Moe to explain. Moe (enthusiastically): It's PoMo. (Homer: Blank stare.) Moe: You know, postmodern. (Homer: More silent confusion.) Moe: It's weird for the sake of weird. (Homer: Ohhh, I get it.)

I'd be willing to bet that "weird for the sake of weird" is how many people view postmodern literature as well. In fact, most people (me included) don't really understand exactly what postmodern literature really is. It's certainly one of those overused phrases often bandied about by faux intellectual hipsters trying to appear more intelligent than they really might be.

There are a few writers usually mentioned as the prototypical postmodernists: Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges and Don DeLillo. But that doesn't really answer the question of what postmodern literature is, or what all those writers have in common. In my mind, in a word, postmodern literature is complex -- often needlessly so, a general reader would say. Wikipedia helpfully supplements that notion by telling us that postmodern literature relies heavily on "fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc."

That's still pretty general, but in my limited experience with postmodern literature (mainly, DFW's Infinite Jest), that description hits the nail on the head. And I bring this up now because I'm still grappling mightily with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It is really, really difficult, and saying I'm enjoying it wouldn't be precisely accurate, but I am enjoying parts of it. When I put in the necessary work to understand a passage, and come out on the other side with a sense that I really get what Pynchon is trying to do, I'm elated. I feel like the hard work is worth it. But there are other times when I read a passage, reread it, reread it again and just have to put the book down, throw up my hands, and send some expletives Mr. Pynchon's way. I guess what this boils down to is that I really have to be in the right frame of mind to truly enjoy the novel. When I get it, I love it, but when I don't, I'm really frustrated.

So what's your take? What's your sense of what "postmodern literature" really is? Are you a fan?  Why or why not?


  1. To understand post-modern literature, you first have to define modernist literature, which is itself a mind-numbing and virtually impossible task. Fortunately, we have Wikipedia, which produces this definition of modernism: "The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life" (Georg Simmel) (You know that it's true, because he spells his first name "Georg.") In post-modernism, the artist or writer rejects the individuality of existence and lets in all sorts of references from previous movements, like putting columns and bedposts on your buildings, or sticking urban myths into your fiction, or as Borges wrote, writing the "Quixote" again. Or something like that.

  2. Postmodern literature seems to be more about style than content,which is the main reason that it turns me off.

    I'm all for some thought provoking prose and creating an atmosphere with your writing and yes,not every story has to be plot driven but there needs to be at some point in the narrative some ultimate sense of purpose. Otherwise,my time is being wasted for no good reason.

    It's like David Lynch movies-while the likes of Easerhead and Blue Velvet were intriguing enough to make you want to see where his next wild ride was going,by the time Lost Highway came out,it was clear to me that Lynch was operating more from inside his own head and not bothering to let anyone else who didn't just nod and go along with his vibe out in the cold.

  3. I fear I have no super-intelligent comments to make here. The philosophy and style of postmodernism has always been a bit unclear to me. I seem to understand the details, the specifics, but not necessarily the larger construct. For instance, Fight Club is a postmodern film, challenging the traditional conventions of narrative form to comment upon current ideology. But that sort of specific theory doesn't necessarily translate into other stories (whether book or film): some stories that violate narrative conventions are not postmodern...and so I am lost.

    I will admit, however, that I tend to enjoy postmodernism. I disagree that it elevates form over content. I think postmodern works have a lot to say; they just are more obvious about using the form to create the content. If that makes any sense......

  4. It is interesting that you brought this up because I have never really given this much though until recently. And my recent conclusion is that I really really don't like postmodernism as literature or film (art I like). Sometimes I really get it (and when I do I LOVE it) but most of the times I'm like did I really just read this whole book (watch this whole movie) for nothing? I went through a faze with some Margaret Atwood books that are all just bizarre and very postmodernesque and when I finally came up for air after reading about a billion of her books and short stories I realized I really didn't like them at all.

    I feel like a lot of the time when I am reading a postmodern piece of lit, the author is just showing of his or her writing talents and throwing in any and everything that will make the story different from any other thing out there. I feel teased by these authors, at the end I'm all "what?" (i.e American Psycho) and "uuurrggghhh, that didn't even make sense!!" (i.e. Lady Oracle).

    Trisha commented on Fight Club. That one I got and I loved it but then there are others (novels/Films) such as Burn After Reading, Men Who Stare at Goats, Shopgirl, and Lost in Translation that just were a big fat waist of time (in my personal opinion) as they were just as Mo said "weird for the sake of weird".

    Sorry for the rambling but like I said I just was thinking about this a few days ago so it is fresh in my mind.

  5. P.S. Now if you are considering dystopia as postmodern (and I don't, but some do), then I heart that.

  6. I've enjoyed postmodern novels, though I generally approach the stuff with a gasmask and a set of tongs.
    I've felt that even the best I've come across so far (Infinite Jest and House of Leaves) are wildly inconsistent. They blast so many narrative conventions with varying degrees of success. But they're trying to engage the reader in ways traditional storytelling can't. The bad postmodern novels, though. They're either not interested in the reader at all, or they're are constantly trying to impress with cute tricks--pretty much why so many people think they're pretentious.
    But when they hit, they're like no other reading experience--pretty much why they're worth sifting through, in my opinion.

  7. I'm actually a fan of postmodern literature, because I like to see the boundaries stretched. Last year Carolyn Kellogg featured Post Modern Month on her LA Times Blog Jacket Copy. She featured 61 Essential PoMo reads that were handily annoated with a guide about what made each book "post modern" - cehck it out:

  8. @Richard - "...rejects the individuality of existence." That actually makes a lot of sense in the context of Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow and House of Leaves. Thanks for the comment!

    @ladyT - I'm not sure I'd agree with the idea that postmodern has more to do with style than content - as Richard points out above. I think they style gets most of the pub, because it's always difficult and unconventional, but there are certainly some commonalities of theme in postmodern literature, as well - which I totally neglected to mention at all in my post.

    @Trisha - yes, that makes a lot of sense. And, again, I'm realizing now that my post did make it sound that the hallmark of postmodern is form over content, which I don't believe at all. So, I think you're right on the money!

    @Lauren - Oh sure, there are many writers who fancy themselves postmodern who make complex and weird literature only to be complex and weird. But good postmodern definitely is not difficult just to be difficult - there's a method to the madness. It's just not always immediately apparent what that method is.

    @Doug - Agreed on the cute tricks - and usually those are very apparent right off the bat. Infinite Jest and House of Leaves are two of my favorite novels of all time, and you're right, "blasting convention" is really about all they have in common.

    @Tim - Awesome - thanks for that link! I agree, I like to see boundaries stretched. Conventional gets boring after awhile.

  9. I have no idea how to ID PoMo lit but I can spot PoMo architecture from a mile off from its use of exaggeration, humor, color, extreme use of references to history and pop culture, etc. Sounds like a pretty good way to find PoMo lit, too, at least stylistically.

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