Note: This essay appears as a part of the collection of ten postmodern literary stories entitled INFINITE ENDING, available for pre-order now.
Postmodern literature defies a simple, coherent definition. The beginning, middle, and end of the movement—just as the stories which it contains—cannot easily be marked. Rather than clearly designated points on a timeline, postmodern literature exists as a sort of blur somewhere between the modernist movement and contemporary literature. Regardless, there are some tentative markers used for the sake of discussion and there is a definite historical context in which we can trace the emergence of this defiant literary movement. What is, perhaps, more useful to understand, however, are the literary features which characterize postmodern literature as well as the landmark authors and works which exemplify such features. For a full understanding of the movement, then, we must understand the historical context in which it is embedded; the style and literary techniques which distinguish it from others; and the key types of works which can be found within it.
2. The Historical Context
One simply cannot discuss the history of postmodern literature without first understanding that the genre is, as Umberto Eco famously said, a “transhistorical” phenomenon. That is, it cannot easily be confined to a specific historical period and, furthermore, it is not best understood in such temporal terms. Postmodernism is, above all else, a literary style, not a period of time. However, with that said, for the purposes of discussing the movement, 1941 is frequently used as a rough marker for the beginnings of postmodernism as this is the year in which both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf—both key figures of modernism—died. Others, however, site the first publication of The Cannibal by John Hawkes in 1949 as the beginning since this is considered by many to be the first published novel in the style of postmodern literature. Thus, postmodernism emerges in the wake of the traumatic second world war; including the holocaust, the Japanese American internment camps; the atomic bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and all the other horrendous human rights violations perpetrated during these years. Such events linger in our collective consciousness to this day. After the war ended, the world was launched into the tense, anxiety-riddled cold war in which the threat of global nuclear devastation loomed over everyone. At the same time—and rightly so—tradition was being challenged by the multiple civil rights movements which popped up mid-Century.
In their own troubled way, postmodern literary techniques can be seen as attempting through art to process or respond to the world in which it now finds itself. Throughout its unstable and fragmented narratives, readers often find strong political messages or critiques of the socioeconomic environment in which the authors lived. While modernist literature also challenged the conventions of its day and, in many ways, exhibits a strong sense of alienation from the mainstream public sphere, postmodernism is “founded…in the ruins of the public sphere” (Clark, 148). That is, the literature does not attempt to exist on the margins of its historical context but rather, deeply embedded in the chaos and fragmentation which it saw in its historical context.
3. The Postmodern Narrative and its Key Figures and Works
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that not all literature produced after the second world war can be accurately categorized as postmodern fiction. There were and are other literary movements which occurred parallel to the postmodern movement. This is one of the reasons why strictly defining the literature by a historical period as we tend to do with other movements is so particularly problematic here. Postmodern literature, more than others, relies on style and literary techniques to convey its narrative as much or more than it relies on any actual plot or story. Thus, readers will often find more meaning in how a postmodern narrative is written than what it is actually about. For this reason then, it is, perhaps, better understood by its unique stylistic qualities and literary techniques. One might be tempted to say “form” but, as will soon become apparent, such a term is too rigid a category for the postmodern narrative.
To generalize broadly about the style of the postmodern narrative, one could say that it can be characterized by irony or playfulness, pastiche or intertextuality, fragmentation, chaos, metafiction, temporal distortion, hyper-reality, magic realism, paranoia, maximalism, minimalism, and/or the problematic of representation. Even with this list of techniques and characteristics, it is not quite clear exactly what a postmodern narrative looks like. For that, it is necessary to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of each term—many of which were coined retrospectively while attempting to nail down just what makes a narrative postmodern.
3.1 Irony or Playfulness
The playfulness of both the language and structure of postmodernist fiction is often cited as its most characteristic feature. While one can, of course, find humor and irony in other works, it is a near ubiquitous feature of postmodernism. Postmodern authors like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut are famous for the playful ways in which they deal with serious subjects like war and other atrocities. Such playfulness emerges in the form of wordplay, ironic narratives or ironic structure, and a generally light or humorous tone when discussing the serious topics which pervaded postwar society.
3.2 Pastiche or “Intertextuality”
As with playfulness, pastiche also characterizes almost every narrative which falls under the category of postmodern. The term implies a “pasting together” of multiple elements. In literary theory, it is often also referred to as a bricolage—a term originally applied to the visual arts and referring to the construction of a work from an eclectic range of resources. In literature, then, this most often takes the form of references to other texts or other media often in homage or as a parody of the referenced text. (While many authors who cannot be considered postmodern are inspired by or borrow elements from other authors and other works, it is done more bluntly in postmodern literature.) That is, the different pieces, when “pasted” together, do not necessarily form a cohesive whole. The reader is usually made very aware that other texts or media are being referenced. Because the pieces do not quite fit, the reader is left with an unresolved sense of the plurality and chaos which characterize contemporary society. One landmark work which exemplifies this is Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs. This is a fractured narrative which combines elements of detective fiction, science fiction, and westerns to tell the paranoid and hallucinatory tale of a drug addict (a topic not typical to any of the three genres mentioned.)
Whereas pastiche refers more to borrowing various elements and pasting them together, intertextuality is used to discuss the relationships between texts and the ways in which they reference each other. While the modernist narrative can often be read as isolated—alienated, even—from the rest of the world in which it was created, postmodernist literature is acutely aware of how embedded it is in its sociopolitical and historical context. Authors will make direct references or very clear allusions to other works, including previous or future works by that very same author (self-referentialism.) In this way, postmodern literature is intertextual and it becomes increasingly important for the reader to be familiar with all the works referenced in order to arrive at more fully developed interpretations.
Fragmentation can occur along many lines in postmodern literature. The plot, characters, narration, imagery, themes, and all other elements of the story can be fragmented. It can even occur in the language, grammar, or structure of the text. A sequence of events might be interrupted; the timeline might be nonlinear or cut up and rearranged; words might be missing; or whole pages might be blank. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin offers an excellent example of a fragmented plotline. The story of a man attempting to reconcile his past and his true desires is told in a broken narrative about his struggle to choose between two lovers (a man whom he truly loves and a woman who could offer him the conventional “happy” lifestyle). The plot—which is already nonlinear—is broken apart and spliced with pieces of the past.
Weighty tomes and dissertations have been written on the ways in which postmodernism embraces chaos. Joseph Conte even goes so far as to argue that the genre can be compared with chaos theory in the sense that it “dispenses with modernism’s binary distinction and hierarchy of order/disorder, replacing it with an attitude resembling the two primary branches of chaos theory, which investigate ‘order as the possible emanation of disorder, and chaos as one possible result of an overly stringent order—the process by which one becomes the other” (Conte in Ebbesen, 192). In simpler terms, postmodernism blurs the boundary between order and disorder by conflating them both as processes of chaos. Unlike the modernist, the postmodernist embraces this chaos. Hence, postmodern authors are regarded as writing “in the ruins” as Clark mentioned earlier. Chaotic narratives lack any decipherable timeline or cohesive plotline. The legendary poem, Howl, by Allen Ginsberg is the perfect example of chaos in postmodernism. The language of the poem has a certain spontaneity which is sometimes academic, sometimes colloquial, sometimes another tone altogether. The point of view shifts along with the identity of the narrator. The very structure of the poem alters throughout so that it becomes an incongruous pastiche of poetic form. (Another example of this kind of poem—even though it was written in the modernist “era”—The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.) Out of this disorder emerges a beautiful (if not quite ordered) poem that has become one of the prime examples of postmodern style.
The prefix “meta” refers to the self-conscious way in which a work draws attention to itself. Metafiction, then, is a literary device which directly points out the fictional nature of fiction. This device turns the entire concept of “suspension of disbelief” on its head and undermines the authority of narrative conventions. Metafiction is used for a variety of reasons. An author might want to parody the form; identify the limitations of representation in literature; or simply reflect on various aspects of fiction. The technique can be found in many postmodern novels but it is, perhaps, most interesting in Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The novel begins with the author describing the process of writing the novel and continues to refer to himself throughout. Although the story is about a real event which the author personally experienced himself—the completely unnecessary fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany—it features many clearly fictional elements like extraterrestrials and time travel. In this way, Vonnegut is calling attention to the inability to adequately represent lived experience in fiction (a concept which will be discussed in further detail below).
3.6 Temporal Distortion
Temporal distortion refers to more than just the fragmentation of timelines and nonlinear storytelling. It also refers to the common usage of anachronisms in postmodern fiction. Historical elements might blend with fictional elements or historical events or figures which occurred far apart from each other might be conflated. Time in the postmodern narrative overlaps, repeats itself, or split suddenly into multiple directions. This opens up the narrative to many possibilities and allows meaning to be conveyed beyond the conventional, linear timeline of cause followed by effect.
Hyperreality is a term which refers to the inability to distinguish actual reality from a simulated or artificial reality. Rather than an individual deficiency, this is treated by postmodernism as the general condition of humanity in our increasingly mediated, or media-saturated lives. Rather than attempting to discover or represent any true reality, then, postmodern literature reflects this condition of hyperreality through narratives which blur the boundaries between illusion and real experience. Don DeLillo’s White Noise deals extensively with hyperreality as it explores the media saturation of modern life along with many other themes in a characteristically postmodern style. The movie The Matrix also deals with this theme successfully.
3.8 Magic Realism
The term “magic realism” may appear oxymoronic at first glance. However, it refers to the more surrealist elements of postmodern fiction. The technique was originally developed in Latin America and was made famous by Jorge Luis Borges and his famous work Historia Universal de la Infamia (A Universal History of Infamy.) In this seminal work, Borges tells fictional narratives about real criminals. In these narratives, readers gain a sense of the dream-like, surreal nature of magic realism which juxtaposes or wholly conflates realistic and fantastic elements. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another acclaimed author in this area.
Paranoia in postmodern literature is closely associated with conceptions of order. That is, where paranoia is present, it is due to the underlying belief that some sinister order is at the bottom of the chaos which is found in the world. Because postmodernism already deals so heavily with chaos and the problematic binary of order/disorder, paranoia as a literary device was a natural development. It permeates the works of William S. Burroughs whose novels reflect the convoluted, distorted, and paranoid perspective of drug addicts and other subjugated members of society.
Maximalism is, perhaps, best understood as a reaction against minimalism. However, both techniques can be found in postmodernism so it is inaccurate to say that the one excludes the other. It calls into question the role of the narrative in literature and, as with many postmodern literary devices, brings style to the forefront. Evidence of this device can be found in famous works such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac in which the narrative contains elaborate detail along with frequent digressions and reference. The goal with maximalism is to build a literary style which reflects the narrative in a way that conventional literary devices cannot accomplish. See also: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
The other side of that coin, then, is minimalism which is characterized by sparse description, leaving the reader to fill in the rest of the details. Rather than thoroughly describing the scene, the reader is given vague suggestions or innuendos which must be interpreted. Through this technique, the possibilities for interpretation become multiplied. Like maximalism, it can be used to more accurately reflect the narrative. Great examples of minimalism can be found in the many works of Charles Bukowski. Cause and Effect, for example, is a poem told in nine short lines with few adjectives or adverbs. Through this minimalist style, Bukowski builds an image of suicide from both the perspective of those who commit suicide and those whom they leave behind.
3.12 The Problematic of Representation
In addition to such literary techniques and stylistic tendencies as have been described up until this point, there is also in every postmodern work an overarching sense that experience cannot be adequately represented. Rather, it can only be referenced, alluded to, or suggested. As part of our everyday lives in modern society, “representations such as film, television, and the internet, in many cases, constitute primary life experiences. Thus, experiences through media become more real than the experiences encountered in day-to-day life” (Meacham & Buendia, 512). As a consequence, authors and literary critics alike began to experience “crises of representation” and attempted to draw attention to them without necessarily resolving them (Clark, 149). This is accomplished both by these characteristically postmodern techniques (particularly, fragmentation, temporal distortion, hyperreality and metafiction) as well as the very apparent lack of a conventional plot line or resolution. Language (the mode of representation in literature) has a tendency to break down in the postmodern narrative. Words are detached from their meanings or remade and given new meanings or associations. As Jameson argues in Clark, there is “a linguistic malfunction, a detachment of signifier from signified, a disruption of personal identity as it is constituted in a temporal unification of past, present, and future. The ‘active temporal unification’ at stake…‘is itself a function of language’; it is what enables both selfhood as we know it and storytelling” (Clark, 149). In this way, the reader is made aware of the irreconcilable distance between the signifier and the signified as well as the inability of language to perfectly capture and unify the temporality (the past, present, and future) of an experience. Rather than acting as a representation of experience, then, the postmodern narrative is more accurately understood as a reflection of experience. That is, an imperfect, distorted, and subjective account—a sort of anti-narrative—of real, lived experiences.
As the stylistic elements and literary devices changed or were deployed in new ways over time, a concurrent shift in the way in which readers approached these narratives also occurred. The reader of postmodern fiction cannot passively absorb the narrative. Instead, the narrative demands—through the use of these various unique literary devices—that it be actively engaged and interpreted. The existence of multiple possible interpretations require the reader to deconstruct and take apart the narrative in order to arrive at these interpretations. Furthermore, the intertextuality of postmodern fiction means the reader must be aware of other texts which are being referenced.
Such a complex and multifaceted genre as postmodernism, of course, came with its critics who often argued that the narratives were too intricate and confusing. Despite criticism, however, the movement persisted. Postmodernism experienced a peak or “golden age” around the middle of the 20th century but it did not end there. There are many contemporary authors such as David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan, Chuck Palahniuk, Zadi Smith, Neil Gaiman, and Giannina Braschi who are widely regarded as being representative of a continued postmodern literary movement. With its characteristically experimental and defiant style keeping it ever fresh and new, it is no surprise that postmodernism has endured as an important and powerful artistic movement.
Clark, Miriam. “Contemporary Short Fiction and the Postmodern Condition.” Studies in Short Fiction 32.2 (1995): 147-154. Print.
Ebbesen, Jeffrey. “Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction (review).” College Literature 32.2 (2005): 192-194. Print.
Meacham, Shuaib J, and Edward Buendia. “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Post-Structuralism and Their Impact on Literacy.” Language Arts 76.6 (1999): 510-516. Print.
Sinha, Adya. “Fragmentation and Postmodernism I.” Examiner.com. N.p., 20 Sept. 2011. Web. 2 July 2014.