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The Two Faces of Post-Modernism

Defining Post-Modernism is a bit of a shaky subject these days, seeing as how its inception was way back around 1950 (dates of this sort are shaky as well) and some even argue that writers are still toiling in that pigeon-hole today. My opinions on that tend to differ from the popular view of schools of literature, but I’ll save that for another post. The issue that concerns us today is one of the validity/worth of the entire school of Post-Modernism. Now, one would be foolish to try and deem an entire literary movement as completely useless and then move on to more important matters like coming up with a name for the new school of up and coming authors. I am no fan of the Post-Modernists in general, but my view of the Post-Modernists (in general) comes down to a very simple duality. On one hand, one school of the Post-Modernists uses black humor and the knowledge and recognition of the story as a man-made construct to identify more closely with the reader and get the reader to feel something unfelt before. The second school of Post-Modernists are a bunch of smug, intelligent, and purposefully confusing and/or obscure writers who enjoy leading their readers from pillar to post in a hunt that effectively ends nowhere except with the reader either confused or (rightfully) incredibly angry with the author. This second school of writers uses the knowledge of the story as a man made construct and flaunts it in the reader’s face in an attempt to seemingly take the reader from the story or to exemplify how empty the whole concept of the story and words themselves are. It is this second school of Post-Modernism which I aim to take issue with and argue against in the interest of fostering a better aim of the coming work that my generation will be producing–a sort of ars poetica, if I can use the term without just coming off looking like a regular arse. Not that I intend this essay to be a touchstone for authors the way that the essays of T.S. Eliot were for those of his generation. I would simply like to point a way through the thicket in which we find ourselves.

The most prominent author of what I consider to be the “soulful” Post-Modernists is none other than my favorite Post-Modernist, Kurt Vonnegut. His books are filled with Black Humor and even self-referential devices that add rather than detract from the book itself. An example of this self-reference comes in Slaughterhouse-Five where at the beginning of the book he tells the reader of how much difficulty he had writing the story about his experiences in World War II and the resistance he was met with (the wife of one of his war buddies). Rather than taking us out of the story, we instead empathize with a man whose side will eventually commit one of the worst firebombings in the history of man. And at the same time he sets up the character of Billy Pilgrim to be almost a time-traveling doppelganger for himself and rather than object to it, we allow it to go on because we are so invested with this character. Also, the knowledge of how difficult the composition of the novel was actually makes the reader more in a position to listen because of how much effort the author put forth and how important it was to the author to get it right. Self-reference in Vonnegut’s seminal work is the key to identification. The next place self-reference comes into Vonnegut’s work is in the book Breakfast of Champions–we have not gotten any mention of the author except in the preface until one of the very last scenes where Vonnegut suddenly puts himself inside the story. Before this, a reader of the main character Kilgore Trout’s books is given a book by Trout that claims that the reader is the only person in the world with individuality and free will–at this point, the reader goes home and beats his wife, son, and nine others before being taken into custody. This seems like a very important point, because after this happens, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story and gives his character Kilgore Trout the permission to be free and under his own will. What is this supposed to mean to us as observers of this bizarre turn of events? I believe that seeing the reader (Duane) react the way he did when learning of his free will should make us hope that Kilgore Trout will avoid the same pratfall that his own reader fell prey to–and that in turn we will be rooting for ourselves as readers to remember that we are free and individual beings and to remember that everyone else has free will. I believe this was what Vonnegut intended, because in addition to his being a Humanist, he as a character talks to himself in the book, saying, “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself. “I know,” I said. “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I told myself. “I know,” I said.” I believe that Vonnegut is attempting to rectify the damage done by Duane in Vonnegut’s writing a terrible book–and as penance, Vonnegut actually reveals something painful about himself in the very book that he seemed to think he had failed to write. Vonnegut’s mother actually had killed herself, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Vonnegut used this deus ex machina as a way to create a meta-narrative that captures the true Humanistic empathy that he had tried (and allegedly failed) to achieve in the first place. This is admirable both because Vonnegut bares himself to us and also has the courage to admit that he has failed. This incredible ballsy action alone has my vote for the best Post-Modernist work out there. This idea of empathy is very important both in my explanation of Vonnegut’s effectiveness as well as my ultimate “division” between good and bad Post-Modernism.

Another author who has passed his prime, but who has used self-reference to very great effect is Philip Roth. Throughout most of his books Roth has used the persona of Nathan Zuckerman to speak in a fictional mode for the author himself. This method works on two fronts: first of all, the reader is given to engage with a narrator whose experiences are fictionalized, but very much a part of every day experiences of every day people. This sounds like a terribly boring way to engage with a story, but the way Roth does it is that he places his characters in situations that are able to be identified with by almost anyone. As an author, Roth does something that is not common in Post-Modernism by placing his characters in positions that are almost cliche in their familiarity, rather than the trend formed by some Post-Modernists in which characters and situations displayed are some of the most esoteric. It’s this engagement with the familiar and borderline cliche that makes Roth so different from the other members of his generation.

The second face of Post-Modernism is the writers who delight in planting red herrings and playing around with their characters to the point of frustration and desertion. The first of these authors is Thomas Pynchon, whose book The Crying of Lot 49 will be the focus of this paragraph. However, his book, V. is another one I consider to be firmly in this vein. In the former, Pynchon’s character, Oedipa tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Trystero, a mysterious trumpet-shaped mark appearing on envelopes that have been sent without using a stamp. She suspects some sort of conspiracy and spends the entirety of the book looking for the answer to her questions, along the way discussing entropy, Maxwell’s Hammer, and many other mathematical and scientific subjects of interest. However, by the end of the book, absolutely nothing is resolved and the reader is left to wonder why he took the time to read these 15o pages he’s holding in his hand. And if he was in a particularly bad mood to begin with before reading the end of the story, said reader might just throw the book across the room. The reason I place Pynchon in this realm of Post-Modernists who are nihilistic and desert their readers is because, though Oedipa has a clear cause to pursue and lines of questioning to follow, we are left at the end of the book with her having not an answer at all, as if saying that the quest for answers is futile, even to the point that it is futile for readers to expect answers or even coherent plot endings from the authors whose works they happen to be reading. And those authors have the option of having us draw that conclusion–but if that is so, then readers have the option of calling their plots nihilistic and devoid of real heart. These books suffer from the symptom of having too much brains and not enough heart to satisfy the reader who reads to find something out about people.

If Pynchon has a penchant for frustrating readers, he is merely a peon in that arena when it comes to the real master of these types of books, Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure if Nabokov ever wrote a novel that didn’t fuck around with his readers and for this reason I will never acknowledge his anointed spot at the upper echelon of American writers. Nabokov’s novels that I will focus on in my argument are: Lolita and Pale Fire. First of all, the book Lolita, though having the possibility of being a touching novel (as touching as a novel written by a pedophile can be), ends up falling short because of Nabokov’s love of verbal pyrotechnics, drawing comparisons between him and the later David Foster Wallace. However, where Wallace succeeds in tearing down walls between himself, his characters, and his reader, that is where Nabokov completely fails. Throughout the story, Nabokov uses Humbert Humbert not as a man telling his own story of how he loved a girl and ended up loving a woman as his own mouthpiece with which to spout lots of verbal effluvium and alliterative rationalizations. Though the beginning of the story begins nicely, with Humbert Humbert setting his eyes on Lolita, the plot takes a turn for the worse as soon as Lolita’s mother dies and Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip. Soon enough, seesawing begins with the narrator–suddenly we can tell his is playing with us and there is no reason for Humbert not to have skipped straight to the climax of Lolita and him sleeping together and then moving the story along. Instead we are given pages upon pages of details about the road trip and by this time the reader begins to feel Nabokov behind Humbert Humbert, sitting there stringing the reader along to see what happens next. But nothing happens–even in the climactic scene, if you don’t pay attention, you miss everything! By the end of the book, you don’t care that Humbert kills someone who slept with Lolita, though they are the same person and you don’t care that Lolita is pregnant and Humbert finds that he is still in love with her. I can think of no greater failing for an author to have missed creating a feeling in a reader when there is so much potentially there for the reader to feel.

Second, the book Pale Fire is as far as I can tell, a book about the effects of the editor on posthumous works. The book  Pale Fire is actually a book of poetry, cantos written by the poet John Shade. The editor of the book is the one who has finally procured publication for Shade’s work. The editor, in addition, has an introductory note and appendix and afterword, thus overshadowing Shade’s contribution to his own work. Though Shade’s death is suspicious and our interest is aroused by the editor at the beginning, we begin to tire because we see that there will be no actual revelation about Shade’s murder, just more talking on the editor’s part in order to be heard under the guise of “giving informative background” about Shade and the editor’s relationship to Shade. Though we begin to suspect the editor himself, we are left by the end of the book, wondering whether the book was actually a poem or a book about a poem. Either way, the book becomes so up its own ass about the idea of critical theory taking over literature that it misses the fact that a book intending to critique this phenomena only served to become the prime example of it, thus rendering the point pointless. Again, all this would be forgiven if Nabokov had ever given us a character for whom we could root and for whom we could feel. We are given neither in either of these books.

I would write more on this subject, but I’m bored of it now, because I’m sick of analyzing lack of sincerity and I’ve had this saved on my wordpress queue for ever. So, I will leave you with this: sincerity is not something to be sneered at–it’s something that the very best of authors cultivate and strive their hardest toward. Honesty and sincerity dovetail, one can rarely be found without the other. And these authors who I have give compliments to have done just that. I encourage you to avoid the influence of the others who are basically terrible and in my mind strive toward neither sincerity nor honesty.

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