It’s a typical response to have someone show the white of their eyes when the postmodern movement of any artistic form is broached in conversation. It speaks to cheap whisky being swirled in the cupped hand of a twenty-something dickhead in an over-tight blazer, regurgitating a half-remembered syllabus. Hypocrisy, thy name is ‘me’.
But whether it is fine art, music, or literature, there is merit to be had in the discussion thereof. And if not the discussion, certainly in a personal appreciation. Sift through the pretentious application of this knowledge among young people leant against bars, and there are fascinating works to be enjoyed and bandied around. Too often it is simpler to turn one’s nose up in derision at such discussions, rather than to engage with, and appreciate, the beginnings, and touchstones of literary movements. For that is what is to be discussed, the nature of postmodern fiction.
Note the use of ‘fiction’, rather than ‘literature’. Not all engagement with the written word needs to be decidedly academic. In fact, the last motivation for this post is to be didactic. To read for enjoyment, should be just that, joyous. A little dramatic perhaps, but a quintessential truth. No one ought to read a book because they feel they ought to. This is a wholly different pursuit. Certainly tip the hat to someone with Ulysses or War and Peace under their belt, but one can guarantee this is rarely done for enjoyment. Quality fiction is not defined by its being a hefty hard-cover that people need recognise as fine literature. Brilliant works of fiction are often ca. 150-page gems. Defunct paperbacks that yellow and curl, never to find particular glory or fame. Luckily enough, this is not always the case.
Such an example of something that will thankfully remain celebrated, is Kurt Vonnegut’s (dare I say) masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five. A jarring title, something that sounds like a deformed fifth-child of a slasher series,. The title’s namesake is actually that of the shed in which everyman Billy Pilgrim spends the evening of the blanket bombing of Dresden in 1945. The infinitesimal significance of a single shed in the fire-storm that left the city a barren plan of melted wax and silence, speaks to the purport of the novel, and postmodernism itself.
Celebrated as anti-war in a remarkably original way, Vonnegut achieves a great deal in his postmodern archetype. It is a remarkably self-aware work, operating in a space of irony, that typifies the keen wit that is so often present in postmodern works of merit. Vonnegut, like similarly talented peers, employs effective brevity and sophisticated minimalism. A declarative style of removed story-telling, that so often names characters when subjecting them. This accentuates any use of pronoun as something that white-faces characters, making such use a vehicle of intentional anonymity. Stay with me.
Any reader who has been subject to works of romanticism, or some contemporary popular fiction that are turgid with rapt description, is familiar with the overwhelming wet-paint feel of an environment, character, or thought. These abject adjectives that seek to richen a text, often do so to sickly-sweet density, or dilute what is else-wise an enjoyable work. Postmodernism inherently avoids this, and is champion of economic prose, a style that is refreshing and engaging, bereft of needless ornamentalism. American novelists of this calibre are particularly skilled with this art of language. To hew only a single quality line from a paragraph that would elsewise impart the same information, does not suggest oversimplification if done with taste and time. Compassion, horror, and humour can be effectively handled in but a few phrases.
So it goes
Vonnegut’s work is at the vanguard of such stylistic efficacy, and he uses language to craft a metafictional wonder of dark humour. He writes a world around a man who is an optometrist, psuedo-soldier, and occupant of an alien zoo, always has been, and always will be, before and after his death. He plays with time, and an awareness of each moment being self-contained but omnipresent and ever-relational to all other moments. The story itself is prefaced with the narrator speaking to his writing of a war novel, and then writing the novel within Vonnegut’s, telling how the piece starts and ends, before it is presented to the reader. Thus the work itself begins and ends before we experience it, a concept that is intrinsic to the work itself, and the view of time and existence that readers are encouraged to adopt. It’s far less cryptic than it may read here, it is more arduous to express what is done, than it is to experience it. Treat yourself to reading it, rather than swimming in a stumbling decantation of what needs none.
It is difficult to steer around such phrases as ‘engaging with’, when seeking to discuss a discourse such as postmodernity, and a particular text, in such a brief piece. Similarly, I aim to remain conversational, and avoid this reading as a literary ‘review’ as such. It may be that this has failed. Regardless, lets discuss metaficiton. ‘Meta’ is derived from a Greek preposition meaning ‘of the self’, and is used in the English language as a prefix marking the subject as self-referential. Basically, something being some next-level shit. This has recently become prominent in popular culture through some box-office films, and has been apparent in text and cinema for some time.
Cabin in the Woods was a fantastic example of a ‘meta’ work, a film that was self-aware in its approach to horror, and appreciative of umbrella concepts of scepticism and tasteless tack. To engage with the latter two, is to disarm their critique of the film itself, for the writers and directors of such films have acknowledged the artificiality of the form, and both laugh yet appreciate the discourse of horror.
To speak specifically to metanarrative, and perhaps illustrate the nature of its operation, one may take The Place Beyond the Pines. Metanarrative is an idea of a higher awareness of story. Of each story existing within a grander one, and each narrative’s awareness of the other. Those who are familiar with the film, can appreciate its being a perfect example of this concept. Each story is in its own way self-contained, but contributory to the grander narrative. This lends an awareness of the intertextuality not only existent in the work, and works like it, but that of life itself. We each in our own lives experience small stories, which knit together to form larger ones, that overlap into those of others, trickling upward into the way of the world, the story.
Oh yes, postmodernism is tasty, and is certainly a style that one will thankfully lose their feet in. It exists in the world of the moment of suspension after closing the back cover of a humbling read. With your sitting in the dark as kernel-covered film-goers file out of the cinema, and you’re not quite ready to go. I’m certainly not.
Recommended postmodern reads:
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace