Category Archives: Novels

The Shackles of Typification


Art is a constant advance, of cyclical invention and reinvention. Each new style or movement is formulated, “perfected”, denied, revised and rebutted. A great deal of discourse is appreciated only in retrospect, or as a depreciated style of work that served only as a necessary step towards superior form. In fiction, this is a wonderful past. A great arcing story of stories, told over and again, with fresh sheen from a new hand. To cast over all fiction that there is, or ever was, nets a beautiful, technicolour catch.

Naturally, such a vast discourse is sub-categorized. It is in our nature to set boundaries and definitions, to styles and movements. Appreciation of fiction as one great beast is a wonderfully compelling, but neatness and academia call for brass-tagged collars on the otherwise stray, movements and ‘genres’. As so many artistic platforms swaggered through the back half of the twentieth century, phases of postmodernity and a new space of creation began. Application of simple definitions has become difficult. Lines of demarcation between classes of fiction have become unclear.

What are you talking about?!

What are you talking about?!

Where we are now in terms of a ‘literary world’, one might contend that a liminal space has existed for sometime. That as we further define the nature of Postmodernism, so it becomes a retrospective; an account of a time that has passed. It only falls upon such academic classifications to exist, after enough literature exists to define the movement. Postmodernism is in full swing – or so they say – and in a decade’s time there will exist discourse of yet-unnamed movements occurring now. We the people are constantly looking to set constraints of periodization, and lay whatever mile-markers manageable  Thus there exists a freedom of discussion, as to the comprehension of the contemporary literary space. What a lark.
Now all this is very well-to-do. Outlining a certain ‘freedom’ to discuss and define. What we seek to discuss, is the role of genre, in contemporary fiction. First, of course, one must speak to the phenomenon of genre. A handful of characteristics, a set of cornerstones, upon which to rest a work, or to define one by. Stylistic representations, translations and dilutions. The vanilla of Gothic Horror, sentimental, with its turrets, ravens, and perpetual thunderstorms. Men of harrowing intention and chilling gaze. Fashion abandons melodrama, to move to the explicit ‘Modern Horror’ – Cosmic Horror, Dark Romance, and gory hyper-intensive Splatterpunk. Genre has evolved with taste and experimentation, yet even with its evolution and the hybridity of new forms, its difficult for one to be satisfied with its being the sole qualifier.

Genre is a fickle thing. A useful measure in many regards, this is difficult to deny. Genre can serve to steer interest, assign flavour-names to books for when a certain part of one’s palette is whetted. Without genre,  to wander around a library would certainly be more difficult. But such lineated definition of anything can serve to alter the nature of the defined. With genre categorizations, comes the fencing of clear pens, to which works may or may not belong. Pieces which work with intention to these spaces are discussed as works of ‘Genre Fiction’, a term sometimes hissed by literary academics.

Genre Fiction requires little discussion, as to definition. These glossed paperbacks line shelves and satisfy needs, and are by no measure depreciated as a result thereof. A queer minority would enjoy leafing through Ulysses on every holiday or Sunday afternoon. Serialized works of Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, and our trouble-child George Martin, each fit the bill. Crime, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Romance, Science Fiction, all the block-letter signs of book shops.

The current prominence of genre is a far greater one than it has enjoyed before, and the future is blinding for Genre Fiction. The market of those looking for a read of formulaic satisfaction is growing, not only in literature, but similarly in film and television. There’s a grinning git somewhere turning a great crank on the machine of RomComs, and a board of chuckling executives bandying around outrageous ideas for fresh Reality Television. The issue really at hand, is that of other fiction being confused with, or eclipsed by, Genre Fiction. A work’s embodying a few aesthetics that also belong to a composition of Genre Fiction, may often lead to an immediate and holistic classification of it; the reading of a book by its cover. This is a sorry sentence for a work of individual style and application.
An apt example is that of the novel touched on during last weeks discussion, Slaugherhouse Five. It is both a work with elements of Science Fiction, and those of a War novel, but to classify it purely as either, is a gross misjudgment. For each phrase lugs heavy connotation. ‘Science Fiction’ immediately foregrounds all associations with the genre, the ‘woosh’ of doors, squealing of lasers, Area-51 and pale blue gimp-men with bulbous heads. We think of worn, tacky series’, heroes with bowl-cuts and cheap outfits, or plot-driven works, stumbling from climax to climax, because this is what we’ve been taught to do. Film, television, and written fiction, all share very similar terms of genre, the words are the same, and thus it is difficult to separate the semantics. In the case of science fiction, Star Trek is usually the front-runner of immediate association, and Slaughterhouse Five is certainly its own beast.

"Don't you tell me my own business"

“Don’t you tell me my own business”

Similarly suitable, and with a cinematic adaptation on hand, is Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Certainly the piece is placed in time beyond ours, with well-advanced technology, and a society that is foreign to us. But for Androids to be ham-fisted through a simple siv, diluted to ‘a Sci-Fi novel’, perhaps does it an injustice. Perhaps this is idiosyncratic or pedantic, for any author of a work – be it however true to a genre – may grit their teeth at linear interpretation. The difficulty with typification, is the immediate constraints that are inevitability associated. The natural tendency of people is to crave an overriding thesis, a theoretical discourse by which to digest a work in advance. The importance of a work to be experienced as it is, without being suffocated by genre, intimidation to “understand” it, each infinitesimal reference, or find a grand between-the-lines design, is a great one. Fiction is written to be read by each in their own way, and asks for little else.
Works to just, read:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

The Handmaid’s Tail – Margaret Atwood

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

The War of the Worlds – H.G Wells

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon



Signed, Sealed, and Lost in the Postmodernity


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.


So it goes.

Postmodern Brevity
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.


A dream, within a dream?

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