Queer Time in Edmund White’s [A Boy’s Own Story]

Front cover of Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (1982)

Front cover of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982)

Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story is a coming-of-age novel centered on the sexual awakening of a queer teenage boy in the Midwest during the 1950s. The novel discusses topics such as the corruption of innocence, the pressures of masculinity in the lives of young boys, the emergence of childhood sexuality, and the exploration of humanity through the lens of homosexuality. The unnamed narrator of the novel quickly addresses the issues that he has in terms of his body and his sense of masculinity. He feels as if his “feminine” qualities–such as his voice, his mannerisms, and his overall attitudes– not only prevent him from bonding with other people, but that they also prevent him from obtaining any of the power that promised to those who embody the masculine myth. The narrator notices that everything from the way he sits to the way he acts marks his body as Other, and he even goes as far as to point out that he often fails small and meaningless quizzes used to assess his masculinity:

A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward–or perhaps the reverse, I can’t recall). (9)

The structure of this novel can seem slightly confusing, especially since it deviates from the traditional linear narrative that we have come to expect when reading coming-of-age novels. The first chapter, for instance, begins when the narrator is fifteen years-old. In this chapter, he painstakingly describes a relationship that he has with Kevin, the twelve year-old son of a guest that visits his summer home. In this chapter, the narrator describes how he paradoxically wants to be considered heterosexual while still being loved by a man. His relationship with Kevin slowly but surely starts to teach him how sex is not only a physical act, but how it is also a discursive act–leading him to realize that sex is also “a social rite that registered, even brought about shifts in the balance of power, but something that was discussed more than performed” (198). Because of this realization, he notices how performance and discourse shapes and forms his relationships with other men. For instance, he approaches Kevin as the “older” and more “dominant” person in the relationship because he is the more confident person of the two, and because he controls what happens during sexual intercourse:

I was chagrined by [his] clowning because I’d already imagined Kevin as a sort of husband. No matter that he was younger; his cockiness had turned him into the Older One (23).

The first chapter concludes by depicting how the narrator and Kevin part ways, and the second chapter goes back an entire year, allowing the narrator to discuss events that shaped who he is in his present day. Subsequent chapters go back in time even further, depicting events that the narrator encounters when he was twelve and seven years-old. The jumping back and forth between the past and the present not only disrupts the linearity of the coming-of-age narrative, but it also presents, as Elizabeth Freeman would put it, a manifestation of queer time. 

In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, Elizabeth Freeman describes queer time as a “hiccup in sequential time” that “has the capacity to connect a group of people beyond monogamous, enduring couplehood” (3). Furthermore, queer time allows queer subjects to envision alternative structures and forms of belonging, precisely because it deviates from the linearity and “productivity” of chrononormativity–in which human bodies arrange their time and bodies towards maximum productivity. In A Boy’s Own Story, queer time manifests through this combination of the past and the present, precisely because the narration deviates from the productive and generative elements that are closely associated with narratives of personal development. White, rather than depicting growth and development as sequential events, the narrator approaches them as fractured and disjointed processes. Rather than offering readers an equation, in which event 1, event 2, and event 3 equal the narrator, White disrupts temporality by beginning with event 3, going back to event 1, and covering the decimal points (small or micro events) that occur between these numbers. I think that this novel embraces queerness through it’s denial of both chronos (sequential time) and kairos (significant time), in favor of small non-sequential and non-significant time. This is particularly clear in the fourth chapter of the novel, in which the narrator breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader:

in writing one draws in the rest, the forgotten parts. One even composes one’s improvisations into a quite new face never glimpsed before, the likeness of an invention. Busoni once said he prizes the most those empty passages composers make up to get from one “good part” to another. He said such womanlike but minor transitions reveal more about a composer–the actual vernacular of his imagination–than the deliberately bravura moments. I say all this by way of hoping that the lies I’ve made up to get from one poor truth to another may mean something–may even mean something most particular to you, my eccentric, patient, scrupulous reader, willing to make so much of so little, more patient and more respectful of life, or a life, than the author you’re allowing for a moment to exist again. (84)

I believe that this passage is quite significant, because it highlights the role that queer time plays in the novel’s political agenda. By disrupting linearity and by painstakingly focusing on minor events, the reader must develop patience and spend more time concentrating on the narrator’s words rather than on major events. The narrator affirms that by reading his words, the reader becomes not only more respectful of the narrator’s life, but the reader also brings the narrator back into existence. Therefore, through the act of reading, one gives the narrator a sense of legitimacy that was denied to him during his childhood. This interpretation gains even more validity when taking into account that most of the novel is focused on the narrator’s struggle to survive in his society, and even more so, his struggle to be approached and categorized as a legitimate human being. The narrator, for instance, acknowledged that he has little time to focus on “theory” or “philosophy” because he is too busy focusing on pragmatic aspects of his life such as survival. This notion is evidenced when the narrator compares himself to his jockish friend, Tom, who spends most of his time daydreaming and philosophizing:

Ironic, then, that [Tom] was the one who did all the thinking, who had the taste for philosophy–ironic but predictable, since his sovereignty gave him the ease to wonder about what it all meant, whereas I had to concentrate on means, not meaning. The meaning seemed quite clear: to survive and then to become popular. (113)

Although popularity may at first be approached as a self-centered and selfish goal, it is important to keep in mind that the narrator believes that popularity will give him the recognition and the legitimacy that he has been denied in his life, not only because he is queer, but also because he is unable to situate himself within the frame of traditional masculinity that his father upholds. Popularity would give the narrator the means to become a legitimate person rather than an unreal subject:

Being popular was equivalent to becoming a character, perhaps even a person, since if to be is to be perceived, then to be perceived by many eyes and with envy, interest, respect, or affection is to exist more densely, more articulately, ever last detail minutely observed and thereby richly rendered. (127)

All in all, A Boy’s Own Story is a rich and provocative novel that definitely raises interesting insights in terms of the role that temporality plays within the issues of livability that haunt all queer lives. The narrative is at times convoluted and difficult to follow, but getting lost is definitely an essential component towards grasping the novel’s central themes and agenda.

You can purchase a copy of White’s novel by clicking here.

 

Works Cited

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

White, Edmund. A Boy’s Own Story. New York: Plume, 1982. Print.

 

 

Fact Versus Fiction: Alan Hollinghurst’s [The Line of Beauty]

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004)

Front cover of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2004)

I find it so easy to get lost in the elegance and artistry of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. I originally planned to read this book in a day or two, but it took me a while longer simply because I was so enthralled and moved by the novel’s baroque descriptions and its aesthetic focus on issues pertaining to gayness and queerness during the 1980s. Blurring the lines between gay historical fiction, the Bildungsroman, and the novel of mannersThe Line of Beauty explores the lines that divide British upper-class and middle-class society, and the relationship between homosexual identity and class during the conservative boom in the United Kingdom under the rule of  Margaret Thatcher. Even more so, Hollinghurst’s novel offers readers an opportunity to examine the heartbreaking effects of AIDS during the rise of the disease.

The novel centers on the life and experiences of Nick Guest in his early twenties, as he graduates from Oxford University and begins a postgraduate degree in English at another university–where he specializes on the issue of style in the works of Henry James. Nick becomes close friends with Toby and Catherine, who are the children of Gerald Fedden, a wealthy Member of the British Parliament. Although Toby and Nick are best friends, Nick becomes very close and intimate with Catherine, a manic-depressive. Because of Nick’s ability to understand and help Catherine, Gerald invites Nick to stay in his mansion so that he can keep a watchful eye over his daughter. Nick stays at the Fedden residence for four years; here, he not only learns about the radical differences that exist between the lavish lifestyle of the Feddens and his own middle-class upbringing, but he also begins to explore his gay identity by dating  an older and much more experienced black council worker named Leo. Although Nick is out to the Fedden family, the issue of homosexuality instills a sense of discomfort in Gerald and his wife, Rachel. The family’s attitude towards homosexuality is made apparent early in the novel, when the family discusses the case of Hector Maltby, a junior minister of the Foreign Office who was caught having sex with a rent boy in his Jaguar:

The story had been all over the papers last week, and it was silly of Nick to feel as self-conscious as he suddenly did, blushing as if he’d been caught in a Jaguar himself. It was often like this when the homosexual subject came up, and even in the Fedden’s tolerant kitchen he stiffened in apprehension about what might carelessly be said–some indirect insult to swallow, a joke to be weakly smiled at. (22)

The residents of the Fedden estate are characterized not only by their social hypocrisy, but also by their silences: by refusing to talk of certain issues, they strive to act as if said issues are minor, non-consequential, and non-existent. As a matter of fact, Nick is characterized by his penchant for concealing or hiding information to assure that certain perceptions or attitudes are upheld in the Fedden residence. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Nick discovers that Catherine, who has already attempted to harm herself, has been storing sharp tools within her bedroom. Rather than discussing this detail with Catherine’s parents, he decides to keep this information concealed to avoid upsetting Gerald and Rachel when they return from their trip. Nick not only conceals truths that he believes will upset the Fedden family, but he also has issues when it comes to separating fact from fiction–which leads to the manifestation of the vicious cycles that are so characteristic of postmodern texts:

In the course of their long conversations about men he had let one or two of his fantasies assume the status of fact, had lied a little, and had left some of Catherine’s assumptions about him unchallenged. His confessed but entirely imaginary seductions took on–partly through the special effort required to invent them and repeat them consistently–the quality of real memories. (24)

Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. (48)

As evidenced above, Nick not only strives to conceal truth to uphold his social image, but he also fabricates stories to uphold a socially appealing facade. He frets when it comes to revealing his lack of knowledge or his lack of sexual experience–to the point where his fabrications become entirely real to him, or even worse, to the point where he deliberately forgets or represses truths about himself. This is perhaps most apparent when the novel, which is comprised of three parts, transitions from part one to part two. Part one, which takes place in 1983, concludes with Nick and Leo sleeping together in the Fedden’s house. The second part of the book takes place three years later, and it begins with a description of Nick’s affair with Wani Ouradi, a multi-millionaire of Lebanese descent who is engaged to a woman. This temporal leap leaves a gap in the narrative of the story. As readers, we have no clue what happened between Leo and Nick during this three-year span–all we are sure of is that they are no longer together, and that Nick’s relationship with Wani is masochistic and unhealthy. Not only is Wani into promiscuous and unsafe sex with strangers, but he is also addicted to porn and cocaine, and he is also deeply closeted. Nick, however, remains by Wani’s side not because the relationship is practical, but rather, because Wani is beautiful. This connects to one of the novel’s main themes, in which appearances trump pragmatics and livability. This desire for beauty and for appearance ultimately affects Nick’s ability to face his own truths, as is seen in the instance in which he encounters Wani seducing a stranger:

He went across the room and put the car keys down on the side table, and when he looked back Ricky and Wani were snogging, nothing had been said, there were sighs of consent, a moment’s glitter of saliva before a shockingly tender second kiss. Nick gave a breathy laugh, and looked away, in the grip of a misery unfelt since childhood, and too fierce and shaming to be allowed to last. (173)

Later on in the novel, Nick finds out that Leo has died due to AIDS-related complications. As Leo’s sister tells Nick the news, he at first wants to lie to her by stating that Leo dumped him, but he recognizes that this lie would seem petty, especially when considering the fact that Leo is no longer alive. Although Nick convinces himself that Leo was seeing someone else, we realize that he develops this “memory” to conceal the fact that he broke up with Leo soon after finding out that he was sick– “to screen a glimpse he’d had of a much worse story, that Leo was ill” (350). It becomes clear at this point that the three-year gap in the novel represents Nick’s unwillingness to deal with or recall the truths behind his relationship with Leo. Leo’s illness, in Nick’s eyes, would corrupt his beauty and make him imperfect, which is why he pursues a relationship with the physically flawless and beautiful Wani. However, towards the conclusion of the novel, it is revealed that Wani is also dying of AIDS-related complications–thus forcing Nick to meet truth face-to-face, while simultaneously forcing him to confront the realities of his own life.

I find it interesting that Catherine, the manic-depressive sisterly figure of the novel, is represented as the only person capable of dealing with truth and looking beyond the lies fabricated by her peers. For instance, when one of her friends, Pat, dies of AIDS, her family desperately tries to conceal that he died of this illness to prevent themselves being associated with a so-called “gay-related” disease. Catherine, however, forces the family to face the truth about Pat’s death, even though this confrontation leads to public shame and embarrassment. She later tries to convince Nick that “People are lovely because we love them, not the other way round” (304), to make him realize how toxic his relationship with Wani truly is, and to prove to him that the value that we bestow to people and objects should be based on more than just aesthetics. Catherine ultimately induces both the downfall of Nick and of her father, by revealing truths to the press: she not only reveals the fact that her father is having an affair with another woman, but she also reveals how Nick and Wani’s affair is taking place within the Fedden household–thus collapsing the differences between the gay and the straight world upheld by the Fedden family. The novel isn’t explicit of whether Catherine’s thirst for truth is triggered by her depression, or whether her depression was caused by her desire for truth in a mendacious environment–but it is interesting to observe how a character with a non-normative state of mind is able to look beyond the social masks and constructs that haunt the lives of these characters.

I love this novel. It is dense, thematically rich, and it is full of gaps and plot holes. It is not an easy novel to read or follow, but it excels at portraying the triumphs and failures of characters who are enticed and enslaved by the pursuit of beauty, even at the cost of truth, pragmatism, and reality. I also appreciate how this novel uses pastiche in order to invoke historical conceptions of AIDS in a contemporary platform–especially since discussions of AIDS have unfortunately diminished since the normativization of the disease due to the advent of anti-viral medications.

What are your thoughts or impressions of this novel? Feel free to add to this conversation!

You can purchase a copy of Hollinghurst’s novel by clicking here.

Work Cited

Hollinghurst, Alan. The Line of Beauty. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004. Print (hardcover edition).

The Lying Game: Edward Albee’s [Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?]

Originally performed in 1962, Edward Albee’s dark comedy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, centers on the collapsing marriage of George, a middle-aged history professor who works at a university in New England, and Martha, the daughter of the university’s president who is six years older than George. The play opens with George and Martha arriving home at 2:00 a.m. from a faculty party–where they wait for the arrival of Nick, a newly hired biology professor, and his wife, Honey. The first act of the play focuses significantly on the violent and volatile relationship between George and Martha. Their conversations are almost always antagonistic in nature, and most of their discourse is characterized by being spiteful, bitter, and fraudulent. Even more so, their banter is explicitly approached as a “game” designed to toy around with the emotions of other people. Nick and Honey’s seemingly normal and flawless marriage, at first, seems to provide a contrast to the unstable relationship between George and Martha. However, the games that George and Martha play ultimately bring out the ugly truths and moral blemishes that both couples desperately try to conceal.

The word game is a very appropriate term to invoke when approaching the interactions between these characters. First and foremost, dialogue manifests in the play as a competition between the characters. Not only do George and Martha compete to see who can do more damage with stories and words, but all the characters bicker (constantly, I might add) about what words are the most appropriate to use in conversation. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, it seems that the goal of this competition is to see who is or isn’t able to uphold an image of perfection. Since upholding such an image is nearly impossible, the stage becomes an arena where all characters strive to tarnish the image and perception of the other characters. For instance, Martha constantly brings up George’s failures in life and in academia as points of conversation–she alludes to George’s inability to follow her father’s footsteps, his failure to obtain an administrative role in the university, and she even points out how George was unable to publish his novel (due to its violent nature) because it would tarnish the university’s reputation. On the other hand, George constantly brings up Martha’s infidelity, and he exposes other disastrous truths, such as the fact that Nick married Honey only because he thought she was pregnant, and the fact that Honey is an alcoholic who has no interest in bearing any children.

As a character, George serves as the agent who constantly up the ante in terms of the precarious nature of the games that he plays. At one point of the play, after being embarrassed and ridiculed by Martha when she discusses how she knocked George down during a boxing match, he grabs a  short-barreled shotgun and points it at Martha’s head. In a moment of black humor, it turns out that the shotgun is a gag pistol that only shoots out a flag. Although we feel relief that the gun isn’t real, this revelation does not dissipate the tension invoked during this scene. We suspect that George really possesses the potential to hurt or kill Martha–a suspicion that turns out to be true in the scene in which George strangles Martha after she discusses his inability to publish the novel he has written (p. 138). It is in this moment that the violent nature of their discourse reifies as actual violence–leading readers/spectators to question the “playful” nature of the game that is taking place.

Mendacity reigns supreme as the play’s plot unfolds. George and Martha, for instance, constantly refer to their imaginary child–although we are led to believe that their son actually exists, it is revealed towards the end of the play that they “couldn’t have” (239) any children. This fabrication increases the voltage of the tension that exists in their marriage. George and Martha view this imaginary child as a force that keeps their marriage intact; referring to the child becomes a game in and of itself. The rule of this game, however, is that they can never refer to the child to anyone other than themselves–a rule that Martha breaks at the beginning of the play: “You broke our rule, baby. You mentioned him . . . you mentioned him to someone else” (237). The reason that this rule is imposed is because it is a lie that would be difficult to defend and uphold since it is not hinged on reality in any way. As soon as Martha mentions the existence of a child to Nick and Honey, the couple argues about their child’s basic facts and traits, especially in terms of his physical appearance:

MARTHA (To George)

Our son does not have blue hair . . . or blue eyes, for that matter. He has green eyes . . . like me.

GEORGE

He has blue eyes, Martha.

MARTHA (Determined)

Green.

GEORGE

Blue, Martha.

MARTHA (Ugly)

GREEN! (To HONEY and NICK) He has the loveliest green eyes . . . they aren’t flaked with brown and gray, you know . . . hazel . . . they’re real green . . . deep, pure green eyes . . . like mine.

NICK (Peers)

Your eyes are . . . brown, aren’t they? (p. 75)

In this instance, the child’s existence as a game becomes even more obvious. The child induces discussions of a schizophrenic nature: Martha and George approach the child as a reflection of their ideal selves, and even more so, they approach the child as a scapegoat figure meant to absorb the tensions that exist between them. Rather than dealing with their problems in an explicit and honest fashion, they express their problems through the medium of the imaginary child. The child is simultaneously a son who reaches out to the father instead of the mother because he is looking for “advice, for information, for love that wasn’t mixed with sickness” while also being a son “so ashamed of his father he asked [Martha] once if it–possibly–wasn’t true, as he had heard, from some cruel boys, maybe, that he was not [their] child” (226). In due course, it becomes clear that they weren’t supposed to talk about the child with other people for it would force themselves and others to confront how truth is twisted and fabricated by the couple. This avoidance is impossible because it is based on trying to create a sense of organization within an environment that thrives on chaos, as George makes quite clear in the play:

You take the trouble to construct a civilization . . . to . . . to build a society, based on the principles of . . . of principle . . . you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind . . . you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same . . . you bring things to the saddest of all points . . . to the point where there is something to lose . . .then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. (117)

Towards the conclusion of the play, all of the characters are not only forced to confront the information that they have deliberately concealed, but they also come face-to-face with the inability of constructions to fully support the weight of their realities. Despite the image that they try to convey to the world, they cannot escape the grip of veracity. Even more so, both couples realize that they cannot comply with the stipulations and expectations of grand narratives such as marriage and family: both marriages in the play are unable to uphold an image or harmony and perfection, both unions are sterile in that they won’t produce offspring (thus challenging associations of family and futurity), and furthermore, love is not the element that brought these people together. The play shows the lengths that people go through to comply with grand narratives while simultaneously overthrowing the validity of these narratives in the first place. Their games, their lives, are based on constructed ideas and ideals that do not necessarily reflect the reality or the truth of their situations.

The play strikingly concludes with Martha confessing that she is afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her fear is completely grounded and rational because Virginia Woolf knows. After all, Woolf’s works are known for their use of uncensored stream of consciousness, in which readers gain an all-access look into the thoughts that are running through a character’s head. Unlike the world of George and Martha, Virginia Woolf’s world holds little room for secrets, and even less room for contortions of truth or reality. The figure, or better said, the idea of Virginia Woolf would be able to look beyond the game that these characters desperately try to play.

You can purchase a copy of Albee’s play by clicking here.

Work Cited

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? New York: Scribner Classics, 2003. Print (hardcover edition).

What is Postmodern Literature?

Defining the parameters of postmodern literature is a daunting task, due not only to disagreements about what texts can or can’t be approached as postmodern, but also to the paradoxical and elusive nature of the postmodern movement. Paradoxical seems to be an effective word to invoke when approaching postmodern literature–as Barry Lewis points out in his distillation of Linda Hutcheon’s views in his essay entitled “Postmodernism and Fiction,” postmodern works simultaneously create and destabilize meaning and conventions in their ironic or critical use of works from the past (171). Given that the postmodern movement embraces instability and skepticism as its main traits, how do we even begin to grasp what literature can or can’t be approached as postmodern? In this post, I will briefly trace out the major components of postmodernity and postmodern literature using the 2011 edition of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism (RCP)–and when appropriate, I will bring in original examples to illuminate some of the points made in the text.

Before addressing the issue of postmodern literature, it’s important to quickly overview elements, trends, and perspectives that can be approached as postmodern. In the introduction to the RCP, Stuart Sims points out that postmodernity is characterized by skepticism and rejection, particularly the rejection of cultural progress, and even more so, the implementation of universalizing theories or grand narratives (sometimes called metanarratives). I am reminded of a universalizing theory when recalling a conversation I once had with one of my literature professors, in which she claimed that all narratives are either about “sex or war.”  A postmodern stance against my professor’s claim would argue for the inability of sex and war to constitute the totality of a particular narrative. The issue with grand narratives is that in their effort to generalize, they fail to account for experiences and beliefs that do not fit within their parameters or confines. To claim, for instance, that literature is the study of the ideas of “dead white men” would imply a failure to recognize other literatures produced by non-male and non-white authors.

In the TED-ED video entitled "What Makes a Hero," Matthew Winkler discusses the elements and conventions that most stories on heroism embrace. Winkler identifies a blueprint that most epic tales share--thus developing a universalizing theory of the elements that shape heroism in fiction. While postmodernists do not deny the existence of universalizing theories, they are skeptical about them. Wherein lies the "danger" of approaching all epic tales through this metanarrative? Another question we can ask is: how do postmodern tales on heroism challenge or refute the hero's grand narrative?

Postmodernists not only reject grand narratives, but they also embody an “anti-authoritarian” position when approaching and analyzing the world and its cultural productions. In other words, postmodernists distrust any entity or agency that tries to control or regulate what people can or cannot do, and they also distrust any agent or element that tries to fixate the meaning that something possesses (or can ultimately possess). As Sims states in his introduction to postmodernism, “To move from the modern to the postmodern is to embrace scepticism about what our culture stands for and strives for” (vii). It might become clear at this point that the aims or stances of postmodernity and poststructuralist theories go hand-in-hand. As Sims puts it,

Poststructuralism has been an influential part of the cultural scene since the 1960s, but nowadays it can be seen to be part of a more general reaction to authoritarian ideologies and political systems that we define as postmodernism. (x)

Thus, it is unsurprising to observe that after the advent of postmodernity, ideas such as Barthe’s death of the author began to emerge in the study of literature and the arts; even theoretical fields such as queer theory arose after the advent of the postmodern movement. Both the death of the author and queer theory are anti-authoritarian in their outlook: the death of the author discredits the ability of an author to dictate what his/her work can or can’t mean to an interpreter, whereas queer theory is designed to assume a position against normativity to challenge binaristic thinking and the regulation of identities. Much more than being a genre or a typology, postmodernism can be approached as an attitude that is reactionary, especially towards the ideas and ideals perpetuated in the modernist movement (e.g. the divide between low and high culture, the view of humanity as an entity that is perpetually improving and progressing, among others). As Lloyd Spencer puts it in his discussion on “Postmodernism, Modernity and the Tradition of the Dissent,” postmodernity’s anti-authoritarian alignment is the element that continues to give this attitude strength and relevance, even in the face of its critics:

One way of drawing the line between postmodernism and its critics is to focus on postmodernism’s refusal of the utopian, dream-like elements which have accompanied the constant change of modernity. Modernisms, including Marxism, dreamt of a better world. Legislating for this world on the basis of this dream of a better one is seen as the cardinal sin of that modernism which postmodernism seeks to go beyond. (220)

Returning to Barry Lewis’ essay on “Postmodernism and Fiction,” he claims that postmodernism underwent an “epistemic break” during the 1990s, creating a distinction between what he calls first-wave postmodernism and second-wave postmodernism. During the first wave, postmodernism referred to “an overlapping set of characteristics that applied to a particular set of novelists, bound together by their simultaneous acceptance/rejection of earlier traditions of fiction” (169). First-wave postmodern texts not only challenged the divide between high-literature and low-literature that was fostered by modernists such as Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot, but they were also known for being “self-reflexive, playful and exceedingly aware of the medium of language in an attempt to revivify the novel form” (169). A good example of how this self-reflexive and playful nature manifests in a literary text can be seen in John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” In Barth’s short story, what at first seems to be a conventional coming-of-age story quickly metamorphoses into a critique on literary conventionality and ordinary structure. The text not only exposes how conventional plots work, but it actively highlights and questions its own structure, plot, and content.

When Lewis refers to the literary characteristics that postmodern authors embrace and reject, he is referring mostly to well-known literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme. These conventions are challenged and shattered both in first-wave and second-wave postmodernism through features such as:

    1. Temporal Disorder – This refers not only to the disruption of the past, but also the disruption of the present. Anachronism in historical postmodern fiction is an effective example of temporal disorder because it flaunts “glaring inconsistencies of detail or setting” (173). For an example, take Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which depicts and alters the biographical facts of the 16th president of the U.S. Other postmodern novels alter the present by deviating from ordinary time (chronos) and focusing on various instances of significant time (kairos), as exemplified by novels such as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–which is known for its overwhelming plethora of events and characters.
    2. Pastiche – Alluding to the act of piecing things together, as in the case of a collage, pastiche is a postmodern aesthetic that “actively encourages creative artists to raid the past in order to set up a sense of dialogue between it and the present” (231). Pastiche came to prominence when artists realized that the contemporary moment presents little room for originality because everything has been said and done before–leading postmodern artists to “pluck existing styles higgledy-piggledy from the resevoir of literary history” (173). A good example of pastiche would be Art Spiegelman’s Mausa graphic memoir that depicts a son who tries to create a work based on his father’s experiences as a Polish Jew in the Holocaust.
    3. Fragmentation – Perhaps one of the most prominent elements of postmodern texts, fragmentation refers to the breakdown of plot, character, theme, and setting. Plot, for instance, is not presented in a realistic or chronological fashion, bur rather, as “slabs of event and circumstance” (173). Take for instance Sandra Cisnero’s The House on Mango Street (1984), which is told through a series of memories or vignettes rather than through the traditional narrative structure expected from a coming-of-age novel.
    4. Looseness of Association – The incorporation of chance into the reading of a narrative text (e.g. pages in a random and disorganized order, or a program that scrambles the order of the pages in a text).
    5. Paranoia – Paranoia refers to the distrust in a system or even a distrust in the self. Postmodern texts often reflect paranoia by depicting an antagonism towards immobility and stasis. A notable example of a literary text that invokes postmodern paranoia would be Tony Kushner’s 1993 play Angels in America
    6. Vicious Circles – These circles manifest when the boundaries between the real world and the world of the text are collapsed, either through the incorporation of the author into the narrative, or through the incorporation of a historical figure in a a fictional text.

If first-wave and second-wave postmodernism share these traits, what differentiates the two? According to Lewis, the differing element would be experimentation. Whereas the features mentioned above were employed in first-wave postmodernism as a way of challenging the authority and dominance of literary conventions such as plot, setting, character, and theme, they are employed in second-wave postmodernism simply because they have become integrated with the dominant literary culture. Thus, fiction produced during second-wave postmodernism is crafted during a time in which “postmodernist fiction itself became perceptible as a kind of ‘style’ and its characteristic techniques and themes came to be adopted without the same sense of breaking new ground” (170). Notable examples of second-wave are novels such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I hope that this post gives you a better idea of the notions that constitute postmodernism and postmodern literature. I highly recommend The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism if you want to learn more about this “attitude” and “genre” with more nuance, and if you want to better understand how postmodernism manifests in other areas besides the literary, such as genre, sexuality, music, and popular culture, among others.

You can purchase a copy of The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism by clicking here.

All essays cited in this discussion can be found in:

Sims, Stuart (ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. 3rd Edition. London: Routledge, 2011. Print.