Figures of Belatedness: Postmodernist Fiction in English
Javier Gascueña Gahete & Paula Mártin Salván, eds.
Cordoba : Servicio de Publicaciones, Universidad de Cordoba, 2006
315 p., ISBN 84-7801-811-5
Reviewed by Bent Sørensen
Figures of Belatedness is a collection of essays born out of a conference on Anglophone postmodernist literature held at the University of Cordoba in Spain in 2005. Many such conference generated volumes perch uncertainly between being straight proceedings volumes with little peer review involved and genuine themed monographs with strict selection and de-selection processes performed and perhaps commissioned articles enlisted to fill unavoidable gaps, and they therefore fail to please the discerning reader who might expect encyclopedic coverage of the theme announced in the title, or at least cutting-edge new research on relatively obscure, yet interesting authors and works.
The present volume suffers slightly from this very syndrome, promising altogether too much in its title, since we are nowhere treated to an overview of ‘postmodernist fiction in English’ (nor could we realistically expect such a one-volume overview ever to be produced), but still it manages to uncover interesting and worthwhile margins of Anglophone postmodern literature and occasionally insert it in a stimulating reception debate, colored by the particulars of a Hispanic/Latin American context. Still there are major quibbles one might voice against the volume and many of those are occasioned by its being a selection of what was on offer at the particular Spanish conference, with a preponderance of young scholars engaged in the furious pace of merit gathering and career building.
This is not to say that Gahete and Salván have not done a good job of editing and highlighting the essays they have selected, given that a Europe or world-wide body of scholarship was not available to them; the volume has intrinsic interest for the picture one gets from reading through it of the current state of the art of criticism in those (surprisingly numerous) Spanish English Departments that allow scholars to engage with contemporary Anglophone fiction. The editors themselves express surprise at the sheer quantity of contributions offered up for the conference in Cordoba, and indeed not many European nations can boast such a ripe and multifaceted interest in this field.
However, I do feel that the editors make more out of the novelty and overall quality of the scholarship presented than the volume as a whole can deliver. While it just may be true that “The group of authors dealt with in this collection can be said to be a representative sample of postmodern narratives written in the English language,” as the editors claim , it is much harder to agree with the following boast:
The book is not only what we expect to be a representative overview of postmodernist narratives in English, but also a sample of the different ways in which the issue of Postmodernism has been dealt with from a wide variety of disciplines and schools of thought. 
Writers who are at best marginally postmodernist, if at all, are included, such as William Carlos Williams, James Schuyler, and many other canonical postmodernists are excluded, such as Paul Auster, John Barth, William Burroughs, etc. Thus claims of representativity should perhaps have been kept to a minimum and claims of creating an ‘overview’ left out entirely.
That aside, the merits of the writers and writings discussed and the approaches taken in the essays are considerable, especially in some of the revisions of the canonical views on postmodern superstar writers such as Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt and Thomas Pynchon, as well as in the volume’s fine first entanglements with rarely read texts and hitherto unregarded writers such as the post-postmodern generation of Dave Eggers and Mark Z. Danielewski. And it is true that the honor roll of Postmodernism’s unavoidable mainstays treated within the volume is impressive: William Gaddis (but not Donald Barthelme), Jerzy Kosinski (but not Kurt Vonnegut), Thomas Pynchon (but not John Barth), A.S. Byatt (but not Graham Swift), Tim O’Brien (but not Ishmael Reed), Salman Rushdie (but not Michael Ondaatje, Robert Kroetch, nor any of a number of other Canadians, except Yann Martel), Angela Carter and Julian Barnes (but not Kathy Acker and John Fowles), Don DeLillo (but not William Burroughs), Peter Ackroyd (but not Raymond Federman, William Gass, Ron Sukenick, etc. ), Toni Morrison (but not E.L. Doctorow)—but as the more or less randomly selected parenthetic alternatives indicate, the selection is indicative of a certain distinction, but equally so of certain exclusions.
The trend over the last twenty years of criticism on postmodernist literature has been to establish canons (which more often than not have refused to wear that very label) and to work on a collaborative project of creating what Linda Hutcheon famously (and with all the prerequisite hedgings) labeled ‘a poetics of postmodernism’ in her groundbreaking 1988 volume bearing that very title. Scholars such as Ihab Hassan, Brian McHale, Patricia Waugh, Susan Onega, Matei Calinescu, a.m.o. have participated in this affirmative work, while critics of postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton have supplied indispensable resistance to the labeling and canonization of texts and writers within this paradigm.
All of that is convincingly and conveniently summarized in Salván’s lucid introduction to the volume, which can serve as an introductory text in any postmodern fiction 101 course. Most of the scholars mentioned above wrote their seminal books in the 1980s and Salván only touches more briefly on the debates of the 1990s and the new millennium, where theorists such as Paul Maltby proposed useful and quite different conceptualizations of the body of work that the 80s established as the core postmodernist literary canon. Salván also touches upon the boundary issues concerning postmodernism and postcolonial literatures and rightly points out that one of the present volume’s strengths is that these textual corpora are brought together and examined in counterpoint by some of the individual essays.
In my opinion, the most recent and interesting trend in the critical engagement with Anglophone postmodern fiction has been a much more revisionist endeavor. The most central writers of the postmodern period in the US, in Britain and in the Commonwealth are now re-read by a new generation of scholars who tend to emphasize tradition and cohesion with the predecessor aesthetics of literary Modernism, as opposed to the comparative focus on disruption of tradition which has been prevalent in postmodern criticism since Hassan, and cosigned, each in their distinct way, each with their critical and political agenda, by McHale, Hutcheon and Jameson.
Ironically, Salván herself has been at the very forefront of this re-visioning of the postmodern canon in her provocative re-readings of Don DeLillo whose novels she convincingly resituates in a modernist tradition. Unfortunately many of the essays in the volume, and strangely also the closing theoretical contribution by her co-editor, seem stuck in the previous phase of building an ever expanding canonical field of postmodern core texts, precursor examples, fellow-travelers and also-rans. The baroque darling of the precursor searchers has long been Laurence Sterne, but otherwise the main pilfering ground has been the avant-garde of the early and mid 20th century, as witnessed here by the essays on unlikely postmodernists such as Williams and Cummings and on Schuyler. The final trend in the all-inclusive postmodernism canon building has been to deny current authors’ claims to be non-postmodernists and ‘prove’ them wrong. In the present volume García Dominguez’ essay on Ackroyd is an example of the latter tendency.
I have personally been part of the inclusion trend in my work on the postmodern roots in Beat Generations prose texts such as the novels of Jack Kerouac, but now I feel that more is perhaps to be gained by a re-examination of what we believed to be core postmodernist novelists such as DeLillo and Auster. The shared emphasis in many of their novels on the power of story-telling has long been apparent to scholars as a strangely anti-postmodern feature, but it has usually been explained away by critics in Lyotardian terms as a re-focus on local narratives rather than Grand ones. In my work on postmodern raconteurs such as Douglas Coupland, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis (who are, by the way, almost absent from the pages of this volume), I now see the roots of the post-ironic, post-postmodern narrativity that Vicente Luis Mora also celebrates in the volume’s closing essay on the Next Generation storytellers of American fiction, such as David Foster Wallace.
This collection is thus at some points straining against its own prefatory discourse of providing representativity and overviews, and instead becomes a documentation of the diversity of Anglophone fiction in the 40 years from 1965 to the present, which for many is still most conveniently labeled the postmodern period. This revelation of a perhaps unintended crack in the façade of the po-mo canon is in fact a good thing. Authors such as the 90s neo-realists and post-ironists should continue to be read in counterpoint with the first generation postmodernists. The dissident and introverted postmodernists of the 60s and 70s should continue to be read as struggling with the constraints of the last avant-garde, as well as with the moribund latent and obvious fascism of much Modernist literature. And historiographic metafiction of the 70s and 80s should more often be read in tandem with magic realism and postcolonial literature than we have hitherto done. Not all of these programmatics are fully realized within this volume, but it helps us focus on some of these new meeting points for comparative literary scholarship.
While I therefore strongly advocate potential readers to read the volume in its totality—as much for the overview of the strengths and weaknesses of one continental university tradition for engagement with recent Anglophone fiction as for insights into one particular text—I do realize that many readers will consider picking up the volume for a single or a few selected articles, often because they themselves are working with, or merely enjoy, a particular writer and her or his texts. I therefore close with a brief summary and evaluation of each analytical essay in Figures of Belatedness. The main writer treated in each essay is listed following the name of the scholar who has written the piece.*
Caballero Aceituno: Sterne
The author asserts that postmodernism is a sensibility found throughout history. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is seen as an example of such a sensibility, being a text that prefers openness and democratic reader participation over closure and elitist aesthetics. Sterne’s text is not so much a precursor of postmodernism, but rather a lens which reflects postmodernism for the critic/reader, who can learn as much about postmodernism through Tristram Shandy as she can about Tristram Shandy by reading it as a postmodernist text. The essay thus proposes that Sterne can make visible an ethos in postmodernism, which may be something postmodernism is in dire need of, according to such hostile critics as Jameson and Eagleton.
Ruiz Sánchez: Williams and Cummings
This article begins with Ihab Hassan’s rather tired dichotomies, and then proposes a connection between avant-garde (Dada) and postmodernism, investigating the connection between Dada and Williams and Cummings, but never connecting up to Postmodernism in the case of these two writers. The most interesting feature here is that Ruiz Sánchez suggests looking at Hassan’s first dichotomy, involving pataphysics as well as Dadaism, but all promise is wasted when he proceeds to misquote Hassan for proposing something called ‘paraphysics’  and then leaves it at that. It is not terribly convincing that the two poets were Dadaists either—not even in their very experimental prose works which are analyzed here. While their contemporaries did not get their playfulness, this does not seem too hard for a present-day reader to do. Perhaps they were weekend-Dadaists, occasionally slumming among the experimental prose writers, before going back to their serious day jobs as Modernist poets…
Jiménez Heffernan: Gaddis
The essay suggests that Gaddis has fallen out of the canon of so-called ‘strong’ fiction, precisely because of the demanding nature of his texts. He is being read as a postmodernist, but in actual fact deals with reality in his fiction, which both “means and matters.” A novel such as The Recognitions is thus a neo-Emersonian and neo-Platonic text in its belief in and quest for meaning. Intertextual traces, both theoretical ones leading to Benjamin and Adorno, and fictional ones leading back to Mann and forward to Thomas Bernhard, point to Gaddis being in tune with a modernist negative aesthetics, rather than a postmodern affirmative playfulness.
Jurado Bonilla: Schuyler
The article reads Schuyler’s little known novel Alfred and Guinevere as having had a central influence on other New York School texts, finding its poetics to consist of detours, diversions etc. It is an anti-diegetic text, much like poetry, consisting largely of voices uttering everyday, childish observations (the ‘protagonists’ are children). The novel is very topical in its engagement with race, class and manners—a feature it shares with the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and others. It never becomes very clear wherein the connection with postmodernism consists, but implicitly the article suggests that precursor texts may be found among the experimental writings of the 1950s, for instance in the New York School (and, I might add, in the Beat Generation prose writers, who are never once referred to in this collection).
Neumann situates Kosinski’s novel The Steps as being out of tune (or, rather, step) with a climate of “critical optimism” in US literature around 1968, exemplified by Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and, strangely, Eldridge Cleaver. The novel is seen as devoid of utopianism and telos, despite its borrowings from the form of the Bildungsroman. Rather, the main errand of the novel is to perform an analysis of the omnipresence of power relations (in a Foucaultian sense) in all human encounters and interactions. In Kosinski’s optics there is no outside to the dilemma of kill or be killed. One could therefore argue that Kosinki in this work is a dissident postmodernist in Paul Maltby’s sense.
Cruz Acevedo: Pynchon
This essay analyzes mainly Mason & Dixon (but also all Pynchon’s other novels, except The Crying of Lot 49), as attempts by Pynchon to map the unmappable. The piece ranges widely, but never deeply, from references to Derrida and Foucault, and parallels between Pynchon and Melville, Borges, Jabés and many others. Unfortunately, no clear thesis ever emerges from the analyses, but rather the piece seems an example of a philological heritage where the search for intertextual traces and influences is prioritized and comparison in itself is holy. This sits quite uncomfortably in the company of the poststructuralist theories used in the essay.
Lara Rallo: Byatt
Lara Rallo focuses on intertextuality in Byatt’s prose quartet The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman—esp. with Milton’s poetry. The essay sees intertextuality as a distinctively postmodern feature, used to draw attention to the constructedness of human identity, history and literature itself. The author points, with Linda Hutcheon, to historiographic metafiction as the postmodern novel’s main distinguishing feature. Regrettably, in this piece, as in the previous, there seems to be no further point to the article than rising to the considerable philological challenge in tracing the numerous Miltonian and other intertextualities.
Marín Madrazo: O’Brien
This proposes that absurd literature is a type of fiction particularly suited for writing about war experiences, and that Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam writings, esp. Going After Cacciato illustrate this in a postmodern fashion. Drawing upon Fokkema’s dichotomy between modernist and postmodernist writing, O’Brien’s use of alternative narrative strands, magical realist techniques and general indeterminacy, the article proposes that war experience can only adequately be captured in such fragmentary unclear narratives.
The piece proposes a connection between literature of migration, postcolonial literature and magic realism as postmodern modes of identity construction. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is used as a paradigm example, treating at once history, identity and national character through the hybrid form of magic realism. Since Rushdie’s über-Booker Prize winning novel has long been taught and written about as such a paradigm example, there is nothing really new here, and unfortunately we are treated to quite a breezy treatment of the novel itself, to boot.
Oró Piqueras: Carter and Barnes
The article reads two 1984 novels by Carter (Nights at the Circus) and Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot) as magic realist queries into the possibility of representation of past events and lives, history and biography. The novels are seen as very similar, and as typical of such postmodern query of and celebration of indeterminacy. Once again there is nothing new here, and the article is strangely un-ambitious in its aims.
This piece gives an analysis of waste as trope in DeLillo’s work, particularly in Underworld. Waste is seen as a master metaphor for society, history, life—and this use of waste as defining a representational strategy invites a hermeneutic approach to DeLillo. His work can therefore be aligned with certain modernists (Eliot and Joyce) whose similar strategies (fragment shoring, enumeration, recycling, etc.) are adapted by DeLillo. He is therefore perhaps less of a postmodernist than early DeLillo reception indicated, and perhaps even becoming more and more modernist as he ages and recycles more and more of himself. This is an original approach to DeLillo and can be extended to other emblematic postmodernists such as Paul Auster, and perhaps even Pynchon (at least Pynchon and DeLillo are both waste masters).
Tejero & Cabello Pino: Roy and Allende
The authors read The God of Small Things together with The House of the Spirits, and detect numerous similarities in the two women writers’ use of magical realism techniques and motifs. Violence and oppression/exclusion are seen as the novels’ main themes, and symbols such as silence, abstention, etc. underline the marginality and victim status of some of the (female) protagonists. This makes the geographically diverse texts postcolonial and postmodern at the same time, when seen as writing back from outsider positions. Ultimately the piece disappoints, as there is nothing new in these findings.
García Dominquez: Ackroyd
The essay reads Ackroyd’s future historiography fiction, The Plato Papers, as a comment in favor of ontological doubt—querying the nature of history and knowledge. Ackroyd is thus a postmodernist despite self-allegations to the contrary.
Diaz Dueñas: Martel
Lyotard’s notion of the changing legitimation of knowledge under the postmodern condition is used to examine conflicting narratives in Martel’s Life of Pi. This Robinsoniad has several precursor texts whose structures are subverted in various (metafictional) ways in Martel’s version. The novel is also regarded as an extension of a long postcolonial, Canadian tradition for postmodern inquiry, performed both in fictions and in theory and criticism. The article plays up the postmodern difference and its subversions a little too much, since the precursor texts themselves are often more metafictional than the author allows for. Strangely the controversy surrounding Martel being accused of plagiarism is not referred to at all, despite the author’s attention to transtextuality in Life of Pi in general, which could be a way of explaining even overt textual loans from other precursor texts.
The author provides a sweeping overview of Morrison’s place in African-American literature, suggesting a dichotomy between her socio-political significance as a role model and excavator of forerunners on the one hand, and her aesthetic and theoretical significance as an author-critic on the other (her seminal essay “Playing in the Dark” is rightly made much of here). Most attention is given to Morrison as a mediator of poststructuralist insights in the Saussurean/Derridean paradigm, concerning representation and speech/writing dichotomies. Love, in particular, is regarded as the crowning piece of postmodern fiction in Morrison’s oeuvre. The novel is, however, not systematically analyzed, and remains rather enigmatic for the uninitiated reader after experiencing Gahete’s top-heavy theoretical engagement with it. Ultimately, it may be true that Morrison’s role as a textual producer has been overshadowed by her public persona as a poster child of African-American intellectualism, but one must look to the fictions themselves to be convinced of the supreme nature of her aesthetic practice, rather than to Gahete’s article.
Mora: Next Generation
The sole contribution in Spanish in the anthology engages with the most current fictions of all the articles included. Brief analyses of Michael Chabon, Mark Leyner, Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski are provided, as well as passing remarks on Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen and Jay McInerney. The article thus virtually proposes a new “Next Generation” canon of post-Postmodernists, based on these writers’ relation to a poetics of postmodernism consisting of 27 characteristics. The post-posts utilize characterization and narration devices that show the legacy from Pynchon, DeLillo and Coover, but their media savvy and critique of what Mora calls “cathodic reason” separates them from their predecessors.
* I would like to thank my Aalborg University colleagues Ana-Maria Macías and Pablo Christoffanini for invaluable help in reading quoted passages and one whole essay in Spanish. Any mistakes and misinterpretations are of course entirely mine. back