From Modernism to Postmodernism
Reviewed by Aristie Trendel
The Shape that Matters
Gerhard Hoffmann’s voluminous study From modernism to Postmodernism Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction considers the phenomenon of postmodernism as it is manifested in the American fiction which appears in the 50s, develops between the years of 1960 to 1980, and declines in the 90s. From his end-of-the-century vantage point, Hoffmann looks back in calm and views the work of postmodern American authors both as national and “transnational” narratives, constantly referring to writers outside the United States and making clear that deconstructive theories that underpin postmodernism are of European origin. Postmodern American fiction is presented as a meritorious attempt, both desperate and jubilant, playful and serious, radical and mindful of tradition, to deal with the complexities of the times. Albeit scornful of their modernist predecessors, postmodern American writers in their focus on form make full use of their literary legacy. Hoffmann emphasises that “the unitary sensibility” of the thirteen American writers, whose work is examined in some detail, is plural and treats their fiction within large frames of reference shifting between macro and micro-analysis.
In the opening chapter the reader is steered through the twists and turns of the scholar’s approach to his subject, as the complexity of postmodern fiction is being matched with the complexity of analytic and descriptive tools necessary for the task. Hoffmann first provides a long, informative introduction into the general problems of postmodernism and postmodern American fiction inquiring into the various conceptualizations of the postmodern and discussing the three areas designated by this term, culture, theory and art and literature. Postmodern fiction is considered as part and parcel of the contemporary general culture and its methods and strategies are apprehended within the general background of theory and art. Particular attention is given to the close relationship between modernism and postmodernism and while postmodernism’s indebtedness to modernism is recognised, postmodernist expansion of the modernist standard of irony and wholeness of form is underlined. The worldview and form of postmodern fiction involve “the radicalisation of incongruity, the transformation of actuality into possibility, and the multiplication of versions of the world, of the self and of the story” |99]. The contribution of the postmodern American writers to the theoretical reflection of the phenomenon is appreciated and John Barth’s or Ronald Sukenick’s insights also forward the deconstructive argument. Thus John Hawkes’s statement that ”he began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme”  could support Hoffmann’s contention that “situationalism” is “the ground figure of postmodern fiction” , in his discussion of situation as logic-thwarting and perpetually in construction. The term is taken over from ethics and applied to narrative, since it can account for discontinuity, incoherence, immanence but also situationally-grounded language games that define postmodern fiction. Philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, theorists such as Katherine Hayles provide the theoretical framework to Hoffmann’s analysis, which concludes on the replacement of truth by perspective and the triumph of the void. Situational meaning-building is followed by a discussion of the postmodern “symbolic method,” which is consequently void and chaos inclusive, as it strives for the representation of the unknownable, the uncontrollable and unrepresentable.
If postmodern fiction did not neglect symbolism, it certainly throve on philosophy and to a lesser degree on science. Hoffmann gives a fourfold account of the relationship between postmodern narrative—”he most philosophical narrative in the history of the genre” —and philosophy in terms of antagonism, complementarity, disjunction and subversion. While most postmodern writers turned their back on Freud, they were seduced by the pre-Socratics, the existentialists, the absurd, Wittgenstein and particularly Derrida. They equally delighted in meta-fiction, the representation of the theory of representation as a form of self-questioning.
Besides, another postmodern hallmark seems to be paradox which appears logical, ethical and generic. The investigation of the fantastic, a most prominent feature of postmodernism, deepens the analysis of paradox, as the idea of the real, albeit present, is dissolved. Thus the situation is invested with a quality of irreality which affects “the space-time continuum.” In the postmodern chronotope, time is deprived of the basics of orientation and the deconstructive operations start out with historical, teleological, mechanical, cyclical and psychic-existential time to finally mark an ontological disruption. In this absence of hierarchy of perspectives and values, all conceptions of time are played with, pointing at epistemological and ontological uncertainties. The sense of history is lost and its conceptions and interpretations become fictitious. Thomas Pynchon’s monumental novel Gravity’s Rainbow is Hoffmann’s predilective illustration of “what time can be in postmodern fiction” .
Likewise, space is shaped according to aesthetic aims and principles. No more existentially or socially anchored, it follows the designs of montage and emphasizes fragmentation and the ephemeral. Hoffmann uses Paul Virilio’s “aesthetics of disappearance” to bring home to the reader “the vanishing of time and space as palpable meaning-giving areas of social life” . The most telling spatial metaphor adopted by the postmodernists is Borges’s labyrinth which constitutes a structural paradigm for the simultaneity of time and space.
Since the basis of the fictional argument has become the situation, a totalising feature of narrative to be deconstructed is character. In the longest chapter of his study, proportionate to the importance of this essential element of the situation, Hoffmann expands on the changing view of character within structuralist and poststructuralist context and its meta-fictional transformation. Postmodernism is pitted against modernism and “the surface-view” triumphs over “the depth-view” . The interiorized concept of character is shattered and psychological notions such as identity or authenticity lose their former significance. Emphasis has been shifted from essence to function. Hoffmann uses Charles Russell’s substitutional phrase of “subjective presence” to refer the radicalisation of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique and the dissolution of the self.
As the faculties of the mind no longer form a unity in the postmodern construction of character, and the activities of consciousness are disconnected from one another and the situation, special attention is granted to the modes of perception, reflection, behaviour and action. Although Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy “organises what is basic to all postmodern texts: the […] balancing of the language-object-subject-relation” , its detailed analysis seems somewhat incongruous in a study of postmodern American fiction. On the contrary, constant references to Beckett, whose influence on postmodern American writers is established, and special treatment of The Unnamable,the prototype of the post-modern reduction of character, are of great relevance. “The aesthetic gestalt of contradictory thoughts, the ‘shape’ that reflection and language together create”  is the crux of the postmodern matter. Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, John Barth’s “Menelaiad,” Ronald Sukenick’s “The Permanent Crisis,” or William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck exemplify in various ways the postmodern attitude towards reflection, while Donald Barthelme’s gap-leaving diagrammatic method deals with behaviour. Moreover, after a philosophical inquiry into the notion of action, through five novels, Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and finally Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo,Hoffmann explores the postmodern approach to action and its connection with desire, emotion and reflection.
The specificity of postmodern imagination is also addressed in a short but dense chapter; imagination is indeed established as the leading principle of postmodern literary production and consumption. However, it loses the status of an independent, integrative faculty advocated by some philosophers. In postmodern aesthetics, concepts such as mimesis, interpretation and “meaning” are rejected in favour of immanence, indeterminacy and rotation of possibilities. Postmodern writers rely on “the indeterminacy of the imagination” refusing the possibility of syntheses, as creative energy is drawn from “the tension between the formal synthesis of consciousness and the disruptive force of the imagination” . Once again, free play accommodating irony, parody and the comic mode step into view and are given more scope in an equally brief and dense concluding chapter, where Hoffmann touches upon what he calls the perspectives of negation, namely the satiric, the grotesque, the monstrous and farce. Here play, irony and the comic mode act as attenuators upon the former cluster and they are all viewed as critical stances that expose the shortcomings of society in morals, knowledge and understanding. It is regrettable that the approach here is theoretical and concrete examples are scarce.
Hoffmann ends his study with an overview of the novel after postmodernism and following the swing of the pendulum, he welcomes the new developments in American fiction. He cautiously adopts the term “realism” which was introduced to describe the return to traditional forms of storytelling and briefly inquires into the reasons of the decline. He then looks into the legacy of postmodernism to the post-postmodern novel which seems to be enriched by its predecessor. A fair amount of writers are discussed and reviews are heavily quoted. Hoffmann hails “the healing power of telling stories” that prevails after the deterioration of postmodernism creating a “kind of humanism with a human face” , and giving birth to the “miracle of the American literary scene” that teems with “remarkable fiction” . He praises the work of writers such as Don De Lillo, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides or David Foster Wallace which appeals to the market of the media culture, and he seems willing “to do justice to the mix of the aesthetic and the social, the affirmative and the negative, and the multimodal perspective in post-postmodern fiction which makes [their] novels bestsellers” . However, his crucial question about the present criteria of literary value remains unanswered.