This essay originally appeared in The Quarterly Conversation.
In one way or another, the fiction of Orhan Pamuk is usually referred to as “postmodern.” A 2006 New York Times profile of Pamuk, for example describes his novels as including “a grab-bag of postmodern literary devices,” and its author, former Book Review editor Charles McGrath, further identifies the ways in which books like The New Life and The Black Book “empty the whole trunk” of such devices: “narratives within narratives, texts that come alive, labyrinths of signs and symbols . . . doubleness and identity swapping.”
That Pamuk is a writer from a country we hardly think has much relation to “Western literature,” much less to postmodernism, surely does make his work into something of a curiosity, perhaps drawing more attention than might the fiction of Western writers employing the same kinds of “devices” McGrath lists. It might even have contributed to Pamuk’s receiving the Nobel Prize for literature at such a relatively early stage of his career. Combining the postmodern methods of Western novelists with the depiction of a largely non-Western (and often explicitly pre-modern) culture has no doubt brought Pamuk readers he might not otherwise have found simply by establishing himself as a “Turkish novelist” taking a more conventional approach to the writing of fiction.
On the other hand, Pamuk has generally been accorded more critical approbation among “mainstream” reviewers and critics than many of the postmodern writers from whose trunk he is presumably borrowing his panoply of devices. In his very reference to the “grab bag” of postmodern tricks, McGrath himself echoes the implicitly condescending tone with which the American postmodernists are frequently enough discussed in the literary press. (And postmodernism is: a. in its origins primarily an American phenomenon, and b. primarily a development in postwar American fiction before it became an all-purpose term of cultural analysis.) American postmodernists such as John Barth and Robert Coover have never really been accepted as the pathbreaking writers they in fact are; their use of such strategies as “narratives within narratives” and “labyrinths of signs and symbols” is often dismissed as self-indulgence, a kind of literary trifling unworthy of “serious” authors.
I have long suspected that this mainstream antipathy to postmodern fiction—more specifically to any work that can be identified as “metafiction”—comes from an implicit devaluation of comedy in fiction, as, indeed, postmodern fiction is largely comic fiction, even if so many reviewers cannot be presumed to get the joke. It is, I believe, a tacit assumption of middle-brow criticism—and book reviewing, at least in the United States, is mostly a middlebrow endeavor—that comedy is to be taken less seriously as a literary mode, as if the “comic” and the “serious” are per se natural opposites; although ultimately the opposition is not so much between comedy and drama as it is between a comic representation of the world, which requires a stripping-away of conventional appearances, the disruption of our pre-established expectations, and a representation of the world than conforms to one or another accepted version of realism. Finally, only realism (not to be confused with “story,” as deviations from its narrative norms can be tolerated if they eventually bring us back to a “deeper” reality all the more enhanced for the effort) is allowed to redeem fiction from its infuriating refusal to otherwise “say something,” directly and unequivocally. Realism at least allows the critic to seize on what a novel reveals about The Way Things Are.
Postmodern comedy only makes this temptation to dismiss the comic as intellectually frivolous even more acute, since the comic perspective afforded by postmodern fiction is especially . . . comic. That is, the humor evoked in novels like Catch-22 or Gravity’s Rainbow or Mulligan Stew is deliberately very broad, the comic representation so thoroughgoing in its effect that it can’t really be translated into the language of traditional critical discourse. The one recognizable mode of comedy that historically has been accepted as a worthy vehicle of “meaning,” satire, doesn’t very accurately encompass this sort of comedy. Satire uses comedy to “comment” on the behavior it examines and the issues it raises, to indeed “say something” unequivocally if indirectly. Satire is “corrective” in that it holds the depicted actions up to ridicule, in effect calling out for the actions to be changed. But this is not the case with the postmodern comedy to be found in the kinds of novels I’ve mentioned. The laughter in satirical comedy is tinged with moral judgment, but postmodern comedy subjects all “serious” impulses—including the impulse to make moral judgments—to the withering laughter of a radical comedy that is comic all the way down.
In his book Fables of Subversion, Steven Weisenburger tries to make a case for postmodern comedy—among the writers he discusses are Heller, Pynchon, Coover, John Hawkes and William Gaddis—as a form of “degenerative satire,” which goes beyond the kind of corrective laughter typical of traditional literary satire to “subvert hierarchies of values and to reflect suspiciously on all ways of making meaning, including its own.” This is close to what I have in mind in calling postmodern comedy “radical,” but Weisenburger insists on retaining the word “satire” in his survey of postmodern comic fiction, at one point defining “degenerative satire” as “realist narration backlit by fantastic outrage.” To me, outrage is outrage, whether fantastic or realist in its expression, and thus “degenerative satire” seems just another attempt to rescue postmodern comedy from the default assumption that is “merely comic.” “Outrage” again only reduces the use of comedy to a gesture on behalf of this or that point of view, an implicit endorsement of some alternative “value” (if not existing “hierarchies”).
Pamuk’s novels could not easily be described as satirical, degenerative or otherwise, but they are largely allegorical, and perhaps it is the commonality of purpose shared by these modes—to signal “meaning” or “message” in a discernible if roundabout way—that accounts for Pamuk’s more ready acceptance by mainstream criticism. If Pamuk’s books are often intricately designed, self-aware constructions (“clever” is a word often used to damn postmodernists with faint praise), they are so because they seem overtly designed to “signify” in a manner more associated with “fabulation” than metafiction (to use the twinned terms in the title of Robert Scholes’s influential book examining both of these modes of postwar fiction). In this way, Pamuk’s fiction is closer to that of Kafka and Borges than to Barth or Coover, although even in Kafka and Borges there is an element of humor (in the former, deeply dark) in the way they each strain the fable form almost to the breaking point, outrageously testing the form’s ability to be straightforwardly meaningful, offering in The Castle or “The Hunger Artist,” “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (in my opinion one of the most hilarious stories ever written) meaning of an especially profound sort—or so the reader is tempted to assume—and then withdrawing it in an allegorical sleight-of-hand that leaves the very notion of meaning-making itself in a shambles.
Pamuk, it seems to me, borrows the “grab-bag of postmodern literary devices,” the techniques and strategies associated with Western experimental fiction, but never really possesses them as anything more than available avant-garde flourishes given an extra exotic twist by their use in novels about Muslim culture. Postmodern fiction is self-reflexive because it takes as its most immediate subject the very medium of fiction itself, which it subjects to comic self-scrutiny. That fiction is able to re-create reality and convey meaning of a coherent and stable sort is the first assumption such fiction questions. Pamuk wants to use postmodern strategies precisely in order to create meaning, in effect to graft them on to his representations of Turkey’s past and present as a way of strengthening these representations, or at least of bringing attention to them beyond the critical consideration conventional realism would be capable of attracting.
In his review of The Black Book, Scott McLemee observes that an important difference between the “metafictional hijinks” of Pamuk and Borges is that the latter “knows when to quit.” He asserts further that “what makes The Black Book more than a set of variations of an intertextual theme—with bits of Kafka, Joyce, Proust, Mann, and Calvino joining the collage—is precisely its setting in Istanbul. The detective story is simply an excuse for [the protagonist] to wander around Istanbul, and for Pamuk to explore the byways of huzun [loosely, 'melancholy'].” McLemee’s comments on the relative merits of The Black Book in several ways capture my own reaction to both this very lengthy novel and the much briefer The White Castle. Although the metafictional devices in The Black Book—which mostly reinforce the theme of doubleness, of the merging of identity—are belabored at greater length and do induce a state of prolonged tedium in their humorlessness, they aren’t much more interesting in The White Castle, which focuses on doubling and identity shifts even more intensely. In neither book would I necessarily call these devices “hijinks,” since they are not flaunted in a spirit of exuberance or creative mischief but seem labored and perfunctory; in both of them the metafictional elements serve little purpose aside from heightening the sense of portentousness to a level that can’t finally be sustained.
If the pseudo-detective narrative in The Black Book “is simply an excuse,” despite its postmodern flourishes, for providing a portrait of modern-day Istanbul, The White Castle similarly entices the reader with a tale, in this case a kind of adventure/captivity story, that promises revelation of narrative mystery (are the twin protagonists truly doubles?, is one the figment of the other’s imagination?) but mostly offers “information” about Ottoman history, customs, and culture. Its relative brevity and more concise storytelling make it a much brisker read than The Black Book, but ultimately it is scarcely more satisfying as a work of postmodernism freshly reconceived; neither book could be called innovative or experimental, as neither goes beyond recirculating an already existing collection of “devices.” “Grab bag” is actually not an unfair description of the strategies employed in these books.
My Name is Red is probably the most genuinely “postmodern” of Pamuk’s novels, even if it is most immediately an exploration of Ottoman/Islamic history. With its cast of multiple narrators (including the color red and various dead people) and its thematic focus on art and the nature of artistic creation, it is also the most lively of Pamuk’s books, its kaleidoscopic narration, relatively short chapters, and mystery plot (who killed the master illuminator Elegant Effendi?) at its center keeping the novel moving at an engaging pace. What emerges is less an historical recreation of the Ottoman Empire than a convincing aesthetic creation that allows both author and reader to meditate on the human need to create art in the first place, even in circumstances that put restrictions on the artist’s ability to give full expression to that need and even in the midst of those mundane struggles and squabbles that afflict everyone, including the artist, in our efforts simply to find some sort of happiness in a world that constantly threatens to undermine it.
Certainly those of us who know little to nothing about Ottoman or Islamic art are able to discover a great deal about it from reading My Name is Red. The encroachment of “Western” notions of perspective and individual portraiture on tradition-bound practice of Islamic manuscript illumination is a fascinating subject, and Pamuk handles it very adroitly, allowing us to understand both the strengths of traditional Islamic art and the limitations that make even some of the master practitioners of Istanbul begin to look at Western (“Frankish”) art with some envy. In the process, of course, Pamuk is also inviting us to ponder some of the important, perhaps irreconcilable, conflicts between the civilizations of the West and Islam as a whole. To the extent that My Name is Red might be regarded as Pamuk’s attempt to achieve some modest conciliation of its own, through the application of the modern literary techniques of the west to Islamic history and culture, it is finally relatively satisfying and successful.
As if following a deliberate strategy of alternating novels set in the Turkish past with those set in present-day Turkey, Snow, Pamuk’s most recent novel, switches to a modern setting, its plot chronicling the visit of an exiled Turkish writer to an isolated, turmoil-afflicted city in far eastern Turkey. The authority of the Turkish government seems truly endangered (although its willingness to engage in casual torture has not been affected), and during a massive snowstorm that closes all roads leading in and out of the city of Kars, a coup of sorts (more like a counter-revolution) is staged by a few partisans of the State. Most of the novel takes place over the few days in which this coup takes place, and along the way the poet-protagonist both falls in love and is seized by the inspiration to write nineteen new poems.
Readers unaware of the secular/religious divide in modern Turkey may learn from Snow something about its saliency in Turkish culture and politics, may even learn more about the way in which radical Islam comes to have an attraction for the disgruntled in even such an avowedly secular country as Turkey. But such lessons in history and Muslim politics don’t necessarily make reading this novel an engrossing aesthetic experience. The novel’s prose and narrative energy never dispel the gloom that envelops the characters and their circumstances, and the novel’s central paradox—that the poet Ka finds the happiness he’s always looked for in the midst of such squalor and unrest—seems like an interesting idea, but, for this reader at least, isn’t executed with much vigor. Ka remains a cipher to me, his sense of himself as both a poet and a Turk rather blurry. I can accept the novel’s apparent message, that finally one’s personal relations transcend politics, that only love is really important, but its 425 pages of political intrigue and religious debate seem a very long way to go to receive that message.
Unfortunately, the word I would have to use in describing Pamuk’s fiction as a whole—excluding most of My Name is Red—is “ponderous.” It lacks the comic vitality characterizing the best postmodern fiction, although Pamuk’s intention to inject something of Western postmodernism into Turkish literature still seems a worthy and potentially interesting project. Finally, however, the attempt rarely rises above the lugubrious and heavy-handed. One might hope that Pamuk’s future fiction will show him handling the task of adapting modernist and postmodernist literary strategies to his non-Western subjects with a somewhat lighter touch, but, having been rewarded for his work in its current form with the most prestigious literary prize available, one suspects that Orhan Pamuk will find few reasons to reconsider his approach.