At School: Contemporary Fiction and the University Curriculum
Abandoning the Ruins

Postmodern Fiction and Academic Criticism

Since courses in "contemporary literature" became respectable additions to the university curriculum, the corresponding scholarly books on the subject have assumed a few recognizable forms, each of which have inevitable limitations for such books' survival as the kind of long-term contribution to "knowledge" academic scholarship is expected to provide. In this respect, the turn to theory in academic criticism has perhaps been beneficial to the study of contemporary literature, at least within the confines of academe itself, as it brings a stability and an established context to the study of writers who in most cases are still developing careers and whose work is thus subject to at best incomplete examination. For better or worse, academic criticism of contemporary fiction and poetry that endeavors primarily to survey or illuminate this work for its immediate literary value, or even for its broader cultural relevance, has provided only partial insights while risking the possibility of its own ultimate obsolescence.

A staple of all academic criticism is the single-author study, and such scholarly works on still-active writers have played a significant role in the "field" of contemporary literature. (Among other ways in which this field struggles against an unstable object of study is implicit in its very designation: Many of the writers on whom much of the early academic work on contemporary literature was focused are no longer contemporary, of course, and any subsequent criticism of their fiction (the book ultimately under scrutiny here examines fiction) will need to assign it to some other category, while newer writers become "contemporary.") The publication of a critical book surveying an author's extant body of work or exploring the author's habitual themes and methods generally signaled that the author in question had earned a place in the still-evolving canon of writers included on the syllabi of courses in contemporary fiction and thus deserved the extended treatment of a single-author volume. By now, such series as the Twayne U.S. Authors books and the "Understanding. . ." studies published by the University of South Carolina Press have made this sort of book much more commonplace, but in the development of academic criticism considering contemporary fiction it fulfilled an important function establishing an at least informal roster of writers worthy of academic attention.

Eventually the single-author monograph took on ambitions beyond providing an introduction or broad overview of its subject's work and began offering more "sophisticated" analyses of theme and aesthetic strategy and, with the rise of Theory, using the author's fiction as tests of a sort for the elaboration of theoretical perspectives or other external systems of thought. While this approach arguably does perhaps extend its own shelf-life for a somewhat longer time--until the theory in question begins losing its academic luster or otherwise no longer seems salient--its long-term value in illuminating the author's work becomes questionable, even if the theory itself retains some interest. Many of the books written about, for example, Thomas Pynchon, Don De Lillo, and Toni Morrison are so heavily inflected by theory, by extra-literary agendas in general, that it is difficult to imagine that future readers interested in deepening their understanding of these writers--as opposed to tracking the influence of such figures as Lyotard, Lacan, Baudrillard, or Gayatri Spivak on American academic criticism--will really have much use for them.

If single-author studies of contemporary writers threaten to become historical curiosities or episodes in the history of literary theory, another genre of critical book, the multi-text survey, aims for a more enduring utility it can only partially provide. Multi-text surveys actually come in several different sizes and varieties, ranging from the most all-inclusive historical surveys such as Frederick Karl's American Fictions 1940-1980to more focused surveys such as Steven Weisenburger's Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel 1930-1980 or Robert Rebein's Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. What they have in common is a kind of topographical ambition to lay out the land occupied by contemporary fiction, to create and preserve a map of the practices and accomplishments of "current" writers in such a way that something like "knowledge" results, although it is a knowledge of trends and movements more than of individual writers and their bodies of work. Whether the trends and movements deemed significant upon the publication of these books will still be perceived as such when the currency of the analysis no longer obtains is of course uncertain, even if the more ambitious of such books seek to influence, even fix, future perceptions of what counts as important in this era of literary history. Certainly the more perspicacious of the multi-text surveys may still retain value for readers interested in a synoptic view of that era, to which all critical and historical accounts would contribute, but only the passage of time is going to allow some degree of settled judgment about the relative importance of the various practices that for now remain unavoidably contingent.

Some of these surveys take an approach that perhaps potentially reduces such contingency, but in assuming the form they do they risk becoming less studies of fiction per se and more examinations of social forces or cultural expressions. Coming with such titles as Insanity and Redemption in Contemporary American Fiction, Designs of Darkness in Contemporary American Fiction, and Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk, these books treat a selection of contemporary fiction thematically, through the application of a framing concept, generally of the author's own devising. The framing concept is advanced as offering a special insight into the nature of the subject texts, both individually and when considered in relation to one another. In most cases, such books avoid making overarching claims to capturing the essence of these texts, what makes them individually unique. At their best, they offer a perspective on the selected texts that can be considered alongside others and in that way help to demonstrate that those so considered are works that reward sustained attention.

Joseph M. Conte's Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fictionbelongs within this line of conceptual criticism. It is one of the numerous studies of American postmodern fiction that attempts to account for the postmodern in fiction by focusing on a particular formal quality or philosophical orientation that further specifies what makes a "postmodern" text distinctive beyond the vaguely radical connotation generally associated with the term. In this book Conte proposes a dual impulse in certain postmodern texts, toward on the one hand the disintegration of presumed order, both in the world and as the world is represented in fiction, and on the other toward the cultivation of an emergent order out of the disorder these texts faithfully render. "Design" is thus as much a defining feature of postmodern fiction as the "debris" of contemporary life this fiction must also acknowledge.

Postmodernism has proven to be probably the most examined phenomenon in postwar American fiction. Not only were postmodern authors and practices ("postmodern" as we now retrospectively apply the term, at least) more or less at the center of scholarly interest in contemporary fiction for the first decade or so after its acceptance as an academic field of study, but even now, more than four decades after its emergence as literature's contribution to the "radical" cultural movements of the 1960s, postmodernism continues to engage the interest of academic critics. While some such critics are more interested in postmodernism as a cultural orientation than specifically as an approach to the writing of fiction, Comte belongs among those who have attempted to delineate the radicalism of postmodern fiction in its departure from conventional modes of representation and its concomitant intensification of modernist formal experiment by examining the radical literary strategies at work in postmodern texts.

Comte focuses on both what must now be called canonical postmodernist novels such as De Lillo's White Noise, Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, as well as less-discussed works such as John Hawkes's Travesty, Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless, and Gilbert Sorrentino's Pack of Lies. Travesty is Comte's first and most compelling example in fleshing out his claim ("design and debris," in fact, is a phrase taken from this novel), and it is one of his book's chief virtues that it brings this welcome attention to Hawkes, whose work may represent, in such books as The Beetle Leg, The Goose on the Grave, and The Lime Twig, the earliest appearance of what would later be characterized as postmodernism and whose body of work as a whole stands as one of the greatest achievements in postwar American fiction. He has become an unduly neglected figure in the consideration of literary postmodernism, and Comte's discussion of Travesty demonstrates Hawkes's centrality to this phenomenon.

According to Comte, "As a postmodern novelist, Hawkes does not shrink before the proposition of 'unmaking' or decreative force; he extols the complementarity of the two terms; and finally, he proposes the existence of an orderly disorder." Travesty "illustrates the tenuousness of authoritarian control as it slips into madness, the fragility of pattern as it dissolves into irregularity; and it proposes the revelation of some hidden order in the scatter of random occurrences, some more profound design within the welter of chaos" (42). This seems an accurate description of the thematic burden of Travesty, although the extent to which the "design and debris" strategy informs the novel's own formal design is not really explored very fully. One could argue that Hawkes's dictum that he began to write fiction "on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme" committed him to a design and debris aesthetic by which Hawkes reconstituted fiction from the shards of convention through what he called "totality of vision or structure." Unfortunately, Comte confines his discussion of design and debris to the thematic exposition of its salience as revealed in the "design" of its main character, who is driving a car hurtling at high speed toward an inevitable crash, and who discusses his intentions with his captive passengers. From Comte's analysis, one might conclude that Travesty's narrative manifests "design and debris" allegorically, but not that Hawkes has fundamentally altered the formal assumptions of fiction in a way that is distinctively "postmodern."

If critical examination of postmodern fiction has in general exhibited a bias that distorts our perception of postmodern, experimental fiction and prevents full appreciation of its expressed qualities, it would be a bias toward the thematic, broadly philosophical implications that can be drawn from it. Most academic critics of postmodern fiction celebrate its antifoundational or "subversive" qualities, its capacity to incorporate cutting-edge critical theories and new ideas in science or epistemology, but rarely do they attend predominantly to the purely aesthetic consequences of postmodernism's various dismantlings of narrative convention. While the debris of inherited form lies in the wake of postmodern strategies, "design" is also an ultimate product of those strategies. Form is not discarded--putting aside the question of whether any work of fiction could be truly formless--but instead made more elastic, often through highlighting "form" as a specific issue of concern within the text itself. The real legacy of American postmodern fiction will be a demonstrable expansion of the the range of possible formal variations of which fiction is capable beyond even the initial expansion of those possibilities achieved by the modernists, and more analyses of how a writer such as John Hawkes contributed to this legacy are needed.

The fiction of Kathy Acker also seems especially illustrative of a postmodern strategy of design and debris, and Comte does examine Empire of the Senselessin the context of its radical formal iconoclasm. As Comte notes, "Acker can be expected to disregard the traditional rules of fiction" (56). Her work employs discontinuity, collage and parody in a way that makes it an exemplar of Hawkes's dismissal of "the true enemies of fiction" almost as provocative as Hawkes's own; in some instances it is even more thoroughgoing in its rejection of narrative coherence. Unfortunately, Comte chooses to put most of his emphasis on the way Acker's iconoclasm serves an ulterior political purpose, insisting that "the scumbling of levels of discourse in the novel reflects Acker's anarchistic methodology, undermining the reader's presuppositions of dominant-intellectual and subordinate-proletarian cultural positions" (59). It is hard to deny that Kathy Acker included among her ambitions the desire to upend the "patriarchal order," but to whatever extent her fiction attracts future readers it will be because of its "anarchistic" formal energies, not its analysis of "cultural positions."

That Acker may have been motivated to create her unconventional texts at least in part by the belief they might implicitly undermine class and gender constructions does not ultimately determine how their formal/aesthetic effects will be perceived. As in his discussion of Hawkes, Comte is ultimately more interested in Acker's thematic treatment of "design and debris," concluding that "Acker finds that even in thew domain of anarchy--in nomadic space, after the disruption of the state apparatus, where women ride motorcycles--there must be discipline present" (74). But the real "discipline" Acker brings to her fiction is in the alternate "order" she provides despite the apparent anarchy of her means. Only if, in fact, readers catch on to the design of a work like Empire of the Senseless--unorthodox but nevertheless present--will such a work continue to find its readers. Comte identifies this design as rising from a conceptualism by which "methodology is directly supportive of the concept" animating it, but it is the way in which the reader can discern the relationship between methodology and concept that ultimately gives Acker's fiction its literary interest. Acker's particular application of conceptualism to fiction is what future readers are likely to find compelling about it, while the concept itself will likely come to seem rather reduced in its power to provoke.

Comte does a much more adequate job of accounting for the formally challenging postmodernism of Gilbert Sorrentino, Harry Mathews, and John Barth, writers Comte identifies as "proceduralists" who "invent forms without knowing the precise manner of text that will be generated" (76). Such works embody design and debris by revealing "an immanent design within their apparently chaotic distribution of materials." The designation "proceduralist" seems most immediately and most accurately applicable to Mathews's fiction, since his association with the Oulipo is well-known and since the Oulipian credo specifically calls for the use of rules and formal constraints in creating literary texts. "Procedural" seems less obviously descriptive of the fiction of Barth and Sorrentino, and Comte usefully examines the way Barth uses "arabesque" in his novel The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor(and implicitly in other of his books) to create "nested frames" which provide a "recursive symmetry" that organizes the narrative, as well as the way Sorrentino in his Pack of Liestrilogy employs a complex patterning of constraints, some perhaps fully apparent only to Sorrentino, to give the novels a unity that is not conventionally serial. Comte's concluding remarks about Sorrentino aptly capture an essential element of this writer's work:

Sorrentino's conviction that structure can generate content in his fiction relies upon the reciprocal influence between author and text. The author invents the structure of the work, but that structure compels his performance in ways that he had not anticipated. (110-111)

If Comte's discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity's Rainbow to some extent retrack old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Comte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them. At best they demonstrate that such works readily lend themselves to a critical approach that is itself "postmodern" in its assumptions and its resources, although in my view their complexity is less a consequence of their concordance with the more abstruse levels of postmodern theory than their capacity to stand up to critical and interpretive scrutiny from a multitude of perspectives and still seem not exhausted in their potential to reveal meaning and provide for a bracing reading experience.

A final chapter attempts to bring the study of postmodern fiction into the digital era, announcing that "The paradigm shift from print to digital culture should be acknowledged as a defining aspect of postmodernism" (193). Containing relatively brief analyses of the work of William Gibson, Richard Powers, and De Lillo's Underworld as examples of fiction that "though bound to the present order. . .is provocatively enhanced by an engagement with the terms and conditions of the information age," (199), it essentially reaffirms the accomplishments of the "print order," at least in the form of postmodern fiction, which "offers certain palliatives for. . .symptoms of technological neurasthenia." For Comte

Finally, postmodern fiction offers relief for the "pixelated," those viewers stunned into anomie by the bombardment of pixels--the smallest image-forming units of the video display. It turns out that print on paper still has the capacity to evoke images and ideas as compelling as any we might encounter in the flicker of a screen.

It seems to me that here Comte has stretched the "postmodern" to the limits of its utility as a critical concept. If the "paradigm shift" ushering in digital culture is a "defining aspect of postmodernism," why should it not require the postmodern critic's unhesitating embrace? If Comte is right that what he calls "electronic composition" has not yet produced its "masterly" author, then doesn't this shift mark a break, a period of transition between postmodernism and a new dispensation that will embrace the dominance of the digital? Surely "postmodern" cannot continue to be the designation of choice for describing all literary or philosophical projects that show the world to be more complex, beliefs about it more necessarily relative, than we once imagined. Nor can it indefinitely remain essentially a synonym for "unconventional" or "experimental." Unconventional writers might be motivated simply by the desire to try out alternative strategies, not to seek out those that are already acceptably postmodern as critics and theorists have defined the strategy.

It may be that academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of "advanced" analysis. This would certainly be more in keeping with the direction academic criticism has taken in the last twenty-five years: away from the consideration of works of literature as a self-sufficient task and toward approaches that enhance the role of academic criticism itself. In the study of contemporary fiction this would mean less emphasis on identifying and examining the most significant writers and works and more or on the cultural and cognitive implications of the electronic medium itself. Literary study, or at least that branch of it devoted to the contemporary, could merge with media study. If present and future writers are to be provided with the same sort of critical attention that has been accorded to the postmodernists, it will probably be necessary that literary criticism be rejuvenated in a form free of institutional requirements. It will require critics once again interested first of all in literature and not in the status of their own critical projects or the interrogation of trends in culture as a whole.


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