Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Partiality of Postmodernism

It is curious fact, but rarely noted, that all the American novelists that literary journalists* consider who were born before 1950 (Roth, Bellow, Updike, Mailer) have written novels that are (avowedly or not) are "postmodern." Bellow, the seeming exception, with his curmudgeonly paleoconservatism in fact became well known because of his most postmodern work, Herzog, where the professorial protagonist writes to all and assundried historical figures or not in the Berkshires, in search for authentic history, while only bringing back pastiche. Ravelstein has its own irony (figured in the title and name of the character in "ravel," that term where the negative means to make straight), turning upon itself, even as it formally outs a friend of Bellows.**

Roth and Updike are more conscious practictioners, although the latter takes to it more as yet another demonstration of his facility, while Roth writes his most postmodern work The Counterlife (a book strange enough to be compared to Philip K. Dick's Valis) about a rant against diasporism--postmodernism fits self-conscious Roth like a glove. There are of course (successful) exceptions--Robert Stone has never resorted to an ironic structure or narration in his major works, while Alice Munro lovingly mines a territory worthy of Faulkner in a manner worthy of Chekhov--but the presence of postmodernism in the reviewers' canon belies their multiple insistences that arid theses of this mode dry up meaning and muffle readerly empathy. The most insistent demonstration of this is the fact that, after writing The Naked and The Dead, Norman Mailer in his highly conscious quest to be the Great American Novelist had his greatest impact with Advertisements for Myself and his nonfiction novels, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song. More power to the Norman, but at some point American literary journalists should come clean about how, a clean well-lit be damned, they loves themselves some postmodernism.

*Imagine Michiko Kakutani or Sam Tannenhaus, and then try to imagine writers with more imagination, intelligence or, what the hell, elan. There are exceptions to this paradigm, but they do not include Jonathan Franzen when he reviews.

and presciently diagnoses how (postmodern) Straussian neoconservatism works

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