My Life in Post-Modernism

by John Guzlowski

Postmodernism as a literary movement, as a thing of bolts and straps, chains and compartments, began on Tuesday, August 24, 1973 at 11 am.

At that exact moment, I walked into a class room in Heavilon Hall, Purdue University, and sat down before the standing Professor Chester E. Eisinger, author of Fiction of the Forties and an unpublished and unpublishable multi-volume history of fiction since January 1950. He and I and the fifteen or so other students were there to create something new out of the bits and pieces of contemporary fiction.

That semester was divided into two parts. In the first part, we read novels we had labels for: novels by Flannery O'Connor, John Updike, Carson McCullers, Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, novels of the grotesque, the east coast existential, the southern agrarian, the Jewish Chicago intellectual sort. All safe country: this is the stuff I and the others in the class had been reading about on the front page of the New York Times Book Review or on the covers of the Saturday Review.

The second half of the semester was different—things we had no labels for, authors whose names were whispers, books that—if they were mentioned in the Saturday Review—were buried among the crossword puzzles and the ads for trinkets and knick-knacks from the Andes. Sooner you would hear moans from the grave and cries from the sky than you should read about Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, William Burroughs, John Barth, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, Jack Kerouac, and Kurt Vonnegut on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Some of us, of course, had heard these names, others had not, some had heard these names and dismissed them, others had not.

So what was this stuff like? Well—it was funny, complicated, dangerous, difficult, annoying, surreal, absurd, stupid, excessive, amateurish, blue, low class, fartingly offensive, politically incorrect, politically left wing, politically right wing, and drugged.

So what did we call it? Well, it was easier to describe than to name.

We were grad students and we wanted something we could call it. Something we could feel confident about on a test or in a bar or in a corridor when someone asked what the hell is going on in the 900 plus pages of Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Eisinger wouldn't let us name it. Oh, we used terms but they were never — he assured us — the right terms. We tried to call it the terms we found here and there: meta-fiction, maximalist fiction, the literature of exhaustion, surfiction, fabulation, black humor, the fiction of the absurd, etc.

But as I said, he wouldn't let us call it any of these things: we were allowed officially only to call it "recent fiction."

So where did it come from — this odd recent fiction? Well, Eisinger really didn't know. He talked about this and that, talked about the resurgence of the High Modernist impulse, talked about Samuel Beckett and the 6,000,000 Jews who died in the concentration camps, but really, he didn't have much of a clue. After all, he was only an academic, ready to tell you what the white whale was like once it surfaced, but less comfortable telling you where the whale had come from to get to this surfacing place and time.

But I knew where it had come from. I might not be able to tell you what it was called but I knew where it came from. I had been reading, living, talking where it had come from for the last ten years.

It came from the beats, from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from their hallucinated, spontaneous sense of "the what" it is we are talking about, a sense without breaks, or curbs: the ultimate bus ride through the canyons of the American night—without Keanu Rives and Sandra Bullock along to strap us down into the strait-jacket of American consumerism and —what Saul Bellow calls— "special effects."

It came from Science Fiction — from the zaniness of writers like Philip Jose Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and Alfred Bester and directors like Roger Corman, Ray Harryhausen, and Ed Wood: Artists, all artists with a fervent belief that you could only get to this reality by getting out of this reality, writers with a fervent belief that you could take low-class junk and transform it into art, into something James Joyce could pick up or see in Trieste and say, Yes — this is something like it.

It came from a peace gone bad and a war gone badder, a peace gone to boosterism, babbittry, and blank faced blandness — a peace that would give us Ronny Howard in Happy Days, Peggy Marshall in Laverne and Shirley, and the Mod Squad as the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King's Dream of having a Dream.

It came from a childhood wasted watching the 3 Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbot and Costello—all those Jobs with a comic hard-on. What is the famous routine about Who's on First but Wittgenstein writ funny? What is Laurel and Hardy's Music Box but Camus' Myth of Sisyphus in comic drag? What is any 3 Stooges comedy but a treadmill on which we experience the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while drowning in a sea of slapstick. Auschwitz with canned laughter?

It came from drugs—nights and days of marijuana, Benzedrine, peyote, LSD, maybe heroin, but definitely hashish: what is this fiction I've been talking about but a series of mind-altered realities, irresistible munchies, and talk between me and Bill and Nancy and Mike and Bob and Jim that just won't stop.

Yes, I knew where this stuff came from—and even though I didn't know what to call it, there were one or two other things I knew for sure:

This thing was only the beginning!

During the seven years I spent in grad school thinking and studying this thing which I didn't have a name for, I became convinced that this would be the NEXT BIG THING, this would become the canon of the 21st century (even though at the time we didn't have the word canon). These writers were an avante garde that would drag everyone into a new consciousness, a new perspective, a totally new world order. (George Bush and the Unabomber were in Eisinger's class with me). All writers would be as mad, pretentious, cerebral, self-deprecating, verbose, wild, and difficult as Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow and Barth in Letters.

There was a force coming and I was a disciple of that force, and as a disciple I was there to prepare the way for the coming. I wrote a dissertation on Hawkes, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, I co-edited a bibliography on Kerouac, I published articles on all of them and others. I did presentations at regional and national conferences. And when I edited a little art and literature magazine called Karamu, I even snuck some of this wild stuff into its pages. If you don't believe me, go back and check it out.

Then something odd happened in the 80's. I realized that this force was dying. Barth rejected the wacky stuff he used to write, Pynchon fell silent, Gaddis started writing for sit coms (I exaggerate), Coover, Hawkes, and Vonnegut started sinking into the same old, same old.

I realized another thing: Now there was a name for what it was we could never find a name for in that graduate class I took so long ago: It was called Postmodernism.

I realized another thing: My students weren't much interested in this thing.

Oh yeah, they liked the idea of taking a course called Postmodernism, but reading a Postmodern novel, a 900-page white whale about a guy who gets an erection every time a V-2 rocket falls in London during the last days of World War II—well, it was a little much.

I've taught the Postmodern fiction class six times in my twenty years as a Prof at Eastern Illinois University (three times on the grad level, and three on the undergrad level) and what I've discovered is that every time I teach the class there is just a little less interest in actually looking at Postmodern novels. The first time I taught the class, there were eight Postmodern novels and two non-Postmodern novels; the next time the ratio was six to four; then five to five; then three to seven. Also, the Postmodern novels I chose for the class were changing, getting shorter, less Postmodern, less wacky, less what ever it was that those novels of the movement without a name had.

But this isn't to say that Postmodernism is dead. What I like to call the First Generation Postmodernists are still writing. For example, after almost an eighteen-year silence, Pynchon published a so-so novel called Vineland, pronounced vine-land, or maybe its called vin-land and another novel called Mason & Dixon (I own a copy but haven’t had time to read it yet. Maybe over the Christmas holiday). And there are American writers who I like to call the Second and Third Generation of Post-Modernists. The Second Generation Post-Modernists are working in a vein that Barth calls the “Literature of Replenishment” (a mix of postmodern and non-postmodern elements): here we have writers like E. L. Doctorow, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien, and Isaac Singer. The Third Generation Postmodernists are attempting to blend the wild/wacky stuff with Marxist, feminist, anarchic, anti-sexist, anti-racist ideology: here we have writers like Criz Mazzo in her short story collection IS IT SEXUAL HARASSMENT, YET, Curt White in his devastatingly funny examination of father and son relations and TV called Memories of My Father Watching TV, and Kathy Acker in her high school montage novel Blood and Guts in High School.

And then there are the British Postmodernists. As the Americans have been falling into a slump, the Brits seem to be picking up the slack. Just as 70 years ago, the American modernists took the torch from the British modernists, we now see a renaissance of Postmodern fiction in English. There's Salmon Rushdie, Martin Amis, A. S. Byatt, Peter Ackroyd, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge (and these are just the ones I've read about in the New York Times Book Review). And what these writers can do is something American Postmodernists are pretty much unable to do: reach a mass audience, both in England and in this country. This is a feat that (with the possible exception of Kurt Vonnegut) no American Postmodernist has been able to do since 1975 when Robert Coover's "unreadable and offensive" Public Burning destroyed the American market for the Postmodern novel.

But there are some hopeful signs that Postodernism in the novel may still reach a mass audience: note Alan Lightman's delightful Einstein's Dreams and the recent successes of David Foster Wallace whose Infinite Jest (A 1079-page maximalistic homage to and pastiche of the First Generation Post-Modernists) won him a full page-and-a-half in a recent TIME magazine. And I better mention Don Delillo’s Underworld here if for no other reason than the novel’s prophetic cover features the World Trade Center and a menacing airplane.

But in all of this talk of the rise and fall and possible rise and resurgence of Postmodernism, my life in Postmodernism seems to have gotten lost. You may or may not be wondering if I am still committed to Postmodernism. Well, I am and I'm not. I'm interested in Postmodernism but it isn't the consuming/burning interest I showed when I wrote my dissertation twenty and then some years ago on Postmodern fiction, radical psychology, and the disappearance of CHARACTER. I'm interested in Isaac Singer (who may or may not be according to my own definitions a Second Generation Postmmodernist), and ethnic poets and writers (primarily Polish-Americans ones), and the forgotten American poets (Archibald Macleish, Amy Lowell, Robinson Jeffers, and Vachel Lindsay). And I'm still reading the Postmodernists, checking in with them to see what they are up to, but not — as I said — with the same impassioned interest or urgency as my failure to read Mason & Dixon in a speedy manner suggests. And maybe my eclectism is also Postmodern. Probably.

And you may also be wondering what I've learned from a life in Postmodernism. Let me tell you what some of the things I learned are:

1. The printed word as a technology that demands respect or attention is finished.
2. People no longer think that literature (a reading/book based representation of life/reality) can change the world/reality/life.
3. People no longer feel that they have to read the latest novel, book of poetry, or play.
4. People no longer have to read literary criticism or take it seriously.
5. People no longer have to take seriously people who read the latest etc. or the latest etc.
6. People can make up their own cultures.
7. They don't need me or you to tell them what it is.
8. And finally, Postmodernism is a theory you make up as you go along.


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