Postmodernism and Place

Sarah briefly mentioned place in her blog post and that got me thinkin’. Since many folks out there have already weighed in on the Adams article, I decided I would go elsewhere with this post and try to make sense of place in some of the novels we have read.

The notion of place seems to be pretty flexible in postmodern texts. In gothic literature, for example, place is often easily described as antiquated. In genres like fantasy and sci-fi, place also fluctuates but tends to follow some basic rules (outer space, past feudal realms). Many people have posted about how difficult it is to place postmodernism within any strict walls or interpretive confines. I agree that this is tricky and as I’ve read books from The Crying of Lot 49 to House of Leaves to Tropic of Orange, I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be any conventions that strictly define place in postmodernist writing.

As I looked closer I found that there is little overlap in location: Beloved occupies a small space in the rural South; The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in bustling, crowded cities across California. The size of the places also changes: there are the small confines of a house that can also grow to enormous proportions in House of Leaves; the small (but ever-changing) office where much of Lathe of Heaven occurs; Tropic of Orange sprawls all over LA and in Mexico too, across landscapes both vast (the urban ghetto, the highway systems) and localized (the house near Mazatlan). Places can occupy just about any form in postmodern texts, from rural to urban, small to large.

It’s how place feels to the reader and how it is handled by the characters in the stories that I think give many of the places we’ve read about a common characteristic: they are unreliable, sometimes to the point of becoming untrustworthy. Why do I see some of the places in this semesters novels as unreliable? How does this relate to postmodernism?

I don’t think anyone will disagree that the space in House of Leaves is unreliable. The house shifts, it changes, at times it attempts to trap people inside. However, the novel also takes place in the world of Johnny Truant. Johnny begins the novel with some forays into the city, but by the end, he is as shut-in as Zampano, with drapes over the windows and cardboard blocking the vents. Not only does he not trust his own space, he doesn’t trust the space outside.

In Crying of Lot 49, everything seems to be untrustworthy. Oedipa travels around to different cities, and as she does this, I never feel a strong sense of the location. Each city seems the same. What makes them important is that they conceal the hidden clues she so desperately seeks. Each place sends her to a new location, all another stopping point on a journey that leads pretty much nowhere. Those are some unreliable locales.

In Tropic of Orange place seems to be more reliable than these other two, but is it? Crabs in Mazatlan, located hours’ walk from the sea, signify that something isn’t right. Gun shots on the east side may be an every day part of life, but for Buzzworm, it can all be avoided, the space can be reclaimed–from the beuracrats, from the gangsters who do their best to claim it, from the vicious cycles that occupy that space and keep revolving and threatining to never let anyone out. Gabriel’s unreliable space takes the form of a two-headed monster: the quiet Mexico or the bustling LA where he can continue working as a journalist. These spaces all bring with them a strong sense of unreliability. This is not the house you grew up in or the bustling city that represents opportunity. No, these spaces, even when they’re at their best, are ever-changing, sometimes alien landscapes.

Manzanar seems to be one character who finds the space he occupies–highway corridors–to be reliable. However, upon closer expection, we see that they are only reliable as far as his music goes, but not reliable as a whole. Crashes occupy this wide-lane space and Manzanar also summons images of maps. Maps can be reliable, but for anyone who has used one knows they are subject to change. Unexpected, sudden change that leaves you at the end of a dead-end road, just miles from your ultimate destination in the middle of the night, wondering, “what do I do now?” The maps in this book also have layers–“for Manzanar they began with the very geology of the land…” (57). These multi-layered maps become so thick in their complexity and construction as to render them too numerous and too specific to serve much use at all. In chapter 13 Buzzworm thinks about maps and how little they really do to help. He sums this up with the early line, “if someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture” (81). Only if all the layers are assembled can the maps provide a clear picture–and as the tone suggests, this will never happen. So even maps become unreliable in Tropic of Orange.

Some of the other novels we’ve covered also deal with unreliable places, but I felt that these were some of the shining examples. Places change, but their unreliability in postmodern texts seems to be relatively constant.

In postmodernism many aspects of life (language, morals, truth, etc.) are shown as constructs of society that we all end up buying into. In a postmodern novel, the author may investigate these constructs, and in so doing, help shed some light on their existence (the constructs’), which is usually enough to get people thinking. I can’t help but want to channel Saussure when thinking of place, who wrote about the signifier and signified in linguistics. I believe that while he mainly focuses on words, the same can be said for place. The signifier “home” or “city” will mean many different things to any number of different people (the signified). New York is the symbol of American freedom, LA of opportunity and fame, DC of power. However, to the people who visit and occupy these spaces year round, the cities become many different things. This may be part of the reason spaces seem so hard to trust in the works we’ve read. After all, when a space means something different to everyone occupying it, and seems ever-changing, there isn’t a lot to rely on. Just below the surface the labels we apply to certain locales (the peaceful setting of the South, the emblematic American cities) suddenly vanish. Each person takes something different away from their place. Each one views their place differently as well. I believe this root of unreliability is essentially postmodern becauyse it’s not only the observed that’s important, but who’s doing the observing, how they observe, and what that says about the unique spaces we all occupy and how they shape our unique perspectives.

A Misandristic Proposal

What is the opposite of misogynyMisanthropy?  No, that’s the dislike of humankind in general, rather than the specific dislike of males.  Try again.  Misandry is the word.  As I type it into Microsoft Word and hit the spacebar, it becomes underlined in red.  Misspelled?  Quite possibly.  No, a quick trip to the Oxford English dictionary confirms spelling and definition.  So misandry simply isn’t recognized by Microsoft technology.  It’s unfamiliar.  It’s defamiliar.  Perhaps, this just represents one of many omitted words and names, or maybe it signifies something greater and more telling about (wo)men and technology.  Regardless, it offers point of entry into discussing Joanna Russ’ The Female Man.

Though Russ’ The Female Man can fit into many classifications of literature (e.g. postmodern fiction, science fiction, a feminist work, etc.), I am interested in how it functions as a satire.  At the end of the text, Jael proposes the women (Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna) “do business with [Jael’s] Womanland” (211) and to incorporate women soldiers from each of their individual realities to wage war on the men.  Jeannine and Joanna quickly acquiesce.  Jeannie states, “‘Oh sure, I don’t mind.  You can bring in all the soldiers you want.  You can take the whole place over; I wish you would’” (Russ 211).  The response is pert and off-the-cuff.  Oh sure.  Why not? Well, why not?

Janet, the woman from the all-female Whileaway, alone, resists.  Moreover, she refuses Jael’s retelling of the plague as an act of female aggression.  It is unclear whether this resistance comes from inexperience with males, stupidity, or a more simplistic view of conflict resolution (or perhaps, like Microsoft, Janet does not have a word for this construct).  Still, we don’t know why she would resist or why anyone should resist?  At first glance, it seems perfectly logical.

What’s wrong with a rebalancing of power?  In Jeannine and Joann’s worlds, when woman are not being infantilized by the men in the text, they are being raped or arranging their lives so that they won’t be vulnerable to rape.  Clearly, a master-slave relationship is at work, dominating the women at every opportunity, denying them “adult independence—namely money” (118).  It is only through technology that Whileaway and Womanland the women regain their power.  Why not take this to the next level?

Given the endless possibilities of technology, an inter-dimensional war with men may throw the balance of power in favor of the women.  Most of the characters find that idea fairly attractive.  In fact, Jael’s logic reflects that of an oppressed people made free.  Rather than preach the ills of subjection, the free must, in turn, oppress to maintain their freedom.  Freedom cannot exist without oppression; oppression cannot exist without freedom.  On second glance, it simply replaces one societal ill with another: misandry with misogyny.  So what’s the point of this exercise?  By promoting misandry, The Female Man would undercut all its previous points about the master-slave power in male-female relations.  But it doesn’t just do that.  Misandry defamiliarizes misogyny.  It gives us a new word, a new point of reference, a new context to highlight an old referential.

Confusion of Authorship and the Gothic Novel

I know that as a literature grad student I am supposed to be able to step back and recognize fiction for what it is: made up stories about made up people ( I know that this definition is overly-simplistic, but whatever).  That being said, what I have read in House of Leaves so far seriously creeps me out.  I’ve only managed to read the first 80 pages that were assigned, but I am hooked, and may not get any sleep tonight because I want to know what happens next.  The last time a book freaked me out this much was when I misguidedly read Stepehn King’s It in middle school, alone, at night, and constantly worrying that a killer clown was going to come out from under my bed and do terrible things to me.  A coincidence I noticed was that Bret Easton Ellis offered a blurb praising this book saying that both Thomas Pynchon and Stephen King would want to bow down to Danielewski after reading this book.  It is a coincidence because the three books that pop into my head when I read House of Leaves are It by Stephen King, The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon, and Ellis’ Lunar Park.

Lunar Park is probably the book I most think of when I read this because it explores many of the same themes as House of Leaves (although admittedly many years later).  The main two of these themes being the hiding/layering of authorship and the physical house itself as the sourc of terror.  Lunar Park is a book written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of such works as Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho, whose protaganist is Bret Easton Ellis, author of such works as Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho. The first sentence of Lunar Park is “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.”  With this sentence, and throughout the novel Ellis attempts to hide/layer the actual authorship of the book by writing about the fictional Bret Easton Ellis writing this book.  The blur between the fictional Ellis’ and the real Ellis’ life are purposefully blurred to the point that his fictional actress wife, Jayne Dennis (I think, I have not read it in awhile), has her own website ( on which she is reported to have formally dated Keanu Reeves……Whoa!).  The novel includes enough actual facts about Ellis’ life that it is hard for the reader to know where the fiction starts and real life begins.  Like many of my classmates, I am so completely caught up in Zampano’s/Truant’s story that I forget that it is all just coming from Danielewski.  I keep feeling like if I stop reading and get on Netflix, I can put the Navidson Record on my queue, and I REALLY want to watch it.  As where Ellis creates the fictional Ellis to hide/confuse authorship, Danielewski manages to completely mask himself and the reader forgets he even exists.

The other thing I noticed was that there seems to be something gothic about this novel’s treatment of the home.  In gothic novels danger/otherness/creepiness shifted from coming from outside the house to coming from within or from the actuall house itself.  This most likely had something to do with Victorian mores about sex according to some scholars, but that is neither here nor there, the house, home or living space generated the otherness/spookiness.   I just thought this was interesting as we have discussed how postmodernism has been a reaction to other modes of literature.  We have mainly discussed how it relates/ contrasts to modernism, but House of Leaves seems to be  a postmodern take on the more traditional gothic novel.

Oh, and if anyone else out there is an Ellis fan, how awesome does the trailer for The Informers look? Spoiler: the answer, pretty awesome.

Week One Post: Responses to Short Stories and Journal Articles

After reading and rereading this week’s journal articles and short stories, I started looking for similarities-not necessarily similarities in content, but similarities in “feel”-to see if any of the pieces made me feel like they were linked. As we discussed in class, the question of what exactly constitutes a postmodern piece of writing is still rather fuzzy. Personally, it’s always made more sense to me to talk about literary genres more in terms of stylistics than era (meaning that I would respond to a Gothic novel written recently as a Gothic rather than a postmodern novel, while still acknowledging the work’s context). I also tried to compare the pieces to the different postmodern artifacts we looked at it class.

The first piece, John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” is, I think, the most obvious piece just in terms of how it’s constructed, with the varying fonts, lines, and split-up occurrences that don’t seem to have an ending or a point. In this piece, the aesthetics of the work itself seem to have as much of an impact as the content, by which I mean the piece would read (or “feel”) very differently if it was presented, for example, with traditional margins and all in the same font. Similarly,  Ihab Hassan’s POSTmodernISM has a very conscious style or format that greatly impacts how the work is read-text as object and not merely content.

Looking at the short stories as an aggregate group, I think the first thing that stood out to me is the element of something unsettling or something that doesn’t “fit”-that forces you to stop and think or retrace your step as it jars you out of the rhythm of reading. Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece does that purposefully with his symbols that indicate a certain feeling or emotion as they stand in for something that cannot necessarily be conveyed through text. (How would one write a willed silence?) Jonathan Lethem’s “Super Goat Man” introduces a unbelievable character into an otherwise realistic piece, and then demands the reader’s acceptance of the believability of  Super Goat Man in these otherwise banal surroundings. The strangest thing for me in Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” is not the zombie plans or the presence of the zombies in the text, but the painting that seems to have come from nowhere.

Don DeLillo’s piece reminds me of Brett Easton Ellis (although it would be more fair to write that the other way): all surface and very brittle, like a sheet of caramelized sugar. (I would appreciate a trigger warning before texts with content like DeLillo’s.) I found it interesting that the figures in DeLillo’s piece seem concerned mostly with aesthetics-surfaces and appearances-than ideology (the attention to their clothing, the wish for a “black militant” on page 10). In this piece, I think DeLillo takes particular expectations and refuses to fulfill them, in favor of a facile piece that, in its very shallowness, reveals the emptiness of the characters’ actions.

Finally, I suppose I can say that if a pattern emerged for me, it was the pattern of something unsettling or “out of place” that I mentioned before. The best example that I can think of off the top of my head of other authors who achieve this same effect is the poet Frederick Siedel, although I’m not sure if I can confidently say that I’m any closer to understanding how to classify things as postmodernist.