Reflecting on Ihab Hassan’s “POSTmodernISM,” I am struck by one (seemly) vital difference between modernist and postmodern literature. In modernist literature, language (in the sense of word choice and syntax), integral to the core of the work, directs the form (e.g. Joyce’s Ulysses). However, postmodern works employ different architectural processes for “attaining such an aesthetic” (Hassan 16). Is this, as “some profound philosophic minds of our century” (15) suggest, “the disease of verbal systems” (15), a reflective condition of deterioration achieved by creating texts in a new way and using old rules to analyze them? Clearly, Hassan’s “rhetoric of dismissal” (9) is easy to achieve, but what does it mean?
A. The Fad. In the case of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” the success of the story is contingent on punctuation and symbols. Printed in standard typography, the story would, in effect, disabled. Instead, the punctuation and symbols take on the function of language. Is it likely that we are to see more stories of this kind, that it will be a new movement in literature? Or will this too “quietly go away” (9)?
B. The Old Story. Don DeLillo’s “The Uniforms” uses another effect to stand in for language: shock value (a combination of “dehumanization” (19) and “antinomianism” (21)). DeLillo employs (to borrow from Professor Sample) “cartoonish violence” as both a structural support and to facilitate movement in the text. Censored even in the most basic way, there would be little to nothing left of the plot, characterization, etc. in the same fashion as a Quentin Tarantino film “edited for tv.”
C. The Safe Version. Jonathan Lethem’s “Super Goat Man,” like the two previous pieces, adopts another type of structural support: the insertion of the strange and unusual, treated as ordinary. This technique is not new, but the emphasis put upon it to carry the story is. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” offers as an excellent modernist (though this label could be debated) point of reference. Though Kafka employs a similar device, he adjusts the syntax of his sentences, often reversing the places of the direct object and the verb to further defamiliarize the reader. Lethem seems to make no effort to tinker with the language, instead relies wholly on the “oddity” of a superhero to do most of the work for the story.
D. The Newspeak of Art. Kelly Link’s “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” marries the “strange and unusual” with an eccentric main character. She returns to old method of storytelling. She relies on language, demonstrating the contingencies of identity by adjusting the main character’s name. At times, the story seems both “conventional” (9) and “innovative” (10). Whether this serves as refreshment or irritation is contingent on the reader.
Though it may seem unfair to apply the rules of the old system (aka “rhetoric of dismissal”) to new works, this phenomena is neither new nor game-changing. For as literature changes, there will always be older (and yes, at times, antiquated or cultured) points of comparison (as was it for the Victorian writers, the realist and naturalist, and the modernist to name a recent few). And as time goes on, new works continue to be baptized and welcomed into the canon. This “cruel” vetting process seems, as Hassan observes, to be more endemic to the change itself than the quality or the “lasting power” of a particular literary movement, technique, or device.