Thursday, 15 March 2007

The Loneliness of the Postmodern Protagonist

Originally posted on my Cityside blog on Wed, 22/03/2006 - 9:44am.

I was going to review John Barth's postmodern novel - or "narrative" - Coming Soon!!!, but I felt funny about reviewing a book I hadn't finished, so I'm going to blog about it instead. Blogging being what it is I feel free to just rant on without any particular structure, which is actually not dissimilar to what Barth does, or at least gives the impression of doing.

It's more or less a novel about a novelist having trouble writing a novel, which Barth (who taught as well as practiced creative writing for many years) acknowledges as the worst kind of undergraduate approach to getting around writer's block.

No undergraduate work this, though. Although part of the fiction is that a student at the university from which Barth has just retired is writing something which sometimes is another novel about the same material, and sometimes is the same novel, and sometimes an electronic fiction, and sometimes a musical show for performance on a showboat called The Original Floating Opera II (based in turn on a showboat in Barth's first novel). And so forth. Complicated, self-referential, continually shifting, etc. Postmodern. Memorably defined by Moe of The Simpsons as "weird for the sake of weird".

The verbal fireworks start on page one and don't let up - after a while they became pretty wearing, actually. And (to change the metaphor) eventually I got the sense that a talented magician was performing extensive patter and misdirection but failing to conceal - in fact, drawing attention to - the fact that he not only hadn't produced a rabbit, but didn't possess a hat.

So I stopped reading on page 288 (of 396) when it was looking fairly clear that nothing was actually Coming Soon!!!, that it would just be more of the same.

I'm giving the impression that I didn't enjoy it. I did enjoy it, for its sheer artistry and complexity and wit, but that's the thing about the self-consciously postmodern - I can appreciate it intellectually as being obviously very hard to do, very clever, but often my emotional reaction is that it wasn't worth doing.

One of the improvised songs for the show raises the question well:

Are we Postmodern?
Is this the end of the road?
Or is recycled self-conscious irony just one more passing mode?
If we're Postmodern,
How come I feel so passé?

- to the tune of "The Party's Over".

On the back of the book (Houghton Mifflin, 2001, ISBN0-618-13165-5 if you care) is a quote from the Chicago Sun-Times which I entirely agree with: "Barth is extraordinarily clever and a master of language." And that is what makes him such a great postmodern novelist, because cleverness and mastery of language are the heart of literary postmodernism (and a lot of postmodern visual art, too, where almost all of the skill is in the piece's clever title). He is playing an extended game, and playing it very well and with great flair and often very amusingly, but never allowing us to forget that it is a game, and therefore ultimately trivial.

Seems to me (and what do I know?) that the main achievement of postmodernism is to point out the emptiness of modernism. However, in so doing it also displays, in fact points at, its own emptiness, which is an even greater emptiness, because it is (supposedly) empty even of the modernist claim that it is telling a true and important story - in fact, the true and important story.

Whatever it is that I am - I don't have a name for it; I've sometimes said it's postmodern, but it isn't really, it's something between post-postmodern and neo-medieval, but that too leaves out a lot; maybe transmodern - responds to this postmodern perspective by suggesting that modernism is not so much empty as emptied. Modernism at its extreme has deliberately removed the spiritual, the mystical, and ultimately by association the personal and emotional, denigrating these and elevating the physical, the rational, the "objective" and the intellectual. Postmodernism - in one of its forms, anyway - takes this as its starting point and turns the intellectual cleverness of modernism back on itself, doing for its myth what it did for all the myths before it and declaring it, too, to be empty and illusory.

I, on the other hand, want to re-examine some of the value assumptions of modernism and say, wait on, what makes rationality necessarily more "true" than the other aspects of humanity? In order to be fully human we cannot only be rational (though we need not be irrational either; rationality is also an aspect of humanity, and attempting to abandon it is an overreaction to modernism). Yes, the emperor has no clothes. That's because he took them off - not because clothes don't exist.

Thinking about what I've learned from reading Barth has also helped me to figure out why I can't abide Gene Wolfe, a somewhat postmodern speculative fiction writer: Wolfe's characters don't act like real people (Barth's do, they just have the normal level of alienation for late 20th-century Americans). Wolfe's people are too completely alienated from each other (and themselves, and their world) to have deep relationships of affection and care - sexual attraction and tribal loyalty is about as good as it usually gets. So they don't respond like the people I know would to the events of their lives.

I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to like Wolfe because some people I respect, like Neil Gaiman, think he's brilliant, so I recently read his novel Castleview. Quite apart from the fact that nothing in the plot makes much logical sense (people keep apparently dying and then returning to the action with minimal explanation, for example), it makes no emotional sense whatsoever. At the end, a teenage boy whose father was killed violently a couple of days before hears another man in his mother's bedroom. His mother loved his father but is apparently having no problem transferring her affections to this man. He listens, and identifies the man; oh, it's the doctor, he likes him. He wonders if he will tell his girlfriend. Just wonders, in an unemotional fashion - despite the fact that all of them, he, his mother, his girlfriend, his girlfriend's mother, have recently seen the doctor concerned (who is apparently King Arthur) kill his girlfriend's father in a battle in Faerieland in which they were champions of opposing sides. (Except his girlfriend's father isn't actually dead, as such, but the boy doesn't know that.)

Gene Wolfe is extraordinarily clever and a master of language - and also knows a great deal about myth and legend (in which, now that I think about it, sexual attraction and tribal loyalty is often as good as it gets in terms of connection between people). But - speaking personally - I can't stand his books, not only because they're such hard work (his Wizard Knight speaks so cryptically and tersely that half the time I couldn't follow his dialogue at all, and although I have an unusually strong background in myth and legend myself, I miss a lot of his references), but because the characters are emotionally hollow.

In fact, a lot of science fiction and fantasy characters are emotionally hollow - science fiction being a quintessentially modernist genre. Actually, when you think about it, all of the genres of the old pulp magazines arose in modern times except for the romance, which is medieval, and is notably the one which is centred on positive human relationships (however unrealistic the treatment may sometimes be).

The detective story explores the dark side of human nature and relationships; the spy story traditionally involves transitory and superficial relationships with people who are usually killed if any close emotional connection looks like being formed; the horror story uses the fear of the Other and the Uncanny (which we don't really believe in any more - or do we?) to produce a thrill, as the often lone protagonist attempts to escape the inescapable; the Western tends to concern loners, itinerants and misfits in a changing and non-cohesive society. Even fantasy fiction, in hands less skilled and minds less steeped in medievalism than those of Tolkien and Lewis, often becomes merely dark and brutal. Not that medieval stories weren't dark and brutal, of course, but there was usually some point. Often modern fantasy is little more than an echo of the worst aspects of the World Wars, which brought such disillusionment about modernism and paved the way for postmodern consciousness.

So do I have a point, or am I just blogging on about anything that enters my head when I should probably be constructing a clearly reasoned book to unpack all this dense material?
Well. I think my point is that, in reading fiction which is consciously postmodern, I have come to understand the defects of modernism (and postmodernism) better, and the key defect I am identifying is that the connection between people (and to the transcendent) which was so central to the medievals has been marginalised, emotion and mystery denigrated, and an alienating tyranny of cold rationalism put in place. You can see it in the characters in these novels, disillusioned and tortured because they are incapable of simple genuine connection and have nowhere to belong.

And this in turn stimulates me to write what I know, to portray characters who have non-sexual affection for one another, who act kindly to others, who feel their losses (and others' losses) keenly, who believe in non-material goods, who are communities. Still, of course, with conflict and passion, their interactions driven not only by their connection but by what they desire and fear and hate and want to protect. But neither alienated monads nor fluffy New Age bunnies.
That's my ambition, at least.

No comments: