Books May 2005

A Bag of Tired Tricks

Blank pages? Photos of mating tortoises? The death throes of the postmodern novel

In 1967 The Atlantic Monthly published John Barth's essay "The Literature of Exhaustion," a manifesto of postmodernism in which Barth argued that the possibilities of conventional storytelling had been "used up." It was time to start thwarting the public's expectations of what a novel should be—such as the silly notion that a story should be told in chronological order instead of, say, in jumbled fragments, with cheeky reminders that none of the events therein ever took place. Oh, the fun writers and readers would have together, now that the old rules no longer needed to apply! Sadly, though, most people took one look at this new style of writing and decided that conventional storytelling could stand a good deal more using up after all. Some readers were hugely impressed, but even they often had a hard time figuring out whether a given "experimental" novel grated against their sensibility because they weren't intellectually worthy of it or because it was just plain bad. Demand for expert opinion grew, and university classes, prizes, and dust-jacket blurbs proliferated to meet it.

But by the end of the 1970s postmodernism had degenerated from a startling assault on traditional narrative into a style as predictable as any other; there are, it seems, only so many ways to avoid telling a straightforward story. Since then those with a vested interest in the movement have employed various little tricks, if not always consciously, to sustain its primacy in American literature.

In the 1980s, for example, any involving story written in an unobtrusive, un-writerly, and thus un-postmodern style began to be classified as "genre" fiction. A subtler ruse followed a decade later, when we were told that postmodernism had been superseded by something called post-postmodernism, which was itself fast being superseded by—but I forget exactly. The upshot was that while the Next Big Things might look a lot like the Last Big Things, the requisite "study" would show them to be completely different. It all sounded very exciting, but when meandering, footnote-laden novels like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996) sprawled out on the display tables, it became obvious that nothing had changed. Literary critics now acknowledge that postmodernism never went away, but to distract us from its advanced age they cry up a new "pomo" wunderkind every year or two.

In 2002 it was Jonathan Safran Foer. While still a creative-writing student, he had traveled to Ukraine to investigate his ethnic roots but found "nothing to see"—not even, it seems, the museum near the site of his grandfather's shtetl. Upon returning home he decided to create the region's color and history from his imagination. Such an approach can yield fascinating results, as anyone who has read Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (1959) will attest. Unfortunately, the Eastern Europe presented in Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, turned out to be, with its zany curses and America-mad youth, more than familiar enough to obviate the author's later admission that he had watched a lot of TV growing up. There were even fewer surprises in the novel's format. The disjointed story narrated in different "voices," the author turning up under his own name as a character writing a novel, the final chapter ending in mid-sentence, idiosyncratic punctuation and eye-catching TYPOGRAPHY—need I go on? It must be admitted that Foer at times seemed too talented for the traditions he had chosen to work in. The line "May his name be lost between cushions," for instance, is funny enough to make one overlook the staleness of the comic device involved.

On the whole, however, the reaction to the book was more interesting than the book itself. Marie Arana, of The Washington Post, promised that Everything Is Illuminated would make readers feel "altered, chastened—seared in the fire of something new," while The Times of London said, "It's a new kind of novel [and] after it things will never be the same." A reviewer in The Vancouver Sun let it be known, presumably by jiggling his eyeballs at an intern, that he was "frozen by excitement" and "dumbstruck with amazement and joy." Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides loved the novel, as did The New York Times, which gave it two rave reviews. The novelist and critic Dale Peck said admiring things too, thus making one wonder if his attack on Rick Moody's similar style in 2002 hadn't been actuated by personal animus after all. The San Francisco Chronicle, Time, The New York Observer—the unanimity of the praise was as extraordinary as its almost giddy tone.

But these days a novel can be called a masterpiece without even being regarded as consistently good, and most of Foer's reviewers conceded—albeit with the air of someone noting an erratum in the table of contents—that one of the book's two narrators had done little more than make them yearn for the other. There was also a consensus that the last few dozen pages were unfortunate. Not since Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) had critical acclaim concentrated so heavily on one part of a novel. Which part? This is Francine Prose, writing in The New York Times:

It's hard to get through the first chapters of Everything Is Illuminated. The problem is, you keep laughing out loud, losing your place, starting again, then stopping because you're tempted to call your friends and read them long sections of Jonathan Safran Foer's assured, hilarious prose.

Before anyone accuses me of seeking out the least hilarious example of this writing, here is the opening passage, which was quoted by Prose and many others:

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency … I have a miniature brother who dubs me Alli … Father dubs him Clumsy One, because he is always promenading into things. It was only four days previous that he made his eye blue from a mismanagement with a brick wall.

Well, it would never do if we all laughed at the same things. But allow me to state the obvious: this is to verbal comedy what cream pies are to the visual kind. If Charles Dickens and countless others have restricted their own Alexes to minor roles, it is because all forms of malapropism are in effect—as dawns on even the sitcom viewer after a minute or two—no more than variations on a single joke. The question, then, is how so many could have found this mangled-language shtick both screamingly funny and searingly new. It isn't as if Foer handles it particularly well. Alex imparts no sense of a Slavic speaker learning English (the syntax of that last sentence would put the average American college freshman to shame), and his errors are distractingly contrived. "Flaccid" is here not the wrong synonym for "easy" but the wrong antonym for "hard," an unlikely slip-up for a foreigner in any stage of English study or derangement. The word is nonetheless repeated throughout the book, much to the evident delight of Janet Maslin, who played with it in her review: "It is not flaccid to appreciate how quickly [the novel] takes flight," etc.

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