Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On exoskeletism

So, here's a blog post about postmodernism. As such, you should know what makes something postmodern:
  1. distracting self-awareness
  2. the potential for resolution cancelled out by a gerbil wheel of perpetual-ness*
  3. constant wordplay that calls attention to language and the author's wit**
  4. the understanding that truth doesn't exist but a yearning that makes one look for it constantly
  5. a fervent belief that language cannot truly capture reality***
  6. a layered feeling whereby the reader seeks out answers to questions but only finds new questions (call this this "Lot 49" aspect.)
  7. Footnotes****
The Crying of Lot 49 is a very very very fine book.
 *(See: Finnegan's Wake which begins in mid-sentence and ends with the beginning of that opening sentence)
**Note that this behavior is not new for postmodernists, but is simply dredged back up from prior movements, such as the metaphysical poets who loved to flaunt their wit, much like monkey's who fling their shit while laughing. 
*** Example: how do the words -- or even the sounds made by the words "My dog is a fat, lazy animal" really capture the truth of her fatness and laziness?

Sable in all her fat, lazy glory.
Now, there are other postmodern traits I could mention, but suffice it to say that the movement as it regards literature is very focused on language and truth. It's the literature of distrust. The stories abound in conspiracy, fueled by the erosion of faith in politics, religion, the family unit, and the human mind as a knowable, reliable, and delightful thing. Basically, when the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII, life and humanity became a joke. Why not laugh at absurdity, there's clearly no god here to keep us in line, right? I see a bumper sticker that says No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace and have to laugh. 

But, more to the point, there's the issue of form and how it can overwhelm story when put in the hands of the postmodernist. The postmodernist champions form based on the foundation setup by the modernists. To quote that cat-loving anti-semite T.S. Eliot "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality."

More precisely, he ends the landmark essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" with:

"To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done."

Emphasis mine, of course. This essay places form over the poet/writer. But the postmodernists end up, in some high-profile cases, placing form over story or character. Think about it this way: if traditional storytelling emphasizes the emotional components of characters and choices (and those choices are plot) then form is the skeleton. In literature prior to postmodernism, the stories are flesh covering bone. 

But in postmodernism, the stories are flesh covered by exoskeleton. Take away the exoskeleton and you're left with a puddle of mush. But who cares about the mush when the exoskeleton is so alien, so wonderful, so not human. ah, and that's the crux of my little analogy -- postmodern stories can feel cold and inhuman.
The postmodernist delights in how stories are told, how narrators may "smile and smile and still be a villain," how details are less meaningful than the delivery. Consider the work of Thomas Pynchon -- an author that writes tangled, conspiracy-laden novels (many of them massive). It's hard to hold on to a particular character in, say, Vineland, but not in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa Maas has an unusual name and gets herself lost in conspiracy upon conspiracy, but she's still there, at the center of it all, as the novel ends. While I would have no problem accepting that Oedipa is not an emotionally engaging character, she's at least memorable. Buuuut, her story does not necessarily hinge upon an emotionally engaging quest.

But now consider the great postmodern short story collection The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, who is not just the author but also the main character. (how meta!) Basic summary: O'Brien gets drafted to serve in Vietnam, debates running away to Canada, sees some terrible things, kills someone, hits rock bottom, and then discusses why he's a writer. Throughout, he interrupts his story arc to discuss the process of storytelling and how soldiers cope with the idea of death.

At a few particularly postmodern points, O'Brien declares that a true war story may not be factually true. It may be 100% fiction and yet truer than a story that is 100% factually accurate. He says that story-truth is more true than happening-truth. Put simply, there is some kernel of meaning at the heart of a story -- don't call it a moral, call it a close replication of the feelings the storyteller desperately wants to transfer from him or herself to the audience. "I want you to feel what I felt," O'Brien says throughout the book. It's the only truth left -- the truth of what someone felt in a particular moment. we tell the story to share that feeling (and to bring the dead back to life). It's impossible for language to make a reader/listener feel exactly the same feeling, but with story-truth one can get close.

Now, there's no joking around here. O'Brien believes storytelling saves his life (Vietnam mucked him up, to understate it). Storytelling is a game, but it's not play without consequences. There's delight in storytelling but that delight is part of the medicine. and it's part of the entire story collection. Most importantly, the collection completes the emotional arc of Tim O'Brien the character. It is human postmodernism.

Maybe we can just call it a good book instead of having to label it.
Personally, I have no inherent issue with either "type" of postmodern fiction. I delight in the formal games sometimes and also delight in stories. I have no problem enjoying Pynchon or Don DeLillo (two classic "idea" novelists often accused of writing non-characters). I have no problem enjoying Tim O'Brien or Toni Morrison (two authors credited with emotionally driven novels).

But I understand the objection to the exoskeletonism of certain postmodern texts. And this is where I stop typing even though there seems to be more I could say.
Shout out to Andrew Panebianco for discussing what he calls the "preciousness of postmodernism" and being a co-thinker on the idea of exoskeletism.