Postmodern American Fiction

I first began reading this anthology (or perhaps I should say “attempted to read”) a little over a year ago. I thought it would be a good book to breeze through while teaching from home because of COVID. I was wrong. About the breezing, at least. While I was immediately met with authors I have loved and, for the most part, understood: Pynchon, Burroughs, Barthelme, I soon felt as if I were reading something in a foreign language. Robert Coover’s “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and Mark Leyner’s “The Making of ‘Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog’ ” were two places that had to take considerable breaks, reading other stories or novels, sometimes in actual foreign languages.

One trouble I think I have with postmodernism or rather have had with it stems from the fact that I have been raised in it. In school, “postmodern” has often carried the same weighty context as “calculus.” We will cross that bridge when we get to it. However, all of the art I have loved from that last thirty-plus years has been influenced by it. Some of my earliest memories of movie watching include Star Wars and Indian Jones (pastiche of 30s-50s American serials); Back to the Future (a sci-fi head-trip of multiple timelines); and Edward Scissorhands (and all of its cross-genre, ironic, temporal distorted, and magical realist glory).

The point at which I achievement my long-awaited aha moment came after reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Shiloh,” a short story about, among other things, a couple’s trip to the sight of a Civil War battle: Shiloh, Tennessee. After finishing the story, I asked myself, “Okay, so what was postmodern about that?” It took a little research to realize that the gender roles and national identity the story questions are things society has questioned and reformed my entire life. While some aspects of postmodernism feel “other,” most aspects have been adopted whole-hock and incorporated seamlessly. I noticed this most recently while watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. The film is at once a straightforward story about Fern (Frances McDormand) who is driven to live in her van and travel the country as an itinerant worker. It’s also a scathing attack of consumer society, which at one point destroys Fern’s entire town and at other times abandons countless characters who only want to work. It also functions as a circular anti-narrative, beginning with the Christmas-rush at an Amazon distribution center during the Great Recession and ending a year later with Fern’s situation unchanged, still showing up to Amazon to work for a month, still traveling in her van, still precariously outside of house-dwelling society. Fern even serves a stint at Wall Drug, the amusement-park-like store outside the Badlands in central South Dakota. I could not help being reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland in his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation. Yet if I did not have this anthology at my finger tips, so recently submitted to my short-term memory, I don’t know that I would’ve noticed any of these elements. Rather I might’ve thought, “Well, that story never really got going.”

And that is the very point. If nothing else, Postmodern American Fiction has let me into some of the secrets that have been all around me as I’ve read, watched, and listened. I won’t go so far as to say I have a complete understanding of this ever-evolving art movement, but this anthology has certainly given me a more solid foundation than I had before I set out.

Motherless Brooklyn: A Readable Po-Mo Detective Novel

Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I’m a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I’ve got Tourette’s. My mouth won’t quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I’m reading aloud, my Adam’s apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I’d have to be Mumbles.)

Thus begins the comic, frenetic, life-affirming, heart-breaking account of an unlikely private eye from Brooklyn, Lionel Essrog. Our detective is driven by his obsessive mind and his equally obsessive need to discover who murdered his boss/mentor/protector Frank Minna.

The Minna men are officially a car service, but they don’t drive anyone anywhere. Instead, they keep tabs of the goings on around Brooklyn for their only clients—two wealthy and well-connected Italians. When Minna is stabbed to death, Lionel must take over operations to get to the bottom of what happened. Unfortunately, others in the organization have their own designs, either to take Frank’s place or to keep Lionel from making matters worse. Lionel must find out what happened to Frank—even if it kills him.

Following the number two in line, Tony, Lionel discovers the plot runs deep, deeper than Frank Minna’s unfaithful wife, deeper than the wealthy clients, even deeper than Brooklyn itself—and it somehow involves uni, a Japanese delicacy, and Frank’s mysterious brother, Gerard, who is now posing as a Zen master.

While the novel has been described as a post-modern hard-boiled detective novel, it doesn’t devolve into self-indulgent deconstruction. (I’m looking at you, Pynchon.) Rather, Lethem plays it straight. Lionel Essrog’s motivations remain genuine: he wants to know what happened to Frank and in the end he finds out. Post-modern elements pervade the narrative—from Lionel’s inability to communicate at times and the esoteric, multi-cultural conspiracy at the heart of Frank’s murder—but at no point do they bogart the literal unraveling of the mystery. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. To this reader, at least, the ending feels satisfying and earned.

This a perfect novel for fans of the off-kilter mystery, for students of post-modernism, or for readers looking for a hard-boiled detective novel with a contemporary twist.