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.