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Weekly Reviews: Postmodernism

Today we look at two examples of the postmodern novel. Postmodernism has gotten a bad rap–almost from the beginning–for being purposefully obscure, denying the existence of meaning, and encouraging moral relativism.  But, while I concede that many postmodern works of art can be infuriatingly vague, for me at least the best postmodern novels (like the two we look at today) are first and foremost extremely funny, and secondarily profound in their willingness to question everything, even the most seemingly obvious truths, without trying to offer pat answers.

To come to specific examples, Ned Beauman’s The Teleportation Accident was by far the most enjoyable reading experience I’ve had so far this year (and I’ve given it a starred review, below).  As I state in my review, the organizing principle is a preoccupation with reproductions and representations, a subject many postmodern novelists have been fascinated by.  In Beauman’s hands, the preoccupation reaches absurdly comic heights: the best of his jokes involves a character who, when first introduced, can’t tell the difference between a photograph or a drawing of something and the thing itself.  Throughout the novel, his condition deteriorates, causing him, for instance, to shoot a mounted lion head which he believes to be a real lion.  By the end, he has come to the point that words themselves (printed or spoken) conjure up the real objects they represent: or, in other words, words do to him exactly what every writer or storyteller intend their words to do.  One of the many questions Beauman wants to get at with this subject is what exactly the relationship is between an object and its representation.  Does the representation gain all of its meaning from the original object? Or is it possible for the representation to actually redirect causation, and reflect new meaning back onto the object?  Beauman is careful to couch this is the humorous setting of his ridiculously inept protagonist and his attempts to bed a woman named Adele Hitler, but I believe the question is a very serious one for anyone who cares about art and literature–when we read a book, it is just a book, or can it have a real impact on the world?  This question is put into terrifying relief by the novel’s setting in pre-war Germany, where “the real world” is the world of Hitler and the beginnings of the Holocaust, a setting which both puts the more lightweight aspects of the novel in their proper perspective and heightens the import of answering the questions Beauman poses.

Lynn Coady, meanwhile, in The Antagonist, takes a more strictly metafictional approach to postmodernism.  Like Beauman, she is acutely interested in representation, but she attacks the question by focusing on the way in which her novel itself is created.  Her protagonist, Rank, finds out that Adam, his best friend from college, has written a novel in which there is a very Rank-like character, so Rank sets out to write his own account of his life and send it to Adam in a series of emails.  The permutations of representations–the “real” Rank, Rank the narrator, Rank the character in his emails, Adam’s “real” understanding of Rank, the character of Rank in Adam’s novel, and of course, Rank the character in Lynn Coady’s novel–begin to seem endless, which is precisely Coady’s point.  In Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novel’s, his protagonist is a very Roth-like novelist, who has used his friends and family as the basis for characters in his novels, which many of his friends and family take issue with.  Zuckerman rages and rages that his characters are his own, that they are fictional beings without reference to real people (of course, Roth himself is taking a much more subtle view, since he is putting these words into the mouth of a character which is obviously based on himself).  In any case, this has been the novelist’s defense for years: my art exists in itself, and I’m not bound by how it interacts with “real” people.  Coady wants to push back at this viewpoint, and (like Beauman) show how the representation of a person in a novel can actually have a direct impact on the person himself.  She is not out to pillory anyone who writes a roman a clef, and Rank comes to a fairly complex set of realizations about his place in Adam’s novel, but still, Coady (again like Beauman) believes that the novelist has some obligation to the real world and that it is not simple enough to simply call a book fiction and leave it at that.  If there is any doubt as to whether this is a worthwhile debate to have, just look at the tremendous debate over Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.

* BEAUMAN, Ned. The Teleportation Accident. 357p. Bloomsbury. Feb. 2013. Tr $25. ISBN 978-1-62040-022-7. LC 2012038374.
Adult/High School–Beauman’s deliriously complex, tremendously funny second novel follows the travails of Egon Loeser (looks like “loser”; sounds like “lesser”) as he chases a girl named Adele Hitler from Berlin to Paris to Los Angeles. That he is leaving Berlin just as that other A. Hitler is coming to power means nothing to the staunchly (naively, frustratingly) apolitical Loeser, who is much more concerned with mounting a stage production about a 17th-century set designer. Lavicini’s most famous creation was the Teleportation Device, which rearranged sets with frightening speed before ultimately causing an explosion that may or may not have killed Lavicini and several dozen audience members. Loeser wants to re-create Lavicini’s machine for his play, only to find, when he moves to Los Angeles, a physicist there who thinks Lavicini may have actually invented teleportation and wants to re-create that. This fixation on doubling, re-creation, and representation drives the heart of the novel, as Beauman over and over again probes the boundary, and the direction of causation, between signifier and signified. At the same time, the author keeps his character’s and his novel’s self-importance in check by constantly confronting them with the specter of politics, in the form of the Nazis and the resolutely unmentioned Holocaust. This is a challenging, thought-provoking, sometimes mind-bending novel, but it is also a hilarious one, and it should be recommended to any teen who can make it through Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (Harper Perennial, 2006).–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA

COADY, Lynn. The Antagonist. 304p. Knopf. Jan. 2013. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9780307961358.
Adult/High School–Finding himself portrayed as a character in a college friend’s novel and feeling deeply misrepresented, Gordon Rankin begins sending Adam a flurry of emails to set the record straight. In order to do so, he must tell the story of his teens, from when puberty turned him into a six-foot-four bruiser at 14 to the incident from college which Adam has written about. Rank’s story, bracketed as it is by two moments of heartbreakingly accidental violence, is one of a man-boy who cannot be comfortable in his oversized body. While this affecting story makes up the primary plot, Coady keeps a tight grip on the frame story, so that the 40-year-old Rank and Adam’s novel are as present as the teenaged Rank and Adam. Many thoughtful writers have pondered the relationship between their fictional characters and the real people upon whom they are based, but Coady stands out for the multiple layers of truth she is able to make evident: even as Rank’s understanding of the complexities of Adam’s position as novelist grows, readers begin to see the holes and omissions in Rank’s own account. Teens will be easily drawn into Rank’s story of drugs, violence, and hormones, but they may come away with much more to think about.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy, Vallejo, CA

About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is the Young Adult Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA. He reviews for a variety of library journals and blogs and recently contributed a chapter to The Complete Summer Reading Program Manual: From Planning to Evaluation (YALSA, 2012). Contact him via Twitter @droogmark