English 690:  Postmodern Fiction

Orderly Disorders

Professor Joseph Conte

The experimental impulse in fiction has been busy unraveling the narrative cord of the novel for as long as it has been woven. Lucius Apuleius's Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass (c. 155 A.D.) introduces a farrago of tales and a baroque mixture of language. The oblique satire, obscenity, and endless lists of Rabelais's Gargantua et Pantagruel (1534-54) assault the reader's sense of propriety and narrative continuity. Laurence Sterne, among many innovative and self-reflexive devices in Tristram Shandy (1759), overturns the hierarchy of plot and digression. What these works suggest is an equally long counter-tradition to The Novel, in defiance of characters that "walk right off the page," mimesis that "shows us ourselves as if in a mirror," and linear plots that "keep you turning page after page." This course proposes that postmodern fiction is an extension of the avant-garde urge to assume a marginalized position with regard to a dominant culture, to counter the authoritative utterance with polyglot babble and blague, and to mockingly dance across all those lines drawn by official genres and schools.

But postmodern fiction is also a product of its age, and the course will address several formal strategies and thematic concerns that are very much of the moment. Denying any transcendent cultural value, and disdaining conventional narrative structure, each text on our reading list devises its own method of approach to the orderly disorder of the postmodern condition. Let's introduce entropy, non-linear dynamics, and anarchy into a discussion of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973), John Hawkes's Travesty (1976), and Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless (1988). For those who prefer arbitrary orderliness to slovenly chaos, we'll examine the combinatorial logic of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler (1979) and the narrative splicing of Claude Simon's Triptych (1973). Or for an admittedly ludic approach to the novel form, there's Calvino's use of the tarot deck in The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1969) and Julio Cortázar's "shuffling" of chapters in Hopscotch (1966). Two very different works, Christine Brooke-Rose's Textermination (1991) and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) engage the metafictive muse, that essential trope of experimental fiction. And for the ultimate in self-reflexivity, we'll examine three novels for bibliophiles: Walter Abish's abecedarium, Alphabetical Africa (1974), Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars: A lexicon novel (1989), and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980).

In addition to the above, somewhat substantial reading list, we'll be looking at criticism that focusses on postmodern fiction from N. Katherine Hayles, William R. Paulson, Linda Hutcheon, Brian McHale, Umberto Eco, John Kuehl, and Larry McCaffery among others.


Last Revised on Tuesday, January 11, 2000.
Copyright 2000 Joseph M. Conte. All Rights Reserved.