Tristram Shandy is a soap opera about penises—big penises, small penises, working penises, broken penises, wounded penises, real penises, symbolic penises, and… you get the point.
Where does the soap opera come in, you might ask? Tristram Shandy's got all the drama of Days of Our Lives —think marriage, misunderstandings, mistakes and misnamings. Basically, it covers everything but Tristram's life: his father's philosophical opinions, his mother's obsession with giving birth in London, his parson's ability to make everyone mad, his uncle's mania for toy forts, and, more than anything else, how stinkin' hard it is to write this book.
Tristram Shandy might be soapy, but it's also got substance. Shmoopers, you're checking out one of the Top 40 Hits of the 18th century. And this duckling doesn't look like any of the others: not Samuel Richardson, who wrote long, detailed novels about girls being raped; not Daniel Defoe, who wrote biographical novels about sailors and prostitutes; not Henry Fielding, who wrote funny parodies of Richardson. Nope, Tristram Shandy self-consciously makes fun of all these conventions while being pretty entertaining in its own right.
There are two ways to make sense of this:
(1) Tristram Shandy is a postmodern classic. The 19th century is famous for producing big door-stopper novels full of complex plots and characters. At the end of the century, some writers started to get bored with realism, the idea that novels were supposed to represent "real life" accurately. They started writing novels that played with the idea that a book could have anything to do with real life. Voilà, you have modernism.
A few decades later, other writers started to question the ideal of modernism. Technologies like TV, radio, and movies made "real life" start to seem a lot less real. They used techniques like pastiche (collage), stream-of-consciousness, and self-reflexivity to question not just "real life" but the whole idea of writing. That's postmodernism in a nutshell. If you've read a piece of contemporary literary fiction—the kind of book that wins prizes—and closed it thinking, "What the heck?" then you've probably read a postmodern book.
Plenty of people will claim that Tristram Shandy was postmodern before there was any modernism to be post about. Okay, we'll bite. The book is self-reflexive (it thinks about itself), narrator-Tristram produces multiple versions of himself, there's no climax and no resolution, and the characters are caricatures rather than complex, rounded people. David Foster Wallace or any other postmodern writer would be darn tootin' proud.
(2) On the other hand, maybe Tristram Shandy is not forward-looking but backward-looking. The 17th and early-18th centuries (and even farther back) had a tradition of something called learned wit. Basically, learned wit consisted of really smart people making smart jokes for other smart people. (A good example of today's learned wit might be cartoons in The New Yorker.) Some scholars say that Tristram Shandy is one of the last examples of learned wit. It's not supposed to be a novel; it's a clever parody of novels that's more interested in responding to the philosopher John Locke than in telling a story.
Which is it?
If you asked Tristram, he'd probably ask right back: "Why does it matter?"
Tristram Shandy is kind of like of graffiti. Picture Laurence Sterne scrawling all over literary conventions, looking over his shoulder for the police to show up. So here's the catch: this graffiti packs an artistic punch. Sterne's not really defacing his contemporaries' work—he's just being a little irreverent with oh-so-serious Literature while adding a few ingredients of his own to the pot. He's like a punk kid who wants to rile up authorities with blank pages, big words, and really bad jokes.
See, Sterne is a little tired of the pat answers and neat conclusions found in traditional literature. He wants his readers to wake up and smell the sunshine—weird characters and off-the-wall endings make for much better reading material. Think Looney Tunes with even wackier circumstances. Those messy, funny, awkward moments that happen in everyday life are way more interesting than traditional plots, anyway. Chances are, you'll come away from Tristram Shandy with a bit of suspicion about tidy narratives and tied-off endings.
Even so, Sterne is perfectly aware that Tristram Shandy doesn't exist in a vacuum. After all, how rebellious would graffiti be without covering something up? By layering satire over other literary traditions, Sterne is calling attention to the way we tell stories. Narrative—stories—make the world seem orderly and precise. But the reality is that we live in a world that doesn't respect any kind of boundaries. Does your life fit into one of seven basic plots? Are there three acts to it? Are the characters stable, and do they always act in logical ways? Of course not. Sterne's got a pen instead of a spray can, but he's shaking things up anyway.