Kurt Vonnegut is a poster child for postmodernism.
One of the big names of the 1960s and '70s, he's remembered as a major satirist and voice of U.S. counterculture—and his works are perfect go-to texts if you're trying to get a handle on some of the main themes and techniques of postmodern literature.
Not only do they contain a boatload of irony and dark humor; they're also not afraid to get into more serious topics like state oppression, violence, paranoia, and the horrors of World War II. The war, in particular, was personal to Vonnegut, who had served as a soldier and been held prisoner during 1944-1945—an experience that had a big impact on his life and his writing.
While some of his earlier works had a pretty straightforward style, Vonnegut started using more experimental literary techniques during the '60s. This, after all, was the decade of the Beat Generation, Hendrix, and the Summer of Love.
Slaughterhouse-Five, which combines a World War II theme with an off-the-wall mix of time travel and aliens, is considered his masterpiece—and Vonnegut himself gave it an A+ when he rated his works. Breakfast of Champions was even more experimental, and, like many of Vonnegut's other texts, is heavy on metafiction and intertextuality.
So dive in to get a taste of all things postmodern.
Vonnegut's best-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is about a soldier called Billy Pilgrim, who travels back and forward through time, relives the events in his life, and even finds himself abducted by aliens. Vonnegut includes plenty of references to other texts—both real and made-up—ranging from Jacqueline Susann's 1966 smash Valley of the Dolls to a novel by one of Billy's pesky alien abductors. Yep: we're talking all of the postmodern credentials: fragmentation, repetition, an experimental structure, and intertextuality.
This isn't just a zany time travel adventure, though—it's also a semi-autobiographical work that tackles the tough topic of World War II. Vonnegut had his fair share of first-hand knowledge of the war: Billy, like Vonnegut, is captured and held in building called Slaughterhouse-Five during the bombing of Dresden. Though Billy gets out alive, the experience has a lasting effect on him in the same way that it did on Vonnegut.
We get a good intro right off the bat: a preface in which Vonnegut remarks that the novel is "jumbled and jangled" since "there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre." If that's not a postmodern statement on war, we don't know what is.
With the experimental style of Slaughterhouse-Five having proved so successful, Vonnegut flexed his creative muscles again in Breakfast of Champions (1973). The story is about a businessman, Dwayne Hoover, who becomes fixated with a sci-fi novel written by a guy called Kilgore Trout—fixated so much so that he's unable to recognize that it's a work of fiction. It's a recipe for disaster, as Hoover gets the idea that everyone other than him is a robot and subsequently running riot.
This novel clearly ticks the box when it comes to paranoia, but it contains heaps of other postmodern themes and features, too. Vonnegut tells us straight off that that he's trying to clear his head "of all the junk in there," and the result is a mashup of drawings (including flags, guns, hamburgers, and a flamingo!), characters from his past work, and even an appearance by Vonnegut within the story. Yep, we're in self-reflexive terrain.
The title itself is a reference to the slogan for Wheaties cereal, but Vonnegut piles on the irony—not only does a waitress use the slogan while serving a martini, but Vonnegut also throws in a reference to an Edwardian short story, "Filboid Studge," that's itself a satire on the marketing of breakfast cereal.
Talk about a postmodern field day.
Grand narratives? Forget it. Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle isn't just stuffed with irony—it skewers Enlightenment ideals about truth and progress. Take the fictional religion of Bokonism: truth and knowledge have often been seen as ideal, but for the Bokonians, lies are where it's at. Vonnegut gets into satire here, challenging accepted wisdom and suggesting that things aren't always what they're cracked up to be.
Beginning with the premise of a guy who has become "unstuck in time," Slaughterhouse-Five follows Billy Pilgrim as he journeys back and forth through the events of his life; including those during WWII. For all its craziness, the story was inspired by the author's life, with Vonnegut using the first chapter to talk about his wartime experiences and the difficulty that he has experienced in trying to write them down.
Our guy Borges was one of the earliest writers to embrace what we now know as postmodern techniques. But get this: Borges never wrote a single novel—he was all about the short story format (plus other short works such as poems and essays), explaining that "the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there's the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding" (source).
Translation: he believed that everything that needed to be said could be expressed more quickly and effectively using this shorter format. And though his works are tiny in size, Borges packs in more experimentation than we might find in a novel 100 times the size.
These stories aren't about naturalism or realistic depictions of daily life; they're more into the philosophical stuff and the breaking down of traditional ideas about time and space. Despite their philosophical themes, though, these stories go down the postmodern route in refusing to offer any grand narratives to explain human existence. What's more, they give us early examples of intertextuality, metafiction, and fragmentation—some of postmodernism's most recognizable techniques.
If you're looking for the big answers about the meaning of life and the ways of the universe…then you've come to the wrong place.
This story describes a massive library containing every text that's ever been written—and the narrator takes a postmodern angle in stating that everything has already been written. People come from far and wide to spend their days combing through the library's contents, trying to decode their unknown language systems. The hope is that one of these books will offer some kind of grand meaning, but after centuries of searching, no one's had any luck.
Maybe it's time to call it a day?
FYI: the title is a reference to a story in the Book of Genesis. Quick recap of the passage: all human beings are united by one language and get together to build a tower in the city of Babel. Their aim is to reach the heavens, but God isn't so enthusiastic. His response? To make sure that people speak—and are divided by—multiple languages and can therefore never take on such a project again.
It's this story that gives us the source of the word "babble," and when applied to Borges' story, suggests that people's quest for meaning is doomed to fail. The narrator admits that he himself has wasted years searching only to realize that the library will probably outlast the human race, its contents forever remaining secret and impossible to decipher.
This 1946 story is short even by Borges' standards (it's only a paragraph long!), but it's gone on to become one of his best-known works. What's extra interesting for us is that Jean Baudrillard used it to demonstrate the notion of hyperreality.
Borges' story is presented as a quotation from a book called Viajes de varones prudentes by "Suárez Miranda" (NB: Borges sometimes refers to real texts, but this ain't one of 'em) that describes some, er, interesting developments in mapmaking over the ages. It turns out that maps became larger and larger until only a life-sized map was good enough. Of course, folks realized that this wasn't exactly convenient and left these maps to decay.
Wacky? Yes. But the whole idea takes on another angle when we look at it as a metaphor for hyperreality. And that's what Baudrillard did when he outlined this concept, arguing that these maps had taken over the land that they were meant to chart and represent. The result? The original becomes buried through the process of simulation and we can no longer separate true from false. We might imagine that the rotting away of the map leads to the uncovering of reality, but Baudrillard is way more pessimistic. For him, the map has become tangled with the landscape and we're now living in the dreaded hyperreal.
P.S. Borges wasn't the first to play with this concept: Lewis Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893) had included references to a life-sized map and remarked on how impractical it was.
Want to see how Borges combines his experimental, dreamlike approach with a real, historical setting? Check out "The Secret Miracle" (1943), in which a writer who's been captured by the Nazis pleads for God to grant him an extra year to finish one of his works. Jump forward to his execution, and time seems to freeze. It's super confusing until he realizes that God has granted him an extra year in his mind. This may not give him the chance to write anything, but it lets him finish his story. Is this dream or reality? Borges isn't telling, but then, would you expect anything less?
Surfing from one website to another is a normal part of life for most of us, right? Well, to see a story that predicted this kind of structure, look no further than "The Garden of Forking Paths" (1941). On one level, we have a wartime espionage plot, but what's more interesting is the labyrinthine book—The Garden of Forking Paths—that becomes the story's centerpiece. The story also announces itself as intertextual and self-reflexive right from the start, referring to a real history book and presenting the story as a fragment. Put this all together and we can see why Borges is known as one of the early postmodernists.
Looking for a guy who represents the shift from modernism to postmodernism?
You've found him in Samuel Beckett. He may have been a pal of James Joyce (who was one of modernism's head honchos), but from 1945 onwards, Beckett started to focus more and more on the failings of modernism, art, and language as a type of expression.
One of Beckett's main philosophical inquiries: in a world without meaning, how can a writer express themselves using words?
Yes, this is deep stuff, but Beckett's work isn't just made up of high falutin essays aimed at the beret and polo neck brigade. Instead, he produced some of the 20th century's most iconic dramas.
Oh, and get this: in a 1993 essay on the "death of postmodernism," Raymond Federman argued that postmodernism had died with Beckett in 1989. High praise or what?
On the surface, the plot of this play might seem dull: a couple of guys, Estragon and Vladimir, spend the entire play waiting for another guy (that's Godot). It's true that there's not much to the plot, but it works as a springboard to explore the themes of waiting, hoping, and looking of meaning.
The verdict? Looking to the future and searching for meaning is pointless. After all (spoiler alert!), Godot never arrives. The characters do their best to pass the time, but ultimately, the play is circular. It was a really unconventional approach at the time, and even now, it's not something we see every day.
He might be remembered for his plays, but Beckett was no slouch when it came to prose. One of his final works, "Stirrings Still" (1988) is a rambling interior monologue that describes a man looking back on his life. (It's written in the third person, but it's hard not to imagine Beckett himself when you're reading it.)
This texts is typically postmodern: it uses repetitive language; it's written as a stream of consciousness; there's no real; technically, nothing happens; there's a lot of confusion and uncertainty…should we go on?
Despite facing the final curtain (dude's about to due), this guy doesn't offer any grand wisdom. Hardly a shocker, right? Rather than having any sense of order, "Stirrings Still" is full of contradiction, confusion, and fragments, as this guy sifts through the "hubbub in his mind." It may not be laugh-a-minute stuff, but it sums up Beckett's career postmodern-style.
How's about this for an enthralling plot? A couple of guys spend their days waiting for someone who never shows. Yeah, gripping stuff. Seriously, though, Waiting for Godot (1949) was massively influential when it burst onto the scene, refusing to go along with the usual dramatic conventions and becoming a pioneering example of the "Theater of the Absurd".
Want another slab of Beckett's dystopian vision? Endgame (1958) is one of those post-WWII texts in which the world has become an apocalyptic wasteland. Like Godot, this play deals with despair, suffering, and the difficulty (impossibility?) of finding meaning in the world. The characters have lost their sense of hope but they cling on all the same. We may not get any answers or happy endings, but we do get a classic study of the human condition.
Nabokov is a tough nut to crack, and people love to argue about whether he's a modernist or postmodernist. Makes sense, we guess, since there's a definite continuity between the two—and Nabokov most likely dabbled in both.
Nabokov's most postmodern novel is Pale Fire, which, like Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, has an experimental narrative structure and dashes our expectations. Not only does it draw attention to the processes of producing and reading a text (it's totally meta), it doesn't point to art as a way of recovering lost meaning—instead, it revels in its chaos and refuses to provide any clear-cut answers. Along with works such as Pnin (1957), Ada or Ador (1969), and The Gift (1970), Pale Fire helps demonstrate why Nabokov is regularly named as a postmodern trailblazer.
Quick recap: a thirtysomething literature professor, the unfortunately-named Humbert Humbert, becomes obsessed with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores, and gives her the nickname "Lolita." The nickname has since entered into popular culture to describe the kind of "nymphet" portrayed in this novel and has been name checked in loads of other cultural texts. The crux of the novel (pedophilia) may be controversial, but its influence on other texts is huge, having inspired such acclaimed postmodern authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and Salman Rushdie.
Not only is Pale Fire Nabokov's most obviously postmodern work; it's also often seen as one of the ultimate postmodern texts and an example of "the literature of exhaustion". So what's it about? Well, it starts out with a foreword by a scholar called Charles Kinbote, who has been entrusted with the final poem of his late friend John Shade. The poem is called "Pale Fire," and Kinbote has been editing it for publication. The book that we're reading includes the end result: a poem of four cantos along with Kinbote's own commentary and notes. We're not just talking a few footnotes either—with Kinbote's commentary takes up more room than the poem itself.
We know that Lolita is full of intertextual references, but how many can you spot? Head over to this page for a checklist of the many cultural shout-outs that are sprinkled throughout this novel.
In addition to referencing various authors and texts, Nabokov is a maestro when it comes to creating a mash up of genres. Take a look here for more on the various types of writing that Nabokov impersonates.
The first rule of Chuck Palahniuk: don't talk about Chuck Palahniuk.
Okay, if you haven't read (or seen) Fight Club, you have no clue what we're talking about.
When he wrote Fight Club, he'd already completed another novel, Invisible Monster, only for publishers to reject it because of its disturbing content. Ouch. Palahniuk wasn't about to wallow in a pity party, though. Instead, it was this rejection that led him to start work on Fight Club—a novel that he intended to disturb publishers even more.
How's that for a rebel?
Despite this aim, publishers were willing to publish Fight Club. It may not have been a massive hit at first, but the movie changed all that. This success led to a revised version of Invisible Monsters, along with several other successful novels. It was with Choke that Palahniuk finally scored a New York Times bestseller, establishing its author as one of today's most successful postmodern writers.
Palahniuk's own definition of his work is "transgressional fiction," and we have to agree. He's not afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to subject matter, while his writing style makes use of repetition and everyday language. He's not into writing flowery, poetic stuff—he's more interested in how everyday folks speak and often takes time out to let us in on their (sometimes bizarre) beliefs and theories.
In this book, we're introduced to a narrator who is suffering from insomnia, hates his job, and spends his time hanging out at support groups for people with various illnesses. He doesn't actually have these illnesses, but hey, he finds it therapeutic.
The narrator soon has other things on his mind when his apartment is wrecked by an explosion. Luckily for him, a mysterious guy called Tyler Durden (who he first met while on vacation) gives him a place to stay—this leads to the duo setting up a club of their own: an underground fighting ring in which disillusioned men can vent their frustrations. Fighting is enough at first, but as time goes on, the guys pool their energies into more explosive anarchist action…
Written in 1996, Fight Club shines a light on the restlessness and powerlessness that folks can feel in late capitalist society. They may have money and the latest goods, but working at a job you can't stand and feeling as though you're just a cog in the machine can be pretty depressing. The appeal behind Fight Club is that it gives these guys a sense of control over their lives and lets them lash out against the system. As it goes on, though, things get more confusing and we start to wonder about the narrator's identity. And just who is this Tyler Durden anyway?
No spoilers, but it all gets really trippy. Majorly postmodern.
Told from the viewpoint of a fashion model whose face has been disfigured by a gunshot wound (how's about that for a gloomy intro?), this novel charts the process of reinvention that the narrator embarks on while in hospital—a reinvention helped along by fellow patient Brandy Alexander. When the duo starts to suspect that the narrator's ex-fiancé and ex-best friend may have played a role in the narrator's predicament (this is starting to sound like a Jerry Springer synopsis, huh?), it's time for revenge. The narrator and Brandy go on to embark on an off-kilter road trip that includes kidnap, robbery, and prescription drugs. It doesn't get more "transgressional" than this.
If you thought Fight Club was a wild ride, then you've seen nothing yet. This novel is full of plot twists and a narrative that leaps backward and forward in time. Fragmentation? You bet. Plus, Palahniuk once again makes the most of his late capitalist setting, commenting on consumer culture, plastic surgery, sexuality, and the whole cult of "beauty". Though it was first published in 1999, 2012 saw the publication of a revamped edition, Invisible Monsters Remix, that's even more crazy and fragmented than the original.
What sort of genre(s) do you think Fight Club falls into? Head over to this page for some ideas on how to describe this novel.
Identity is another big theme in Fight Club. For more on this, plus some questions to chew on, check out this page.