Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759-1767)
Now recognized as one of the first postmodern texts, Tristram Shandy is supposedly an autobiography of the title character, but it turns into a much wackier affair. For one thing, Tristram has trouble staying on track and is constantly going off on tangents or going into excess detail (oh hi, maximalism)—in fact, he doesn't get around to his own birth until Volume 3. Still, this isn't a real autobiography but a fictional text that takes a playful approach to its narrator's ramblings.
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
Though it's a Southern Gothic novel, Absalom, Absalom! falls into the postmodern camp, too. Plot-wise, it centers on several people who tell the same story, but each one puts their own spin on things. The act of narration is a key theme, but as we know, narration can be far from straightforward. Here, we're treated to multiple narrators, time shifts, and the undoing of identity and historical "truth." And get this for trivia: the 1983 Guinness Book of World Records claims that this novel includes the "Longest Sentence in Literature"—a sentence that isn't even complete.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
Chances are you have some idea about the plot of Lolita—but what you may not know is that it's seen as a postmodern classic. It spans loads of genres including tragedy, realism, romance, detective fiction, psychological case study, and memoir. The narration likewise shifts between styles and references other texts. The humor may seem at odds with the subject matter, but that tension just adds to the book's postmodern cred, with Nabokov claiming that—contrary to popular belief—there's no moral to the story.
William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)
Naked Lunch is anything but straightforward and it features constant shifts in time and space. That its narrator is a junkie helps explain this strange set-up—in fact, the stuff that he describes is based on Burroughs' own experiences in the drug world. Burroughs certainly doesn't care about crafting a traditional narrative, claiming that we can read the chapters in any order we want. Likewise, the book is big on playfulness and pastiche, mixing sci-fi, detective fiction, paranoia, and hallucination to create a text that we just can't pin down.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
You've heard the phrase "Catch-22," right? Well, Heller came up with this term to describe a no-win situation (kind of like the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek). Set during WWII, the novel has all the hallmarks of a postmodern text, using satire, wordplay, and a topsy-turvy narrative to highlight the senselessness and absurdity of war.
Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle (1963)
Grand narratives, truth, science, progress…these may have been held up as ideals back in the Enlightenment, but we're in the postmodern age now. Reveling in irony and skepticism, this novel suggests that progress isn't always a good thing and that, sometimes, it's better to embrace lies rather than searching for ultimate truths.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
There are plenty of straightforward stories…but this ain't one of 'em. This book is like a maze that gets seriously twisty and turny as it goes on. It starts out with a scholar claiming that he's been entrusted with the final manuscript of his late poet friend. The book goes on to include the poem and the narrator's notes, but the narrator is unreliable and the line between editor and manuscript gets blurred. We can't be sure what's real, but that's the point: the more we try to find meaning, the more meaning escapes us.
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
When a California housewife becomes mixed up in an international conspiracy, the stage is set for a classic example of postmodern satire. This novel taps into the theme of paranoia and includes intertextual references to cultural icons such as The Beatles and Lolita, plus a hefty dose of metafiction (thanks to the "play within a play" motif).
John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (1968)
Looking for metafiction? You've come to the right place. This short story collection is considered one of the ultimate works of postmodernism, appearing a year after Barth had published "The Literature of Exhaustion." These stories are totally self-aware and miles away from traditional ideas or realistic fiction. After all, Barth had already argued that this sort of literature had been exhausted and had left the door open for postmodern experimentation—something that Barth took to the max here.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Ever seen Footloose? The one where the townsfolk are up in arms about the music and books that they see as a bad influence? Well, Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the books on the town's hit list. Take a read to see why.
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
It's journalism, Jim, but not as we know it. In classic postmodern style, this book is part autobiography and part fiction—how much of each, we don't know. In any case, Hunter goes against convention to produce a classic work of "gonzo" journalism. The story starts out with Raoul Duke (Hunter's alter ego) being sent to cover a drag racing event in Las Vegas, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, as Duke and his sidekick Dr. Gonzo set out on a drug-fueled search for the American Dream.
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
This novel focuses on the creation of rockets by the German military at the end of WWII, with various characters trying to get to the root of a shadowy device due to be installed in rocket 00000. Since it's a postmodern text, though, there's way more going on: the book is packed with different narrative threads, characters, and voices, and mixes serious, highbrow stuff with playful pop culture references. Add to this a hefty dose of paranoia, and it's no wonder that some folks see this as the ultimate postmodern text.
Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler (1979)
Postmodernism is known for messing with narrative structure, and Calvino's book is a classic example. It starts out by talking to us as though we're the main character, drawing us in as we set out on our adventure—but not one with a particular order. Using the device of a "printer's error," Calvino doesn't just present the story out of order; he ends up branching off into a whole load of different stories. It's a shining example of postmodernism's refusal to be tied down.
Raymond Carver, "Cathedral" (1983)
On one level, this story is about a guy (the narrator) trying to explain to a blind man what a cathedral looks like. As he struggles to find the words, the story explores new ways of seeing and connecting: a cathedral may seem like an epic venue, but ultimately, the two guys create a shared understanding using a grocery bag and ballpoint pen. This "whatever works" attitude is totally postmodern, with the characters using the stuff around them in a way that fits their needs.
Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
This book starts out as a look into the family life and career of a professor who works at a Midwestern college. It may sound like run-of-the-mill stuff, but as it goes on, the novel taps into the fear of death and the characters' desperate attempts to deal with it (hello, experimental drugs!). Flipping between different tones and voices, the novel takes a look at some of the issues that were coming to public attention during mid-late 20th century, including drug treatments, conspiracy theories, the mass media, and consumerism.
Art Spiegelman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986-1991)
A comic book about the Holocaust? Yowza. But postmodernism thinks there's no reason why graphic techniques can't make serious points. The comic form messes with our expectations and tackles the question of how any text can express the horror of the Holocaust. This postmodern vibe is also revealed through references to the making of the text: Spiegelman doesn't try to present the book as something that's just "there"—he lets us in on his creative choices and techniques.
Douglas Coupland, Generation X (1991)
More than a book title, "generation X" became a buzzword during the 1990s, summing up a generation of twentysomethings who'd grown up in an age of mass media, divorce, and fast food culture. The book focuses on three "gen X-ers" living in LA and includes tales under headings such as "Enter Hyperspace," "MTV Not Bullets," and "I Am Not Your Target Market." As you can see, these headings are postmodern to the max, and the book is loaded with irony, cynicism, and cultural references.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
Can you imagine a movie so entertaining that its viewers enter a state of hypnotic bliss? Well, that's what's going on in this novel, in which various characters search for a movie called Infinite Jest. The movie is said to have a euphoric effect, but it comes with a big downside: it leads to the viewer's death. Yep, this right here's another postmodern classic, casting a satirical eye on the media, addiction, and consumerism, and depicting a future in which years are named after corporate sponsors—"Year of the Whopper," anyone?
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (1996)
Made famous by the movie, Fight Club is about a couple of dudes who set up an underground fighting ring—a pastime that that turns into a full-on anarchist project. The novel highlights the angst that folks may feel in a world dominated by consumerism and bureaucracy. Being a postmodern text, though, it shifts between tenses, uses incomplete sentences, and can be vague and confusing to the point where we wonder… who is narrating this thing?
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
Smith was a young unknown when she burst onto the scene with White Teeth. The story introduces us to two pals who met during WWII and goes on to describe what's been happening in their lives. In true postmodern style, it juggles all sorts of issues (love, war, ethnicity, religion, and family) and raises questions that don't have easy answers. It also darts back and forward between times/places and features masses of different voices as the characters struggle to find their way through the chaos of postmodern society.
Leslie Fiedler, "The New Mutants" (1965)
Fiedler was one of the first people to embrace postmodernism, celebrating its "apocalyptic, antirational" character and seeing modernism as stuffy and outdated. In this iconic essay, Fiedler discusses a new bunch of literary rebels including Kurt Vonnegut and Jack Kerouac. Forget the usual categories and ideas about high/low culture, she says: these writers were all about doing your own thing.
John Barth, "The Literature of Exhaustion" (1967)
As well as authoring Lost in the Funhouse, Barth wrote what many folks see as a manifesto on postmodernism. In this essay, Barth focuses on the idea that traditional literary forms have become worn-out; since every story has already been told, the only way forward is to revamp stories using postmodern techniques.
Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture (1987)
Hassan is a well-known spokesman for postmodernism, with this 1987 collection bringing together some of his key essays. The collection as a whole is worth checking out but, if you want a taster, take a look at "Toward a Concept of Postmodernism," which features a handy list of contrasts between modernism and postmodernism.
Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987)
Unlike some critics, McHale doesn't see postmodernism as empty and meaningless: he believes that, by drawing attention to its status as literature, it can get us thinking about the world around us. Because of this, McHale argues that postmodernism doesn't just reflect a world of consumerism and mass media, but thanks to its self-aware vibe, can reveal it for what it is.
Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (1988)
In this book, Hutcheon taps into debates re: the label "postmodern" (which, as we've seen, has attracted a whole bunch of different views) and comes up with the term "historiographic metafiction" to describe texts that blur the line between history and fiction. For Hutcheon, postmodernism doesn't ignore history—in fact, it's by messing with the concept of history that postmodern texts can highlight historical and social goodies.
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
Building on his 1983 essay, "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," Jameson sets about exploring postmodernism's social/historical background (the "late capitalism" of the title). Jameson isn't a fan of postmodernism's trendy image or vendetta against metanarratives—he's a pretty old school dude. Still, while he may not be in love with its literary techniques, he recognizes that postmodernism is a cultural force that we need to explore.