On postmodernism (or, Scott talks about Lolita.)

I love postmodernism, and I’m willing to bet you do too – whether you know exactly what it is or not.

To explain it, I’m going to jump back into my favorite period of literature – a span from about 1910 to 1970, where modernism starts to fade a bit and postmodernism arrives. Let’s look at James Joyce, who is undeniably one of the most influential English-language authors of all time and was active between 1914 and 1939.

If you discount Finnegans Wake (which defies any attempt to categorize it), Joyce is a modernist writer. His epic Ulysses is one of the top ten in any good list of modernist novels from this era, and sometimes shows up in the number one slot for all books written in the twentieth century. Joyce breaks a lot of tradition and was indeed very modern for his time: the works are stream of consciousness, there are jokes that you need to speak multiple languages to get, you often have difficulty discerning what is real and what is thought, words and timelines are toyed with, and classical traditions are broken with aplomb.

It’s edgy and difficult to read, even today. Hell, about a third of the entire 800 page novel takes place over the course of one acid-trip dream sequence. You will find beautiful rule-breaking sentences like this one, in which a woman is lying in bed remembering her acceptance of a marriage proposal: “He asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

So, how do you get weirder than that? Postmodernism thinks further outside the box. “Why is the story being written, and what is the reader’s relationship to the narrator? From what angle can the reader experience the story? Does there need to be a story at all?”

I’m going to focus on the first two, here, because I don’t connect as well with the ponderous postmodern work that becomes recursive in the sense that it exists to question its own existence. Waiting for Godot by Beckett might fit into this category, or any story where the author intentionally makes sure that either nothing happens, or nothing makes sense. These works are asking why they need to exist, or what the nature of storytelling is. I prefer to get past that, and build something with the techniques.

Let’s look at a classic postmodern book from my favorite postmodern author, Vladimir Nabokov, with Lolita in 1955. Yes, it’s about an uncomfortable subject, and no, it doesn’t glorify or apologize for pedophilia. Lolita is a brilliant postmodern novel and Nabokov is the postmodern brain-punching grandmaster.

In Lolita, the first person tale is told by our narrator, the disgraced and imprisoned pedophile Humbert Humbert. The book is written as his plea for leniency to the judge who is currently deciding his case, which involves his sexual abuse of a young girl. Humbert is a narcissistic liar, and everything he tells you in the book (which is the book itself, as he is the narrator) must be taken with the same skepticism you’d take while listening to any convicted prisoner lie about the circumstances of his crime.

This is called the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique. The reader isn’t just accepting the words on the page as he is with Ulysses, where the thoughts of that first-person narrator are always honest and accurate (no matter how difficult they are to decipher.) Rather, we know Humbert is lying to us. Hell, our narrator is the villain of the story. Out of his squeamishness, or boastfulness, or casual glossing past events that incriminate him, we unravel the truth.

One of my favorite examples of this is Humbert’s recounting of how the titular Lolita’s mother mysteriously dies one day. And, right after she finds Humbert’s secret journal detailing his lust for her daughter. Right before she’s about to expose him to the police. She just runs right out in the middle of the street, and wouldn’t you know, a car creams her. Strangest thing. Too bad no one else was around to confirm or deny Humbert’s accounting of the event.

What the reader gets is Humbert’s somewhat implausible story of a distraught woman running into the street and getting hit by a car, the details of which he’s eager to gloss over. We suspect Humbert killed her, of course, but we can’t know that because our only source of information is the murderer himself – and he’s not about to admit it. The reader is now looking between the words of the book to find the actual story. This is postmodernism. The book isn’t simply read at face value. The way in which the reader is given the story is a part of the story itself.

I’m going to stick with Nabokov to give you a more extreme example: his brain-melter, Pale Fire (1962). Pale Fire is a forty page poem by a recently deceased famous (but entirely fictional) poet. The poem is very nice – Nabokov was a poet before he became a postmodern novelist, and read and wrote poems alongside giants like Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot.

But the poem isn’t the real book. You see, the poem has been annotated and released by one Charles Kinbote, who is also fictional. We’re introduced to him by his brief prologue to Pale Fire, in which Kinbote hints that perhaps the poet’s wife and peers feel Kinbote should not be editing or releasing the work.

And the rest of the story comes in the form of Kinbote’s footnotes on the poem. It all starts innocently enough, with footnotes which add backstory and biographical information to the poem. But by the end, Kinbote’s footnotes weave in stories of political assassination, an imaginary Soviet country of which Kinbote is apparently royalty, and a near psychotic obsession with the poet of Pale Fire. By the time you finish reading the footnotes, you will be left wondering just how involved in the poet’s death Kinbote really was – and just what the true identity of this mad editor actually is. In fact, there are still readers and literary critics arguing over Kinbote’s true identity, and Pale Fire is one of the most studied and critiqued works of the twentieth century.

It’s the most postmodern work I’ve personally ever read, especially given when it was released. Pale Fire is a complete puzzlebox. I think it would blow people away if it were published as a new novel today.

There are downsides to a work this postmodern, of course. It’s hard to read a story that’s crammed into footnotes, and the lack of a constant narrative makes the thing hard to follow. But taken as a whole, it’s simply astonishing.

We see these techniques all the time in literature and cinema today. Watch Usual Suspects, which makes great use of the unreliable narrator technique and the nested plot-line technique. Go watch Lego Movie and notice the postmodern (and existential) twist in the last act. Look at how Arrival (which I could devote an entire blog post to) uses its plot to toy with our expectations of how a flashback should work. Or even “found footage” films like Blair Witch or the earlier Cannibal Holocaust, where the audience’s expectations from the nature of the footage itself plays into how they view the film on the screen.

Keeping with the cinema theme, let’s separate modern from postmodern again. A movie like The Matrix is trippy, and clever, and yet not postmodern. It is existential because it questions the nature of reality and our perception of it, but it does not use any of the “why does this film exist” techniques that help separate postmodern from modernist works. The format of the Matrix is over two-thousand years old and the concepts are predated by Plato’s Parable of the Cave. It is ultimately a traditional story.

I love postmodernism. You take a story, but essentially wrap the whole thing in a second story. If the classic story is two dimensional, postmodernist works are three dimensional – you’re not just interpreting the words, but you’re interpreting their relationship to the narrator and the way in which the words have been delivered to you.

The most postmodern of my works is [sic], in which I fully deploy the unreliable narrator and nested plot-line techniques. I’d classify both The Blue and the Keep the Ghost trilogy as modernist works, as they’re told straight-through in a first person style much closer to Joyce than Nabokov. That said, I’ll be making a return to postmodernism at some point.

Thanks for reading – literature fascinates me, and I hope to use this blog to explore some of my favorite aspects of its history and development.


One Comment on “On postmodernism (or, Scott talks about Lolita.)”

  1. […] It’s probably unintentional, but very misleading that in the hundreds of examples I’ve seen of these lines being used, the way it’s attributed to Frost leaves out the fact it’s from a poem. It looks like it’s just a thing he said once, in response to a question. This is not how the poem should be read – we can’t assume the narrator in a poem is the actual author of the poem. That’s an easy mistake to make, but in poetry we need consider the possibility that the narrator of the poem is a tragic or flawed character. Think Humbert from Lolita, featured in one of my previous blogs.  […]


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