domingo, 7 de agosto de 2022

Examen de septiembre

 

Ya tenemos FECHA DE EXAMEN para la convocatoria de septiembre de Introducción a la literatura inglesa, el miércoles  7 de septiembre, tarde, de 17 a 20h. En el Aula III del edificio central de Filosofía y Letras.

Recordad que el examen teórico tiene una sección de preguntas de tipo test, y además un tema a elegir entre dos (siendo uno de los temas uno de los principales autores del programa, y otro una época o género, donde puedan entrar varios autores)

Y la segunda parte, el examen práctico, que también tiene que hacer todo el mundo, es un texto para traducir al español o comentar en inglés. Sin diccionarios, etc. (—se da por hecho que habrá palabras que falten—no matter). Se valoran la precisión, la capacidad de comprensión, y el conocimiento de la materia y del idioma inglés.

Para quienes hayan entregado trabajos, el examen cuenta un 40% de la nota, y cada uno de los trabajos un 30%. Si no se han entregado trabajos en febrero, el examen es el 100% de la nota final.

Recordad que en las preguntas de tipo test, un fallo no descuenta, pero cada dos fallos descuentan un acierto. (No contestar no sube ni baja puntos). Conviene preparar los contenidos centrales de la asignatura: conocer los principales autores y ubicarlos en una época, saber cuáles eran sus principales obras, qué temas tratan, y a qué género pertenecen.

 

 

Un libro una hora: 1984 de George Orwell

 

jueves, 28 de abril de 2022

Anne Sexton

 

From Hart and Leininger's Oxford Companion to American Literature:
 
Sexton, Anne (1928-74) , poet who lived in her native Massachusetts and traced her ancestry to Mayflower Pilgrims, but whose writing is concerned not with heritage or religion but very frankly with her firsthand experience. Her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was the outcome of a nervous breakdown. The poems in All My Pretty Ones (1962) are equally revealing. The same characteristics are evident also in the lyrics of Live or Die (1966, Pulitzer Prize) and Love Poems (1969). Her dark, bitter views of life are evident in Transformations (1971), retellings of the Grimms' fairy tales; The Book of Folly (1972), poems and prose parables; and The Death Notebooks (1974), which were followed by the poems in The Awful Rowing toward God (1975), published after her suicide. 45 Mercy Street (1976), Words for Dr. Y (1978), and The Complete Poems (1981) are posthumous collections of poems. A Self-Portrait in Letters appeared in 1977. In 1985 was published No Evil Star, a collection of essays, interviews, and other prose.
 
 
 

From The Norton Anthology of American Literature:

Anne Sexton's first book of poems, To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960), was published at a time when the label confessional came to be attached to poems more frankly autobiographical than had been usual in American verse. For Sexton the term confessional is particularly apt. Although she had abandoned the Roman Catholicism into which she was born, her poems enact something analogous to preparing for and receiving religious absolution.
Sexton's own confessions were to be made in terms more startling than the traditional Catholic images of her childhood. The purpose of her poems was not to analyze or explain behavior but to make it palpable in all its ferocity of feeling. Poetry "should be a shock to the senses. It should also hurt." This is apparent both in the themes she chooses and the particular way in which she chooses to exhibit her subjects. Sexton writers about sex, illegitimacy, guilt, madness, and suicide. Her first book portrays her own mental breakdown, her time in a mental hospital, her efforts at reconciliation with her young daughter and husband when she returns. Her second book, All My Pretty Ones (1962) takes its title from Macbeth and refers to the death of both her parents within three months of one another. Later books act out a continuing debate about suicide: Live or Die (1966), The Death Notebooks (1974), and The Awful Rowing toward God (1975—posthumous), titles that prefigure the time when she took her life (1974).

Sexton spoke of images as "the heart of poetry. Images come from the unconscious. Imagination and the unconscious are one and the same." Powerful images substantiate the strangeness of her own feelings and attempt to redefine experiences so as to gain understanding, absolution, or revenge. These poems poised between, as her titles suggest, life and death or "bedlam and part way back" are efforts at establishing a middle ground of self-assertion, substituting surreal images for the reductive versions of life visible to the exterior eye.

Anne Sexton was born in 1928 in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended Garland Junior College. She came to poetry fairly late—when she was twenty-eight, after seeing the critic I. A. Richards lecturing about the sonnet on television. In the late 1950s she attended poetry workshops in the Boston area, including Robert Lowell's poetry seminars at Boston University. One of her fellow students was Sylvia Plath, whose suicide she commemorated in a poem and whose fate she later followed. Sexton claimed that she was less influenced by Lowell's Life Studies than by W. D. Snodgrass's autobiographical Heart's Needle (1959), but certainly Lowell's support and the association with Plath left their mark on her and made it possible for her to publish. Although her career was relatively brief, she received several major literary prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die and an American Academy of Arts and Letters traveling fellowship. Her suicide came after a series of mental breakdowns.

____


Anne Sexton at The Poetry Foundation

Postmodernity in Prose (NIVEL AVANZADO)

 

From Richard Gray's History of American Literature:


WATCHING NOTHING: POSTMODERNITY IN PROSE

 

When Wolfe was cataloguing the forms of the contemporary American novel that, he believed, had failed in the primary duty to the real, he picked out one group for particular condemnation. They were the postmodernists: those who, Wolfe scornfully suggested, wrote about "The Prince of Alienation . . . sailing off to Lonesome Island on his Tarot boat with his back turned and his Timeless cape on, reeking of camphor balls." For their part, some of those writers have returned the compliment. One of them, for example, clearly thinking of figures like Raymond Carver, has referred to the school of "Post Alcoholic Blue-Collar Minimalist Hyperrealism." The opposition is not universal, of course, not even inevitable. On the contrary, most contemporary American novelists exploit the possibilities of both realism and postmodernism, and others besides, as they attempt to navigate the two rivers of American history described by Mailer. Nevertheless, the opposition hs been there at times: between the New Journalists and the Fabulators, the dirty realists and the fantasists or systems builders. And it is mapped out clearly in the gap that separates Wolfe, Carver, and the Capote of In Cold Blood from the wholehearted postmodernists of contemporary American writing, notably Thomas Pynchon (19837) and John Barth (1930-). Pynchon is perhaps the most acclaimed and personally the most elusive of the postmodernists. Relatively little is known about him, apart from the fact that he studied at Cornell, for some of the time under Vladimir Nabokov (who did not remember him). and that he worked for a while for the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle. He has chosen social invisibility, the last known photograph of him dating from the 1950s. Although this is almost certainly motivated by a desire to avoid the pitfalls of celebrity and the publicity machine, it has given the figure of Pynchon a certain alluring mystery. It also adds to the mystique his fiction projects, since that projection is of a world on the edge of apocalypse, threatened by a vast conspiracy directed by or maybe against and established power elite. This conspiracy, the intimation is, is decipherable through a series of arcane sighs. The signs, however, require interpretation, decoding according to the rules of structural paranoia. And one of those rules is that structural paranoia is impossible to distinguish from clinical paranoia. So interpretation may be a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Pynchon's novels are extraordinarily intricate webs, self-reflexive halls of mirrors, precisely because they replicate the world as text—a system of signs that must but cannot be interpreted. Each of his books creates a lexical space, a self-referential verbal system, that imitates the post-humanist space, steadily running down and losing energy, that all of us now occupy.

Pynchon has been his own fiercest critic. In an introductory essay to his early stories, Slow Learner (1984), he has said that his fundamental problem when he began writing was an inclination "to begin with a theme, symbol, or other unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it." His books are certainly packed with ideas and esoteric references; and, whether one agrees with this self-criticism or not, it is clear that Pynchon laid down his intellectual cards early. The title of his first important short story is "Entropy" (1960). It contains specific references to Henry Adams; and it follows carefully the Adams formulation, "Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man." The use of entropy as a figure for civilization running down was to become structurally formative in his later fiction. So was his use of two kinds of characters, alternative central figures first sketched out here. The situation in "Entropy" is simply and deliberately schematic. There is a downstairs and an upstairs apartment. Downstairs, a character called Meatball Mulligan is holding a lease-breaking party, which moves gradually toward chaos and consequent torpor. Upstairs, another character, an intellectual called Callisto, is trying to warm a freezing bird back to life. In his room he maintains a small hothouse jungle, referred to as a "Rousseau-like fantasy." "Hermetically sealed, it was a tiny enclave in the city's chaos," the reader is told, "alien to the vagaries of the weather, national politics, or any civil disorder." The room is a fantasy, a dream of order, in which Callisto has "perfected its ecological balance." But the room leaves him in paralysis, the dream does not work; the bird dies, and Callisto's girlfriend, realizing that he is "helpless in the past," smashes the window of their hermetically sealed retreat, breaking the shell surrounding his fantasy life. Meatball Mulligan, meanwhile, does what he can to stop his party "deteriorating into total chaos" by tidying up, calming his guests, getting things mended.

"Entropy," in this way, mediates between binary opposites: which are the opposites of modern consciousness and culture. There is the pragmatist, active to the point of excess, doing what he can with the particular scene, working inside the chaos to mitigate it. And there is the theorist, passive to the point of paralysis, trying to shape and figure the cosmic process, standing outside as much as he can, constructing patterns for the chaos to explain it. Meatball is immersed, drowning in the riotous present; Callisto is imprisoned in the hermetically sealed glasshouse of the past. The text, which here and later is the dominant presence in Pynchon's writing, is the interface between these two figures, these two systems or levels of experience. As such, it sketches out human alternatives in a multiverse where mind and matter are steadily heading for extinction. Or, it may be, the alternatives of hyperactivity and containment, the open and the closed, between which the individual consciousness constantly vacillates. The two are not, in any event, mutually exclusive. To an extent, what Pynchon does in his work is to give a decidedly postmodernist spin to perennial American preoccupations. In the tradition of the American jeremiad, he presents a culture, if not bound for heaven, then bent toward hell, its own form of apocalypse or heat death. And in the grain of American writing structured around the figures of the wilderness and the clearing, he develops a sometimes bewildering series of systems, human and nonhuman, built around the fundamental, formaive principles of spatial openness and closure, immersion and separation, the flexible and the fixed, the signified and the signifier—a world that is a  totality of things, data, and a world that is a totality of fact, signs.

In his first novel, V (1963), Pynchon returned to two formative characters recalling Callisto and Meatball in the shape of Hubert Stencil and Benny Profane. The book confirms its author's sense of the modern world as an entropic waste land, inhabited by men and women dedicated to the annihilation of all animatedness. It is bounded by dead landscapes, urban, mechanical, underground. A populous narrative, it is also packed with characters who are ciphers; seeing others and themselves, not as people, but as things, objects, they lapse into roles, masquerade, and cliché. Blown along the mean streets and even meaner sewers of this story, Benny Profane is a schlemiel, the suffering absurd comedian of Jewish lore. A faded copy of a picaro, he drifts through life in such enterprises as hunting alligators underneath New York City; it is there, in fact, in the darkness and oblivion of the sewers, that he finds his greatest comfort and peace. Hubert Stencil, on the other hand, searches the world for V., the mysterious female spy and anarchist who is by turns Venus, Virgin, and Void and seems to be everywhere and nowhere. Stencil appears to be on a significant quest. Described as "a century's child" and born in 1901, he is pursuing the remnants of the Virgin in the world of the Dynamo. His father, a former British spy, has left behind enigmatic clues pointing to a vast conspiracy in modern history So, whereas Profane lives in a world of sightlessness without signs or discernible patterns, Stencil enters a world of elusive signs and apparent patterns, all gravitating toward an absent presence, the lady V. his quest is for a fulcrum identity. In a sense, he is given an outline identity by his search, since he thinks of himself as "quite purely He who looks for V. (and whatever impersonations that might involve)." It is also a quest for the identity of modern times. Using the oblique strategy of "attack and avoid," Stencil moves through many of the major events of the twentieth century, seeking to recover the master plot, the meanings of modern history and this book. The only meaning found, however, is the erasure of meaning: the emptying of a significant human history and its sacrifice to mechanism and mass. The purposiveness of Stencil, it turns out, and the purposelessness of Profane are both forms of "yo-yoing" movement, often violent oscillation, bereft of all significance except the elemental one of postponing inanimatedness.

At the heart of V, in short, is a paradox characteristic of all Pynchon's work. Its enormous historical bulk and vast social fabric is so constructed that it may be deconstructed, so complexly created that it may be doubted then decreated. The deconstruction is there, centrally, in the controlling sign of V. herself, "a remarkably scattered concept" as we are told. A human figure, passsing through many stages and identities, she comes down to Stencil's final dream of her as a plasticated technological object. A shifting letter attached to a historical process of progressive deanimation, the human figure is translated into a figure of speech. The other two compositional principles of the novel, Stencil and Profane, may apparently be opposed, just as Callisto and Meatball are, as the creator of patterns and the man of contingency, the constructive and the deconstructive, he who seeks and he who floats They are joined, however, not only in a failure of significance but a failure of identity. Stencil and Profane inhabit a textual world that simultaneously exhausts and drains meaning: there is a proliferation of data, in excess of possible systems and in denial of any need, any compulsion to explain. Not only that, they are created only to be decreated, just as that textual world is—and in the same terms as that elusive noncharacter V. herself. Their names are parodies, their words and gestures gamesome or stereotypical, their physcial bearing a series of masks. As such, they offer playful variations on a definition of life supplied during the novel: as "a successive rejection of personalities." In the simplest sense, Vis not a book without a subject or a plot. Full of characters (of a sort) and events, it exploits a number of narrative genres to keep the action lively and the attention engaged: among them the mystery story, the tale of the quest, and science fiction. But in another, more elemental sense, it is. Not only a text about indeterminacy, is an indeterminate text: its significance, its subject is the lack, the impossibility of one.

 




Almost the last reported words of V. are "How pleasant to watch Nothing." In his subsequent fiction, Pynchon has continued this watching and searching of the boundlessness of "Nothing" in a variety of fictional guises. In his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the main character, Oedipa Maas, learns that her onetime lover, Pierce Inverarity, has made her an executor of his estate. Now he is dead, she sets out to investigate Inverarity's property: an investigation that leads to the discovery of what she takes to be a conspiratorial underground communication system dating back to the sixteenth century. Following the clues, she finally believes she will solve the enigma thorugh a mysterious bidder keen to buy Inverarity's stamp collection. But the novel ends with the enigma unsolved, the plot and its meaning unresolved, as Oedipa awaits the crying out at the auction of the relevant lot number 49. The subject, and its significance, still wait to be located. So do they in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Pynchon's third novel. Set in the closing years of World War II, the story here, a complex web of plots and counterplots, involves a Nazi Lieutenant Weissman, disguised as a mysterious Captain Blicero, and an American sleuth, Lieutenant Tyron Slothorp, while V-2 rockets rain down on London. Weissman, it appears, was once the lover of V.—in this elaborate intertextual world, Pynchon's texts echo his own as well as the texts of others. The gravitations of mood are characteristic: from black humor to lyricism to science fiction to fantasy. So is the feeling the reader experiences, while reading the book, that he or she is encountering not so much different levels of meaning or reality, as different planes in fictive space, with each plane in its shadow box proving to be a false bottom, in an evidently infinite regression. So, also, finally is the suspicion of conspiracy: Gravity's Rainbow explores the possibility that, as one character puts it, "war was never political at all, the politics was all theater, all just to keep the people distracted."

In this fictive maze, the V-2 rocket assumes an elusive significance. It answers "to a number of shapes in the dreams of those who touch it—in combat, in tunnel, or on paper"; each rocket, the reader learns, "will know its intended and hunt him . . . shining and pointed in the sky at his back . . . rushing in, rushing closer." The intimations of a conspiratorial system, here "dictated . . . by the needs of technology," is wedded, in a way characteristic of Pynchon, to a centrally, crucially indeterminate sign. Like V., the V-2 rocket is as compelling as it is mysterious, as beautiful as it is dangerous, constantly dissolving into nothingness, deadly. Compared to a rainbow arched downwards, as if by a force of gravity that is dragging humankind to its death, the rocket initiates the same need to find meaning as V. did. Similarly, it offers an excess of meaning, an excess that is an evacuation. Since Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon has moved forward to the landscape of the 1980s and, through ample reminiscence, the 1960s in Vineland (1990), then back to the early twentieth century in Against the Day (2006) and forward again to the 1960s in his variation on the noir novel, Inherent Vice (2009). In between Vineland and Against the Day, he moved back to the early republic in Mason and Dixon (1997)_ to the days when men like the two famous surveyors mentioned in the title were trying to establish boundaries in the boundlessness of America, in order to appropriate it. America is memorably described in this novel as "a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true". It is the world, the landscape that inahbits all Pynchon's fiction: the realm of measurelessness and dream, the indicative and the subjunctive, the closed and appropriated and the open And it is typical of the author that he should weave his speculations on legends, the rich "Rubbish-Tip" of dreams ("Does Britannia when she sleeps, dream? one character asks, "Is America her dream?"), into a densely populated social fabric and a meditation on historical decline. The fictive energy of Pynchon seems inexhaustible, not least because it careers with tireless energy between contraries. But to an extent, what drives it is summed up in one simple question one character asks the other in this novel: "Good Christ, Dixon. What are we about?"

The narrator of John Barth's second novel, The End of the Road (1958), begins the story he is to tell with a sly parody of the opening sentence of Moby-Dick: "In a sense, I am Jake Horner." That use of language to set up distances is characteristic. The distances are several: between reader and character (Horner is already asking us to look at him as only "in a sense" what he names himself), between the narrator and character (who only "in a sense" form a negotiable, nameable identity)—above all, between the world inside the text and the world outside Barth has proved to be his own best critic and commentator precisely because his is a fiction that continually backs up on itself, subverting any temptation to link that fiction to reality by commenting on form. His texts and characters are constatnly commenting on themselves, or inviting or insisting on such comment. His fourth novel, Giles Goat-Boy (1966), for instance, begins with fictive letters of introduction by several editors that suggest, among other things, that the author is "unhealthy, embittered, desperately unpleasant, perhaps masturbative, perhaps alcoholic or insane, if not a suicide." Or then, again, that he is a mysterious unknown, or even a computer.. Besides creating multiple dubieties, making the book a series of masks, the letters both liberate the author from the authority of authorship and advie the reader as to how to read this fiction. Which is, as fiction: a series of signs that have no reference to objects outside themselves, and whose value lies in their intrinsic relationship, the play between them. "This author," one editor complains, "has maintained that language is the matter of his books"; "he turns his back on what is the case, rejects the familiar for the amazing, embraces artifice and extravagance; washing his hands of the search for Truth, he calls himself 'doorman of the Muses' fancy-house'."

"What is the case" is a sly allusion to a famous remark made by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. "The world is all that is the case." The world, Wittgenstein argues, is the sum of what we take to be true and believe that others take to be rue. We construct our world from the inside out; and the crucial weapon in those configurations, those patternings of things, is the system of language we have at our disposal. We cannot, in fact, get outside the prisonhouse of our language; all we can do, when we draw a picture of our world, is draw the bars. Inadvertently, one of the fictive editors revelas the project that is at the heart of all Barth's fiction, and all other work that is sometimes called postmodern and sometimes metafiction. Everything is only "in a sense" this or that it is named. The self is the sum of its rules, its locutions; the world is the sum of our constructions of it; any apparent essence, any "natural" baing or feeling or presence, is really a social construct, a sign of culture trying to wear the mask of nature (and "nature" is a cultural convention, too). And the text refers to nothing but itself. The ultimate postmodern protagonist is perhaps Echo in Lost in the Funhouse (1968), Barth's first collection of stories, who "becomes no more than her voice." That, together with the self-referential nature of his language and the self-reflexive character of his fiction, may make Barth's work sound abstract to the point of being ossified. It is not, on the whole, because the voice is vital: his novels and stories are packed with voices, energetic, comically ebullient, often ironic, as Pynchon's are with masks and figures. Not only that, in his hands, the prisonhouse of language does become a funhouse: a place for play and passionate virtuosity.

As for voices: these range from the tones of the narrator of Barth's first novel, The Floating Opera (1956), recalling his experiences on the day in 1937 when he debates suicide, to the multiple voices of his fifth novel, Letters (1979). As its title implies, Letters is an unusual development of epistolary fiction. In it, seven more or less parallel narratives are revealed through correspondence written by seven characters from Barth's earlier fiction, including the author himself as just another imaginary figure. The intricate story that emerges is a characteristic inquiry into enclosure and liberation: the patterns into which all seven characters have previously been set, the degree of freedom they may possibly discover and possess. Typical of Barth's voices, that of Jake Horner, in turn, is notable for its sometimes playful, sometimes angry irony, its humorous elusiveness. Horner is a man so aware of the plural possibilities of existence, the "game" involved in living, that he often finds himself incapable of reacting, acting out a role. He can always find a reason for doing something, or its complete opposite. And the action of The End of the Road concerns a time when, on the advice of his doctor, he attempts to remedy this by becoming a college teacher, to
"teach the rules. Teach the truth about grammar," the vocabulary of life. The novel circles around a disastrous travesty of a love triangle when Jake becomes briefly involved with the wife of a fellow teacher who does belive life can be contained within one version of it—who, as Jake marvels, is "always sure of his ground." Yet that triangular affair, and its dreadful outcome, is less in the foreground than Jake's sustained sense of the absence of identity, his or that of others, outside of roles, or the absence of action or meaning apart from performance. He—and we the readers—are constantly being reminded that this is a story, one possible version of the world among an infinite number. What gives the novel its power is the tricky movements of Jake's voice, always prone to tell us something and then confide "in other senses, of course, I don't believe this at all." And what gives it its passion is the vacillation, the constant movement Jake's awareness of his predicament instigates, between play and paralysis. The games enforced in The End of the Road with their painful consequences, conclude with Jake leaving the college and taking a taxi cab to the airport. Jake's last word is his ambiguous instruction to the driver, as he gets into the taxi: "Terminal."

Jake seems to step out of life and motion as he steps into the cab and out of the narrative. Life equals language equals story. That is the formula animating Barth's work. To cease to narrate is to die: a point that Barth makes more or less explicit in his use of the figure of Scheherazade in the opening history in his collecction, Chimera (1972). Scheherazade was, of course, the figure in the Arabian folktale who stayed alive simply by telling stories. Telling stories, in turn, spins into fantasy. Barth is fond of creating worlds within worlds, using parody and pastiche, verbal and generic play to produce multiple layered simulacra: copies, imitations of something for which the original never existed. It could and can never exist because there was and is no reality prior to the imitation, to tales and telling. So, in The Sot-Weed Factor  (1960), Barth takes up the author of the 1708 Maryland poem with the same title, Ebenezer Cooke, about whom virtually nothing is known. He then uses Cooke as the hero of a lusty picaresque tale that is a pastiche of history, conventional historical fiction, autobiography, and much else besides. The Sot-Weed Factor also raises the issue of how history aand identity are known, by slyly eliding them with all kinds of literary "lies" from poetry to tall tales and braggadocio to mythology. Giles Goat-Boy, after its initial framing in the debate over authorship, continues theis subversion through similarly comic devices. The whole modern world is conceived of as a university campus, controlled by a computer that is able to run itself and tyrannize people. The book is in part a satirical allegory of the Cold War, since it is divided into East and West. It is also a characteristically layered fiction, since it parodies everal genres (myth, allegory, the quest, and so on) and a variety of texts (including the Bible, Don Quixote, and Ulysses). Above all, it translates the earth into an artifice. The world, the intimation is, is a fable, a structure created by language and, as such, comparable to the artificial structures created by the author of this novel (whoever he or it may be) and by all his characters (who practice their several disciplines, their different roles and subject vocabularies). Works written since Giles Goat-Boy, such as Letters, Sabbatical: A romance (1982), The Tidewater Tales (1987),The Last Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor (1991), and The Development (2008), continue Barth's passionate play with various forms, the numerous ways in which we tell ourselves stories to live them and live in them. For him, that play is at once imperative and inspiring, a form of necessity and a liberation, something coextensive with breathing. Some of his characters sometimes may yearn, as one of them puts it, "to give up language altogether." But that, as Barth feels and indicates, is to "relapse into numbness," to "float voiceless in the wash of time like an amphora in the sea." It may seem attractive occasionally, but to evacuate voice is to erase identity, place, and prexence. To abandon language and its difficulties is to surrender to death.

Two writers who have sketched out very different possibilities for postmodernism, an, in doing so, created distinctive fictive landscapes, are Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) and John Hawkes (1925-1998). The distances between them, despite their common allegiance to work of art as object, an opaque system of language rather than transparnt account of the world, are suggested by two remarks. "Fragments are the only forms I trust," observes the narrator in one of the stories in Barthleme's second collection, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). "The need is to maintain the truth of the fractured picture." Hawkes insisted in an early interview. Hawkes is interested in creating strange, phantasmagoric landscapes, dreamscapes in a way, that evoke, always in their own terms, what he has called "The enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and in the world around us," "our potential for violence and absurdity as well as for graceful action." Barthelme is just as committed as Hawkes is to the displacement of the writer from the work. He is also committed to the displacement of the work from the world, so that the work becomes simply, as Barthelme puts it, "something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator." But, whereas Hawkes's fiction has a quality of nightmare, entropic stillness, Barthelme's stories and novels are witty, formally elegant, slyly commenting on themselves as artifacts. Hawkes began his writing, he said, with "something immediately and intensely visual—a room, a few figures." Then, eschewing interest in plot, character, setting, and theme, he aimed for what he called "totality of vision or structure." Using corresponding events, recurring images and actions, and a prose style that seems to freeze things in times and retard readerly attention, he creates landscapes of evil and decay. As his characters traverse these landscapes almost somnambulistically, their and our feelings vacillate between fear, dread, and the bleakly, blackly, humorous. Barthelme, however, begins his writing in the verbal rather than the visual. "O I wish there were some words in the world that were not the words I always hear!" complains the title character in Barthelme's first novel, Snow White (1967). Barthelme obliges with a verbal collage, full of odd juxtapositions and unpredictable swerves: a linguistic equivalent of Pop Art, in a way, which picks up the shards and fragments, the detritus of modern life and gives them a quality of surprise. "We like books that have a lot of dreck in them," admits the narrator of that same novel. And it is precisely the dreck of contemporary conversation, from the commonest clichés to intellectual chatter, that is picked up in his books and turned all to strangeness by omitting or fragmenting the habitual arrangements and separations by which we seek to retain a feeling of control over our environment. Waste is turned to magic in his work, but the sense of magic is also accompanied by unease. Barthelme's fiction constantly fluctuates between immersion in trash culture and the impulse to evade, an impulse that finds its emotional issue in irony, disappointment, and a free-floating nostalgia. Everything doubles back on itself, nothing is not placed in implicit, ironic question marks in his fiction. Nevertheless, what Barthelme captures in his work, along with what one of his charcters called "the ongoing circus of the mind," is the suspicion that, after all, it may not be that easy to go with the junk flow—or to be what Barthelme has called himself, "a student of surfaces."

"Do you like the story so far?" asks the narrator of Snow White about halfway through. He then helpfully provides the reader with an opportunity to answer "Yes ( ) No ( )." This is followed by a further fourteen questions for the reader to fill in his or her preferences. Quite apart from reminding us that this book is, after all, an artifact, an object, the product of play and planning, the questionnaire offers a slyly parodic comment on the currently fashionable ideas of the work of art as open and the reader as co-producer rather than a consumer of the text. But the last question sounds a slightly melancholic note. "In your opinion, should human beings have more shoulders? ( )," the narrator asks. "Two sets of shoulders? ( ) Three? ( )." Any world has its stringencies, its absences, restricting the room for magic and play. The absence of several shoulders is not the most pressing of these, perhaps. But how else would Barthelme intimate these limits and lacks but in a manner that subverts, pokes fun at his own intimation? Barthelme is resistant to message. One of his stories, "The Balloon" in Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, even toys with the absurdity of meaning. An enormous balloon appears over the city. People argue over its significance. Some manage to "write messages on the surface." Mainly what people enjoy, though, is that it is "not limited and defined." It is delightfully random, amorphous, floating free above "the grid of precise, rectangular pathways" beneath it. And "this ability of the balloon to shift its shape, to change," the reader learns, "was very pleasing, expecially to people whose lives were rather rigidly patterned." Clearly, the balloon is a paradigm of the art object, the kind of free-form product, plastic and ephemeral, that Barthelme is interested in making: resistant to understanding, interpretation, or reflection. but, in its own odd, jokey way, as it floats over the citizens, it generates a ruefulness, a wry regret that carries over into Barthelme's other fictions. "I am in the wrong time," Snow White reflects "How does the concept of 'something better' arise?" the narrator of that same novel asks, "What does it look like, this something better?" It is remarkable that the sportive fantasy and verbal trickery of Barthelme are often at their best when he is playing with loss and longing: "Emily Dickinson, why have you left me and gone?" goes a passage in Snow White, "ah ah ah ah ah." Readers can certinly walk around a Barthelme verbal object, seeing in it above all a model of how to free language and feeling from stale associations. But what they are likely to catch, as they walk around, is a borderline melancholia. So, when Snow White writes a poem, the seven men who live with her have no doubt as to its theme. "The theme is loss, we take it," they ask causticlally. Her reply is simple: "I have not been able to imagine anything better."

Of John Hawkes's 1961 novel, The Lime Twig, his fellow novelist Flannery O'Connor has observed that "You suffer it like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you wait to escape from but can't." That is true of all his fiction. His nominal subjects range far and wide—many of them, he has said, acquired from the newspapers or from other writers. So, for instance, The Cannibal (1949) explores the horrors of devastation in postwar Germany. The Lime Twig presents the psychopathic effects on a man of life during and after the blitz on London. Travesty (1967) is the monologue of a Frenchman that serves as a suicide note while he prepares to kill his daughter, his friend, and himself. Virginia (1982) concerns a girl who has experienced two previous lives in France, both marked by strange sexual experience. Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade (1985) is about a boy confronted with hunting and sexuality during a trip to Alaska. And 
The Frog (1996) tells of a boy with a real or imagined frog in its stomach. What characterizes all thise and his other novels, however, is the vision of a dreamscape fractured by an appalling yet almost ritualized violence. Hawkes has said that he wanted, from the first, to create "a totally new and necessary fictional landscape." "My writing depends on absolute detachment," he has explained, "and the unfamiliar or invented landscape helps me to achieve and maintain that detachment . . . I want to try to create a world, not represent one." What he is after is objectification, not representation. As Hawkes puts it, his aim is "to objectify" the terrifying similarity between the unconscious desires of the solitary man and the disruptive needs of the visible world, so as to achieve "a formalizing of our deepest urgencies". His characters come and go across his frozen landscapes as if caught in a strange sort of repetition compulsion. They are not so much imitations of life as figures from an exhibition, waxwork curios from some subliminal house of horror. And the violence they inevitable encounter is as vivid and distant as violence seen through soundproof glass. in The Cannibal the primary act of violent negation is signaled by the controlling metaphor of the book, which also gives it its title. Although the main setting is Germany after the war, it reaches back to 1914 and forward to a future repetition of Nazi control, which will return the entire nation to an insane asylum. The dominant presence, and narrator, is Zizendorf, the leader of the Nazis. Set in contrast to him is a young girl, Selvaggia, who stands at a window, in innocent, impotent terror, watching the evil that men do. By the end, she is "wild-eyed from watching the night and the birth of the Nation." Zizendorf orders her to draw the blinds and sleep. The last sentence of the book gives us her response: "She did as she was told." The return to an evidently endless sleep, a nightmare of violent repression, seems inevitable, since there is no intimation in this or any other book by Hawkes, that things can change or get better. Just as character and setting appear paralyzed, so events are peculiarly without progression. Hawkes so rearranges the fractured elements in his fictive picture that the temporal dimension drains away into a spatial patterning of detail. And he so contrives his prose into complex sequences of baroque fragments that the reader too is held back, left in suspense. We are doomed to watch the world Hawkes creates just as Selvaggia does, with helpless, horrified wonder. Or, to return to that remark of O'Connor, we have to suffer it, like a dream.

Two other writers associated with postmodernism, Thomas Berger (1924-) and John Gardner (1933-1982), could hardly be more different from Barthelme and Hawkes, or from one another. Which goes to show, perhaps, that postmodernism is almost as capacious a term as realist. A prolific writer, Berger has produced a series of comic novels about his non-Jewish schlemiel hero Carlo Reinhart (Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), Reinhart's Women (1981)). He has written parodies of the detective novel (Who is Teddy Villanova? (1977) and Arthurian romance (Arthur Rex (1978)), replayed Oresteia (Ossie's Story (1990)) and Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crews (1994)) for modern times, and engaged in satirical fables about, for instance, a man with the power to become invisible (Being Invisible (1987) or a man so discontented about his relationship with real women that he builds an ideal woman secretly at the animatronics firm where he works (Adventures of the Artificial Woman (2004)). Unquestionably his best novel, however, is Little Big Man (1964). The narrator of this novel, Jack Crabb, the Little Big Man, is by his own account 111 years old. He claims to be the sole survivor of Custer's last stand, knocked out Wyatt Earp, and to have been in a shootout with "Wild Bill" Hickock. Drawing on the traditions of frontier humor and the tall tale, Berger endows Crabb with a voice that is vernacular and vital, and a view of life that is shifty, amoral, and unillusioned. "Most of all troubles comes from having standards," he declares. So, he careers between roles and between cultures with "a brainy opportunism" as it is called by the prissy amateur historian, Ralph Fielding Snell, who frames the novel with a foreword and epilogue. Snell admits doubt as to whether Crabb is "the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions." From one point of view, however, that hardly matters. Either way, Snell and Berger intimate, Crabb is heroic: providing, either by deed or word, "an image of human vitality holding its own in the world amid the surprises of unplanned coincidence." Set in a classic American past though it is, Little Big Man (and, for that matter, The Return of Little Big Man (1999) is about the typical protean man of postmodern science fiction for whom there are no settled certainties, no sure codes, and roles are picked up or discarded like a set of clothes. There are no absolutes, no essences; that classic past and its myths are themselves demystified, mocked, and parodied. The only constant here is the constant self-fashioning: a self-exploratory, in flux, that casually acts or voices itself into being—that makes itself as it goes along.

As the title of one of his critical works, On Moral Fiction (1978), suggests, Gardner was nominally far from such moral relativism. "Art leads, it doesn't follow," he said in an interview in 1977. "Art does not imitate life, art makes people do things," he added, "if we celebrate bad values in our arts, we're going to have a bad society; if we celebrate values which make you healthier, which make life better, we're going to have a better world." Consistent with this, he produced in his 1976 novel, October Light, two interwoven stories concerned with the nihilism and alienation of contemporary life. One circles around popular culture: television, with its "endless simpering advertising" and "its monstrously obscene games of greed." The other focuses on high culture: the literature of absurdism and entropy with its assumption that "life . . . was a boring novel." What the protagonist in both stories has to learn is a deeply traditional lesson: the difference between false art and real life. He has to return from the false worlds of mass cvulture and amoral literature to the true world of relationship; and, finally, he does. Gardner's finest novel, Grendel (1971), however, does not entirely conform to his own expressed views about art. The book tells the story of the old English epic poem "Beowulf" from the point of view of the monster. Gardner himself was a medievalist scholar; and here he plays with medieval notions of psychology and numerological symbolism as he sets the materialism, nihilis, and sheer brutishness of Grendel against heroic Christianity. What emerges from this extraordinary tales is the revelation that Grendel is indispensable to the civilizing forces of science and the arts. He is the brute existence on which humans depend for their definition of themselves. "You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are," a sympathetic dragon tells Grendel. "You are mankind, or man's condition: inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain." A source of power for humanity, apparently, Grendel is also the source of power for the book. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, he may lose but the author seems to be secretly on his side. Edgy, unnatural, unreliable, Grendel is a typically postmodern narrator. Constantly dramatizing or changing himself, his strong, seductive voice leaves the reader without sure ground. "I cry, and hug myself, and laugh," he declares, "letting out salt tears, he he! till I fall down and gasping and sobbing. (It's mostly fake.)." Gardner may have been suspicious of postmodernism and keen to give his work a moral dimension. Ironically, his finest character and narrator is irredeemably, necessarily amoral. And his best work is his best precisely because it has a postmodern edge.

The range of possibilities charted by writers as otherwise different as Gardner and Berger, Hawkes and Barthelme suggests that postmodernism is probably best seen, not as a unified movement, but as a cluster, a constellation of motives, a generic field. it is a field that is itself marked by skepticism about specific generic types; in its disposition to parody, ironic inversion, and metafictional insistence on its own modes of significance—and, in particular, language—it is the absolute reverse of the stable. The one constant in postmodernism, that is constant only in its inconstancey, was handily summarized by Ronald Sukenick (1932-2004) in The Death of the Novel and Other Stories (1969). There, he insisted that "the contemporary" lived in "the world of post-realism" and had "to start from scratch." "Reality doesn't exist," Sukenick argued. "God was the omnipresent author, but he died: now no one knows the plot." So, living in an age of epistemological redefinition, an urgently felt need to redraw the mental maps of the world, postmodernist writers thrive on the imperative of being abetrant, arbitrary—above all, different. And the loose, baggy monster of postmodernism can include such diverse radical experimentalists, aside from writers already entioned and Sukenick himself (Up (1968), 98.6 (1975), Blown Away (1986)) as Nicholson Baker (1940-) (The Mezzanine (1988), Vox (1992) The Everlasting Story of Wory (1998)), William H. Gass (1924-) (Omensetter's Luck (1966)), Steve Katz (1935-) The Exaggerations of Peter Prince (1968), Moving Parts (1977), Clarence Major (1936-) (All-Night Visions (1969), No (1973)), Stephen Schneck (1944-1996) (The Nightclerk (1965)), Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006) (Imaginary Qualities of Actual Things(1971), Flawless Play Restored (1975), Aberration of Starlight (1980)), and Rudolph Worlitzer (1938-) (Nog (1969)). For that matter, it can incorporate Joseph McElroy (1930), whose Lookout Cartridge (1974) conveys a sense of formal systems functioning in a void and one of whose novels, Plus (1977), is about a mind suspended in space. And Robert Coover, who in his finest novel, The Public Burning (1977), transfers actual events, including the Eisenhower years and the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying, to the figurative realm. The execution of the Rosenbergs is turned into a public burning in Times Square, New York. Times Square itself is presented not just as a public meeting place but a source of a history, since it is here that the records of the New York Times are created. Coover goes on to analyze how historical record is made, in a bold imaginative gesture which shows that fiction does not only aid fact in the rehearsal of the past; it can, and does, draw it into subjective reality. In doing so, he offers what is in effect a postmodernist meditation on history, and on the urgencies, the origins of story.

Two other writers often associated with postmodernism, Russell Banks (1940) and David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), have taken very different paths. Banks's output is unusually varied. His first novel, Family Life (1975) is a fragmented narrative set in an imaginary kingdom. With its rejection of traditional forms of characterization and its foregrounding of artifice, it bears many of the hallmarks of postmodernism. So do his second and fourth novels, Hamilton Starks (1978) and The Relation of My Imprisonment (1983). With The Book of Jamaica (1980), however, and, even more, Continental Drift (1985), Banks gravitated toward realism while still using metafictional techniques. Continental Drift, perhaps his finest novel so far, combines two at first sight unrelated stories—about a Haitian woman's attempt to escape to America and an American man's relocation of his family to Florida—to explore class conflict and transnational migration. The shift toward realism has become even more marked in Banks's later novels, and so has his preoccupation with forms of violence ranging from the personal to the global. Affliction (1989), for instance, is an autobiographically based novel about family abuse; The Sweet Hereafter (1991) offers several perspectives on a fatal school-bus accident; Cloudsplitter (1998) tells the story of the radical abolitionist John Brown from the standpoint of his son; while The Darling (2006) is an account by an ex-member of a radical activist group, on the run from the law, of her encounter with a crisis-torn Liberia. What binds these different fictional experiments together is Banks's oncern with multiple varieties of abuse. As he has put it, "I see my life as a kind of obsessive return to the 'wound' of abuse,... going back again and again ... trying to figure out ... who is to blame and who is to be forgiven."

By contrast, Wallace only completed two novels during his brief lifetime. His major work, however, Infinite Jest (1996), is over a thousand pages long. Wallace believed that the mass media exerted a determining, ironic influence on fiction; and his own work is steeped in irony, a blithe refusal to be confined to any particular voice or vision. Infinite Jest is set in a future world in which the United States, Canada, and Mexico form one unified state, and corporations buy naming rights to each calendar year. There is a vast range of bizarre characters, and such plot as the book possesses revolves around a search for the missing master copy of a film cartridge called "Infinite Jest" and referred to as "The Entertainment"—a work so entertaining to its viewers that they become lifeless, losing interest in anything other than the film. But Infinite Jest is less a novel with a plot than a labyrinth of language, a web of words that weaves together such diverse topics as substance abuse and recovery programs, tennis, film theory, child abuse and family relationships, and the relentless search of the corporate world for new products and markets. What compounds the intricacy of this web is the radical discontinuity of idiom. The language careers between the vernacular and the esoteric; there are wild neologisms, self-generated abbreviations and acronyms packed into elaborate, multi-clause sentences. There are nearly a hundred pages of footnotes designed, Wallace explained, to jumble our perception of reality while persuading us to read on. Infinite Jest the novel is like "Infinite Jest" the film referred to in its pages, a seductive maze capturing the reader within its world of funhouse mirrors. Like so many major postmodernist work, it resists meaning but, while doing so, generates strange feelings of loss and longing. Its characters, and perhaps its readers, are invited to yearn for innocent, unselfconscious experience while drowning in insignificance, captivated by artifice.

John Barth once suggested that the way postmodernism showed its distinctly American face was through its "cheerful nihilism," its comic and parodic texture. That is, of course, too sweeping. But across from radical experimentalists like McElroy and Coover, there are those many postmodern writers who have chosen to pursue an absurd humor, a dark comedy that deconstructs and demystirfies all it surveys. Apart from those already mentioned, such writers include J. P. Donleavy (1926-) (The Ginger Man (1955), The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968)) and Terry Southern (1926-2000) (Candy (1958), The Magic Christian (1959), Blue Movie (1970)), whose predilection for protean, amoral characters has got them into trouble with the censorship laws. Notably, there is also John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) who, in his posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), mocked everything to do with his region, the South and his hometown of New Orleans, making his hero, Ignatius Reilly, sound sometimes like a Southern traditionalist on speed. And there is Stanley Elkin (1930-1995), a novelist and storyteller who, during the course of a long career, produced satirical, surreal versions of the success story (A Bad Man(1967), The Franchiser (1976)), a picaresque tale about adventures in the media trade (The Dick Gibson Show (1971)), and comic fantasies about death (The Living End (1979) and reincarnation (George Mills (1982)).

Postmodernism as black humor or brave fantasy tends to merge here with contemporary confessional forms of male liberationists like John Irving (1942-) (The World According to Garp (1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), A Son of the Circus (1994), Until I Find You (2005)) and female liberationists like Erica Jong (Fear of Flying (1973), Fear of Fifty(1994)) and Lisa Alther (1944-) (Kinflicks (1976), Original Sin (1981)). At the other edge, postmodernism as radical, metafictional experiment is more inclined to reveal its international relations. Experiment is, of course, an American tradition and the subversion of fictional forms in particular goes back at least as far in American literature as Herman Melville. But the specific terms in which postmodernists have interrogated word and thing, language and its connection to reality, show the impact and sometimes the influence of writers from outside America. Like other cultural movements, more so than most, postmodernism is on one level an international phenomenon. And the sense postmodernist writers have of living after realism is one shard with, say, European poststructuralist critcis, writers of le nouveau roman like Michel Butor and Raymond Queneau, and Latin American magic realists. This international dimension is foregrounded in the work of those postmodern novelists whose own story is one of crossings between national boundaries, especially the European and American. The fiction of Vladimir Nabokov, born in Russia, spending long years in Europe before continuing his exile in America, is a case in point. So are the narrative experiments of the French-American Raymond Federman (1928-2009), whose Take It or Leave It (1976) announces itself as "an exaggerated second hand tale to be read aloud either standing or sitting," and the books of the Polish-born, Russian-reared Jerzy Kosinski (1933-1991) from The Painted Bird (1965), through Being There (1971) and Blind Date (1977), to his last novel, The Hermit of 69th Street (1988).

Another instance of international origins promoting international connections is the writing of Walter Abish (1931-). Abish was born in Austria and reared in China before taking US citizenship. His first novel, Alphabetical Africa (1974), invites a comparision with le nouveau roman in its stern attention to verbal structure. Every word of the first chapter begins with the letter A, the second with A or B, the third with A, B, or C, and so on. At Z, the process reverses, the final chapter beginning every word again with the letter A. Abish's second novel, How German It Is (1984), suggests other international relations. A postmodern political thriller, it concerns an American of German parentage who returns to a German town to investigate his father's wartime death and to answer his own question as to how German he is. The international influential presences here are several. They include American writers like Pynchon and French ones like Butor, who have used popular genres to break and undercut them. More deeply, persuasively, though, they are other, European writers such as Italo Calvino and Peter Handke. As in the work of Calvino and Hande, there is a bleak detachment, a flat materialism to How German It Is, the presentation of a world of signs without meanings under which dark meanings may hide. A writer like Abish, as he explores the crisis relations between history and form and pursues the task of unlocking some hidden code that might interpret those relations, shows how postmodernism—like any other movement in American literature, at some point—has to be perceived within a frame of reference other than the American. It has to be, not only because postmodernist writers skip across national boundaries with such calculated and consummate skill—and not only because some of them, at least, cannot or will not shake off their own international origins. It is also and more fundamentally because—as it has been the peculiar fate of postmodernism to emphasize—no boundary of any kind is impermeable. No frame of reference, including the national one, is adequate, absolute, or terminal.



John Barth (1930)

 

From Hart and Leininger, Oxford Companion to American Literature:

BARTH, John [Simmons] (1930-). Maryland-born novelist, educated at Johns Hopkins, whose fiction set on the Eastern Shore of his native state includes The Floating Opera (1956), the experiences of a man recalled on the day in 1937 when he debates suicide, and The End of the Road (1958), another existential and nihilist view of experience set in a travestied conventional love triangle. Although placed in the same setting, his third novel, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960) is more fantastic and funnier in its lusty parody of an 18th-century picaresque tale re-creating the life and times of Ebenezer Cooke. This was followed by  Giles Goat-Boy (1966), another lengthy, complex, and comic novel full of ingenious parody in its satirical allegory of the modern world conceived in terms of a university campus. Lost in the Funhouse (1968) consists of 14 pieces of fiction related in part by their concern with what happens when a writer writes (he makes himself a persona) and a reader reads. Chimera (1972) is also a volume of short fiction, retelling in elaborate style tales of Scheherazade, Perseus, and Bellerophon dealing with social and psychological problems of modern life, also introducing the author Barth along the way. The last-named work won a National Book Award. Barth returned to the long novel in Letters (1979), an unusual development of epistolary fiction, in which seven more or less parallel narratives are reveales through correspondence written by seven characters from his earlier fiction, including the author himself as just another imaginary figure, the intricate story comprising an inquiry into the patterns into which the characters have been previously set and the degree of freedom they may possess. Sabbatical: A Romance (1982) tells of the adventures and ideas occasioned by a long cruise of a college professor and her husband, an aspiring novelist. The Friday Book (1984) collects essays and other nonfiction. The Tidewater Tales (1987) is a lengthy novel about a novelist who claims he cannot write a projected novel as he and his wife sail full of friction along Chesapeake Bay. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) probes the connection between memory and reality in a postmodern style of narration.


The Sot-Weed Factor, novel by John Barth, published in 1960 and in a revised version in 1966.

In a lusty picaresque tale that satirizes conventional historical fiction, the novel creates a fictive biography of the real Ebenezer Cook, endowing him with a twin sister, Anna. After failing in his studies at Cambridge, though abetted by a tutor, Henry Bullingame, Ebenezer is ordered by his father to manage the family tobacco plantation in Maryland. There he spends most of his time writing poetry and protecting his virginity, both of which are under constant assault. Finally he achieves fame as a writer while simultaneously losing his poetic inspiration and his virginity.



Giles Goat-boy, or, The Revised New Syllabus, novel by John Barth, published in 1966.

In the metaphoric world called the University, control is held by a computer, WESAC, which is able to run itself and to tyrannize people, for it has the ability to subject them to a radiating and disintegrating force, that is, to EAT them, an acronym for its power of "Electroencephalic Amplification and Transaction." WESAC is so out of hand that one of its developers, Max Spielman, believes it can only be controlled through reprogramming by a Grand tutor, a prophet, who will bring a "New Syllabus," that is, a new philosophy. For this role and this purpose he selects George Giles, whom he had raised among goats as a goat, though he was actually a human found as an infant in the tapelift of WESAC. In his undertaking George has to contend with a troublemaker, Maurice Stoker, who alone fully understands the operation of WESAC, and with a minor poet, Harold Bray, who contends that he is a Grand Tutor. George enters the computer to destroy it, and learns to confound WESAC by answering its questions through paradoxes that paralyze the machine. When George emerges, authorities eager to put WESAC back into operation seize him and send him back to the animal site of his boyhood, for he is now the University's scapegoat.



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Later works (Wikipedia: John Barth):

Nonfiction

 

Postmodernity in Prose

Philip Roth (1933-2018)

 

from American Literature: A History, by Hans Bertens and Theo d'Haen


(from "After the war: 1945-80 - Jewish American novelists") (...)


Still, although Malamud's characters are not invariably Jewish, in his presentation of Jewish milieus in The Assistant and in his early stories he is the most Jewish of all Jewish American writers of the fifties and sixties. Here, mainstream America is a vague presence in the background, just like Poland and its inhabitants only feature in the distance in the ghettos and streets of I.B. Singer's stories (Gimpel  the Fool, 1957; The Spinoza of Market Street, 1961) or novels (The Family Moskat, 1950; The Magician of Lublin, 1960). Far more usual in Jewish American fiction is a continuous interaction with mainstream American culture and an unending negotiation of territorial boundaries. Such interaction even takes place when mainstream America is nowhere in sight, as in the title story of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a wistful story about class differences within Newark's Jewish community, in which the narrator's lover-for-a-summer has had her nose 'fixed'—'I was pretty. Now I'm prettier"–to conform to mainstream standards of beauty. With this collection of stories, Roth (1933-[2018]) found himself at the center of controversy, especially because of the stories 'Defender of the Faith', in which a calculating Jeish soldier tries to exploit the loyalty he expects from a Jewish superior, and 'Eli, the Fanatic', in which suburban, assimilated Jews try to prevent orthodox co-religionists from establishin a yeshiva in their mostly gentile neighborhood. Roth's fiercest critics, supset by what seemed a cynical view of middle-class American Jewry, accused him of self-hatred, even of anti-Semitism. What Roth captures in 'Eli' is the self-censorship and the dissembling that in the 1950s were part and parcel of assimilation and the deep sense of alienation—experienced here by the lawyer hired by his fellow Jews—that such a forced way of living may bring with it. This is in fact one of the overriding themes in Jewish-American writing of the first decades after the war. In order to be accepted by mainstream America, Jewish Americans abandon much of what may characterize them as Jews—sometimes, as in 'Goodbye, Columbus', even the shape of their nose—and move out of typically Jewish neighborhoods. But that estranges them from their background while their new environment never fully accepts them, leading to a sort of alienation that differs from that felt by young mainstream Americans but is felt even more profoundly.

After two rather traditional novels featuring a more mainstream cast and dealing with the familiar themes of relationships and personal problems and ambitions (Letting Go, 1962, and When She Was Good, 1967), Roth returned to more specifically Jewish themes with Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a virtuoso rant on a psychiatrist's couch in which the novel's protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, exhaustively lists all his frustrations at having been brought up Jewish, and in between details his insatiable lusting after blonde, all-American girls. Lust would from then on return regularly in Roth's novels, as in The Professor of Desire (1977) or the fairly recent Sabbath's Theater (1995), and has contributed disproportionally to his public image, but in those novels, too, Roth is concerned with Jewishness, even if he sees himself first of all as an American writer. In the last four decades, Roth has brilliantly chronicled Jewish life in the Newark of his younger years and has through an alter ego, the Roth-like writer Nathan Zuckerman who features in for instance Zuckerman Bound (1985) and The Counterlife (1987), offered incisive meditations on what it means to be a Jewish American writer. Early in his career Roth worried that 'the actuality is continually outdoing our talents', that the technical skills of American writers were no longer a match for the outrageous images and events that the culture casually produced. Fortunately, those fears were unfounded.


(From "The End and Return of History: 1980-2010 - Philip Roth")

Philip Roth has remained extremely prolific also after 1980, even to the point of becoming perhaps the iconic American author of the entire period. To begin with, Roth wrote a third novel in the David Kepesh series with The Dying Animal. Then, he has continued the series of novels featuring Nathan Zuckerman, the first instalment of which, The Ghost Writer, appeared in 1979, and the seventh, presumably also the last given its title of Exit Ghost, in 2007, with as other titles Zukerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). Zuckerman has often been interrpeted as an alter ego for Roth himself, but as of 1990 there also started appearing a new series featuring a protagonist called 'Roth', comprising Deception: A Novel (1990), Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) and The Plot Against America (2004). There is also a free-standing novel, Sabbath's Theatre (1995), and finally a series of short novels, Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010). We will here briefly treat three exemplary instances from this overwhelming oeuvre.

American Pastoral, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, starts from the premise of the good life in the country as the culmination of the American Dream and a counterweight to the chaos, oppression and misery of the Old World. This is also what the protagonist of the story, whose life Zuckerman records, seems to have been bound for all his life, until everything fell apart. The novel is set in Newark, and the turning point is the 1960s, when Newark's earlier prosperity has melted away under the onslaught of beginning globalization, the city's older population of first and second generation immigrants, many of them Jewish, like the protagonist, have moved away or been minoritized by the large numbers of African Americans that have moved in. Instead of a harmonious community Newark now is the scene of race riots and labor conflicts. On the level of the U.S. as a whole the havoc wrought in Newark repeats itself in the radical youth and political movements rocking the country. Roth returns a hard verdict on what has gone wrong with America during his own lifetime.

A similar feeling speaks from The Plot Against America, winnner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005. Roth finds his initial inspiration in a plea Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic by airplane in 1927 and a national hero, made in 1941 to prevent the U.S. from entering World War II, for which he blamed the Jews, the British, and President Roosevelt. Lindbergh was in good standing with the Nazi regime and especially with Goering, the commander of the German air force. Roth takes the poetic liberty of situating Lindbergh's speech not in 1941 but in 1940, in the run-up to that year's Presidential elections, and casting Lindbergh as the Republican challenger of Roosevelt. When Lindbergh wins the election, life in the U.S. turns bitter for American Jews, and hence also for little Philip Roth. Things look even more somber when Lindbergh disappears on a solo flight with his famous Spirit of St. Louis airplane and Vice-President Wheeler, an extreme rightwing politician, assumes office. In the end, everything returns to normal, Rososevelt triumphs in a special election, Pearl Harbor signals the entry of the U.S. into World War II, and history resumes its familiar course. The Plot Against America asks some hard questions about the nature of American democracy and American politics more generally. For most commentators it was hardly a coincidence that Roth published a novel focusing on these questions, and with such characters, in the run-up to the 2004 elections, with an incumbent who in the wake of 9/11 had institued an authoritarian regime such as the U.S. had hardly ever seen before, and with a Vice-President of known conservative sympathies.

If American Pastoral and The Plot Against America address wider social and political issues, Everyman sticks to the personal level. In all of Roth's later work the consciousness of approaching death is overwhelmingly present, and particularly so in the foru short novels he published towards the end of his career (Roth in 2013 announced that he thought he had written enough and would write no more). In the futher unspecified 'he' protagonist Roth gives us a reincarnation of the medieval 'everyman' from the eponymous morality play. but whereas the medieval Everyman finds that with death all material worries and constraints dissolve and only spiritual virtues remain, because after death comes resurrection, noting of the sort happens in Roth's version. Everyman as the chronicle of a death announced, a merciless march from the cradle to the grave marked by disease, illness, the relentless deterioration of the body, deaths and funerals. Like the medieval play it holds up the mirror of our own fallibility and ephemerality, but without the consolation of faith.


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