Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987)

From Angl-Am
Jump to: navigation, search

from: Brian McHale. Postmodernist Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.




  • Brian McHale, Tel Aviv, July 1985 and Pittsburgh, May 1986
  • xi - states that his book "falls under the category of descriptive poetics [...], it does not aspire to contribute to literary theory"
 Part One: Preliminaries

1: From modernist to postmodernist fiction: change of dominant

  • 4-5: acknowledges the variety of constructions of postmodernism but welcomes a hierarchy of these constructions based on several criteria: of self-consistency and internal coherence, of scope, of productiveness, and of interest
  • 5: accepts Ihab Hassan's definition of the postmodernism as posterior to, not after modernism

The dominant

  • 7 - Instead of turning to a catalogue of postmodernist features (quotes David Lodge, Ihab Hassan, Peter Wollen's binary definitions of modern and post-modern), he opts for the conceptual tool of the dominant (cf. Roman Jacobson) in order not to view the two as oppositions but to show the transitions between them.
  • 9 - Example of William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!. "I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as those mentioned by Dick Higgins in my epigraph: 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on." The above mentioned questions are handled "through the use of characteristically modernist (or epistemological) devices: the multiplication and juxtaposition of perspectives, the focalization of all the evidence through a single 'center of consciousness' […], virtuoso variants on interior monologue […] ,and so on."
  • 10 - Faulkner's novel crosses the boundary between modernist and postmodernist because it shifts its "dominant from problems of knowing to problems of modes of being. "This brings me to a second general thesis, this time about postmodernist fiction: the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls 'post-cognitive': 'Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?' Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance. What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; what happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on."
  • 11 - The above mentioned definitions are to be seen from the perspective of the dominant, i.e. it is not a question of either or but rather that of which set of questions is to be asked first, i.e. both sets need to be asked, they are "bidirectional and reversible".


  • 13 - When a text can be looked at from two angles, at one time displaying a focus on epistemological issues, at another on ontological issues, McHale speaks of "limit-modernist", or "late-modernism".


  • 13 - The difference between modernist and postmodernist can be compared to the difference between the French terminology of 'nouveau roman' and 'nouveau nouveau roman'
  • 14 - "a modernist epistemological topos, the of the voyeur"
  • 15 - in modernist texts, space is "modular or serial", in postmodernist texts it is paradoxical, "defying out attempts at orderly reconstruction"


  • 16 - "Science fiction, we might say, is to postmodernism what detective fiction was to modernism: it is the ontological genre par excellence (as the detective story is the epistemological genre par excellence), and so serves as a source of materials and models for postmodernist writers […]."
  • 17 - The case with historical novels is more complex: traditional historical novels suppress the violations "between characters in their projected worlds and real-world historical figures", while postmodernist historical novels highlight "ontological seams by systematically transgressing these rules".


  • 19 - Pale Fire as "he paradigmatic limit-modernist novel"


  • 21 - "Here characters of different and incompatible ontological statuses - real-world historical figures, corporate trade-marks […] and national symbols […], purely fictional characters - have been gathered together in an impossible, heterotopian locus which is also,


  • 21 - "in a stylization, the dominant of the original (the model being stylized) is preserved, while in parody it is not"
  • 25 - Based on a phrase by Annie Dillard, McHale concludes that postmodernist fiction "gives us a pretext for doing unlicensed ontology in a teacup".

2: Some ontologies of fiction

  • 27 - McHale suggests to move from philosophical thematics - which "will only tell us that there is foregrounding; it will not tell us how this foregrounding has been accomplished, what strategies have been deployed - to poetical thematics. Also, he uses Thomas Pavel's definition of ontology as 'a theoretical description of a universe' with emphasis on the indefinite articles.


  • 27 - the theme of otherness as one of the oldest of the classic ontological themes
  • 28 - In his Defense, Sir Philip Sidney "launches the themes of the fictional world as heterocosm, a universe apart, upon its modern career." "In effect, the only ontological difference that the heterocosm approach admits is the opposition between fictional and real."

"The old analogy between Author and God"

  • 29 - "The heterocosm theme has a corollary which loomed even larger in Sidney's thinking, namely the theme of the poet's freedom and power, his demiurgic or quasi-divine function […]."
  • 30 - The romantic solution: irony [cf. Lukacs!]. "As a corollary, then, to the artist's paradoxical self-representation, the artwork itself comes to be presented as an artwork."


  • 30 - "The shift of attention to internal ontological structure does not come about until the twentieth century, in particular with the work of the Polish phenomenologist Roman Ingarden."
  • 30-33 - Ingarden distinguishes four strata:
  1. The stratum of word-sounds
  2. The stratum of meaning-units
  3. The stratum of presented objects
  4. The stratum of schematized aspects

Possible worlds

  • 33 - As fiction is between belief and disbelief, "readers do not evaluate the logical possibility of the propositions they find in literary texts in the light of the actual world […] but rather abandon the actual world and adopt (temporarily) the ontological perspective of the literary work" [cf. Thomas Pavel]. McHale uses the distinction of necessity, possibility and impossibility to discuss Umberto Eco's and Thomas Pavel's concepts.
  • 34 - "It is the tension and disparity among various characters' subworlds, and between their subworlds and the fictional 'real' world, that formed the basis of modernist and, before that, realist epistemological poetics." McHale uses the metaphor of fiction's semipermeable, instead of impermeable, epidermis.
  • 35 - "what romantic irony always aims to accomplish: it foregrounds ontological boundaries and ontological structure" - [cf. definition of postmodern historical novels]
  • 36 - "So entities can pass back and forth across the semipermeable membrane between two texts, as well as between the real world and the world of fiction."

The social construction of (un)reality

  • 37 - "the postmodernist condition: an anarchic landscape of worlds in the plural"; McHale uses the sociological perspective of Berger and Luckmann who "regard reality as a kind of collective fiction",
  • 38 - which leads him to Cohen and Taylor, who focus on the "frequency and density of 'escape attempts' in normal, everyday life", i.e. advertisements, TV, daydreams etc.
  • 39 - "So postmodernist fiction does hold the mirror up to reality; but that reality, now more than ever before, is plural." McHale offers an outlook of what is to come next: an attempt "to describe the repertoire of strategies upon which postmodernist fiction draws in order to foreground the ontological structure of text and world" for which he uses "Hrushovski's three dimension", i.e. the reconstructed world, the text continuum, and - instead of the modernist dimension of speakers, voices, and positions - the postmodernist dimension of construction.
 Part Two: Worlds

3: In the zone

  • 44 - McHale uses Foucault's term of 'heterotopia' to describe the paradoxical worlds of postmodernist fiction, or rather zone. [Think of Ben Okri, The Famished Road (1991)]

How to build a zone

  • 45 - "Postmodernist fiction draws upon a number of strategies for constructing/deconstructing space, among them juxtaposition, interpolation, superimposition, and misattribution. Spaces which real-world atlases or encyclopedias show as non-contiguous and unrelated, when juxtaposed in written texts constitute a zone."

Ohio, Oz, and other zones

  • 49-56 - popular zones in postmodernist fiction: inland US, Latin America [cf. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988): Latin American as opposition to Europe/US and as largely pluralistic], Africa - engrafted with zones of imagination which are difficult to be distinguished from the real ones

Intertextual zones

  • 56 - "The disparate worlds that constitute the zone occupy different, incompatible spaces; as Foucault says, it is impossible to find any common locus beneath them." Other possible spaces: "the physical space of the material book", "the conceptual space of language itself", and "the intertextual space" [cf. Zadie Smith, The Autograph Man (2002) where the character Horst Ibelgaufts, previously known from Smith's first novel, White Teeth (2000), reappears]

4: Worlds in collision

  • 60 - "Science fiction, by staging 'close encounters' between different worlds, placing them in confrontation, foregrounds their respective structures and the disparities between them. It thus obeys the same underlying principles of ontological poetics as postmodernist fiction." Special in sci-fi: construction of topoi to place different worlds into confrontation, often "displacement of space is intimately bound up with displacement in time."

Parallel lines

  • 62 - Science fiction and postmodernist fiction can be spoken of as parallel developments, which have constructed several similar topoi along the line: "One of these is the topos of the closed-system world in both science fiction and postmodernist fiction; another is the topos of the death-world or 'world to come'." McHale insists that the development is parallel, not one of mutual influence, as the topoi are similar but their narrative reasons different.
  • 65 - "the postmodernist preoccupation with death as the ultimate ontological boundary", "the strategy of placing projected objects […] sous rature, under erasure" as a distinctively postmodernist strategy

The science-fictionalization of postmodernism

  • 67 - "Most postmodernist futures, in other words, are grim dystopias - as indeed most science-fiction worlds of the future have been in recent years."

The postmodernization of science fiction

  • 69 - "As a noncanonical, subliterary genre, science fiction has inevitably tended to lag behind canonized or mainstream literature it its adoption of new literary modes." [is it not so that if it did present innovations, it would no longer be seen as pure sci-fi but Literature?!]
  • 72 - The example of Kurt Vonnegut's use of Kilgore Trout as a parable for the interconnection between sci-fi and pomo: "Spokesman of one of the genres of ontological poetics, Trout finds himself inside a text belonging to the other ontological genre - this is the relation of science fiction to postmodernist writing, in a nutshell."

5: A world next door

  • 73 - "a dual ontology, on one side our world of the normal and everyday, on the other side the next-door world of the paranormal or supernatural, and running between them the contested boundary separating the two worlds", i.e. Gothic enclosure
  • 74 - "postmodernist fiction has close affinities with the genre of the fantastic" because it, too, "is governed by the ontological dominant"


  • 75 - "The postmodernist fantastic can be seen as a sort of jiu-jitsu that uses representation itself to overthrow representation."
  • McHale suggests that Todorov's epistemological reading of the fantastic "simply does not get to the bottom" of the genre. It needs to be read ontologically.


  • 77 - the distinctive feature of the fantastic since Kafka's Metamorphosis, i.e. "[t]he rhetoric of banality [,] is carried to its logical extreme in the worlds" of postmodernist texts


  • 77 - "Thus, even in those postmodernist fictions which seem to acquiesce in the fantastic, reducing it to banality, some resistance of normality against the paranormal continues to be felt - if not by any of the characters, then at least by the reader. As long as such resistance is present, the dialogue between the normal and the paranormal will continue […]. The other means is more direct: it involves dramatizing the confrontation, turning the resistance of normality against the paranormal into an agonistic struggle."

From "worlds" to worlds

  • 79 - "Thus postmodernist fiction co-opts the fantastic genre in much the same way that it has co-opted science fiction, developing the fantastic genre' inherent potential for ontological dialogue into a vehicle for a postmodernist ontological poetics. […] It also reaches the fantastic by literalizing a characteristic modernist metaphor."

Displaced fantastic

  • 80 - "Despite what Todorov says, then, the fantastic has not been wholly absorbed into contemporary writing in general; it is still recognizably present in its various postmodernist transformations. Nevertheless, Todorov does have a point: the fantastic no longer seems to be the exclusive property of texts that are not formally fantastic at all."
  • 83 - "This explains the general diffusion of fantastic 'charge' throughout postmodernist writing: a displaced effect of the fantastic persists wherever a dialogue springs up between different ontological realms or levels."

6: Real, compared to what?

  • 85 - "And what exactly is scandal? Ultimately, its source is ontological: boundaries between worlds have been violated. There is an ontological scandal when a real-world figure is inserted in a fictional situation, where he interacts with purely fictional characters […]. There is also an ontological scandal when two real-world figures interact in a fictional context […]. In general, the presence in a fictional world of a character who is transworld-identical with a real-world figure sends shock-waves throughout that world's ontological structure." [cf. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)]

Constrained realemes

  • 87-88 - In traditional historical fictions such 'realemes' are only inserted when
  1. "the properties and actions attributed to them in the text do not actually contradict the 'official' historical record'
  2. the texts stick to "the constraint on anachronism"
  3. "the logic and physics of the fictional world must be compatible with those of reality"

Apocryphal history

  • 90 - "Postmodernist fiction […] seeks to foreground this seam by making the transition from one realm to the other as jarring as possible […]: by visibly contradicting the public record of 'official' history, by flaunting anachronisms; and by integrating history and the fantastic. Apocryphal history, creative anachronism, historical fantasy - these are the typical strategies of the postmodernist revisionist in two senses. First, it revises the content of the historical record, reinterpreting the historical record, often demystifying or debunking the orthodox version of the past. Secondly, it revises, indeed transforms, the conventions and norms of historical fiction itself."

Creative anachronism

  • 93 - In postmodernist fiction, creative anachronism in "material culture", "in world-view and ideology" is flaunted.

Historical fantasy

  • 94 - "Prophecy, even if only anachronistic pseudo-prophecy with the benefit of authorial hindsight, brings us to the verge of historical fantasy, the post-modernist historical novelist's third strategy for foregrounding ontology in historical fiction."
  • 96 - "In postmodernist revisionist historical fiction, history and fiction exchange places, history becoming fictional and fiction becoming 'true' history - and the real world seems to get lost in the shuffle. But of course this is precisely the question postmodernist fiction is designed to raise: real, compared to what?"
 Part Three: Construction

7: Worlds under erasure

  • McHale refers to Ingarden to show the indeterminacy of presented objects and to Derrida to explain the technique of erasure.

Something happened

  • 101 - Contrary to postmodernist fiction, "cancelled events of modernist fiction occur in one or other character's subjective domain or subworld, not in the projected world of the text as such." [cf. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)]

Something exists

  • 103 - "Narrated events, then, can be un-narrated, placed sous rature; and, in much the same way, projected existents - locales, objects, characters, and so on - can have their existence revoked. The effect is most acute, of course, in the case of characters, since it is especially through projected people that the reader becomes involved in the fictional world."

Excluded middles, forking paths

  • 106 - McHale argues that Umberto Eco's explanation of texts which welcome the third alternative as subversive acts, "fails to capture the full ontological peculiarity of a world in which events apparently both do and do not happen, or in which the same event happens in two irreconcilably different ways."

The sense of a (non-)ending

  • 109 - Pre-modernist texts conventionally display a closed, modernist an open and postmodernist multiple or circular endings.

8: Chinese-box worlds

  • 113 - McHale argues that recursive structures (e.g. the multiplication of hypodiegetic levels after Genette) are being foregrounded in postmodernist fiction through the employment of several strategies: they may occur very often, [114] they "may raise the spectre of a vertiginous infinite regress. Or they may dupe the reader into mistaking a representation at one narrative level for a representation at a lower or (more typically) higher level, production an effect of trompe-l'œil. Or they may be subjected to various transgression of the logic of narrative levels, short-circuiting the recursive structure. Or, finally, a representation may be embedded within itself, transforming a recursive structure into a structure en abyme. The consequence of all these disquieting puzzles and paradoxes is to foreground the ontological dimensions of the Chinese box of fiction."

Toward infinite regress


Strange loops, or metalepsis

  • 120 - "Postmodernist examples […] having in common the foregrounding through metalepsis of the ontological dimension of recursive embedding."

Characters in search of an author

  • 121 - "characters in postmodernist narrative fictions, too, can become aware of their own fictionality […]. Some […] fail to draw the obvious conclusions; they hear their master's voice - sometimes literally - but without recognizing it. Such [122] characters become victims of romantic irony, the disregarded evidence functioning as a form of sly wink to the reader, and consequently as a means of foregrounding the ontological boundary between reader and character. […] Other postmodernist characters, however, hear their master's voice and recognize it for what it is." [cf. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)]

Abysmal fictions

  • 124 - "A true mis-en-abyme is determined by three criteria: first, it is a nested or embedded representation, occupying a narrative level inferior to that of the primary, diegetic narrative world; secondly, this nested representation resembles […] something at the level of the primary, diegetic world; and thirdly, this 'something' that it resembles must constitute some salient and continuous aspect of the primary world, salient and continuous enough that we are willing to say the nested representation reproduces or duplicates the primary representation as a whole."

Which is reel?

  • 128 - "Postmodernist fiction shares with classic modernist fiction an affinity for cinema (and more recently for television), drawing upon it for models and raw materials. […] For modernist fiction, the movies served primarily as a source for new techniques of representation. […] Instead of serving as a repertoire of representational techniques, the movies and television appear in postmodernist writing as an ontological level: a world-within-the-world, often one in competition with the primary diegetic world of the text, or a place interposed between the level of verbal representation and the level of the 'real'."
  • 130 - "Introduced as one level in the text's ontological structure, the movies thus serve as the background for spectacular metalepses, violations of the ontological hierarchy which foreground postmodernism's ontological themes (including the theme of control)."
 Part Four: Words

9: Tropological worlds

Hesitation revisited

  • 134 - The modernist use of metaphor, the foregrounding of its ontological dimension as a precursor of postmodernist poetics. "Postmodernist writing seeks to foreground the ontological duality of metaphor, its participation in two frames of reference with different ontological statuses. […] postmodernist texts often prolong this hesitation [between the literal and the metaphorical meaning] as a means of foregrounding ontological structure."


  • 137 - "Hesitation, whether ultimately resolved or unresolved and unresolvable, is one strategy for foregrounding the ontological structure of metaphor […]." Another would be to "openly display its [the expression's] metaphoricity but then so extend and elaborate the metaphorical frame of reference that it approaches the status of an independent fictional world of its own, an autonomous (or at any rate quasi-autonomous) imaginative reality."

Postmodernist allegory

  • 142 - Kafka, Beckett and Joyce as establishers of postmodernist allegory but contemporary allegory rather Manichean between Apollonian and Dionysian principles.

Allegory against itself

  • 143 - McHale contradicts the apparent conclusion that "[t]hese Manichean allegories […] coincide rather closely with the 'unenlightened' view of allegory as the direct translation of abstract concepts into a transparently-motivated narrative."
  • 145 - "Mock-allegory, indeed, is a characteristic mode of postmodernist writing."

10: Styled worlds

  • 148 - "The action fades, the lights go off behind the scrim, and we are left facing the words on the page: this happens again and again in postmodernist writing, and not only when tropological worlds collapse. It also happens whenever our attention is distracted from the projected world and made to fix on its linguistic medium."
  • 149 - "Foregrounded style in modernist fiction is pulled in two different directions, toward, on the one hand, an epistemological function ['style as vision'], and on the other hand toward an 'autotelic' function - free-standing style to be valued in and for itself [livre sure rien]."

Kitter-litter, litanies, back-broke sentences

  • 151 - The aim of a postmodernist liver sur rien text "is not to prevent the reconstruction of a world […] but only to throw up obstacle to the reconstruction process, making it more difficult and thus more conspicuous, more perceptible. To accomplish this, it has at its disposal a repertoire of stylistic strategies, including lexical exhibitionism, the catalogue, and 'back-broke' and invertebrate sentences."


  • 156 - Beside the above mentioned strategies, "[i]t is possible to heighten sill further the visibility of the reconstructive process by taking the words of the text continuum literally, à la lettre."


  • 161 - McHale quotes Umberto Eco to explain that every text is "a machine for producing possible worlds."

11: Worlds of discourse

  • McHale suggests that the forms of discourse as mentioned above, are in fact, "not a 'form of discourse' at all, but rather a heterotopia, the disorder that is made up of fragments of a number of incommensurable orders. Like the heterotopian space of the zone, where incommensurable spaces are juxtaposed or superimposed, here discursive orders mingle promiscuously without gelling into any sort of overarching 'super-order'."

Discourse in the novel

  • 164 - "Postmodernist fictions […] are fictions about the order of things, discourses which reflect upon the worlds of discourse."
  • 165 - "postmodernist fiction literalizes or realizes what in Baxtin is only a metaphor: the metaphor of 'worlds' of discourse"
  • 166 - "Baxtin has shown us how dialogue among discourses is a staple of all polyphonic novels. Postmodernist fiction, by heightening the polyphonic structure and sharpening the dialogue in various ways, foregrounds the ontological dimension of the confrontation among discourses, thus achieving a polyphony of worlds."


  • 166 - "The interweaving of different registers in the text of the novel produces the effect t of heteroglossia', plurality of discourse; and it is this concrete heteroglossia which serves as the vehicle for the confrontation and dialogue among world-views and ideologies in the novel, its orchestrated polyphony of voices."


  • 172 - "the historical connection between polyphony of discourses and discourse-worlds, and popular carnival"; Cf. Baxtin who "traced the polyphonic character of the novel back to its historical roots in popular carnival practices and the various verbal genres associated with carnival." "Postmodernist fiction is the heir of Menippean satire and its most recent historical avatar."
 Part Five: Groundings

12: Worlds on paper

  • 180 - "thinking through […] conspicuous manipulation of the 'technological', that is, physical, material elements of the printed book" is "to think about its ontology, it modes of being, in the plural"

"A spatial displacement of words"

  • 181 - "While a manuscript could still be regarded as the record of an oral performance, which unfolds in time, a book was a thing, and its material qualities and physical dimension inevitably interacted with the word. Far from exploiting this interaction, however, fiction in the realist tradition has sought to suppress or neutralize it […]. Spacing is the sign of verse; prose, the unmarked member of the pair, is identified by its spacelessness."
  • 182 - "The physical discontinuity and spaciness of postmodernist texts is often further highlighted by the use of titles or headline, in a more prominent typeface, at the head of each short chapter or isolated paragraph. Such headlines tend to corroborate what the spacing already implies, namely that each short segment constitutes an independent unit, a miniature text in its own right, thus in effect completing the physical disintegration of the text that spacing begins."
  • 184 - "In other words, the spacing-out of the text, along whatever axis or combinations of axes, induces an ontological hesitation or oscillation between the fictional worlds and the real-world object - the material book."

Concrete prose

  • 184 - resemblance to concrete poetry, i.e. concrete prose or fiction
  • 187 - "In such abstract expressionist designs, even more than the geometrical or iconic types, we are made to experience the ineluctable materiality of the book; consequently, these fictional worlds, momentarily eclipsed by the real-world object, are forced to flicker in and out of existence."

Illustration and anti-illustration

  • 190 - "Postmodernist anti-illustration typically functions to foreground ontological structure […]. In many postmodernist texts, the absence of any apparent relation between the illustration and the verbal text turns these visual materials into pure demonstrations of the visuality, and therefore the three-dimensionality and materiality, of the book. […] Thus they contribute to and serve to heighten the polyphonic structure of these texts; through their surrealist non sequiturs, they bring worlds of discourse, visual and verbal, into collision."

The schizoid text

  • 190 - "In short, dual-medium texts approach the condition of simultaneity: ideally their visual and verbal components should be 'read' simultaneously. But this is not the only form of simultaneity in postmodernist writing."
  • 193 - "There are other means of confronting the reader with a choice among alternative orders of reading, besides the glossed text and the double-column text. The simplest of these, surprisingly, has been little used: namely, numbering the divisions of the text (books, chapters) out of order."

Model kits

  • 194 - Postmodernist novels "appear to give us the opportunity to build our own texts and, to an extent, our own fictional worlds. In this sense they are like model kits."
  • 196 - "Indeed, the workings of all postmodernist world-making machines are visible, in one way or another, to one degree or another; this, precisely, is what makes them postmodernist."

13: Authors: dead and posthumous

  • 197 - "The author occupies an ontological level superior to the world; by breaking the frame around his world, the author foreground hi own superior reality. The metafictional gesture of frame-breaking is, in other words, a form of superrealism."
  • 198 - "In an effort to stabilize this dizzying upward spiral of fictions, metafictions, meta-metafictions, and so to infinite regress, various postmodernist writers have tried introducing into their texts what appears to be the one irreducibly real reality in their performance as writing - namely, the act of writing itself."

The dead author

  • 199 - "The modernists sought to remove the traces of their presence from the surface of their writing, and to this end exploited or developed various forms of ostensibly 'narratorless' texts […]. Paradoxically, the more they sought to efface themselves, the more they made their presence conspicuous. […] Self-effacement, it turns out, is a form of self-advertisement. Postmodernist fiction has brought the author back to the surface. […] But if modernist self-effacement is a form of self-advertisement, then, by the logic of paradox, self-advertisement is conversely a form of self-effacement. Thus, the postmodernist slogan, successor to modernism's 'Exit Author', is 'The Death of the Author'."
  • 200 - "How, then, are we to being rethinking the concept of author without lapsing either into a naïve theory of presence or an equally naïve theory of absence? Foucault answers, by discarding the notion of author as entity, and beginning to think of the author as a function in texts and in the culture at large, a function that varies from period to period and from one social order to another. From this perspective, the author appears as an institution, governed by the institutions which in a particular society regulate the circulation of discourses (e.g. copyright laws); as a construct of the reading-process, rather than a textual given; as plural rather than unitary."
  • 202 - "This oscillation between authorial presence and absence characterizes the postmodernist author. Fully aware that the author ahs been declared dead, the postmodernist text nevertheless insists on authorial presence, although not consistently. […] The author, in short, is another tool for the exploration and exploitation of ontology. S/he functions at two theoretically distinct levels of ontological structure: as the vehicle of autobiographical fact within the projected world; and as the maker of that world, visibly occupying an ontological level superior to it."


  • 203 - In postmodernist texts "[a]utobiography functions […] as a distinct ontological level, a world to be juxtaposed with the fictional world, and thus as a tool for foregrounding ontological boundaries and tensions."


  • 206 - "Transworld identity between real-world persons and fictional characters depends upon identity of proper names; this is part of its definition. What fixes our attention on the ontological boundary is the appearance of a real-world proper name in a fictional context. […] There is, however, a form of autobiographical fiction which preserves much of the ontological force of transworld identity but without reproducing real-world proper names - namely, roman-à-clef. […] Transworld identity between real-world persons and fictional characters has been deliberately occluded, requiring of the reader an act of decoding or decrypting." Postmodernist fiction exploits the ontological potential of roman-à-clef.


  • 210 - "The analogy between the author and God is, as we already know, an old one. Nevertheless, the postmodernist writers seem to be obsessed with it - obsessed enough, at any rate, to be willing to sacrifice novelistic illusion for the sake of asserting their 'authority' in the most basic sense, their mastery over the fictional world, their ontological superiority as authors. In short, romantic irony has returned, and is once again a source of aesthetic interest and excitement."


  • 213 - "The level of the fictional world and the ontological level occupied by the author as maker of the fictional world collapse together; the result is something like a short-circuit of the ontological structure. Logically, such a short-circuit is impossible; but in fact it happens all the time, or at least it appears to happen."
 Part Six: How I learned to stop worrying and love postmodernism

14: Love and death in the post-modernist novel

  • 219 - "Postmodern fiction, if critics such as John Gardner, Gerald Graff, and Charles Newman are to be believe, is morally bad art, and tends to corrupt its readers. It does so by denying external, objective reality. There was a time when denying the reality of the outside world could be seen as a bold gesture of resistance, a refusal to acquiesce in a coercive 'bourgeois' order of things. But that time has passed, and nowadays everything in our culture tends to deny reality and promote unreality, in the interests of maintaining high levels of consumption. It is no longer official reality which is coercive, but official unreality; and postmodernist fiction, instead of resisting this coercive unreality, acquiesces in it, or even celebrates it. This means, ironically enough, that postmodernist fiction, for all its anti-realism, actually continues to be mimetic."
  • 220 - "Everyone know now that the conventions of nineteenth-century fiction were just that, conventions, and not a transparent window on reality, and that there are other, equally legitimate means of getting access to the real besides Victorian realism." "In other words, writing is acceptably antirealistic only if it stands in some fairly explicit and direct relation to a form of realism."
  • 222 - "Postmodernist fiction may be antirealistic, but antirealism is not its sole object of representation. Indeed, two of the favored themes to which it returns obsessively are about as deeply colored with 'traditional' literary values as anyone could wish. What could be more traditional than love and death?"


  • 222 - "Love as a principle of fiction is, in at least two of its senses, metaleptic. If authors love their characters, and if texts seduce their readers, then these relations involve violations of ontological boundaries."
  • 223 - "The changed function of metaleptic relation in postmodernist writing can be traced through the changing fortunes of the second-person pronoun: you. […] The second-person pronoun does occur in modernist and late-modernist contexts, but in such a way as to lose its function of direct address."
  • 224 - "Postmodernist writing extends and deepens this aura of the uncanny, exploiting the relational potential of the second-person pronoun. The post-modernist second-person functions as an invitation to the reader to project himself or herself into the gap opened in the discourse by the presence of you."
  • 225 - "If a metaleptic relation is to be sustained with the reader by means of the second-person pronoun throughout a long text, various contextual strategies will have to be brought to bear: the inherent 'shiftiness' of you will have to be exploited to its utmost. This strategic shiftiness produces a kind of 'hovering' or 'floating' you, one in which equivocation is kept alive and in the foreground to the end of the text, and the reader continues to be able to project himself or herself into the discourse-situation."
  • 226 - "Postmodernist representations of sadomasochism function as models of the 'sadistic' relation between text and reader; here the metaleptic relation with the reader is mirrored by the text's content. […] Metalepsis, the violation of ontological boundaries, is a model or mirror of love. Implicit in the postmodernist use of the second person, this analogy is actually made explicit in certain texts."
  • 227 - "It should be clear now what I mean when I say postmodernist writing is 'about' love. I am not so much interested in its potential for representing love between fictional characters, or for investigating the theme of love […], as in its modeling of erotic relations through foregrounded violations of ontological boundaries […]. Love, then, is less an object of representation than a metaobject, less a theme than a metatheme. It characterizes not the fictional interactions in the text's world, but rather the interactions between the text and its world on the one hand, and the reader and his or her world on the other."

...and death

  • 228 - "[…] death is more typically functional: it set stories going […] or, of course, brings them to an end. To put it differently, death often marks the limits of the representation." "The modernist and late-modernist death-bed monologue not only continues and transforms the Victorian death-scene tradition, it also revives a much older topos of death and fiction, that of les hommes-récit, story-persons." E.g. Scheherazade. "When modernist and late-modernist monologuists filibuster fate, the 'archaic' equation of life with discourse, death with silence remains more or less in the background; the postmodernist bring it into the foreground."
  • 230 - "[…] other postmodernist writers have attempted to imagine transcendence; filibustering fate even beyond the supposedly ultimate limit of death itself, they project discourse into death. Here is one of the most serious functions of the fantastic in postmodernist writing, this attempt to imagine a posthumous discourse, a voice from beyond the grave."
  • 231 - "In other words, postmodernist fiction is about death in a way that other writing, of other periods, is not. Indeed, insofar as postmodernist fiction foregrounds ontological themes and ontological structure, we might say that it is always about death. Death is the one ontological boundary that we are all certain to experience, the only one we shall al inevitably have to cross. In as sense, every ontological boundary is an analogue or metaphor of death; so foregrounding ontological boundaries is a means of foregrounding death, of making death, the unthinkable, available to the imagination, if only in a displace way."
  • 232 - "So perhaps this reputedly nonserious and irresponsible form of writing turns out to be 'about' something after all, and something supremely serious, at that. […] Postmodernist writing enables us to experiment with imagining our own death, to rehearse our own death. We have all but lost the ars moriendi; we no longer have anyone to teach us how to die well, or at leas no one we can trust or take seriously. Postmodernist writing may be one of our last resources for preparing ourselves, in imagination, for the single act which we must assuredly all perform unaided, with no hope of doing it over if we get it wrong the first time."

Coda: the sense of Joyce's endings

  • McHale suggests that while the endings of Joyce's "The Dead" from Dubliners and Ulysses are modernist portrayals of death because they emphasise representations of minds rather than representations of death and the world around the characters' minds is ontologically unproblematic, the ending of his Finnegans Wake is postmodernist because it [235] "models not only the ontological limit of death, but also the dream of a return", i.e. the last sentence breaks off in the middle and is continued with the first sentence of the novel.


modernism postmodernism
dominant epistemological: 'How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?' ontological: 'Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?'
genre detective story, historical fiction suppressing its seams science fiction, the fantastic, historical fictions foregrounding its seams
topoi, motifs, themes voyeurism, illusion and reality a Klein bottle, roman à clef
time memory different periods telescoped into a single present
space modular or serial paradoxical, Foucault's heterotopia
structure the uncanny 'another world's intrusion into this one'
narration unreliability, joint narration, multiple focalization and juxtaposed perspectives, interior monologue, deathbed monologue, mad monologuist, free indirect discourse, 'Exit Author' the impossibility to affirm the existence of the narrative instance, i.e. putting it under erasure; revival of romantic irony, 'The Death of the Author'