An Analysis of the Postmodern Short Story
Robert Coover’s “Going for a Beer” passes like a dream: the faint perceptions of a man who does not know if he is coming or going — or as Coover puts it, whether he has achieved an “orgasm” or not — in the midst of various connections and misconnections to an assortment of characters. At the end, his life is over and all we seem to understand of it is that he lived as though on the periphery of his own life, barely cognizant of the reality around him. As an example of postmodern literature, Coover’s short story illustrates the clueless emptiness at the heart of the postmodern — the real “modern” who has lost all sense of identity, purpose, character, proportion and exists as though in a haze, distorted, fragmented, and drugged. This paper will analyze the short story from the perspective of postmodern theory and illustrate how and why and the postmodern author attempts to depict a world that is anything but cognizant.
In a sense, the postmodern short story illustrates the principle that there is no principle — its meaning is that there is no meaning, at least not in modern man. Yet, the postmodern story teller, whether Coover, or John Barth, or Donald Barthelme, or any of the magical realists who write in the same vein as the fabulators, is not quite content to simply underline a lack of objectivity in the modernist. What he does, rather, is impose a haunting vision of something more that seems to skulk on the edge of the postmodern consciousness — much like the “ragged figure who moves from tree to tree” (2) in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.
As William Pritchard states, John Barth may be “our most ingenious practitioner of what Richard Poirier once termed the literature of self-parody. Every sentence he writes either looks at itself askance or ushers in a following sentence that will perform the task.” Yet, Pritchard acknowledges, there is something in Barth that turns away the average idle reader: there is something of substance in the postmodernist’s prose stylings, something darkly pessimistic about the modern world, something much like that something that exists as an unspoken (but keenly felt) irony in Coover’s “Beer” — a sense that something is missing from the modern world.
That something may best be described by the fabulators — or the magical realists as they have since come to be called — a kind of genre of postmodern literary spirituality. Wendy Faris defines magical realism as the combination of “realism and the fantastic so that the marvelous seems to grow organically within the ordinary, blurring the distinction between themâ€¦ [including] different cultural traditionsâ€¦ [and reflecting] the hybrid nature of much postcolonial society” (1). Faris finds magical realism to exist at the crossroads of modernism and post-modernism, as a kind of fairy-tale reminder of existence that exists: “Because it reports events that it does not empirically verify” the narrative voice of magical realism is of an “uncertain origin,” and considered “defocalized” (3). Part of the purpose of such defocalization is to enable the reader to escape the realism of the novel’s world and enter into a kind of interplay with the mysteries of the world that are not and have not been resolved by realists. Magical realism, as Faris notes (or fabulation as Robert Scholes calls it), has remystified the world through its literature in the West. This is how the postmodern author depicts his world. But let us look at the why.
In Donald Barthelme’s “Margins,” for example, one is struck by the conversation between Edward and Carl that begins the narrative: it is an explanation of the meaning of margins and Edward is giving it to Carl. Carl fails to believe a word of it — and from the very word go we have a world in which one half of it swears that the other half is, essentially, full of it. This would at first, according to postmodernist theory, seem to be the postmodernist calling out the modern (whose supposed objectivity is anything but), and yet, on second sight, it appears that there may be more to Edward’s rule on margins than Carl is willing to admit, and that, in a moment somewhat reminiscent of Euthyphro, Edward engages Carl in a Socratic conversation, in which they both take turns leading and following and calling the other out (and even exchanging positions entirely), but never really letting the conversation flourish to any point. In fact, the narrative suddenly and judiciously ends in mutual slapping — a point that may be meditated upon:
If neither Edward nor Carl will permit the other to find what he is seeking or receive what he is asking, the only remaining impulse (when communication breaks down) is violence. Edward Albee perceives exactly this in his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when he states: “When people can’t abide things as they are, when they can’t abide the present, they do one of two things … either they … either they turn to a contemplation of the past … Or they set about to … alter the future. And when you want to change something … YOU BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!” If the postmodern short story is about anything, it is about the inability to communicate or construct a meaningful narrative. Just as in a Barth opening monologue, or in Coover’s “Beer,” the meaning is left out — it is obscene.
And, yet, postmodern theory cannot be dismissed so carelessly. It operates in an ironic fashion: the postmodern sense of humor is full of a kind of mirth, for it knows that there is joke lurking under the skin of the story — getting the joke depends wholly upon whether one is able to critically assess the modern world and find it wanting. Once such a function is performed, one is ripe for setting down with a postmodern humorist and enjoying both a fine, joking narrative as well as a sadly evocative swan song — as though deep down both reader and writer know that somehow the world has lost its soul and that even if the Absurdists succor themselves with absurdity, the postmodernist cannot quite sink to such a level — for he still insists upon a kind of inspirational beauty. It is this beauty (or lack of) that is the impetus to sympathy in Coover’s “Beer.” It is this beauty that makes Barth so unreadably-readable. There is something in them.
Or we may consider the postmodernist to be even more spiritual than is first implied. If we look at Wilson Harris’ Palace of the Peacock, we find a world that is ready to rise above itself: As Tuulen Haiven observes, “Harris’ characters spend the book letting go of their physical existence — perhaps that is how the book must be read too, by letting go of the security of comprehension and the need to ‘get’ it in a physical (mental) sense.” In this way, Harris rejects the Enlightenment doctrine that is so explicitly rational, and extends his grasp beyond his reach (as Browning said one should do “or what’s a heaven for?”) to find that real spirituality that was lost when the old world ended and the new modern world began. Victoria Toliver attempts to emphasize the role of spirituality in the postmodern: for her it is a matter of spiritualizing the world without limitation. Harris’ work, she tells us, is concerned with “the womb of space: the cross-cultural imagination” (Toliver 173). The language Toliver uses is especially interesting: “womb of space,” for example, is a kind of transcendent phrase that implies concepts of both birth and eternity. Postmodernism, and magical realism especially, may be at root religious: its theme encompasses birth into eternity — or, the life of soul, and how it may come at last into a union with what cannot be called anything less than the everlasting.
To illustrate this principle, one may look Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” If we place it within the context of postmodernist theory, it is difficult to say whether or not Marquez’s Old Man with Wings is an angel — for in the traditional sense of angelic forms he does not correspond — yet, he is certainly not human. As a postmodern would have it, there is no explanation for his existence: he simply exists and is accepted by all around. His presence may seem out of the ordinary to the reader — but in the postmodern world, everything is seemingly extraordinary and therefore to be expected, or at the very least, accepted. Of course, there is something other worldly about Marquez’s old man — and it is this something that is a hint to us as we ponder our relation to him. It seems that he is a kind of humanization of the angelic life — or a reflection of humanity (with all of its mortality) placed onto an angel. In either case, there is some of him in us, and some of us in him — in short, we must wonder whether we in all our humanity do not contain something of the angelic form in us. We might call it a soul, perhaps?
By treating of the supernatural as though it were real and commonplace — Marquez introduces a theme of hierarchical nature (which implicitly associates selflessness with love and a higher order). But this theme is met at the same time with selfishness on the part of the people. The two worlds — one of transcendental virtue (of which the “angel” shows one — “patience” (Marquez, 1968, p. 4) — and one of pure self-interest, exercised by Elisenda, who charges the crowds to see the “attraction”) — clash in a story, which Marquez tells us is for children. Children’s stories usually carry with them some lesson. Therefore, we should ask ourselves, what is the lesson to be learned from Marquez’s tale?
If we look to the priest, Father Gonzaga, for answers, we find little comfort. He reads his catechism — but does not teach us any lessons from it. Instead, he plays the perfect part of post-colonial bureaucracy: writing to his bishop for answers, waiting for that bishop to write on to Rome, waiting for Rome to review the case, etc. It even appears that Marquez has little use for the priest, saying of him only that he “held back the crowd’s frivolity with formulas of maid-servant inspiration” (p. 4).
The crowd, however, does not want formulas: it wants to know what it all means: The priest cannot tell them, and finally the crowd abandons him and the Old Man for someone who can reinforce in them some sort of moral: the crowd listens to the story of the girl who was changed into a spider because she disobeyed her parents. The crowd accepts the story and the lesson that goes with it and goes away. The crowd has been reassured of the existence of transcendentals: but the proof came not from the patience exercised by the sickly “angel” but by the direct punishment of God, who in a “magical” way appears to say, “Here is what happens when you disobey.” The humanized Old Man “angel” tells them nothing.
Our inability to treat creatures that are half human and half supernatural — as Father Gonzaga would no doubt agree that humans are (composed, as the catechism teaches, of body and soul) — shows the inhumanity with which we treat ourselves. The transcendental values that we lack are represented in the “angel” who appears all too human to the humans who lack that which would otherwise show them as possessing spirituality. No one in the tale is affected by the pitiful sight of the creature. Only the old woman appears to have any sense of wisdom concerning it — and her wisdom is simply to put it out of its misery as if it were a fatally-wounded dog. On the other hand, the “wisdom” of the old woman could be considered an ironic wisdom. Perhaps the old woman (being of that Old World, which belonged to the age of faith) realizes that the “angel” is a representation or reminder of the lack of spirituality that she and all the others possess, and that it is best gotten rid of: out of sight out of mind.
Out of sight, out of mind is exactly what Elisenda thinks as the “angel” finally takes wing and departs heavenward. Her thoughts do not travel heavenward with it, but rather stay dismally fixed to the trivialities of the here and now.
The same sort of mystical resolution coupled with mystical shunning is seen in another work that could be called postmodern, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a story in which the Devil himself comes to haunt Moscow — and, of course, no one believes he actually exists. Such denial of the otherworldly has an affect on the worldly, and to what degree it does may be gauged in any number of Barth’s tales, even in one such as “Toga Party,” where the old narrator finds himself for some inexplicable reason compelled to attend a social outing that holds little outward significance but inwardly shows more about the nature of man than one might first suspect.
In conclusion, the postmodern short story is a reaction to the emptiness of modernism and its complacent attitude regarding “objective” analysis of the world. Postmodern theory allows us to view the short story in a way that defies empirical analysis and compels the reader to suspend his disbelief. It extends to the vein of magical realism and allows the postmodern author to reveal a world that has been left out of modern life — a world that is brimming with life just below the surface, if only we will allow ourselves to see it.
Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? NY: Scribner, 2003. Print.
Barthelme, Donald. “Margins.” Sixty Stories. NY: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Browning, Robert. “Andrea del Sarto.” MobileReference. Web. 1 Dec 2011.
Coover, Robert. “Going for a Beer.” The New Yorker. 2011. Web. 1 Dec 2011.
Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004. Print.
Haiven, Tuulen. “OT: The Palace of the Peacock — Guyana.” 17 Sept 2009. Web. 1
Marquez, G.G. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children.” Web. 1 Dec 2011.
O’Connor, Flannery. 3 by Flannery O’Connor. NY: Penguin, 1983. Print.
Pritchard, William. “Between Blam and Blooey.” The New York Times. 1987. Web. 1
Toliver, Victoria. “Vodun Iconography in Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock.
Callaloo vol. 18. no. 1. 1995: 173-190. Print.
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