Looking for Writing after Postmodernism

Looking for Writing after Postmodernism

2012-06-28

House of Leaves may be on everyone’s shortlist of postmodern media-savvy novels, but are we ready for a retrospective collection of essays on Mark Z. Danielewski? According to Daniel Punday’s review, Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons’ collection says as much about the current state of (post) postmodernist writing as it does about Danielewski’s scant oeuvre.

Review of Mark Z. Danielewski, edited by Joe Bray and Alison Gibbons.  University of Manchester Press, 2011. 

Everyone is tired of talking about postmodernism.  This is especially the case with literature, where few writers ever embraced the term enthusiastically.  Today calling yourself a postmodernist novelist seems to mean picking a fight with Joyce and Hemingway that everyone else has lost interest in, like an uncle who insists on trying to get everyone worked up about Iran Contra every time the family gets together.  

Regardless of how we imagine that thing that comes after postmodernism, Mark Danielewski is likely to be one of the central authors around which the definition of a post-postmodernist literature will be built.  It is no surprise, therefore, to see a collection of essays like this devoted to his work.  After all, House of Leaves can rightfully be considered a contemporary classic, a novel that has quickly established itself as essential reading for those of us who want to understand the place of the novel in the contemporary media ecology.  Danielewski’s oeuvre is, however, small.  It consists of Leaves, the similarly innovative Only Revolutions, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the currently out-of-print novella The Fifty Year Sword.  In Manchester’s Contemporary American and Canadian Writers series, Mark Z. Danielewski is the only book focused on such an emerging writer.  Others include books on Paul Auster, Philip Roth, and Louise Erdrich.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the only book in this series that is a collection of essays instead of a single author monograph.  Where many of the books in this series strive to present a unified vision of their authors, Mark Z. Danielewski seems more interested in framing the possible ways that this writer can be understood.  This is testament to his liminal position within the literary world today.  Most of us feel that whatever comes after postmodernism is embodied in House of Leaves — even if we can’t quite agree about what that is.

Given the mission of defining the various ways that Danielewski’s oeuvre can be approached, this collection largely succeeds.  The book itself is divided into three sections:  the first focuses on House of Leaves, the second on Fifty Year Sword, and the third on Only Revolutions.  The distribution of these essays might seem a little surprising.  While the fairly obscure Fifty Year Sword only gets a single essay, the editors have assigned an equal five essays to House of Leaves and Only Revolutions.  In fact, given that one of the essays in the House of Leaves section is focused on online discussion forums and another studies rather narrowly the theoretical implications of the novel’s first line, readers will find more extensive and concrete analysis of Only Revolutions than of House of Leaves.  If nothing else, this balance of coverage works to displace House of Leaves from the center of Danielewski criticism, and to cast his body of work in a fresh light.

Collections like this focused on an emerging author are always works of canon formation, pedagogical devices that teach readers how to interpret and situate their subjects.  In this regard, some of the design and framing decisions of this collection become especially significant, since they describe how we can begin to assemble a post-postmodernist literature.  The introduction provides only passing biographical references - in fact, it begins in media res with the publication of House of Leaves in 2000 - and includes none of the biographical material or interviews that are common in other introductory collections.  Although the title of this book begins and ends with the author’s name, the collection itself treats Danielewski less as a person than as the source of three innovative texts.  Where biographical facts are discussed - for example, in an interesting chapter on the relationship between House of Leaves and Danielewski’s sister’s album Haunted - those details emerge from interpretational necessity rather than inherent biographical interest.  This is appropriate for an author who has consistently played with the issue of the text’s source - most obviously in the multiple framing of House of Leaves - but it is somewhat disconcerting in a book of essays organized around the author’s name.  Katherine Hayles provides a summary of the collection’s attitude towards authorship in her commentary on Only Revolutions:  “The distributed author function implies that neither the human creator nor his fictional creatures can credibly claim to be the text’s sole author(s)” (172).  

More specifically, these three works are read within a very specific and contemporary media framework.  Paul McCormick calls House of Leaves a “cinematic novel” (56), Hayles invokes John Johnson’s concept of “information multiplicity” in reading Only Revolutions, and Mel Evans cites Jessica Pressman’s theory of the “network novel” in investigating the relations between Haunted and House of Leaves.  Danielewski’s postmodernist and modernist precursors get relatively little attention.  Even though the manipulation of page space to create multiple paths of reading was a common feature of writing by Ron Sukenick, Raymond Federman, and Steve Katz - just to remain in the U.S. - those intertexts get no attention in this collection.  The strong desire to define the contemporary novel as some new beast distinct from the postmodernism is on clear display in the way that Danielewski’s precursors are handled in this book.  This is perhaps most explicitly stated by Hayles, whose use of Johnson’s theory (rooted in postmodernist standards like Gravity’s Rainbow) seeks to distinguish Only Revolutions from the work that came before:  “OR simply assumes the information explosion that Johnson saw as a formative force on contemporary literature.  Information has migrated from a foreground figure where it functioned as a causative agent to the background where it forms part of the work’s texture” (161).  Hayles’s framing of this novel is distinctly her own, but the desire to see Danielewski as a central figure within a contemporary literature defined by the internet and other media rather than by modernism or postmodernism runs throughout this collection.  

It is on this point that this collection has the most to tell us about how we envision a literature after postmodernism.  The classic criticism on postmodernism in writing tended to imagine a unified spirit of the age.  We might think of Ihab Hassan’s lists of modernist and postmodernist qualities in Paracriticism:  modernist impersonality vs. postmodernist self-reflexivity, modernist eroticism vs. the “new sexuality” of postmodernism, modernist urbanism vs. the postmodernist global village, and so on.  From foundational criticism on postmodernist fiction like McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction and Hutcheon’s Poetics of Postmodernism, though broader cultural studies like Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity and Jameson’s Postmodernism, there has been an underlying assumption that defining postmodernism means identifying a shared set of beliefs and attitudes that result in specific formal features in these art forms.  

There is still evidence of a search for a contemporary weltanschauung in this collection—perhaps most obviously in Hayles’s idea of a “media explosion” that is part of the backdrop of Danielewski’s work.  But what is striking about Mark K. Danielewski as a condition of our post-postmodernist moment is how often analysis of writing today becomes a discussion of the networks in which that writing is located.  Of course, evoking the “network novel” can turn the connection into just this kind of old-fashioned unifying cultural theme.  But an interest in networks can also do very different work in framing contemporary writing.  Let’s recall Matthew Fuller’s gloss on the popular critical concept of the media ecology:  “‘Media ecology,’ or more often ‘information ecology,’ is deployed as a euphemism for the allocation of informational roles in organizations and in computer-supported collaborative work” (3).  An interest in media ecology has, of course, been an important element of thinking about contemporary literature at least since Tabbi and Wutz’s 1997 collection Writing Matters, but the change in critical attitude is dramatically evident in this collection of essays on Danielewski.  Interest in the “allocation of informational roles” prompts us to look not for unifying cultural themes but instead for causal, material links between literary works and their institutional and commercial context.  In other words, our contemporary moment seems less inclined to ask “what is writing today?” than “what are the things that people do with writing today?”  As I read through this collection I can’t help but wonder if we are entering a time of post-periodization where our old ways of talking about modernism or postmodernism as historical attitudes are replaced by an interest in the multiple roles that literature can play at a given time.

Given that our ideas about how to periodize literature might be changing, and given that Danielewski is himself a key figure within this change, it should be no surprise that the search for an appropriate literary context for reading these three stories is a subject of some discussion in this collection.  Finn Fordham’s reading of House of Leaves contrasts it to two other “ambitious complex” U.S. novels:  David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Don Delillo’s Underworld.  Dirk Van Hulle reads Only Revolutions against Finnegans Wake.  Conversely, other essays eschew interest in literary context and instead emphasize formal features.  Both Brian McHale’s and Hayles’s separate essays on Only Revolutions provide rich and very specific analysis of not only the explicit design of this story, but also its internal rhythms and symmetries - what Hayles describes as “each topographical form articulat[ing] an ideational cluster” (169).   In fact, whether because of its relative unfamiliarity to the audience or because it is less explicitly located within an institutional context that gives it specific uses, the readings of Only Revolutions are consistently more engaged with the specifics of the text.

There are, of course, disadvantages to the variety of style and focus in the essays that make up a collection like this.  Quite a few of the essays speak to each other effectively.  McHale’s and Hayles’s readings of Only Revolutions do so explicitly.  McCormick’s reading of media in House of Leaves resonates effectively as well with Hayles’s emphasis on information multiplicity.  Taken together, these three essays provide the most coherent articulation of the place of Danielewski’s writing within the contemporary media ecology.  Although somewhat less central to the collection, Mel Evans’s reading of the musical album Haunted addresses issues common with McCormick’s analysis, and speaks indirectly to McHale’s chapter as well.  

Other chapters seem disconnected from this main thread.  Bronwen Thomas’s discussion of the Danielewski author forums seems like a natural part of a book on such an internet-aware author, but its concrete analysis of reader behavior seems at odds with the remainder of the book, and it is unfortunate that other essays did not engage with this broader reception context for the novel.  Similarly, Alison Gibbons’s very technical analysis of the novel’s opening line, “This is not for you,” is an interesting discussion of the theoretical issues surrounding textural reference and worlds, but the style of the essay is out of keeping with the remainder of the book, and the questions raised by a novel that is “an entrance into a place we are being forbidden to enter” (30) never translate to concrete observations about the novel itself.  The tendency of the essays to spin off into questions independent of Danielewski’s writing is evident even in McHale’s engaging chapter, which is as much about Rachael Blau DuPlessis’s definition of poetry as “segmentivity” as it is about Only Revolutions or Danielewski’s oeuvre.  

In the end, Mark Z. Danielewski embodies Danielewski’s own problematic place within contemporary literary culture, and in turn suggests why defining a post-postmodernist literature has been difficult.  Even though this collection implicitly argues that here is an author who deserves sustained attention to a whole body of work, the essays themselves are frequently the most engaging when they are allowed to illuminate the distinct concerns of these individual critics.  Those concerns are part of what many of us think of as the current media ecology — the disposition of various literary roles and functions within culture today.  Whether those roles eventually cohere into something that looks like romanticism or modernism, or whether it is a condition of our transitional moment that literature should have many and various uses, remains to be seen. 

Works Cited

Fuller,  Matthew.  Media Ecologies:  Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture.  Cambridge, MA:  MIT University Press, 2005.

Harvey, David.  The Condition of Postmodernity:  An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change.  London:  Blackwell, 1989.

Hassan, Ihab.  Paracriticisms:  Seven Speculations on the Times.  Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Poetics of Postmoderrnism:  History, Theory, Fiction.  New York:  Methuen, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric.  Postmodernism:  Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 1991.

McHale, Brian.  Postmodernist Fiction.  New York:  Metheun, 1987.

Tabbi, Joseph and Michael Wutz.  Reading Matters:  Narratives in the New Media Ecology.  Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 1997.