In trying to learn about literature I have frequently encountered the idea of postmodernism. But as I have little humanities experience I have had trouble getting my head around the concept. Can anyone explain it simply? If you can provide examples of widely read books in the style, that might help.
Post-modernism is characterized by the rejection of enlightenment (i.e. scientific) certainties. In the post-modernist world view, everything is influenced by language, culture and socialization, to the point where it becomes difficult to impossible for people agree on an objective truth.
Post-modernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard, for example, wrote a book entitled "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place". This argues that the perception between soldiers on the two sides and audiences across the world, watching the conflict through the distorted lens of locally-biased media coverage was so vast that there cannot be one single accepted account of what happened during the war.
Post-modern literature, therefore, is often characterised by techniques and viewpoints that emphasize this uncertainty and the role of language in creating it. They may be fragmentary, use pastiche to blur the distinction between high and popular culture and often feature metafiction, unreliable narrators and impossible situations such as magical realism.
Perhaps the earliest great postmodern author was James Joyce. His novel Finnegan's Wake, for example, cannot be read as a typical narrative as it makes little sense. It is, instead, a multi-layered piece of work relying on puns, polyphony and an extreme stream of consciousness technique to create a literary landscape that the reader is free to interpret as they choose. Ulysses is less extreme, but can also be considered postmodern.
Other well known examples include:
- The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien in which the narrator explores a frustrating, nonsensical hellscape of impossible bureaucracy.
- Naked Lunch by William Burroughs in which a drug addict tells a series of loosely related stories which may or may not be real and which can be read in any order.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller in which an air force pilot deals with the brutal consequences of illogical, contradictory military orders and discipline.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in which the protagonist, slipping in and out of psychotic episodes, struggles to deal with her treatment.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, a series of essays about Vietnam which blend history, the authors experience and fiction without clear distinction.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson in which a pair of drug addicts take a road trip across America, divorced from reality by their use of hallucinogens.
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk in which an unreliable narrator decides to aggressively rebel against social norms.
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James which explores the attempted murder of Bob Marley from a variety of different character viewpoints.
Science fiction has proved a rich genre for post-modernist work, with authors such as Ursula Le Guin, William Gibson and Phillip K Dick having many novels among their output in the tradition. Philosophical novels, or novels of ideas are also a fertile ground, with those by Umberto Eco being particularly noteworthy.