I have been fascinated by postmodernism for quite a long time. However, I was truly bitten by the lit theory bug only when I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Since then, I have been craving fiction peopled by literary theorists and scholars and with plots that use, riff on, play with, and subvert lit theoretical frameworks. That’s how I discovered David Lodge’s Small World and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Simultaneously, I was scouting for readable introductions to literary theory in general, and modernism and structuralism in particular—for while I have a reasonably good layman’s grasp of postmodernism, I only have a vague understanding of the mechanics underlying the other great theoretical frameworks. Ultimately, I wish to understand how modernism, structuralism, and postmodernism are made use of in contemporary fiction; how they converge; and how I, as a reader, could employ their tools in reading and writing about literature.
Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that the Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series had the following titles: Literary Theory by Jonathan Culler, Modernism by Christopher Butler, Poststructuralism by Catherine Belsey, and Contemporary Fiction by Robert Eaglestone. It was as if they were tailor-made for my purpose! And, they aren’t dry academic texts—they’re great fun to read, particularly Eaglestone. However, more importantly, while Culler, Butler, and Belsey each do a great job of illuminating their respective theoretical domains, Eaglestone’s work pulls the various theoretical strands together in the context of contemporary fiction. For instance, here he is on the convergence of postmodernism, traditional storytelling, and modernism in contemporary fiction:
Still, if the word ‘post-postmodernism’ wasn’t too silly in itself, it wouldn’t be accurate precisely because , while these writers have clearly learned a great deal from the experimentalism of postmodernism and its forebears, they have integrated it, domesticated it, and returned some way to the more traditional forms of the novel. [He cites David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green as novels of this kind.]
Second, there’s a return to a sort of modernism … The critic Laura Marcus draws attention to the return of the ‘one day’ novel—the framing conceit of Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses—in which a whole life, a whole world, is condensed into a day. Ian McEwan’s Saturday does this, as does Don DeLillio’s Cosmopolis … But perhaps another aspect of this is the ‘multi-strand’ novel, influenced again by Woolf, but by The Waves, and by Joyce … The narrative [of Ali Smith’s The Accidental] proceeds through the very different consciousnesses of the characters, interweaving in a non-linear way, shifting and playing games with the chronology. More than this, the styles of the novel echo the characters in a non-realist and modernist way.
How wonderful! This is exactly what I was after.
And now, thanks to Belsey, I get it when a character in Small World says “It all goes back to Saussure’s linguistics. The arbitrariness of the signifier. Language as a system of differences with no positive terms.” Thanks to Culler, I get the lit theory filled chatter in the first hundred or so pages of The Marriage Plot. Thanks to Butler Ulysses seems fun again. Thanks to Eaglestone, I can see how they all come together. And thanks to these concise quartet of texts, I believe, more than ever, that one doesn’t have to wade through long, academic works to understand complex ideas; that clarity and comprehension can be imparted within the constraints of concision; and, lastly, that the exposition of complex ideas can be, far from being dry and boring, great fun.