Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Three Books in the Postmodernism's New Playground: Luiselli, Velazquez, Boucher, and the New Postmodernism of Play

Literary movements have fuzzy edges. For all the time-lines, significant events, and multiple choice tests, it is almost always impossible to say when a movement begins and ends. You can find traces of it (modernism for example) decades before it arrives as a coherent movement (in say, Emily Dickinson's poetry) and it's primary characteristics can continue long after the movement itself is formally over. (There are plenty of writers still writing Romanticism.) The fuzzy-edge-ness of literature is even more pronounced in postmodernism because, in a way, its entire purpose was to fuzzy the fuck out of those edges until all borders, definitions, forms, and assumptions were destroyed. So it's natural that, even after its reported demise and even after artists, writers, critics, and scholars have begun building the literature that will replace it, postmodernism is still being written.

Perhaps my favorite idea that came from postmodernism, and deconstruction specifically, is “freeplay;” Derrida's idea of the motion and tension among the various elements of existence once the assumed centrality of humanity is removed. To Derrida this wasn't exactly “everything's fucked so now we can do whatever we fucking want,” but it was close. To me, the important part of the term isn't the “free” part, but the “play” part. The way I've come to think of the term (apologies to the critical theorists who have studied this way more than I have) is that we are now allowed to interact with the substances of creation in much the same way children do; by trying different things, assigning opposed uses to objects, shuffling identities, sticking weird shit in our mouths and, in general, joyfully fucking around with whatever comes to hand.

Now that we're firmly on the other side of the Cold War and its paranoia, have shifted irony from a fundamental building block to a tool in the writer's arsenal, and started listening to new voices and new experiences besides those of white men, we can finally start playing in the space postmodernism opened up in literature. There are three books in particular that I've read recently, that I think exemplify the new postmodern playground; The Cowboy Bible, Golden Delicious, and The Story of My Teeth.

It's hard to say what The Cowboy Bible is. There are good reasons to call it a short-story collection, though I think there are better reasons to call it a novel. It is a chaotic assortment of events and characters of places and foods. I imagine Velazquez standing in the middle of a tornado naming everything that whirls by his vision and calling the resulting list a book. But, of course, sometimes he doesn't feel like giving the real name to a person, place, or entity, and so he assigns the phrase “The Cowboy Bible,” to various disparate narrative entities.

I'm writing as if I understood The Cowboy Bible, but I really didn't. It's one of those books that you just let wash over you, almost an ambient reading experience where you don't enjoy the specifics so much as you enjoy the sense of being washed in words. I'm sure there are ways to sort through the burritos and the luchadores, to assign systems to the bars and eating contests, to develop a symbolism structure for the boots and the bibles, but Velazquez creates an experience where understanding, reading, and critique can be distinct from sense and logic.

You could describe Golden Delicious by Chris Boucher as the book Jasper Fforde (author of the Thursday Next series) might have written if he got super into Borges and Calvino, but desperately wanted to write the next Revolutionary Road. In another way, Golden Delicious is a fairly straight-forward story of coming of age in suburbia; the narrator is born into a nuclear family with a mother, father, and older sister, and, as he grows up, the family changes, erodes, and breaks down while economic forces produce a similar decay in the town itself.

Except this town is made of pages, is tended by The Memory of Johnny Appleseed, the houses have personalities and so do the cars, the figures of authority are traffic cones, sentences run wild, Reader ends up being the hero, and the narrator's name is “_____” pronounced “Underline.” The result is a dire whimsy. Or perhaps a whimsical malaise. Boucher is able to describe the kind of urban decay you see in a work like Matt Bell's Scrapper, but give it a sense of playfulness. To the characters, the described events are just as dire and depressing as any gritty urban crime story, but, because of the lexicon Boucher applies, to the reader (and “Reader”) it is something quite different. Which is exactly the point of freeplay. An artist can now bring together entirely opposed ideas; she can put her GI Joes in dresses and pretend they're professional ballroom dancers.

I've written about Luiselli's work before and if all goes well, I'll write about her work for a long time. Even though we all know about self-plagiarism now, I need to include The Story of My Teeth in this post as well, because its sense of utter joy in the act of arranging language for readers inspired my sense of freeplay in this new postmodernism and it's through my attempts to describe Luiselli's freeplay that I began to think about the new postmodernism as a playground.

I often wonder how useful the idea of literary movements actually is to reading. The more you study or explore a literary movement, the harder it is to create stable definitions. The closer you look, the more fractures you see. As your circle of reading widens over the course of your life, you find books that should belong that don't, books that don't fit neatly into any one category, and books that predate the movement they most resemble (sometimes by centuries, hi, Tristram Shandy!). You can have multiple movements running into each other, overlapping, in direct conversation, sometimes in the same writer or even in the same book. Though movements can be handy when trying to reduce the scope and diversity of human literary experience to multiple choice questions with stable answers, I think we have to wonder whether they actually help readers experience the actual books they are reading.

When thinking about this before, I wondered if it makes more sense to understand literary movements as cities; spaces in which writers and readers can mix and move with a level of freedom, but the more I think about it, the more it seems that the term “literary movements” actually means two very distinct ideas: the experience of the writers themselves and the critics and readers actively engaging in the avant garde and the experience of readers looking for a foothold into understanding a particular work or author.

For the first use of the term, the image of the city works well enough, but for the second, I think of the wooden scaffolding used to support arches and other buildings during the construction. The wooden arch is not the real arch, just like saying a book or an author is “Romantic” or “Modernist” is not a real understanding of the book or author, but it can be a support that lets the reader move on to a deeper understanding. Just because the wooden arch was removed, doesn't mean it was pointless.

When I think about what it means to be a reader and a writer, “freeplay,” is all about how I build my understanding of the world, how I gather the resources of my belief, and how I try to make words do and say things that words really aren't capable of doing or saying. In a way, you could say that all writing is a struggle to express those ideas, emotions, and experiences that are, inherently, beyond our outside of language. From that perspective all books are failures, but they can be productive failures. In this new and chaotic world of literature, these three books are the best kind of productive failures; you have so much fun, you don't really care about reaching the goal at all.

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