Tag Archives: postmodernism

National Book Award winners, number 27: 1973’s split award, Chimera and Augustus.

31 May


In 1973, John Barth won the national Book Award for his fascinating, scintillating rubix cube of a novel, Chimera. In an unprecedented move, John Williams won, too, for his fantastic novel of imperial rule, Augustus.

Barth belongs with the major, heavy duty post-modernists; he’s playful, obsessed with language and its shortcomings, challenging, at once high and low brow in his technique and interests.

For a time, Barth was a major American author, influential, ballyhooed, widely read and copied. But that time has passed. There’s something old-fashioned about his inter-textual games, his solipsism, his self-abnegation. There’s also something cruel, vicious, sardonic and self-destructive about his work. He juxtaposes silliness with violence, low culture with academic jargon. He’s one of the major figures of postmodernism, and embodies all of their sins and virtues.

Chimera follows three updated and modernized characters from antiquity. The first section follows Scheherazade on the eve of her first night with the lusty caliphate. John Barth, the author, appears and gives her a solution to her impending demise: tell him stories that never end. She does, and the rest becomes history. The other two sections follow Perseus, growing pudgy at middle age and yearning for immortality, and Bellerophon, obsessed with his reputation for posterity. Each is subverted through a fractured narrative lens. Each is witty (if a touch corny), bawdy, lusty.

Barth’s novel is about the impossibility of knowing, well, anything. Chimera details the constant reinvention of everyone, the mercurial demands of memory, the cascade of lies that constitute a human life and voice. Barth’s novel is also, despite the playful and ironic tone, full of self-loathing exhaustion with the form of the novel.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

Intriguing, byzantine, and dated.

The major virtue of Chimera—it’s playful cancellation of everything occurring inside of it—is also its major problem. It’s about the writing of itself. Art for art’s sake is fine, but fake art for fake art’s sake seems a bitter pill to swallow. Reading fiction must be more than feints and gimmicks and nihilism and trickery.

Still, Barth is a fine, if occasionally clunky, writer. Here’s a taste, of Dunyazade, telling a third character, about Scheherazade:


“ ‘Three and a third years ago, when King Shahryar was raping a virgin every night and killing her in the morning, and the people were praying that Allah would dump the whole dynasty, and so many parents had fled the country with their daughters that in all the Islands of India and China there was hardly a young girl fit to fuck, my sister was an undergraduate arts-and-sciences major at Banu Sasan University. Besides being Homecoming Queen, valedictorian-elect, and a four-letter varsity athlete, she had a private library of a thousand volumes and the highest average in the history of the campus. Every graduate department in the East was after her with fellowships—but she was so appalled at the state of the nation that she dropped out of school in her last semester to do full-time research on a way to stop Shahryar from killing all our sisters and wrecking the country.’”

That ironic interjection of the contemporary into the timeless is supposed to be funny.

There was a time when I loved John Barth. That time has passed.


Augustus is John Williams’s grandest artistic achievement[1], an evocation of Octavian’s evolution as a thinker, humanist, and ruler, as well as an astonishing piece of writing. The novel takes the form of letters between various dignitaries, thinkers, artists and politicians, including Virgil, Horace, Julius Caesar and the like. The result is a mosaic of Octavian—cerebral, forward-thinking, and humane, but also draconian, puritanical, and humorless—who sacrifices most of his life and the lives of his friends and family to his devotion to the state. Octavian is stern, diabolical even, self-flagellating.

But Augustus is not some stale or staid accounting of Octavian’s rule. It unfolds in a thrilling fashion, with conspiracies, intrigues, double-crossings, and the almost-familiar weirdness of ancient Rome. In a word, it’s fantastic. He digs into the skein of Roman personalities and mores, as well as detangling the complex civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s death.

Williams sees inherent to the human condition moral choices and their consequences. He sees great drama in the real stuff of everyday lives. He also sees immense problems in the administration of governance, the gray areas between duty, honor, country, morality. Williams recognizes Octavian as real and complicated, as a man, a ruler, and a symbol. He isn’t a few throwaway lines in a textbook. He breathes.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Sterling, stirring, superior.

Augustus belongs to a tiny sub-genre, fictionalized biographies of Roman Emperors. Others are Robert Graves’s I, Claudius; Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian; Gore Vidal’s Julian II; and to a lesser extent (and the one on this list I haven’t yet read) Herman Broch’s The Death of Virgil. Of these, Augustus is the best.

The writing is sterling, lucid, never boring. Williams inhabits manifold voices of various learned peoples and professions. He includes lists, fragments of memoirs, letters, prayers, minutes of official meetings.

Here’s a sample, with Maecenas writing to Titus Livius:


“You ask me about the early days of my association with our Emperor. You ought to know that only three days ago he was good enough to visit my house, inquiring after my illnesses, and I felt it politic to inform him of your request. He smiled and asked me whether or not I felt it proper to aid such an unregenerate Republican as yourself; and then we fell to talking about the old days, as men who feel the encroachment of age will do. He remembers things—little things—even more vividly than I, whose profession it has been to forget nothing.”

And there’s that sliver of menace tucked into the jocular tone, a feeling of unease and lurking violence that simmers inside the novel’s twists and turns, the dagger always (just barely) concealed in the interactions of the Roman elite.


It’s a tale of two Johns, and emblematic of a major schism in the reading habits of American letters.

Williams is serious, serene, elegant, controlled and precise. He was a professor, a scholar, a teacher. He has his own theories of fiction: regardless of the subject matter, a novel must unfold in a pleasing way for the reader.

Barth is mimetic, satirical, exuberant, artificial and pungent. He was a professor, a scholar, an essayist. He has his own theories of fiction, too; that the old forms are exhausted, ruined, and boring, and that writers must burrow into the form, shift traditions, blow the fucking thing up from the inside. Barth holds Jorge Luis Borges up as the ultimate modern author; Williams would, no doubt, favor Flaubert, Dostoevksy or Dickens. Barth is at home with self-replication, parody, contradiction. Williams tackles the issues of a life, death, moral choices.

Barth sees fiction as a meta-textual game. Williams sees it as one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments. To Williams, stories are holy[2].

Barth was born to money in the northeast, educated at top schools. Barth and his ilk are products of 1950s corporate culture and the ghastly Korean War. They saw realism as a terror, a near-unbreakable cage. They saw history as a snake eating its own tail. Unlike the Beats—whose theory of art was trangressive sex plus drug use plus eastern mysticism plus street-level patois, a sort of updated French romanticism—the postmodernists’ major themes were exhaustion with the existing forms and norms, and an abiding lack of belief in absolutes.

Williams was born to working class parents in Texas. He comes from a darker, more harried America. His dad was a janitor. He dropped out of his first college. He served two years in the Army. He belongs to no particular school. He wrote a western, an academic novel, a novel of ancient Rome.

Barth was happy to reuse and repurpose his own work and the work of others. Williams labored in specific genres, a delicate artist with delicate tools. Williams bears more than a passing resemblance to Edward Anderson, another great American author with a tiny output. (Anderson wrote just two novels, Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us.)

Barth was famous, Williams was not. But with the passing years, Barth’s books are declining, while Williams is now regarded as a major American author.

The award had never been split before. This has to do with the panel of judges: William Gass, Jonathan Yardley, Walker Percy, Leslie Fielder and Evan Connell. There’s a clear split between the traditional (Yardley and Connell) and the avant garde (Gass and Fielder), with Walker Percy straddling the two camps. I don’t know the story behind the voting, but I can imagine the growing rancor, the distrust and disgust with the opposing sides. In the end they split the top award. This is as it should be. Better to honor two writers than to ignore them all.


1972 was an intriguing year for American fiction, democratic, unpredictable, just plain weird. Writers veered into odd corners: crime, science fiction, fantasy. The line between literature and pulp was further eroded. The big theme in American fiction seems to be the (attempts at) elevation[3] of the gutter genres.

Richard Adams published his epic tale of questing rabbits[4], Watership Down. Ira Levin released his feminist horror novel, The Stepford Wives. George Higgins published his great crime novel of Boston’s underworld, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Barry Hannah—what a career he had!—released Geronimo Rex. Ishmael Reed published Mumbo Jumbo. Eudora Welty released The Optimist’s Daughter. Paul Theroux, Irving Wallace, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Vladimir Nabakov published novels. Hunter Thompson released his “non-fiction[5]” travel book about bad dealings in Nevada, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

World literature continued its romp. Peter Handke, Robertson Davies, Italo Calvino, Jorge Amado, Martin Amis, Roald Dahl, Gunter Grass, Mary Renault, Graham Greene, and Kenzaburo Oe all published novels.

There is one glaring fact about the impressive array of novelists above: there’s only one woman, Eudora Welty. And only one African American. Ishmael Reed. The boys’ club mentality was still fixed. The white, male viewpoint was dominant. The keys to the kingdom remained in the hands of a select few. A literary power elite.

Still, Augustus and Chimera are superb novels. And Augustus deserved the top award.


[1] Or maybe it’s Butcher’s Crossing. Or maybe Stoner. All three are stupendous.

[2] In Stoner, he has his main character feeling vertigo over his first taste of serious literature. “What’s happening?” he asks one of his teachers. “You’re falling in love,” his teacher says.

[3] Of course, each genre has produced its own artists.

[4] A bit better than it sounds.

[5] He later said he made a lot of it up.


National Book Award winners, number 26: 1974’s Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.

20 May


In 1974, Thomas Pynchon won the National Book Award for his immense, overpowering linguistic tour de force Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is stranger, more idiosyncratic, more nonsensical, more upsetting than any summary or review can convey.

The novel has no conventional plot. It’s by turns a horrifying exploration of science gone wrong; an erotic picaresque journey through post-war Europe; a series of confounding scenes of madness and paranoia; bizarre sexual encounters, including one of the great orgy scenes in American letters; and a dumbfounded American G.I. who seems to be able to predict where German V-1 rockets will land by his erections. The entire enterprise seems a paean to entropy, decay, destruction, the thanatos syndrome. There’s weird sex galore, including enough coprophilia and sodomy to make the Marquis De Sade blush.

There’s something haunting and desolate amidst the random absurdities, however, something blasted out and nuclear, something impossible and disruptive, like radioactive dust. The book feels devised by a deeply angry man. The rainbow in the title is the new covenant with man; with God out of the picture, we’re left with the arc of man-made missiles operating according to the laws of hard science. Gravity’s rainbow ends with destroyed cities, ash and rubble.

Gravity’s Rainbow was the first big, sprawling, dense, post-modern novel I ever read. I was enthralled thrilled challenged excited irritated depressed. I read it when I was 19, traveling across the country by car with my cousin. Along with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Rainbow was and is the beginning of literature for me. It exists with a holy fire, a divine glow. I didn’t understand all of it. I absorbed it (or it absorbed me).

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Confounding, erotic, challenging, eclectic, the silly mock-epic with enough madness to fill a dozen asylums.

Thomas Pynchon has haunted me ever since. Here’s the first line, one of the most famous in American literature: “A screaming comes across the sky.”


Pynchon is the key writer in the post-modern school. The novels tend to be labyrinthine, linguistically dense, self-aware, ironic, abounding in the absurdities of the human condition, with bouts of psycho-sexual violence. The key texts are John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to a lesser extent Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, the story collections of Donald Barthelme and the theoretical writings of Roland Barthes. (Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five probably belongs with this group, too.) The movement is a clear byproduct of the late 1960s. There’s a whiff of the ivory tower in a lot of the postmodernist work, as well as a streak of slapstick silliness, a distaste for sentimentalism and a hard-on for vulgarity. The movement stems from the modernism of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, only blended with pop culture and ironic distance; marbled with a disbelief in language, absolutes or the old forms; structured with long, poetic often beautiful sentences; and (often) punctured through with a lack of emotional resonance. As the very fine compendium of oddball writers, Cult Fiction put it, the books are dedicated to (Groucho) Marxism.

The low-brow/high-brow mash-up can’t be overstated. As a group, the postmodernists—none of whom would want to be labeled this way, I’m sure—adore degraded culture. To a writer, they utilize street argot[1], pidgin English and patois. They love comic books, science fiction serials, B-movie plots. Yet many of the post-modern novels exist in a theoretical framework, with pages of jargon and oddball diction, weird forays into the extremes of scientific research. And of course the near-impenetrable prose, the specialized diction, and the at-times stilted dialogue.

Their ranks include the William Gass and William Gaddis, Tom Robbins, Edward Abbey, Joan Didion, and half a dozen more.

As a group they’ve been reviled, revered, dismissed, disregarded, adored, emulated. But over the last fifteen years, excepting Pynchon and DeLillo, they’ve lost steam as a cultural force, and have slowly been passed over and forgotten.

They’re children—including David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem (one of the great colliders of high and low fiction), William T. Vollman—have taken over.


Gravity’s Rainbow is the biggest, the weirdest, the shaggiest, the densest of the post-modern novels. There’s orgies and hellfire and an octopus that records people and a light-bulb that becomes self-aware, burning away his consciousness one volt at a time. Of all the novels I’ve read, it’s an experience more than a novel, and a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. Pynchon has legions of fans, and almost as many naysayers. He’s a writer of inexplicable talents, who as often as not squanders them. (His non-fiction is fabulous.)

As I get older, Rainbow’s influence wanes. I think V. is a better novel, stranger, more unsettling, with tighter writing. Ditto for The Crying of Lot 49, one of the most absurdly plotted novels ever written, about an illegal, underground mail system called Trystero, and a heart-breaking ending where nothing is answered or resolved.

Pynchon is a recluse. He’s also driven, dedicated, unwavering, uncompromising and dogmatic in his style. He’s entered some type of hyper late-phase productivity, publishing three novels in a handful of years. His books have a manic energy to them, some propulsive force, and an often exaggerated 1950s comic book dialogue style.

He’s an immense presence in the American literary landscape. There’s something Pynchonian about his influence. He’s often used as a qualifier for other writers’ work, but he stands in a category all his own. Even the comparisons to DeLillo are off the mark; Pynchon is sillier, funnier, cornier, wilder, and less stringent a writer than DeLillo. DeLillo sees life as a trap. Pynchon sees life as a cruel game. The game is hilarious because we can never know the rules.

Great review here.

The prose is heated, jarring, visceral, sometimes silly, always complex. Here’s a taste of his cacophonous summation of the Dodo bird, being massacred by the German colonials, narrated in part by a German named Franz:

“This furious host were losers, impersonating a race chosen by God. The colony, the venture, was dying—like the ebony trees they were stripping from the island, like the poor species they were removing totally from the earth. . . . To some, it made sense. They saw the stumbling birds ill-made to the point of Satanic intervention, so ugly as to embody argument against Godly creation. Was Mauritius some first poison trickle through sheltering dikes of earth? Christians must stem it here, or perish to a second Flood, loosed this time not by God but by the Enemy. The act of ramming home the charges into their musketry became for these men a devotional act, one whose symbolism they understood.”


And, a few paragraphs later, this, as he witnesses the ongoing extinction:

“It is the purest form of European adventuring. What’s it all been for, the mudering seas, the gangrene winters and starving springs, ourb one pursuit of the unfaithful, midnights of wrestling with the Beast, our sweat become ice and our tears pale flakes of snow, if not for such moments as this: the little converts flowing out of eye’s field, so meek, so trusting—how shall any craw clench in fear, any recreant cry be offered in the presence of our blade, our necessary blade? Sanctified now they will feed us, sanctified their remains and droppings fertilize our crops. Did we tell them ‘Salvation?’ Did we mean a dwelling forever in the City? Everlasting life? An earthly paradise restored, their island as it used to be given them back? Probably. Thinking all the time of the little brothers numbered among our blessings. Indeed, if they save us from hunger in this world, then beyond, in Christ’s kingdom, our salvations must be, in like measure, inextricable. Otherwise the dodoes would be only what they appear as in the world’s illusory light—only our prey. God could not be that cruel.”


1973 was a very fine year for literature, especially around the world. Milan Kundera published his second best novel, Life Is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. Iris Murdoch, Mervyn Peake, Patrick White, Mario Vargas Llosa, Graham Greene, J.G. Ballard, Martin Amis, and Julio Cortazar all published notable novels.

Things were crowded here, too. In the U.S., Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Tim O’Brien released If I Die in a Combat Zone. Cormac McCarthy published his ultra-violent Child of God. Gore Vidal released his fascinating, and underrated, novel of historical revision, Burr. Kurt Vonnegut put out his oddball, and strangely unsettling novel Breakfast of Champions. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Underground favorite Jerome Charyn put out Tar Baby. And in the popular realm, James Jones, Roger Zelazny, Robert Ludlum, Rex Stout, Jaqueline Susann, Jack Vance, Irwin Shaw, L. Sprague de Camp, and August Derleth all released new books.

A titanic list. The American literary landscape was evolving. MFA programs were beginning to unload new voices into the mainstream. The two big trends of American literary fiction—maximalism (or metafiction or postmodernism) and regionalism (or minimalism)—were colliding in the 1970s. Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, for example, published their first collections of short stories in 1976. Regionalism tended towards small moments of emotional devastation, hard drinking blue collar people. Both trends feel a bit dated now.

But Pynchon stands apart, somehow both sillier and more serious than his contemporaries. If you can stomach it, Gravity’s Rainbow is an earth-shattering experience.


[1] DeLillo’s entire body of work can be understood by his constant theme of the imperfections, and degradation, of language.l Boo