- Deep Surfaces: Mass Culture and History in Postmodern American Fiction
For some time now critics have asserted with (for example) Frederic Jameson that postmodernism begins with “the emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality” where represented objects’ psychohistorical and sociocultural contexts are stripped away. The world of screens and simulacra. Of subjects (or “the subject”) giving way to mere objects (“fetishized commodities”) without hermeneutic depth. Not Van Gogh’s “Pair of Boots,” but Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes.”
An enormously useful formula, this Standard Version of postmodernism nevertheless scants a range of postmodernist fictions where struggles to recoup human subjects and histories are practically their whole interest for readers. In Deep Surfaces, Philip Simmons writes a spirited defense of that interest which we continue to take, and he begins by thinking through the vexed problem of commodity culture. Simmons grants (with most critics) that unlike modernists before them postmodern writers no longer see mass culture as a dream dump that must be opposed. He agrees that American writers like Thomas Pynchon or Bobbie Ann Mason see it as practically the only condition out of which people can make selves. But does that necessarily mean that such selves can only be a mere pastiche or vapid parody of selves fleetingly accessible on screens, selves thus lacking any meaningful historical agency?
Simmons doesn’t think so. In his view, a theory of postmodern [End Page 1012] culture that focuses mainly on its value-neutral parodies and weakly ironized nostalgias has disabled our ability to read contemporary narratives where characters do struggle hard to act meaningfully in historical time, and whose writers struggle hard to know history, in representing how it is made.
Simmons works through some principal currents in Western thought informing theories of postmodernity (and he does it, incidentally, in finely written prose) and persuades one that postmodern surfaces don’t necessarily entail a loss of historical depth. Along the way he produces some fine critical essays. A chapter comparing Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer to Nicholas Baker’s remarkable but under-appreciated novel Mezzanine not only allows him to distinguish—on his own terms—between late-modernist and postmodernist modes; it also enables him to argue a theory of postmodernity that has room for human subjects with depth, acting in historical time.
His best chapters, on Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, approach Libra and Vineland as historical novels of the first rank, narratives where emplotment itself—the whole question of how subjects are historically embedded and moreover how they act historically—constitutes the story. Wisely, Simmons sees that these writers are not naive about issues of “depth.” DeLillo’s conspiratorial agents in Libra, for example, think obsessively about themselves in terms of surfaces and screens, as do Pynchon’s film collective members in Vineland. And their “reality” as figures on screens only serves to make their “histories” all the more inscrutable but necessary for those who come after, including readers. Other chapters treat Ishmael Reed, E. L. Doctorow, Russell Banks, and minimalist writers like Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver.
Deep Surfaces is a smart book. While thinking through problems of mass culture and history in recent American fiction, its chapters also compose a literary history. From The Moviegoer (1961) through Mao II (1991), Simmons plots American postmodernism as, initially, a renunciation of modernist distaste for mass media, followed by a period of incredibly productive play with the nuanced surfaces of media-driven reality, and as culminating in a paradoxical realization of those surfaces’ uncanny depths—in short, in a recuperated historicity.