At one point in Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, protagonists Walter Berglund and Richard Katz attend a Bright Eyes concert together. It has been a while since these middle-aged men went to a concert, and the gig takes them by surprise. The last time they went to see a band, punk rock was all the rage—angry, cynical punk, punk that had “no future.” The band they are watching this evening, in contrast, is earnest and hopeful. Walter incredulously remarks that the band is “all about belief…. The new record’s this incredible kind of pantheistic effort to keep believing in something in a world full of death.” Connor Oberst, the song writer and band’s lead singer, “works the word ‘lift’ into every song. That’s the name of the record, Lifted. It’s like religion without the bullshit of religious dogma.” Richard, too, is dumbfounded, noting that Oberst “was performing sincerity, and when the performance threatened to give sincerity the lie, he performed his sincere anguish over the difficulty of sincerity.”
I imagine most ABR readers have read Freedom, so a detailed plot description is superfluous. It suffices to say here that this novel documenting the triangular relationship between Walter, Richard, and Walter’s wife Patty as it develops from the ’80s to the present is aplenty with scenes just like the above; scenes where the irony and distrust of the ’80s and ’90s are met by a sudden sense of hope, where typically postmodern cynicism intersects with a decidedly unpostmodern empathy and earnestness. When Walter and Richard seek to organize a social movement, for instance, Walter’s daughter Jessica warns them that today’s youth is “allergic” to anything that “smells like elitism, or not respecting somebody else’s point of view …. Your campaign can’t be about telling other people what not to do. It’s got to be about this cool positive choice that we’re all making.” Indeed, Walter’s suggestion to call the movement “Youth against insanity” is refuted, as is Richard’s “Enough already.” Instead, the movement is more constructively called “Free Space,” appropriating the conservative notion of freedom while evoking the spirit of the wide-open west. Elsewhere, cynical punk rockers learn to care about the world around them, egotistical homemakers prove to be passionate school teachers, while venture capitalists acquire a consciousness. Freedom is a novel about the follies of the middle classes; and it is a novel about the human capacity for “peace, love and understanding.”
Given Franzen’s insistence on these humanist values, I was surprised to learn that Mary Holland’s new book Succeeding Postmodernism: Language and Humanism in Contemporary American Literature makes almost no mention of his work (in fact, the one time she does bring up his name she places him, puzzlingly, within the postmodern tradition). Holland’s compelling argument is that contemporary U.S. literature plots postmodern strategies and poststructuralist techniques not to repudiate the depth models and grand narratives thinkers like Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard exposed as illusory, but instead to reimagine them. The writing of authors like David Foster Wallace, Mark Danielewski and Jonathan Safran Foer, she asserts,
remains postmodern in its assumptions about the culture and world from which it arises, and remains poststructural in its assumptions about the arbitrariness and problems of language, and yet still uses this postmodernism and poststructuralism to humanist ends of generating empathy, communal bonds, ethical and political questions, and, most basically, communicable meaning.
Holland is certainly not the first scholar to recognize these tendencies within contemporary literature. Nicoline Timmer published a book entitled Do You Feel It Too? (2010) in which she examines the affective turn in the novels of many of the authors Holland studies, foremost among them Foster Wallace and Danielewski (remarkably, Holland not once refers to Timmer’s...