In 2005 Richard Powers offered the following appreciation of Thomas Pynchon’s great novel, the apex of US postmodernism, Gravity’s Rainbow:
For thirty years, early each winter, as the newspapers roll out their end-of-year obituaries and take to listing the year’s proudest, most achieved disasters, I’ve read out loud, to myself or to anyone who will listen, a passage from that book that ruined me for science and made me think of writing as a life. Nine pages: that battery-ringed evensong service, set somewhere in Kent—the closest thing I have to a private religious ritual. I do it to remind myself of the size of the made world, of what story might still be when it remembers itself, of the look of our maximum reach outward, of the devastating charge of words.(Powers 40; emphasis original)
In Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011) a phenom college shortstop suddenly can’t throw the ball straight, an apparently psychological condition first noted in Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 1973. The college president muses,
Nineteen seventy-three. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam. Gravity’s [End Page 284] Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream—the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation—the Modernists of the First World War—would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.(328)
These passages suggest the conflicted attitude the millennial generation of US fiction writers has toward their postmodern forebears: on the one hand, an inspiration, a reminder of the possibilities of narrative and language; on the other hand, a problem, a sign of cultural collapse and psychological malaise. This complex and contradictory attitude can be accounted for by a number of factors, and to understand the state of US postmodern fiction in the twenty-first century, we need to see how novelists, Old Guard and Young Turks, articulate, respond to, and situate themselves among these factors.
US postmodern fiction can be characterized by some or all of these features: double coded language or, more popularly, irony; self-referentiality; experiments in form and style; contingent truths manifested through multiple, dialogic narratives that work to subvert totalizing systems; the breakdown of the autonomous, integrated individual. The postmodern fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s made use of these features to challenge readers’ expectations for how fiction could work and, more broadly, how the world could be known and how a person could situate herself in the world. In one sense, postmodern fiction sought to turn the world into fiction so as to expose the mendacity of the culture we have inherited and to invite us to invent other, better cultures. Curtis White sums this up in the first paragraph of his short story “Remember John Lennon”: “Everybody of my generation has the same memory. We were twelve or thirteen or we were twenty-one, for that matter, and we were going to be veterinarians or we were, like Ringo, going to own a hairdresser’s parlor. We walked into the record store and saw the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We thought together, ‘Life can be other than it has been’” (156).
In the transition from the late twentieth to early twenty-first century, however, a number of factors converged, demanding a reconsideration of postmodernism. One was the general pendulum swing to the right, marking a pervasive political and cultural conservatism inimical to the formal experimentation, iconoclasm, and counter-cultural ideology of most postmodern fiction. Another was the sense that the...