- Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Twentieth-Century Novel
Reading through an opposition between 'modernism' and 'postmodernism' Teresa Heffernan considers the role of what she calls 'post-apocalyptic' thinking in the twentieth-century novel in English. Her introduction explains her focus on the end of Endings in narrative and the implications of that shift for four very large topics: 'The End,' 'History,' 'Nation,' and 'Man.' Each is subdivided into two chapters to address the topic in terms of modernism and postmodernism respectively. 'The End' focuses on 'Characters in Search of an End' (Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury) and 'Viral Endings' (DeLillo's White Noise). 'History' focuses on 'Modernism and the End of the End of History' (Ford's The Good Soldier) and 'Futures That Have Not Been: Postmodernism and the Limits of History' (Morrison's Beloved). 'Nation' focuses on 'Apocalyptic Communities: The European Nation, Islam, and Hinduism' (Forster's Passage to India) and 'Unveiling Nations' (Rushdie's Midnight's Children). 'Man' focuses on 'Anti-Apocalypse and the New Man' (D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse) and 'The 'Fag End' Again and the New Woman' (Carter's Nights at the Circus). The conclusion briefly discusses 'The Return of End Times' (Derrida's suggestion contra Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles that announcements of the End of Man may be premature).
Despite these large, even heady topics, the discussion in each section consists mainly of literary readings of the eight texts just mentioned, and these readings are the best thing about this book. They are intelligent and sometimes venturesome as, for example, in the challenge to conventional readings of Beloved. The ingenious organizational strategy allows the author to exfoliate (or in some cases to wander far) from the literary text into a range of issues as wide as the author wants to make it, sometimes to world political news, sometimes to a background theory. This kind of organizational strategy is valuable in an era when methodological change is so urgently required. And in her literary interpretations [End Page 365] Heffernan shows signs of the important ability to write in a personal voice. I particularly appreciate the genuinely interdisciplinary qualities of the book.
The title claims incorrectly that she covers 'the Twentieth-Century Novel.' She uses novels originally written in English, a tradition that has not been a hotbed of interest with regard to postmodern experiment and adventure. Very occasional references outside English-language novels do not make up the deficit. Confinement to English may explain the lack of definition concerning the key terms, modern and postmodern, which Heffernan uses as if their meaning were settled and were not highly contested and divergent, depending on where 'modern' begins (1400? 1750? 1900?). To pose this question of definition compromises the value of those terms in making a case, and the terms do seem to function mainly as a way of providing a divide in each part, leaving undefined what is at stake in the general shift it implies.
In conducting her argument, Heffernan cites her authorities (e.g., Kermode, Kant, Connor Cruise O'Brien, Derrida, Fukuyama, Spivak) as if citing them carries the point and nothing is required of her. Once we get a brief reference to a theorist or interpreter, the discussion leaves the relatively clear discussion of a literary text and rambles in ways that are sometimes pleasing but rely far too heavily on passing allusions to theories whose relevance is not explained or shown. Her choice of sources is sometimes perplexing; for example, she claims to discuss 'Postmodernism and the Limits of History,' yet does not cite a single discussion by any of those who currently write on that topic (Ankersmit, Berkhofer, Jenkins, Munslow, White, and even - full disclosure - the present writer); instead she opts for the highly compromised Fukuyama. Or she touches on the question concerning Christianity as a source of history but without appearing to be aware of the Ur-source on this topic is Karl Löwith's Meaning in History. Nobody can read everything, but everybody has an obligation to cover...