- The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period by David Cowart
As the next generation of postmodern authors emerges, several questions arise: Have these new writers grown from an earlier literary cohort, or have they, at some point, entered a “post-postmodern” period? If contemporary writers do expand from their literary foremothers and forefathers, to what extent do they emulate, and to what extent challenge or subvert the craft? These are questions David Cowart addresses in his encyclopedic work The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period. While he says he will resist “becoming thesis-bound” (25), his thesis is fairly clearly stated in the book’s final paragraph:
From the vantage of the twenty-first-century’s second decade…one can advance the argument that younger writers have continued to “make it new” without needing to dismantle the postmodern aesthetic crafted by a parental generation. As they engage, resist, perpetuate, and redefine that aesthetic, however, these second- and third-generation postmodernists compose a rainbow spectrum of literary possibility. Born in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and later, they sustain and augment the powerful art of literati born in the 1920s and 1930s.(199)
In other words, the central argument is that second- and third-generation postmodern writers negotiate with and build upon their predecessors while keeping the postmodern style fresh and original.
Cowart explores several works of fiction, dissecting whether/how earlier postmodern authors (Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, for example) influence later postmodern writers. Some authors, such as Rachel Ingalls and Gloria Naylor, give only “passing notice” to literary predecessors (25), while others, including Steve Erickson, Richard Powers, and Alice Walker, grow from earlier writers (Thomas Pynchon for the former two; Flannery O’Connor for the latter). For instance, in chapter six, Cowart argues that Powers follows in Pynchon’s footsteps by subversively weaving fairy tale into his Operation Wandering Soul, yet keeps the style innovative nonetheless (91). Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, as Cowart argues in chapter seven, maintains clear connections to forebears such as O’Connor, Ken Kesey, J. D. Salinger, and Joseph Heller (107). Palahniuk successfully deploys the style, yet he “inherits a fully developed aesthetic that he shapes to ends that his main audience—Gen-Xers and Millennials—may mistake for the next new thing” (108). Other novels—Erickson’s Arc d’X in particular—follow less successfully in the earlier postmoderns’ footsteps (chapter five).
In what is probably the book’s strongest chapter, Cowart explores Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (chapter nine). This author “differentiates himself from proximate literary fathers and mothers (the Pynchons, the DeLillos, the Toni Morrisons, the Joan Didions) without repudiating the aesthetic they crafted. [He] demonstrates the continuing viability of fiction that decenters the subject, doubts the transparency of language, and treats metanarratives with thoroughgoing skepticism” (147). Cowart fluidly articulates how this novel builds not only on postmodern antecedents, but also on literary forefather Walt Whitman and his catalogue style, along with writers of antiquity (160). Cowart thrillingly explores how the novel’s protagonists are [End Page 386] themselves replicas of first- and second-generation postmoderns. Cowart closes with a chapter on Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (chapter ten), in which he shows how Egan “crafts an allegory of the artistic belatedness that troubles every new generation” (191). Her novel, thus, epitomizes the ideology that Cowart fancies these very authors hold.
While Cowart claims he will investigate how former generations of postmodern writers work in later generations, in many ways, a more appropriate thesis may incorporate the theme of fictional generations, as this concept seems to be the tie binding these texts. This overarching theme comes together clearly in chapter two, wherein Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” takes center stage. Here, Cowart articulates the significance of generations of African American heritage vis-à-vis Dee/Wangero’s troubled connection to her roots (a theme seemingly of far greater importance in this chapter than the literary influence of O...