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  • The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism by Brian McHale
  • Daniel S. Chertoff
Brian McHale, The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 239 pp.

In a study remarkable for order, context, clarity and precision, Brian McHale claims that postmodernism began in 1966, peaked in 1973, declined from 1989, and ended on September 11, 2001, and that now, with the benefit of some distance, we are able to characterize the period more definitively.

McHale is not the first to attach a specific date to an evolutionary process. Willa Cather's often quoted statement that "[t]he world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" became the basis for a recent popular literary history of the start of modernism by Bill Goldstein, The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature. McHale similarly believes that specific dates are useful in order "to experiment, to provoke, to make strange" (29) or to stimulate discussion. Whether or not one agrees that 1966 is precisely the "zero year" for postmodernism, arguments in its favor are interesting.

The Cambridge Introduction is a worthy follow-up to McHale's classic Postmodernism Fiction, published in 1987, during what he now defines as the "interregnum," or post-peak postmodernist period. In that work, McHale demonstrated that the main dominant of modernism was epistemological and that of postmodernism, ontological. Fascinating as the discussion is, it is difficult to characterize a literary period while still in its midst: there are too many exceptions, variances, and potential offshoots. With the benefit of distance, McHale reconsiders certain notions and classifications, paying more attention to, for example, magical realism.

The five chapters of The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism describe the chronological evolution of postmodernism. Each of the four main chapters consists of two parts; the first describes the specific period or phase of postmodernism while the second details "a particular continuity across [the] phase" (6). [End Page 186] The "continuity" offers numerous examples of how a particular classic work or idea is treated during the period. Thus, the concepts presented in the chapter about the "big bang" of postmodernism around 1966 are illustrated via a detailed discussion of Alice in Wonderland; peak postmodernism is illustrated by a discussion of the versions and derivatives of Shakespeare's, The Tempest; the motif of angels is characteristic of the "interregnum" or late postmodernism and, not surprisingly, ruins and the fruits of terrorism herald the end of the school (see below). Similarly, although dozens of works are discussed, for McHale, Thomas Pynchon is the postmodernist author par excellence, with a corpus spanning the whole period and represented in each phase: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966 – the start of postmodernism); Gravity's Rainbow (1973 — peak postmodernism); Vineland (1990 — the interregnum); Bleeding Edge (2013 — the end).

The introduction and first chapter contextualize postmodernism and review the idea of dominants introduced in McHale's earlier book. The modernist novel, argues McHale, "explored interior experience, … embodied consciousness," (14) and the way the mind engaged with the world, but as modernism was consolidating itself, postmodernist works began to challenge readers with multiple and juxtaposed universes, transporting the audience to completely different worlds with completely different rules.

Chapter 2 represents 1966 as the "big bang" of Postmodernism because that was the year when artists across many fields abruptly changed direction:

Nineteen sixty-six was above all a year in which avant-garde tendencies converged, mingled, and cross-pollinated with developments in popular culture, to explosive effect. The elements of a nascent postmodernism, already accumulating throughout the preceding decades, converged around 1966, forming a dense core, waiting only for the big bang of that year to propel them outward throughout culture and forward into the future.


These attributes of nascent postmodernism include the crossing of ontological boundaries, the creation of multiple worlds, and the intermingling of high art with popular art when, for example, rock-and-roll aspired to the level of art, record albums became unified works, and album covers became works of art. The music of the time is viewed as a harbinger of the change.

It is over the "long 60s" that postmodernism emerges...


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pp. 186-189
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