Narrative, Identity, and the Postmodern Condition

When my mother discovered that I tattooed a Lewis Carroll quote to my right leg she accused me of doing drugs. I laughed at the cultural connotation surrounding this piece of children’s literature and thought of Jean Baudrillard. The countless reproductions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have given the story a completely new meaning for which the original has been lost. It didn’t seem relevant to my mother that this had been my favorite novel as a child, that I found Alice to be the only strong female lead in any of the fairy tales and fantasy stories that I grew up with, that the line “Curiouser and curiouser” was a favorite for the reason that I appreciated Carroll’s nonsensical language and playful characters and wanted a permanent reminder to always remain curious because, to me, apathy is death.

We are living in an era of postmodernity, in a culture of copies. Authentic experience is dead because we’ve been conditioned by society how to respond, how to feel, what to expect. Popular culture and counterculture have bled together into a pastiche of all “types” that is amorphous even in its diversity. The challenges of our generation, then, are to be heard and to stay interested, to remain curious. A successful narrative of our times should expose this ambiguity and layering, the nonlinearity of thought, our cosmic collection of influences, the disillusionment of living in a world where the copy has become the real; it should subvert all genres and cubicles of form, it should be original in its unoriginality.

I use the word ‘narrative’ because, in the words of E.L. Doctorow, “There is no longer any such thing as fiction or nonfiction; there’s only narrative.” One must only look to Oprah’s headlines of SCANDAL and her subsequent attack on author James Frey after realizing that A Million Little Pieces was not entirely factual. The absurdity of it being – who cares? Did it make the story any less effective? Of course not. But in a time when we are fed so much unreality under the guise of “reality” (e.g. Jersey Shore), we somehow crave the truth more, even though there is no objective truth – it’s all a blur between fiction and nonfiction.

(See David Shields’ Reality Hunger.)

I started off this year thinking I’d be in some fancy MFA program right now. I found the application process overwhelming, exhausting, and at points unnecessarily overpriced ($150 application fee? Really? I’m poor. I have an English degree, remember?) Of course, I applied to the top schools in the country, let my ego get the better of me, didn’t apply to any sort of safety school, and ended up moving from Pennsylvania to California in hopes of a cathartic spiritual journey, a Joycean epiphany, a stroke of brilliant inspiration, a nice guy, anything to give some meaning to my life. But perhaps it was a blessing because the more I think about it, the more I don’t understand fiction programs. What does the term ‘fiction’ mean in the year 2012? Everything we write is derived from personal experience. So what’s the deal with the creative nonfiction programs too? What’s the difference? Why hasn’t the term ‘narrative’ replaced these categories? And then there are the programs that try to respond to this question with genre-crossing, liberal studies options, concentrations in philosophy, sculpture, theatre, dance, and it’s like yes, here’s a Master’s degree in general Creativity. And while I’d love to indulge in these avant-garde courses and spend the rest of my life studying abstractions, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of creating something that’s supposed to be original? If all we’re doing is reproducing forms of what we’re taught, then what does the future of literature look like? Because while arguments can be made for the love of stories and the art of storytelling, a former professor put it best when he said that Jonathan Franzen is nothing but jellybeans for the soul. The Corrections is beautifully written, but if I want to get lost in something it’s going to be Harry Potter. Any talented writer can learn how to be literary, that is, to write a successful short story or novel in terms of publishing standards, and that seems to be the core goal of current MFA programs. In the words of David Foster Wallace, “There is a lopsided emphasis in writing programs on hermetic fiction…with the mechanicalness of craft, technique, and point of view, as opposed to the more occult or spiritual side of writing—taking joys in the process of creation.”

That’s not to say MFA programs are in any way malicious or misguided. I wouldn’t be writing at all if it weren’t for the many great creative classes I’ve taken over the past four years. But once you reach a certain level of efficiency, isn’t it time to do your own thing? Fly away from the nest of structure? I was submitting something to a lit mag’s website recently and in the ‘Guidelines for Submissions’ section it read something like Everyone tries to be Bukowski, so don’t try to be like Bukowski. On the same principle, everyone tries to be Raymond Carver, so I’m not going to try to be like Raymond Carver.  If everything is derivative, a copy of copy, then a successful narrative should respond accordingly. For this reason my true interests lie in authors like Vonnegut, Pynchon, Wallace, Barth, Doctorow, DeLillo. I respect novels like House of Leaves and Infinite Jest more than anything in contemporary literature because they make original the unoriginal by constructing a collage of stories, topics, theories, etc. And these works are confusing, nonlinear, allusive, embedded with codes and irony and humor, but that is because we as individuals, as a society, a culture, a nation, a universe are all of these things. We are not static beings; we are dynamic, constantly changing, evolving, learning, growing. When the Caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?” She responds, “I-I hardly know, sir, just at the present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

While human nature entails certain changes, there’s a resonance in Alice’s remark. In a society where you’re free to be anyone, you then become everyone. There’s no standing out in a world where nothing is unique. Even the concept of celebrity has become tired and unimpressive in a culture where viral videos can generate the same level of fame as an Academy Award-winning film. Our identity becomes fluid. We become a multiplicity of ideas and personas. Every pop star is just a simulation of each other. Katy Perry is Lady Gaga is Britney Spears is Madonna. If I could harness a collective feminine spirit it would look something like Kim Gordon meets Joan Didion meets Joan Jett meets Sylvia Plath meets Patti Smith meets Janis Joplin meets Karen O meets Annie Clark meets Ani DiFranco meets Grace Slick and so on and so on until me, Brittany Harmon, becomes nothing but a collage of former identities. The root of our postmodern condition is that we have no formative qualities. We are what we listen to, what we eat, who we hang out with, the sports we play, the sports we don’t play. This lack of true identity, the complexity of “Who am I?” is what contemporary literature seeks to encapsulate, which becomes a much bigger task than simply telling a story, and it is certainly not something that can be categorized into a dichotomy of truth/non-truth, fiction/non-fiction. This process can’t be taught in any classroom, no matter its reputation. It’s that spiritual side that DFW was talking about; it’s something that must be internalized, realized, felt.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative, Identity, and the Postmodern Condition

  1. Bored at work, I found your blog after reading and loving your story in Sundog Lit. Now I feel like I know you very well, even though we’ve never spoken! The internet is funny like that. 😉

    I know you wrote this a year ago, but I think that both this piece (essay?) and your story share a refreshing emotional transparency. It resonates. And I can’t believe I’m the first to comment on this. I just wanted you to know that there’s someone was inspired by you today.

    – Melissa

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