The Postmodern Conditionby Jim Feast
Bad News of the Heart
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2003)
Oskar thinks he could write a whole book, and there would be nothing in it but questions.
—Douglas Glover, The Life and Times of Captain N
A defining trait of postmodern literature, one that on the surface would seem to be a terrific handicap, is its inability to create characters. Not that this style of writing lacks protagonists, sidekicks, and so on, but that these actors are notably one-dimensional in comparison to the full-blooded, 3-D representations of modernism. To cite only American examples, even such postmodern masterpieces as Pynchon’s V. or Nabokov’s Ada are hardly notable for memorable characterizations, although this may be overlooked due to bizarre conceits such as a priest’s attempt to convert sewer rats to Catholicism (V.) or the verbal pyrotechnics in the alternative future plot, in which Russia and the U.S. merged in the 1890s (Ada). In part, the perfervid inventiveness of these authors provides a counterweight to their weakness in character presentation. One of the pleasures of reading fiction is watching a character develop—not simply react—and when this element is absent, something extraordinary has to make up for it.
Aside from unleashing verbal hijinks and constructing fascinatingly veering plots, both of these authors tweak their shallow central characters as best they can. This sort of fiddling with character has been ongoing in postmodern fiction. One might even say that an author’s success or failure with this task is a measure of his or her overall accomplishment. Such is the case, anyway, for both Douglas Glover and Arthur Nersesian.
Glover, in his short story collection Bad News of the Heart, takes up a variation on Beckett’s character-creation strategy. Indeed, the closer he adheres to the Irishman’s methods, the better his fiction. Glover’s story “A Man in a Box,” is by far the best in the collection, and it is also the most like a theater of the absurd production. I don’t mean the piece is overly derivative—Glover is more wickedly funny than Beckett—but the description of a man living at the limits of society (a beggar dwelling in a cardboard sheath) while occupying himself with some insanely complex rigmarole (indexing the hundreds of Post-Its on his wall) is a Beckett situation par excellence.
However, where Glover moves in a different direction is by including, with maximum comic force, ruminations influenced by discussions of textuality in modern literary theory. Note the unexpected way he handles them in this instance:
Mornings, now that it is cold, dirty, bearded man and I rise late and sit at the doors of our respective dwellings, stuffing old newspapers under our clothes for added insulation… He is a shallow fellow, dressing himself in the Post or the sports… section… I myself love the feel of The Times Book Review and Tuesday Science Times.
The ink rubs off, leaving snippet of articles and headlines on my chest, back, and thighs. When I go the mission for my monthly shower, I often enjoy reviewing past events in the mirror.
…Of course there were other men at the mission who use newspaper for underwear. The dressing room is the next best thing to a library reading room.
This is only the beginning of comic complications. The hero is one of those who uses his finger as a pointer to follow the words as he reads. Imagine his embarrassment and misunderstanding when he uses his dick to follow the words on a fellow bather’s ass.
Some readers might wish Glover had confined himself to stories of this sort, but he is a risk taker and intent on trying to depict suburban love affairs, dot.com business ventures, and middle-class mourning through ritual—the same Beckettian prism he uses on the box man. This is harder to carry off insofar as he is setting figures with super-attenuated existences within lively bourgeois milieus where they don’t seem to plausibly fit. Indeed, the attempts misfire as often as they hit the target.
In “My Romance,” for instance, he chronicles how a man handles the death of his infant son by shooting at trees and having motel sex with his family pediatrician. Lacking a job, hobbies, or much else to busy himself with, the hero grinds away gratingly at these few obsessions. In an attempt to maintain verisimilitude, Glover cannot allow for the type of madcap actions of the box man, but without these or much to do, the character bores rather than moves the reader.
At other places Glover is able to overcome this self-set obstacle by drastically limiting the scope of the story as he does in “Why I Decide to Kill Myself and Other Jokes.” The tale of a heroine, who steals arsenic from her husband’s lab in order to commit suicide, then, once exposed, decides to return it an hour later, makes for a tight, daft concoction that is replete with absurd incident without losing credibility.
The fact that compressing the time expanse of a narrative makes a one-dimensional character easier to swallow suggests another component of this type of postmodern personage: he or she has no history. Such a character lacks the baggage of a Jay Gatsby or Jake Barner, let alone a Jason Compson. In Chinese Takeout, Arthur Nersesian highlights this lightweight aspect of postmodern characterization with notable brio.
In the first few pages, the hero, Or Trenchant, is cut off. He breaks up with his girlfriend, exits their shared space, and goes back to living in his car. However, what matters is not any aftermath of regret or recrimination, as the jilted girlfriend June barely appears again. Instead, it is the fluctuating erotic, housing, and financial entanglements of the painter hero, who makes a living selling used books in front of NYU’s library. It’s as if by having him dump his fiancée and pull up stakes the author wanted to render him tabula rasa so the reader could study him without having to learn anything of his past (of which almost nothing is forthcoming). Or tumbles through non-stop outlandish encounters, buying heroin for a beautiful junkie to stop her from giving blowjobs on park benches, finding that the most celebrated graphic at a famous photographer’s exhibit is a picture of himself, and acting like an asshole in public. There is little time to think of his past with June or even what happened yesterday.
In constructing such a character, Nersesian has put his finger on something new in contemporary personality. He exhibits the mindset of a person who feels everything hinges on the next turn of the cards. Your drawing, for example, is only one piece in a 50-artist group show, but it has to be hung just right because who’s to say a famous critic won’t single it out. At a party, you have to approach a stranger just right, because who’s to say this person might not turn out to be the love of your life.
This is the mindset of characters like Or, who eke out a livelihood between homelessness and solvency, between being recognized as artists by their peers and treated as nonentities by significant collectors and galleries. In delineating this type, Nersesian even explains its political quiescence. As Or’s life goes askewly along, in the background the Gore/Bush electoral showdown unfolds. Or is so enmeshed in the toils of his daily, multiple mini-crises that he is oblivious to what all the shouting is about. Nersesian has written what you might call a “picaresque novel on speed,” in which new plot twists churn up a mile a minute. And along the way he also gives the one-dimensionality of his narrator a socio-economic pedigree.
Postmodernism these days is one genre among others, but also a genre that often hybridizes. Like Stephen Daedalus, Or Trenchant is an artist. His life’s one constant is his dedication to painting and hewing stone. In a bravura passage, perhaps modeled on a similar scene in Christopher Logue’s screenplay for Savage Messiah, Or, working under a grueling time constraint, forgets everything and chisels night and day, cutting out an alabaster gravestone in the shape of a Chinese takeout container. Momentarily, he has lifted himself from the realm of postmodern into that of modern protagonists.