A Brief History of the Novel – Part Four

Change. Change. Change. Change … change. Change. Chaaange. When you say words a lot they don’t mean anything. Or maybe they don’t mean anything anyway, and we just think they do. Neil Gaiman

Late Twentieth Century (1950-2000) – Postmodern

In the first three parts of this series I offered a working definition of the novel then traced it from 980 AD to 1950 and the advent of Existentialism. This philosophy and the wars that engendered it gave rise to many qualities in postmodern fiction. There is not enough room here to show every trait, but a few bear looking into.

Pastiche, cliché, absurdity: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy appears surprisingly often on lists of postmodern novels, even though it was published in 1759. Originally titled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman the book claims to be autobiography. It’s a satire instead, wherein readers learn more about his relatives than they do about Shandy. The book is filled with plagiarized passages, rewritten to turn their meanings upside-down. In this way Sterne transforms the serious, philosophical remarks of Francis Bacon and Rabelais into comedy. Called pastiche, imitation appears often in postmodern work. For instance Umberto Eco imitated detective fiction in The Name of the Rose (1980), while Margaret Atwood used science fiction and fairy tale to make The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Theatre of the Absurd greatly influenced the postmodern novel. For his play The Bald Soprano (1950) Eugene Ionesco lifted lessons from grammar books. The dialogue mainly consists of clichés or statements of the obvious, and the overall effect is illogical or absurd:

I’m the maid. I have spent a very pleasant afternoon. I’ve been to the cinema with a man and I’ve seen a film with some women. After the cinema, we went to drink some brandy and milk and then read the newspaper.

Readers will also remember the description of Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut in Part 3 of this series. Why do writers employ absurdity? The answer has to do with trust. In a world where leaders say one thing and do another, language cannot be counted on to convey the truth.

Metafiction: A newer trend is changing perspectives – not just from character to character, but also time and space. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013) begins with the birth of Ursula Todd. In repeated renderings she dies or lives, and the details change each time. As Ursula’s life proceeds, we read multiple versions of critical moments such as the London Blitz. In one, Ursula hides in the basement with several others and dies when their building is struck by a bomb. In another, she is part of a rescue squad that visits the same basement shelter. The plot stays constant – a woman dies – but the vantage-point moves.

"Relativity" by M. C. Escher.

“Relativity” by M. C. Escher.

Why do this? These jumps make readers self-aware. At no point are we allowed to relax, suspend our disbelief and trust the author to take us straight through Ursula’s story. In this way Atkinson’s Metafiction comments on trust, perception, truth and the contract between reader and writer. She also raises a question: how much of what happens is due to fate and how much, free will?

Technoculture, fragmentation, paranoia: The late twentieth century brought the Internet – a service that provides access to vast amounts of information. Yet instead of increasing clarity, the availability of data has created a sense of confusion and disarray. The most focused search can still result in conflicting and irrelevant answers. Our use of the Internet has also made us vulnerable to the prying eyes of others wishing to sell-to or steal-from us.

A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) embodies these ideas. In it author Jennifer Egan employs many different protagonists, each with his or her own story. Thanks to these multiple viewpoints, every chapter can stand alone. A minor character in one becomes major in another, and that’s what holds the novel together. In one chapter, Egan tells the story of an autistic boy by using Power Point. In a different and very lyrical chapter, manic delusions drive the chief character to suicide. The novel is saturated with late twentieth-century angst.

Early Twenty-first Century (2000 to present) – Post Postmodern?

It’s too early to know, much less name, the next trend in literature. Yet there are inklings, and it’s fun to speculate. We’ve seen how new literary movements arise in reaction to old. Perhaps twentieth century detachment and despair will transform into compassion and engagement. Some suggest the work of Carl Jung and Fritz Perls might lead the way. Instead of looking out upon the world and finding it wanting, these psychologists advise us to look within – beyond our egos – to mankind’s collective wisdom. Such wisdom can be found in dreams, myth and identification with those whom we don’t understand.

Galatea of the Spheres by Salvador Dali

“Galatea of the Spheres” by Salvador Dali

Examples of this approach already exist: Magic Realism mixes the mundane with the bizarre, giving them both equal emphasis. Though the movement began in South America, there are many adherents in Europe and here. In The Tiger’s Wife (2011), Téa Obreht offers us a history of the Balkans without choosing sides or once referring to a particular general, president or battle. Instead she gives us Eastern European myth and shows how animals witness war. Her characters include a deathless man and a tiger that escapes from a bombed-out zoo and appears to take a human wife.


There is so much we haven’t explored, like the origins of science fiction, mystery, and graphic novels – not to mention the matter of print versus ebooks. With the exception of mystery, which my colleague Brenda Lloyd took up in her blog, these topics will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile, I have one final question: At the start of this series, we noted the novel’s secular origins. Having completed Part Four, I now wonder if over time the book-length story has taken on a spiritual quest. You, dear reader, will have to decide.

 Note: Click on all images to enlarge.


Is this the novel’s Golden Age?

6 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Novel – Part Four

  1. Great examples! The magical realism trend in high art is so strong. Sometimes I feel like North American writers are wading into that territory so differently than South American writers have in the past. Super interesting stuff to think about, thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree that N. American writers are putting Magic Realism to different use. Perhaps that’s because our national history is so different. In S. America MR offered a clever way to obfuscate. It’s hard to protest political wrongdoing under dictatorship. — Eve

  2. Eve, you asked about the “next” novel. I’ve read that the mini-series on TV (ex. “Mad Men,” “The Sopranos”) hearken back to the serialized Victorian novels. It would be sad to think that paper books, which are rapidly being replaced by Kindles, might someday be TV shows without ever having been books first.

    I’m a Luddite.

  3. Chris, your observation opens up a whole new dialogue. Hope someone will take on the ebook-vs.-print book debate in this forum.
    – Eve

  4. Thanks for the journey. while I was delighted to read your perspective on novels I’ve read, I’ve also added many new titles to my to be read list–not that I needed more to read, but I like knowing now how they fit in your evolution.
    As far as book to ebook, it’s just the next roiling wave on the shore. The other day I received a hand-written note of thanks. I don’t recall the last time I’d seen one. But it reminded me of my father’s old slides and 16 mm family movies that migrated to video tape and now wait in a drawer for their next transformation and my old dust-covered photo albums that sit untouched in favor of my online photo journals and blogs.
    I guess I’ll just swim with the current.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Enjoyed reading about the pleasure you took in receiving a hand-written note. Have 2 granddaughters and am trying to entice them into writing by sending them notes. Hope you are right about ebooks. Never thought of them in that way. You may have noticed that the technology is much more linear than that of the printed book — a point in our favor?
      Good luck with “The Quiet Room.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s