Category Archives: postmodernism

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing–to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from…Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  

Nostalgia as strength.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was hailed by most critics last year and I’d been meaning to read it for a long time.  It is a novel that is book ended by two main characters, Sasha and Bennie–in their relative youth and in their more middle age.  In between is a series of chapters where these two characters are on the periphery somewhere and the chapter is focused on someone loosely connected to one of them.

As I was reading it, I found it a little kitschy and a a little hard to follow, feeling like I knew I’d have to reread it if I wanted to truly understand.  After I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews and most people described the chapters as more like short stories.  Had I gone into the reading with that mindset, I think it would have been a different experience.

The part of the book that I loved, however, was when the narrator was Sasha’s 11 year old daughter Alison, who told her story in a powerpoint journal.  The future sections of the book all showed technology gone incredibly annoying, but somehow this was a thought provoking blend of the visual and the written.  A few of the things she mentioned particularly struck a chord with me and I found a bit of a kindred spirit in both of these female characters.  This is, in part, a book about time, and these moments felt the least jaded and most hopeful to me.

The “What I’m Afraid Of” slide came after she had gone on the kind of long walk with her dad where the world seems incredibly far away.  This is what she is thinking as she walks back to their house.
page 299

My heart hurt in a way I can’t describe when I read this.  I remember having moments like this when I was little, but not having a way to express it: feeling, as a child that I would long for the moment I was standing in later as an adult, and feeling despair for the fact that it was impossible to hold on to it.  Alison’s voice as a character is different from the rest of the characters, possibly because she is youngest of all narrators, and possibly because what she imagines missing is so pure.  The other narrators, when they are older, miss the teenage and young adult years: the freedom and the hope of what it yet to come.  

“Mom’s Art” slide is where Alison tries to explain the art that her mom, Sasha (who the reader meets at the beginning of the book as a 30 year old women in therapy for kleptomania):

“She uses found objects, they come from our house and our lives, she glues them onto boards and shellacs them, she says they’re precious because they’re casual and meaningless, but they tell the whole story if you really look.”

This is an interesting fact to learn about Sasha: that she now “steals” objects that have no meaning to most people, but is able to find meaning in them, and that she seems able to create true meaning in her life.  As a reader, writer and sometimes poet, I love small details that feel meaningless to most people, but have a story underneath.  I think it’s significant that Egan uses the word shellacs–it sounds a bit like a desperate push to save something, or, an artistic way to create and remember the details that get forgotten among louder, bolder ones.

I’ve found myself telling others recently that maybe New York has finally gotten to me because I have felt really cynical about a lot of things lately.  This is not how I would ordinarily describe myself, so it has been interesting to find this creeping in on my psyche and seeing it play out in my life.  Reading this section reminded me that I am both nostalgic and sentimental; and rather than seeing those characteristics as sappy or weak, I think that they allow me to look at the big picture of beauty in life–and that is just what this part-time, temporary cynic needs.

Magical Thinking.

I mentioned a few posts ago that my reading life has been a bit full. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was reading and couldn’t put down Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I finished this book within 24 hours at 11:30 pm and proceeded to google Joan Didion, reading and thinking way too late well into the night. An account of her husband’s death and her story of grief and memory, it was the closest, most poignant description of loss I have ever come across. And though I cannot directly relate to her story, she tapped into the underlying inevitability of the human story: that though we are capable of extraordinary love, we must also live through love lost.

One of the most poignant aspects of this book for me was Didion’s intertextuality: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to literature.” She breathes in all sorts of texts to process, and all I could think about was how frail life is and how we need art and story and memory to hold onto, however impossible it is to hold it in our hands no matter how hard we, I, try.

Life is frail;
feeling slips through my fingers
and pools in the depth of my chest.
I am left grasping for the pages and the images and answers
I cannot hold in my hands.

I have found that the biggest contradiction in my life (which I think I can also find beautiful?) is my belief in Truth next to my need to process through the lens of postmodernism. I connected with Didion not on the subject matter of her memoir, but in the way that through multiple texts and words I am able to attempt to make sense of the world around me: it is not a solitary painting or song or poem or story, but the compilation of each experience…and the fact that it seems near impossible to name any singular emotion with exacting clarity. Life will not ever be interpreted, for me, in one long, linear string of events; there are far too many strings in my web of an existence, each pouring into my understanding in its own way.

When researching for the Ars Poetica project I gave some of my students, I came across these lines by Czeslaw Milosz:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.


The last aspect of The Year of Magical Thinking that I want to comment on is the title itself. Didion references throughout the memoir that she kept thinking that John, her husband, would be coming back. The phrase magical thinking is heartbreaking–because as children we truly can believe in it and as adults it seems that it only comes by way of self deception, and loses the hope that is attached. I suppose that this is where my understanding of Truth comes in, though this is not the post or the place in which to fully disclose my beliefs. But. I do believe that there is a place for magical thinking, though it is not directly connected to the reality of this world. And I sometimes think that we need the magic to survive, sometimes.

Lost and the Postmodern Hero?

As I’ve been studying the hero’s journey (see link in post below, think Star Wars or Lord of the Rings: a single character rises to the challenge of a quest set before him/her and goes through many trials in order to acheive that quest), I’ve been trying to think about how this relates to postmodern story telling ( Pre-postmodern literature often sees a quest for meaning in a chaotic world, where the postmodern rejects or parodies this singular quest. So my question is what does the post modern hero’s journey look like?

This question came about while watching Lost this week. All of the characters seem to be on their own “journey”–mentally, as well as the obvious physical one. However, there doesn’t seem to be one clear “hero” (despite the hero complexes that many of the characters portray). Each of the survivors on the island are facing individual “roads of trial,” emphasized by the flashbacks and flash-forwards.

The modernist side of my brain wants to make it all linear: that there is one “answer” for what is going on and that all of the characters stories weave together in a single, satisfying narrative strand. But as the episodes of this season progress, I find myself being frustrated at my inability to connect everything together. The postmodern side of my brain is loving the complexity of the empathy I feel for Ben and the vastness of Juliet’s motives. It is grappling with letting go of the desire to have one, clear answer that explains everything that has happened on the island.

It appears that there are multiple levels of “quests” that are happening and have happened on the island–they include high stakes conspiracies as well as individual odysseys. Do I need to let go of the dream that they are all intimately connected? Do I need to embrace this portrayal of the potential post modern hero? (Would all characters qualify as such?)

Well, after that potentially inarticulate rant, at the very least, Lost serves as a distraction to the things I actually need to accomplish today. Sigh.

How Postmodern Narration Makes Me a Better Person.

One of the most heartbreaking things in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” was all of the miscommunication between the characters in the story. One character doesn’t talk, but only writes. Other relationships literally go unfinished. Adults don’t trust children with their innermost thoughts nor children adults, even though both sides feel the resulting disconnect. And I suppose that disconnected really is the best way to describe it because lonesomeness is the only thing that can result, even if one is surrounded by people.

I realized how often this has run through my mind when I finished rereading “The Catcher in the Rye” about a month ago and when I started “Gilead” last weekend. Both of them have one narrator who tells the length of the story through his (in both cases) point of view. Therefore, the reader gets a thorough understanding of how he sees the world and the particular situation around him. And this is what I love about literature…the way I can get inside someone else’s head who doesn’t think the way I do.

If I look over my reading list from the past six months or so, many of the books I have read have abandoned the notion of having one narrator who tells the story through his or her eyes for multiple narrators who show different interpretations of the same events. It’s almost a trick for keeping the reader on his or her toes. It’s easy to cheer for the narrator when his or her opinion is the only one that you know—as the reader you often see the story with the same convictions and prejudices. The narrator’s heartbreaks and judgements become your own. But what about when you read multiple points of view? When you see two sides of a divorce? When you understand how both the child and the parent feels? When light is cast on a conflict you were convinced could only be seen one way?

It is almost as though you have this amazing moment of understanding because you realize that each pair of eyes interprets the world in its own way. All of a sudden you find yourself sympathizing with both sides of a conflict. The conflict becomes secondary to the hearts of the people, the faces, the hearts involved. An issue is no longer black and white.

This is an amazing challenge. This kind of reading forces me to consider people. People with individual stories. People with individual feelings. The more I think about it, this is the way that I want to look at the world. Change in any situation is not as likely to happen if you aren’t invested in the people. If I were to look at my students just as a group of 13 year old students, I would miss out on so much, and my teaching would show it. If I keep poverty and injustice as abstract concepts in the back of my mind, that’s all they will remain.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I love this postmodern take on narration and what it can do with my own thinking. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” deals with the aftermath of September 11th through the eyes of a child who lost his father, his grandmother and his estranged grandfather. Foer pulls the reader in a way that causes the heart to ache with empathy and poetic understanding of how individual people deal with an overwhelming amount of grief. Life almost becomes a little more whole as you take on someone else’s point of view for a while. This is true in real life, too. As far as the miscommunication and disconnect is concerned, the entire time I was reading I was almost shouting at the characters to tell the others about what was actually going on in their heads: “Look at one another and speak what is true! Listen for just a second! Ask him what’s actually going on! Tell him your heart!” Sigh. I always feel the most humbled when fictional characters shout the truth at me.

(Recommended books with multiple narrators: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, History of Love, Atonement, Inheritance of Loss, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter)