RECOMMENDED FOR READING
Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy
Book by Lance Olsen; Greenwood Press, 1987
Prelude: Nameless Things and Thingless Names
Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names. Beckett ( Molloy, 31)
Suggesting that what Alain Robbe-Grillet somewhat misleadingly calls the Balzacian mode of fiction (a mode primarily interested in content; the communal; the psychological; the chronological; the fully rounded character; the mimetic--a mode, in other words, firmly grounded in "the world") is dead seems a little like suggesting there are no such things as UFOs. As much as one would like to believe or not in such charming and marvelous ideas, the fact remains that the National Enquirer and the U.S. Air Force report and catalog sightings continually. Competent writers working under realist, naturalist, and even modernist assumptions are presently alive, well, popular, and often financially successful, and their fiction, as Fredric Jameson points out, "persuades us in a concrete fashion that human actions, human life is somehow a complete, interlocking whole, a single, formed, meaningful substance. . . . Our satisfaction with the completeness of plot is therefore a kind of satisfaction with society as well" But alongside these modes, roughly since the 1940's, what has come for better or worse to be called postmodernism has surfaced. This mode of discourse agrees with Robbe-Grillet that such previous composition is reactionary, "no longer anything but an empty formula, serving only as the basis for tiresome parodies" ( For a New Novel, 135). For him, "the novel of characters belongs entirely to the past, it describes a period: that which marked the apogee of the individual" ( 28 ); "the old myths of 'depth'" ( 23 ) are useless for describing mankind's current conception of self; the ideas of communal time and space and "reality" are fictions; and the universe "is neither significant nor absurd" ( 19 ).
In his well-known essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion," John Barth furthers this notion by suggesting that contemporary culture has entered into a state of "used-upness of certain forms or exhaustion of certain possibilities" ( 29 ). Just as "Beethoven's Sixth Symphony or the Chartres Cathedral if executed today would be merely embarrassing," he continues, so is the "turn-of-thecentury-type" novel simply written "in more or less mid-twentieth-century language." In fact, "to be technically out of date is likely to be a serious defect" since "art and its forms and techniques live in history" ( 30 ) and so must change to reflect changes in historical consciousness. Rewriting the nineteenthand early twentieth-century novel as our civilization swings into the last few years before the twenty-first reduces one to producing banal imitations, the argument goes. But "'the literature of exhausted possibility--or, more chicly, 'the literature of exhaustion'" is "by no means necessarily a cause for despair" ( 29 ) because it frees one up to search for new strategies or, more precisely, new combinations of old strategies. One strategy that has been employed frequently by postmodern literature as a way to liberate its imagination from the realist, naturalist, and modernist modes of fiction is the fantastic. A mode that has been around since The Epic of Gilgamesh, which has been used for a variety of purposes (didactic, escapist, and so on), and which has often been considered a relatively minor genre, now fantasy has begun to compete with the Balzacian mode as the dominant form of fiction. Jean Kennard has gone so far as to argue that fantasy techniques "most of all characterize contemporary fiction. . . . [I]ndeed in the 1960s they became the rule rather than the exception" ( 10 - 11 ).
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| The result, as we shall see, is the creation of a particularly suitable vehicle for the postmodern imagination since contemporary fantasy may be thought of as the literary equivalent of deconstructionism. It is a mode which interrogates all we take for granted about language and experience, giving these no more than shifting and provisional status. It is a mode of radical skepticism that believes only in the impossibility of total intelligibility; in the endless displacement of "meaning"; in the production of a universe without "truth"; in a bottomless relativity of "significance." Before examining these assertions more closely, I should like to emphasize that just as every narrative strategy suggests a metaphysical one so, too, does every critical strategy. Through this optic, every piece of criticism becomes as well a piece of spiritual autobiography. What I should like to underscore about my own is that it is not an apology for postmodern fantasy, but a description of it. In fact, many of the critical strategies I employ--the notions of genre, history, and psychology, for instance--are in direct opposition to the deconstructive impulse of postmodern fantasy. This essay shall not use deconstructive principles in its attempt to make the texts and the ideas it discusses more interesting and enjoyable (the end, it seems to me, of any piece of criticism), but it does create a dialogue with them in order to illuminate their presence.
At the same time, I should like to point out that at the heart of both deconstructivist orthodoxy and postmodern fantasy is a deep ambivalence with their own premises, an oscillation at least and a contradiction at most between their affirmation resulting in their philosophical commitment to the freeplay that leads to a deconstruction of self and world, and their nostalgia and commitment to the self that leads to a dread of pure freedom and a dream of some kind of limits (see Caramello Silverless Mirrors). After all, a Derrida or Beckett who literally believed in the deconstructive turn, who literally believed in the dissolution of self, world, and language, would be philosophically obliged to stop writing and hence stop signing his name into the world of publication. Yet each continues to generate a self that is nearly impossible to confuse with any other self, and to generate that self through language into the bookstores and libraries of a very tangible and often financially successful universe. That is not, however, to dismiss out of hand a narrative and metaphysical swerve in the last forty years or so that has placed our culture and the civilization that has preceded it under a radical interrogation that challenges all the premises of our humanist tradition. These strategies place in brackets what in Western culture we have considered our essence, and for us to continue in the humanist tradition we must confront and incorporate this examination. We must learn from it. But before we do, we must understand it.
To this point, I have been using postmodernism and fantasy as though they were critically accepted terms about whose meaning most people would agree. Nothing could be less true. To present these notions as a settled body of ideas would be to lay myself open to charges of reductive misunderstanding. In fact, to present the ideas of concept and periodization without a handful of caveats would be critically naive. At best these are aesthetically pleasing patterns, kinds of shorthand by which critics refer to a number of discrete works which viewed from another perspective may admit innumerable exceptions and contradictions. We would be much more to the point if we kept in mind that, if at all, we should talk about postmodernisms and fantasies, just as it would be wise to speak of realisms, impressionisms, and so forth. A narrative that discusses such abstractions must, as Jameson indicates, "like all narrative . . . gen-