Global North’s 21st Century Literatures

In this post, we will cover recent developments in European and Anglo-American fiction as specimens of literary work from the Global North. Although contemporary European and American fictionists have turned to experimental, new, or alternative forms or modes associated with postmodernism (e.g., metafiction), realism is able to maintain its solid footing well into the 21st century. “Realism,” like “representation,” has become over time so much a part of our general vocabulary that both have acquired commonsensical meanings.

“Realism” denotes a lifelike, immediate quality while “representation” simply means a “re-creation,” a “rendering” as when a painter captures a subject “realistically” in an oil portrait. Given these definitions, it would be easy and acceptable to associate one with the other. Realism seems to be the most spontaneous and honest kind of representation. If the point of representation is to reflect objects without change or distortion, then realism is, in essence, the most effective type of representation.

Realism, it is said, depicts the “real world,” fidelity to the setting, and the widest possible scope of social life. Thug, realist stories are concerned with capturing every day in all its minute details. In classical realist works, the narrator is omniscient since this point of view, like the finest net, best catches details of plot and character that the story ultimately becomes synonymous with reality. Realism’s rigorous attention to detail extends to a thoroughgoing exploration of individual psychologies and relationships within a given social structure.

It is useful to remember that for all its compelling claims to verisimilitude, realism is only a set of conventions that offer one possible way of conceiving “reality,” itself a thorny concept. One can consider, for instance, which aspects of the experience might be referred to as “real,” as opposed to those which are not. Is experience only “real” when it assumes the form of an event or action—say an accident, a telephone call, driving to work, or embracing a loved one? Can our thoughts, dreams, fantasies—presumably nonobjective dimensions of our experience—be as real?

New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield employs stream of consciousness in her story “Miss Brill” (1920). Below is an excerpt:

Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardin Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again, a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. “What has been happening to me?” said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown! … But the nose which was of some black composition, wasn’t at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind—a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary … Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. 

Postmodernism, as an aesthetic, reworked a host of themes and strategies that allowed writers to engage representation in a manner different from the verisimilitude that was assumed by realism. More technically, postmodernism is the cultural dynamic of a period designated as postmodernity. Postmodernity is said to have emerged in the period after the Second World War when society came to rely, in an unprecedented degree, on technology, consumer culture, media, and images. Unlike society many years ago, we cannot imagine our lives now without mobile phones, shopping malls, MTV, and Facebook.

One consequence of our dependence on technology and media is that we have become estranged from those aspects of life we might have once considered as real or authentic. French critic Jean Baudrillard, in describing how representation had replaced reality, coins the term “simulacra” to refer to “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (1994, 1). We live in the hyperreal when we “experience” how other people live when we watch TV and converse with people we haven’t met through e-mail or in chatrooms. Although we enjoy or derive pleasure from such habitual practices, what is ultimately compromised is our capacity to distinguish reality from its copy or representation.

As a mode or representation, postmodernism captures this sense of disorientation owing to the extent by which images have dislodged or dissimulated reality. If modernism, a literary movement that preceded postmodernism, already problematized the notion of an objective reality, which remains constant and permanent regardless of how it is perceived (e.g., “Miss Brill”) through its device of stream of consciousness, postmodernism signifies a further breakdown of the boundary between the external world and individual consciousness. 

Apart from a skeptical mindset about reality, postmodern writers also question the notion of the self (you, me, author, character, reader) as a source of meaning. Our relentless exposure to media, e.g., reality TV shows, movies, blogs, and other texts like literature and advertisements, they claim, has made us more predisposed to internalizing the scripts that we watch or read to the point that our encounter with what is “fictive” induces the same feeling or sentiment that one reserves for an actual event or moment. When we talk as a means of self-expression, we, whether consciously or unconsciously, mime or repeat something from a novel that we’ve read or a movie we’ve seen which goes beyond any simple gesture of “relating with the character.” Or more uncannily, we derive a sense of self, what makes us unique, from a narrative of images.

American fictionist Don DeLillo’s short story “The Starveling” (2011), from his collection The Angel Esmeralda, narrates the patchy existence of Leo Zhelezniak, a middle-aged retiree living in New York, who spends the whole day every day watching movies. In the beginning of the story, we are introduced to the bare appearance of Leo’s studio apartment: “single window, shower, hot plate, a squat refrigerator parked in the bathroom, a makeshift closet for scant possessions,” which is a symbol of the character’s hollow identity. Like the setting which is described as meditative in its “uneventfulness,” Leo quietly takes in the fact that the lamp is burning unperturbed, deigning only to comment that its likely cause is “faulty wiring.” Leo notices the undergarment of his ex-wife Flory, who still lives with him, that had been hanging on the doorknob for quite some time and observes that a life had seemingly sprung around it. While objects assume a life, Leo and occasionally Flory are merely eking theirs out. For instance, Leo’s manner of eating is described as mechanical: “he didn’t eat, he grabbed meals, he grabbed a bite and paid and fled, and the aftertaste of whatever he absorbed lingered for hours somewhere in his lower tracts.” Moreover, like his name which took some time before he came to possess it, this manner of eating is not even his but is instead inherited from his father. As tellingly, Flory, who freelances as a broadcast announcer, seems more powerful and alive to Leo when he hears her disembodied voice on the radio. 

This absence of a motive and hence a clear identity reaches a climactic point when Leo watches movies, a habit which is less a hobby than a vague compunction. Flory, in straining for an explanation for Leo’s habit, offers the central enigma of the story: “Was he at the movies to see a movie … or more essentially, simply to be at the movies?” Note the following passages:

He paid careful attention to rain in movies. In fo
reign films, set in northern or Eastern Europe, it seemed, sometimes, to be raining God or raining death.

Sometimes, also, he imagined himself being foreign, walk-ing stooped and unshaven along the sides of buildings, although he didn’t know why this seemed foreign. He could see himself in another life, some nameless city in Belarus or Romania … He saw himself walking past cafes in black-and-white cities, with trolley cars going past, and lipsticked women in pretty dresses. These visions would fade in seconds but in a curious way, a serious way, they had a density of a life compressed.

The chain of thoughts—from Leo’s description of the rain in European movies as portentous to his projection of himself in a montage of movie scenes—reveal how the celluloid world has become more palpable and real than Leo’s actual one. This central insight in the story echoes a truism which Leo recalls from philosophy class that “existence is a trick of light.”

When Leo meets the titular character, a fellow movie devotee, he stalks her on the commute to the cinema while speculating on her habits, circumstances, and other personal details in an attempt to give her a name (“anorexic” and “starveling”) and a substance. Thrilled by ,c the prospect of a real contact—an encounter with “a true soul” who might understand him—Leo follows her to the ladies bathroom after the movie they’ve seen had ended and, in incoherent jumble of words, explains his reason for intruding on her, his past, and his fascination with movies to her. 

The faucets in the men’s toilets aren’t working … I came in here to wash my hands … I keep thinking of a Japanese movie I saw about ten years ago. It was sepia tone, like grayish brown, three and a half hours plus, an afternoon screening in Times Square, theater gone now, and I can’t remember the title of the movie … Something happened to my memory somewhere along the way … I used to know everything about every movie I ever saw but it’s all fading away. It embarrasses me to say three and a half hours. I should be talking about minutes, the exact number of minutes that make up the running time.”

After this monologue, the starveling grabs her bag and steps out of the washroom in a flash. Leo feels like crumbling when she leaves, but he manages to proceed as if nothing significant had happened.

But he remained where he was, standing. He turned toward the washbasin and stared into it for a time. He ran the water and tapped the soap dispenser, washing his hands thoroughly and methodically, as if to comply with regulations. He paused again, remembering what came next, and then reached for a paper towel, and another, and one more.

Back in the apartment, Leo glimpses Flory’s figure in a yoga position in the semi-dark room and her “stillness and balance” strikes him as meaningful, evoking a “history” as if she was showing something of her “truth” and “depth.”

Recommended readings for this lesson are a short story and a novel, both with storytellers as main characters. Read Czech-born author Milan Kundera’s story “The Apologizer” and English novelist Ian McEwan’s Brooker Prize-nominated novel Atonement.

Answer the following questions based on “The Apologizer.”

  1. The story opens with Alain, the main character, contemplating the female navel which, he observes, is the most erotic part of a woman’s body if one were to follow the current opinion of “a man or this era.” He recalls that the eroticism or the seductive power of the female body has a history: before the navel, there were the thighs, the buttocks, and the breast. In Alain’s explanation, how are these objects-symbols that have represented the female in our culture?
  2. There are two plots in Kundera’s story: one revolves around the circumstances of Alain’s life while the other is a “fairy tale” which Alain himself writes. Why does Alain invent a back story about his mother? Why does the mother call it a “fairy tale” despite its gruesome plot?
  3. In the fairy tale, Alain’s pregnant mother attempted to kill herself (and Alain) by jumping in the river but was thwarted, in a way, by the efforts of a boy who wanted to rescue her. In a strange turn of events, Alain’s mother drowns the boy because he had opposed her “will” to die. Afterward, going back to her car and having lost the desire to commit suicide, she muses that life had killed her determination. How does “Eve’s Tree,” the second part of the fairy tale, provide a rationale for the mother’s actions? Does Eve’s story make the mother a more sympathetic character?
  4. While Alain is preoccupied with the fictive memory of his mother, a girl, a fellow pedestrian, slams into his shoulder to which he quickly offers an apology. Two days later but still in pain, he reproaches himself for apologizing to the girl, whom he recalls was at fault as well. What general observation about life or worldview does Alain draw from this?
  5. “Eve’s Tree” is a retelling of the biblical myth. How is Eve in Alain’s story different from her original counterpart? What different sentiment about the navel as an erotic object does the retelling provoke? As an instance of myth, in what way does Alain’s retelling explain the relationship and/or inequality between the sexes?

Read Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001) and write a paper that examines the following concerns:

  1. To what extent is the novel realistic? Which chapters are postmodern?
  2. What dynamic between realist and postmodern representations can we infer from the novel?
  3. Like Alain in “The Apologizer,” the main character (Briony Tallis) in Atonement is a writer. Compare and contrast the significance of authorship in the two works.