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Mark your calender and warm up your typing fingers - Monday, January 26 will mark our first ever Novel Matters Round Table discussion. On that day all seven of us will discuss that burning question: What do we really like in stories, that we would like to see more of? We'll post our zany ideas, and we want to hear from YOU! Join the Novel Matters round table, we're saving you a seat!
Post Modern Christian Literature?
Post modern literature is making an impact in the world of Christian publishing. Interestingly, its influence is seen most often in Christina non-fiction than fiction. Brian McLaren’s pushing and pulling, Donald Miller’s meandering phrases, Rob Bell’s distracting formatting, they all lean toward the post modern approach to writing – at least in attitude, titling, and packaging (content? Not so much, save Miller’s stream of consciousness style that, even though he and Billy Graham could wear each other’s theological hats, has ruffled conservative feathers. Funny how the way you say something can carry more punch than what you say – ah, but this is what the post modern book does.).
So, where are the post-modern CBA books? On their way, I suspect. But there is work to be done. First up? Discussing the meaning of post-modern literature. What is it? How would I recognize it? So glad you asked.
With post-modernity, one thing springs to mind – academics pounding lecterns in universities everywhere, hollering, “There are NO absolutes.” This bothers Christians. They holler, “God is absolute.” I took a university English course a number of years ago and our professor had stated those same passionate words with the ardor of a lover. Until I raised my hand and pointed out that when he says, “There are no absolutes”, he is, in fact, postulating an absolute. I said, “Maybe what you mean to say is, “There are no OTHER absolutes.” Poor man was left stuttering. Quit teaching after that. Went back to Ontario to do post-doctorate work.
Happily, we can dispense with that bothersome thorn in our understanding of post-modern literature. We can get over it - so to speak. So, what is post-modern lit?
Volumes have been filled discussing that question, but we can skim the surface by looking at two aspects that shine in post modern lit.
One is self-consciousness. Another is deconstruction.
The self-conscious (or self-aware) novel
The post-modern author will slid into the seat next to you, give you a sly wink and say, “Hey, we both know it’s a book. Let’s stop pretending.”
Let’s look at Yann Martel’s fantastic book Life of Pi. It opens with an “Author’s Note” – the story of how the story came into being. A book gone bad, a trip to India. But we, the readers, know it’s just a tale. He tells us the story was told to him by Pi himself – but, of course it wasn’t - not really. Naturally this as-told-to story is written in first person. (see, isn’t this fun? It’s a book, you know, with words that can do anything we want them to do!)
Martel, or the author, or the narrator, warns us on the first page that “A story set in Portugal in 1939 may have very little to do with Portugal in 1939.” But of course Life of Pi is a story set in India. The book is divided, very roughly, into thirds. The first third of the book is a “telling” (My oh my, so very little “showing” ) of how Pi became a devout follower of three religions. Impossible? Ah, well, they’re only words on a page, no? The narrative flows back and forth from present to past, then to the further past and back to present.
Then comes Pi’s terrible adventure in the middle of the book. Here are great gobs of “showing” details, oh the agony of the details as one by one his beloved ideologies are carved off his bones in the name of survival (there is a tiger in the boat, after all – but, of course there isn’t really, not really. Well, maybe. Do you think there is a tiger in the boat?).
The last third of the book is written loosely in the format of a screen play using different fonts for different characters. At least some of it is. And this is where Pi, or the author, or Yann Martel, explains what the book was really all about. Except he never says what the book is really all about – because you dear reader *wink* already know.
With each step, even as you become immersed in the story, bathed in the adventure, you are being made aware this is a book you hold – you know it, I know it, we all know it. Isn’t it grand?
The deconstructed novel
The goal of the deconstructed novel is not to destroy the form of the novel, but to examine it, pull out parts and see how the whole thing runs without them. And then to pose questions. How many cues do we really need? What is it to be understood? How can we change the way we say things and still be understood.
To treat the page itself as an art form – the arrangement of words as a communication.
The first thing to go in a deconstructed novel, often enough, is those pesky quotation marks, you know the ones, they tell you when someone is speaking. “Buzz off,” Michael said to the quotation marks. Sometimes they are subsituted. Replaced by the dash, as Michael Ondaatje did with In the Skin of a Lion.
-There was no record kept.
- Turn off the light.
- Turn you light off.
Or, perhaps they are ignored entirely as the same author did in his fantastic memoir Running in the Family. Here, Ondaatje opts to deconstruct the story by creating the work in a series of paragraphs. Each paragraph belongs to the actions and words of one character (actually it's better than that because much of the action is confined to the dialogue - making the story snap with virve). New paragraph, a different character’s actions and dialogue (except of course for the last bit of the story which is a telling by the author of how the whole thing wound up – because exceptions prove the rule, right?) Watch how he does it:
Wait a minute, wait a minute! When did all this happen, I’m trying to get I straight. . .
Your mother was nine, Hilden was there, and your grandmother Lalla and David Grenier and his wife Dickie.
How old was Hilden?
Oh, in his early twenties.
But Hilden was having dinner with my mother and you.
Confused? Not in the least. Able to follow the conversation? Naturally! Now tell me, did you have a little picture in your head – forming, people around a table maybe? Chatting away, a family gathering to sort out the business of familiar lore?
Of course there is much more going on here than just dropping some punctuation.
Naturally, there are vats and vats left to say about what the post-modern novel is, what it accomplishes, and how it influences literature in general. But today is just a taste. I hope you enjoyed the morsel. Hope it’s enough to get us thinking about the nature of our work – the norms by which we write, format, assume, and type.
The story is art, but so is the text – it is visual, rich, bizarre.
Challenge yourself to read widely - and to study the form of the novels you read. Your time is an investment that will pay in your work.