THE Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature is surely one of the least postmodern books that has ever been produced on the topic of postmodernism, and it is all the more original and useful as a result. The volume’s austere grey and black book jacket will be as familiar to readers of other instalments in the Cambridge Histories series as the scholarly rigour and historical precision to be found between the covers. The aim of this collection, in no uncertain terms, is to ‘historicize postmodernism’ (11). Brian McHale’s and Len Platt’s argument is that ‘histories of the postmodern [are] entirely viable’ (4) despite the fact that numerous theorists associated with postmodernism, such as Fredric Jameson and Hayden White, have ‘had issues with historiography’ (1). ‘Enough time has elapsed’, the editors declare in their General Introduction to the collection, ‘for us to be able to discern more of the internal articulation of the “postmodern era”—its successive moments or phases’ (4) and to examine ‘the relationship between [postmodern] cultural practice and the broader politics of the period’ (12). The Cambridge History is structured chronologically according to these ‘successive moments’. Its twenty-nine chapters are divided into four sections—Part I Postmodernism before Postmodernity?; Part II The Long Sixties, 1954–1975; Part III The Major Phase: Peak Postmodernism, 1973–1991; Part IV Interregnum, 1989–2001—each of which begins with a brief historical introduction provided by one or both of the editors. This clear and convincingly explained structure underpins a comprehensive exploration of postmodern literature and culture that is, for the most part, historically detailed and analytically nuanced. By rigorously historicizing postmodernism, The Cambridge History fundamentally re-examines and complicates numerous critical orthodoxies or assumptions about the ‘postmodern era’. First and foremost of these is the issue of where, when, how, and why the term postmodern (or post-modern) arose. Theo D’haen’s chapter early on in the collection provides a helpful genealogy of the term by moving between Latin American, European, and US contexts. Randall Stevenson’s chapter on the French nouveau roman complements D’haen’s by examining in detail the literary exchanges that took place between French, English, Irish, and US writers in the 1950s–1960s. In so doing, Stevenson builds towards the interesting and original claim that ‘the pace at which postmoderist phases of writing appeared was directly related to their authors’ proximity to immediate experience of the Second World War’ (139). At the other end of the historical scale, a number of contributors tackle the vexed issue of the ending of postmodernism and the apparent arrival of ‘post-postmodernism’. Stephen J. Burn argues convincingly that ‘there is a tangible difference between first- and second-generation postmoderns’ (452). The second generation, which includes writers such as David Foster Wallace and Jennifer Egan rather than Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, is conscious of the need to push beyond postmodernism, even if its members are unable to enact that ‘movement away from their ancestors’ (452). For Andrew Hoberek, writing in the epilogue to the collection, the ‘post-apocalypse’ has become the ‘generic template for … post-postmodernism’ (499). Hoberek argues that ‘the banking collapse’ of 2008 (509), to a greater extent than the oft-cited events of 11 September 2001, has provoked writers to move away from an interest in the conditions of postmodernism and towards ‘the conditions of inequality and privatization central to a triumphant neoliberalism’ (500). One of the most refreshing features of this collection, as the examples above suggest, is its abandonment of the impenetrably abstract and faddish language of much postmodern criticism and theory. The majority of contributors write in clear and accessible prose, even as they address theoretically sophisticated topics ranging from the relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism to the neoliberal rise of critical theory. However, there are, unfortunately, a number of stylistic lapses. Christian Moraru’s chapter is plagued by phrases such as ‘how the world qua world “is”’ (480) and James Braxton Peterson ends his with the statement: ‘Hip-hop may in some ways be more postmodern than postmodernism itself’ (395). In striving towards comprehensive coverage, The Cambridge History runs into a number of other issues. The inclusion of chapters on visual arts, cinema, music, etc. is, to some degree, a strength of the collection, but the attempt to cover these art forms in one or two chapters means that some of contributors feel compelled to pack too much in. Frazer Ward’s chapter on the art market, for instance, moves from abstract expressionism and Pop art through to ‘the revival of painting’ and the tragedy of HIV/AIDS in just ten pages. The collection’s attempt to globalize postmodernism is blighted by a similar problem. Again, extending the remit of postmodernism beyond Anglo-American or Western contexts is to be welcomed, but the chapters on postmodern Japan and postmodern China try to survey an excessive amount of literary, cultural, and historical material. They also seem to present Asian postmodernism as a belated response to American postmodernism, thereby reproducing a centre–periphery model of cultural influence and development. Despite these issues, the overall achievement of McHale’s and Platt’s collection is its much-needed historicization of postmodernism. This will make it more difficult, one hopes, for critics and students alike to deploy the term in such conceptually vague and historically imprecise ways. Postmodernism, when viewed as something that is specific to an historical period (a period with distinct subdivisions), can then become useful again as a way of thinking about dominant trends in post-war literature and culture. The Cambridge History not only clarifies how writers and theorists at different times and in different places formulated and responded to ideas of the postmodern, but also helps to elucidate how the postmodern was distinct from the period that preceded it and the one that proceeds from it. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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