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Do You Feel It Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium

By N.N.A. Timmer


In the most ambitious literary fiction today, written by a generation born in the postmodern era (the 60s and 70s), we can detect an incentive to move beyond what is perceived as a debilitating way of framing what it means to be human: the postmodern perspective on subjectivity. Most notable in the work of this younger generation of writers is the emphatic expression of feelings and sentiments and a drive toward inter-subjective connection and communication. Their texts perform a complicit and complicated critique on certain aspects of postmodern subjectivity, especially on the perceived solipsistic quality of the subjective postmodern experience world, and envision possible reconfigurations of subjectivity that can no longer be framed as ‘postmodern’. A new, post-postmodern sense of self is becoming manifest in this fiction. This new sense of self can be characterized as relational. This new development in fiction writing is paralleled by a tendency in recent critical theory to ‘re-humanize’ subjectivity (as Rimmon-Kenan called it), which entails a move beyond the overly textual and deterministic, post-structural approaches to subjectivity of recent decades, toward a more inter-subjective concept of self. The new post-postmodern developments in fiction writing will be related to these critical renewals, especially to the concept of ‘relational humanism’ (coined by Kenneth Gergen). Postmodern thinking (and writing) still has a large influence over the way the self is presented in the post-postmodern novel, but highlighted are the problems caused by postmodern ways of constructing a meaningful story of the self. Close analyses of three contemporary experimental texts – Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000) by Dave Eggers, and House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Danielewski – provide insight in the ‘typical’ problems that the self experiences in postmodern cultural contexts. Three of such problems (‘symptoms’) are singled out and analyzed in depth: an inability to choose because of a lack of decision-making tools; a difficulty to situate or appropriate feelings; and a structural need for a ‘we’ (a desire for connectivity and sociality). To analyze the narrative construction of these fictional selves, and the problems that narrators and characters in these texts are experiencing, a new method of analysis is introduced that combines the insights of post-classical narratology and narrative psychology. Narrative psychology is a relatively new branch of psychology that conceptualizes the self as a narrative, a story. The focus is both on how the self-narrative is constructed and on what sense of self thus emerges. The methodology and conceptual framework of narrative psychology was developed for ‘real people’ but has also much to offer for the interpretation of fictional selves. It can offer a psychological approach to fictional selves that is neither naively essentialistic (the traditional mimetic reading of character, in search of ‘psychological depth’) nor overly deterministic (the purely textualist model of the self in post-structural theories)

Topics: Specialized histories (international relations, law), Literary theory, analysis and criticism, Culturele activiteiten, Overig maatschappelijk onderzoek
Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2008
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