Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Post-Modern Puzzle of Good Writing & Literature.

Post-modern ...

It's just a word that sounds cool. And many literary types wish they could appreciate post-modernism, even if they can't. Every one talks about Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and often it's just to note how little of it they've read. For example, "I've tried to read it, but only got to page 47 ..." And, I am about to begin the post-modern discussion of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried with my AP Lang juniors. They are always a bit blown away by the creative blending of fiction and reality. And, the book is accessible enough that they aren't scared of like young readers are of Pynchon. So, that's what makes Lenika Cruz's recent essay for The Atlantic about "Post-Modernism - for Kids" so cool. Cruz takes a look at the children's classic "Lemony Snicket" Series of Unfortunate Events and argues that what made it so popular and engaging for kids is the same literary qualities that make Post-Modernism such a complex and engaging challenge for adults.

In college, I encountered postmodern novels including Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…, Don Delillo’s White Noise, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. My professors presented them as works that were radical, at least in their day. But to me the tone and techniques they deployed felt familiar and somehow comforting. For an example of postmodern hallmarks—such as metafiction, the unreliable narrator, irony, black humor, self-reference, maximalism, and paranoia—look no further than this excerpt from the seventh Unfortunate Events book, The Ersatz Elevator.
And that made me think about the idea of literature as a puzzle. According to writer Peter Turchi, literature is "a puzzling experience." In his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as a Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic, Turchi examines and seeks to explain the "puzzle of the written word" as he explains the origins and significance of puzzles and similar mind games in society. Jigsaw puzzles have fascinated us for centuries, and they continue to sell well even in the era of digital media and X-box. In exploring the history of puzzles and games, Turchi explores the medium of narrative writing and wonders about the puzzling nature of stories. His basic explanation is that "all writers are puzzle makers," as they carefully construct and slowly reveal a complete portrait of an idea over the course of many pages. It's a fascinating way to look at literature and worth considering as we craft lessons for readers.

In a footnote I’d like to see appended to every article on Y.A. and every other B.S. genre browbeating, Turchi writes: “Is Toni Morrison’s Beloveda ghost story? Is Wuthering Heights a romance novel? Is Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a western? … Outside of publishers’ sales meetings, when is it necessary or useful to attach labels to books?

The analysis of literature, or simply the enjoyment of a well crafted tale, is really about appreciating the puzzling craft of narrative. So many disparate parts come together to create the ultimate paragraph, and for a reader, it's as gratifying to read that last sentence as it is to place that final jigsaw. Each moment brings not only satisfaction, but also understanding.

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