New Approaches in the Post-Modern American Novel: Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan (Abstract)
William Thomas Hearron?
State University of New York, Buffalo
Since 1960, a new group of American fiction writers, (so termed because their work is both historically and esthetically posterior to the writers of the Modernist period) have been producing works that expressly repudiate the central tenets of Modernism. That is, whereas the Modernist believed that works of art could represent reality, both objective and subjective, the Post-Modernist feels that reality itself is so unknowable that any attempt to reduce it to fictional terms is absurd; and whereas the Modernist created his work to appeal only to the elite audience of the highly educated, the Post-Modernist tries to reach the popular audience with books that also can appeal to the elite. The Post-Modernist, then, attempts to link the two realms of High and Pop Art.
Representative of this movement, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan write books that are non-realistic and comic. Despite their break with the past, however, all three draw on the Existential literary tradition for the notion that the universe is, in the final analysis, incomprehensible to man. In their works there is a constant suggestion, not only that there is no organizing principle to human existence, but also that any artistic rendering of the external universe is necessarily circumscribed by the fact that the words embodying it are but human creations and hence can never be totally objective They also draw heavily on the American tradition of the non-realistic romance, dealing with escape from an oppressive urban civilization.
For Heller, the universe is so illogical, so inaccessible to human reason, that the faculty of rational deduction is powerless to understand or cope with it. As a consequence, the only characters suited to survive in such a universe are those who abandon logic altogether and live with absurdity as a guiding principle. Thus, since the universe is contradictory, the only language which can begin to express the nature of reality is either contradictory or tautological: language which, in essence, says nothing.
For Vonnegut?, not only is man totally unable to know the absolute truth about the universe (if indeed such truth exists) but also the partial truths that he can learn bring no comfort to his desire for order and purpose in his life. Accordingly, the role of the artist in his works is, not to attempt to tell the truth, but rather to tell harmless untruths, which occupy the ground between truth and lies. Foremost of these is that man is the epitome of all creations, the center of the universe: a harmless untruth that makes life more bearable by depicting man as being better than he really is.
For Brautigan, the only reality is that which is created through the power of language. To him the imagination is a magical faculty, endowed with the ability to transform, through the medium of language, the reality which contemporary man encounters. And since this reality is dominated by a vast, sprawling urban civilization which has virtually destroyed the actual wilderness in which such literary predecessors as Cooper and Twain? could find refuge, such a transformation is not only desirable. but also essential for survival in our age.
Dissertation Abstracts International? 34/06A