Whatever happened to postmodernism? Once, it looked like the future of fiction. The first wave of postmodern novelists in the 1970s, like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, were brilliant, but could run cold. Their heirs in the 1990s produced dense novels that diagrammed the world’s vast systems while also portraying the living, breathing humans caught within them. David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen stood at the forefront of this movement; others included Mark Leyner, Rick Moody, and a young George Saunders. These names were everywhere, and their descendants, one assumed, would be legion. That has not been the case.
It’s not hard to understand why. Every writer mentioned in the paragraph above is a straight white male, and the postmodern novel is often regarded as a form by and for that demographic. There is some accuracy to this observation: most survey courses in postmodern fiction tend to skew pale and male. But this fact can prevent people from recognizing the possibilities of postmodern fiction’s future. A number of writers today, emerging as well as established, are grappling with the influence of postmodernism. But none of them are white men, and so this influence often remains unnoticed. “All postmodern writers are white men; therefore, writers who are not white men cannot be postmodern,” the reasoning, such as it is, seems to go.
Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner, mid-career writers, extend the postmodern obsession with systems and secrets into the experiences of women. Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is the story of two women, both filmmakers, in a push-pull friendship of ambition and jealousy. Kushner’s The Mars Room depicts a women’s prison not unlike the way Wallace’s Infinite Jest depicts a tennis academy: as a microcosm of control and coercion, shaping every aspect of its occupants’ lives. Non-white novelists are looking to the postmodern playbook as well. Call Me Zebra by Iranian-American Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi is a riotous labyrinth of literary allusions about a young woman fleeing war-torn Iran, while the Korean-American Tracy O’Neill’s The Quotients describes the finance and surveillance industries with the obsessive questing of early DeLillo. It turns out that an era of systemic failure is well-suited for the postmodern-systems novel.
Chief among these contemporary inheritors of postmodernism is Hari Kunzru. Born in London to an Indian father and a British mother, and now living in the United States, Kunzru has been writing novels for almost twenty years, mixing and matching literary techniques with genre conventions. In 2017, he published White Tears, one of the finest novels of the decade. The novel follows Seth, an audio engineer in Brooklyn who produces records for hipster musicians looking to capture an authentic vintage sound—with “authentic” referring to blues music performed by Black artists in the early twentieth century. Seth is walking around Brooklyn one day, recording street sounds for his audio library, when he inadvertently records a busker performing a blues song. Seth can’t remember hearing the song, but there it is, on the recording. Tracing the origins of the song leads Seth into a nightmarish journey of murder, ghosts, cultural appropriation, and the prison-industrial complex.