The Canadian Postmoder: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction
by Linda Hutcheon
Postmodernism, as I see it, is more paradoxical and problematic, as witnessed perhaps by the continuing debates on its definition. It both sets up and subverts the powers and conventions of art. It uses and abuses them in order to suggest that we question both the modernist autonomy and any realist notion of transparent reference. In other words, the postmodern novel is neither self-sufficiently art nor a simple mirror to or window onto the world outside. Yet in another sense, as we shall see, it exploits the power of both concepts of the function of art.
I'm both excited and nervous about saying this, but I think I finally get postmodernity. And, since my master's thesis focused on postmodern novels (though not on their postmodernity in and of itself), I'm embarrassed to make this discovery after year one of my Ph.D. But, all of that just goes to show that Hutcheon's text is a book I should have read years ago, and as much as it was a bit of an intellectual decathalon to get through it, I'm pleased to have done so.
Hutcheon's basic premise is to lay out the characteristics of postmodern fiction and to explore the ways Canadian novels from the 70s and 80s (especially) embody these ideas. She also touches on issues like the prominence of female writing in this period (something I was once-upon-a-time-ago going to do my doctoral thesis on) and its connection to the postmodern.
Postmodernism, to Hutcheon's eye, represents a loss of faith in the realist narrative tradition in Canada. Realist fiction is an act of mimesis -- the real exists somewhere "out there," and the book is an approximation of the so-called "real." This draws a distinct line between what is real and what is fiction. Also, realism asserts that there are certain "universal truths," but postmodernism tries to question the ground those truths rely on. There is no "universal" because "universal" has traditionally really meant white, male, central Canadian, heterosexual, and so on. This separation is one of the key things postmodern fiction teases and plays with, through the use of historical documents, autobiography, and through the narrator-as-character / narrator-as-reader-proxy, where the narrator (or occasionally, other figure) is granted the opportunity to interact with the reader of the novel and with the text itself.
Indeed, for Hutcheon, that is what seperates the postmodern from the modern: postmodern fiction demands a reader work hard. The reader makes the meaning in a postmodern novel, rather than the author leading the reader to a predetermined point. This isn't to say that the author doesn't construct a story, but more that the reader is left to put the pieces together in the end. Rather than a predetermined conclusion, the reader's own connections are equally important to "plot."
Hutcheon quotes Susan Swan, who wrote, "To be from Canada is to feel as women feel -- cut off from the base of power." This, Hutcheon suggests, is why postmodern literature has been so embraced by Canadian writers. Just as women sought to interrogate male-created universals, Canadian writers have sought to interrogate American- and British-created universals. Hutcheon argues that Canadians are not baggage-less, as some have argued, but instead the baggage is different, and as we have learned to address our own history through narratives we are learning also to interrogate our own assumptions and our own "universals." This historic powerlessness, also, has made Canada a more welcoming place for women writers to assert their own challenges to expected norms, because Canada as a whole is doing the same thing.
In its metafiction and self-referentiality, however, Canadian writing does not deny the realist tradition. Instead, through the use of parody, it tends to poke fun at the assertions of universality inherent to realism, without abandoning the form entirely. Nor is the narrative denied because, as Jameson has argued, narrative is the way humans make sense of the world. Instead, Canadian writing subverts from within rather than from without, to try to better a tradition rather than upend it.