In the epilogue to the 2002 reprint of her influential study The Politics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon remarks that "the postmodern may well be a twentieth-century phenomenon, that is, a thing of the past. Now fully institutionalized, it has its canonized texts, its anthologies, primers and readers, its dictionaries and its histories" (165). Hutcheon's claim about the pastness of postmodernism has gained support in the years since she made it, as a body of criticism has emerged which takes a determinedly revisionist and historicist perspective on many of the canonical postmodernist texts to which she alludes. Novels such as Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Don DeLillo's White Noise (1985), now monuments in the American postmodern landscape, have produced a spate of recent readings in this vein. Aspects of these texts that can seem peripheral on a first reading--such as the role of Mexico in Pynchon's novel, or the impact of the Vietnamese and Iranian conflicts in DeLillo's--have been alighted upon as offering an underappreciated historical situatedness to the poetics of postmodernism. (1) In addition, the previously submerged role played by various institutions and class interests in the historical formation of postmodernist styles and forms has become the focus of important interventions in the field. (2) Much of this critical work retains the analytic and taxonomic category of the postmodern, even as the accepted dominance in the texts being read of traditionally postmodern themes and aesthetics is often questioned (whether from a descriptive or political viewpoint). (3) In other work, "postmodernism" itself is undermined as a useful critical designation, in favor of terms such as "long modernism" or "technomodernism." (4) In her short essay "On the Period Formerly Known as Contemporary," something of a manifesto for the recently-formed Post-45 group of literary critics who are carrying out much of the work cited above, Amy Hungerford remarks on "the solid dominance of historicism" that informs contemporary critical practice, a dominance that "now scents less a critical movement than a simple assumption about literary-critical work," best figured as "not a wave but a tide, or even just the water we all swim in" (416). And it seems that what we can term the new postmodernist studies has been firmly constituted by this historicist turn, which reacts against the "disabling commitment to theory" that marked the work of scholars of a previous generation. (5)
At the same time as this revisionist work on postmodernism has begun to emerge, another prominent critical trend has seen a burgeoning interest in the fiction of a younger generation of American literary writers, those who are taken to follow "in the wake of postmodernism's waning influence" (Hoberek, "Introduction" 233). Whether, in classifying the fiction that began to sui face in the late 1980s and 1990s and has continued into the new millennium, critics favor "hybrid fiction" (Grassian), "American literary globalism" (Adams), "cosmodernism" (Moraru), "late postmodernism" (Green) or "post-postmodernism" (Burn), it is clear that the narrative of "postmodernism, then" is already under construction in the critical stories told about recent American literature. In this scholarship there is understandably little questioning of the validity of postmodernism as a useful historical and aesthetic category: the story being told requires, in the main, that there be a relatively clear postmodern model in fiction which later writers can internalize and react to. Depending on which younger writers each critic is most concerned with, the canon of their postmodern forerunners will shift slightly, but only within certain bounds. The primary interest is in identifying the predominant styles and concerns of the new generation, in naming what it is these new writers are doing in their fiction, and in articulating how they build upon and depart from their canonical postmodern forebears.
One way to unite these two strands of recent criticism--the revisionist historicism regarding postmodern fiction on the one hand, the mapping of a post-postmodern aesthetics on the other--is to examine the ways in which a range of US authors writing in the wake of postmodernism have themselves addressed in their fiction the problem of historicizing the postmodern, meaning both the American society termed postmodern and the literature produced by that society. Many recent novels by post-baby-boom American writers--a generation I take to be born roughly between the late 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s--depict a postmodern world recognizable from the work of earlier writers, but with a renewed historical focus that takes the reader back deep into the past, often to the Industrial Revolution and before. The stress is no longer on the rupture between past and present, as it was in much postmodern fiction, but rather on continuity, where the contemporary information society that characters inhabit is seen as emerging from identifiable historical and technological shifts over a long duree. This is far from a simple process, however; for these writers, as for contemporary critics, beginning with postmodernism means beginning with history as a problem. How the historical past can be accessed and related to the present by the writer and his/her characters remains in varying degrees of question in a number of important post-boomer novels, among which include Richard Powers's Gain (1998), Jennifer Egan's Look at Me (2001), Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (2001), and Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days (2001), as well as various texts by the late David Foster Wallace.
Although her fiction has been critically overlooked to date, few among these writers have more directly addressed the task of responding to postmodernism and postmodernity than Jennifer Egan, whose novel Look at Me will be my exemplary text throughout this essay. In one of the few extant discussions of any length of Egan's work, Pankaj Mishra identifies Egan as one of the "oddly few successors" of Pynchon and DeLillo, the two American novelists who most ably chronicled "the strange new mutations in individual and social life caused by the reorganisation of work, consumption and war" (27). Mishra praises Egan's fiction, and Look at Me in particular, "for still being able to register incredulity at the weirdness of this process." Given this directness of engagement with recognizably postmodern themes in her fiction, Egan's relative neglect in critical work on contemporary American writing--certainly when put next to comparable figures such as Franzen, Powers, Whitehead, and Wallace--might seem surprising. Arid yet, ironically it may be that the very directness of her engagement has contributed to the overlooking of her work: at first glance, it can be difficult to identify exactly what it is that Egan's fiction brings to the postmodern table that we haven't seen before, how she builds upon the tradition of Pynchon and DeLillo, as well as other authors regularly included in the postmodern fold, such as Paul Auster, J. G. Ballard, John Barth, Jorge Luis Borges, William Burroughs, Angela Carter, Bret Easton Ellis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Ishmael Reed. (6)
What I want to suggest here is that surface similarities between Egan's novels and key texts in the postmodern tradition owe much to the relation her fiction maintains to that tradition as a whole, a relation that can best be described as gothic. While The Keep (2006) makes this gothic aspect explicit, it is Look at Me that provides the more interesting case study of postmodern inheritance. This is because Look at Me plays a similar role for mid-to-late-twentieth-century postmodernism that an earlier novel to which it directly alludes, Edith Somerville and Martin Ross's The Real Charlotte (1894), played for nineteenth-century realism. Both novels, characterized by smooth surfaces concealing darker processes of decay, repeat the most identifiable tropes and genres of the immediately preceding literary tradition, but do so in a manner that produces a sense of the uncanny. (7) In the case of Look at Me, the effect of this uncanniness is to reintroduce resonances and specters of history into the novel's form as well as in its content. And one reason why this effect is powerful is because the most canonical accounts of postmodernism and its exemplary texts have consistently stressed the prominence of space over time--the contemporary loss of history and emergence of an endless present--in the totally administered and technophilic postmodern society. Its gothic relation to the postmodern canon of literature and criticism thus makes Look at Me an important artifact in considering the story of "postmodernism, then." Before telling this story through a close reading of aspects of the novel, however, I will articulate in broader terms what it means to begin with postmodernism.
It is important to recognize at the outset that authors of Egan's generation begin with postmodernism in a double or even triple sense. First, in publishing their early work in the late-1980s and 1990s, they begin by developing a conversation with postmodern fiction. High postmodernism (in its technomodernist vein) was no longer regnant in American fiction by this period, having been overtaken by the range of movements Mark McGurl usefully summarizes under the categories of high cultural pluralism and lower-middle-class modernism. Nonetheless, the experimental shadow of earlier postmodernism still remained: Stephen Burn, for example, has noted allusions in early works by Franzen, Powers, and Wallace to a range of high postmodernists (19), with Wallace's novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" offering a particularly humorous patricidal take on the work of John Barth. Especially important to the post-boomer writers emerging at this time was the contemporaneous fiction of Don DeLillo. While Wallace could still, as late as 1993, refer to DeLillo as "a long-underrated conceptual novelist" ("E Unibus" 47), any account of the late-1980s and 1990s in American fiction must be at least in part the story of DeLillo's rise, through a series of increasingly high profile novels from White Noise (1985) to Underworld (1997), to the status of "representative postmodern novelist for the end of the century" (Green 4). (8) Alongside critical studies of influence such as Burn's, plenty of anecdotal evidence could be offered for DeLillo's shaping impact upon younger writers. For instance, Benjamin Kunkel, born in 1972 and the youngest novelist I consider here, has remarked in an interview that "when I was at college, I and half the young men I knew wanted to be Don DeLillo" ("Welcome"). Wallace and Franzen wrote letters to DeLillo when in distress about their respective literary projects; Egan has acknowledged her indebtedness to DeLillo in an interview: "It's almost a cliche to say it but like so many people of my generation, I've really soaked up my DeLillo and find him extremely compelling as a model" ("Face Value").
Second, beginning with postmodernism for younger writers means inheriting the heavily mediated information society that the earlier generation of American writers had tracked in its emergent phase. Yet despite the compelling models offered by DeLillo and others for how to write about the full onset of this society, certain specific anxieties inevitably attend its inheritance as a subject for literary art. Chief among these is the disconnection from historical time associated with the postmodern spatial turn. For instance, when Thomas Pynchon addresses a period of American or world history that pre-dates postmodernity--such as the World War II years in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), or the eighteenth century in Mason and Dixon (1997)--he treats these realities not as part of a long historical duree but rather as spatial phantasmagoria, each with its own absurd rules and zany norms. Similarly, although Don DeLillo is evidently interested in historical events--as recent scholarship on his novels has emphasized--it is a resolutely contemporary history that concerns him, and none of his many books, Libra (1988) and Underworld among them, reach back into a past much before the early 1950s. This spatial emphasis is abetted by the prominent postmodern genre …