Minimalism, Post-Humanism, and the Recovery of History in Bobbie Ann Mason's Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail

Article excerpt

In his encompassing revision of narrative minimalism, Zoltan Abady-Nagy considers that this mode "in contemporary American fiction [is] both an extension of postmodernism and a revolt against it" (129). Linking notions between the two paradigms include the suspicion of traditional historiography (i.e. the end of History), the disruption of the traditional separation between high and popular culture, the distrust of master narratives proclaimed by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition, and above all the rejection of the tendency to perceive life from a prism that systematically demands a sense of narrative closure. In minimalist fiction, space is emphasized over temporality, routine displaces sophisticated plots, and life is perceived as a continuum that may abruptly come to an end and where no ultimate sense of meaning is ever provided or demanded. Frequently, minimalist stories come to a textual stop that indicates no sense of closure or encapsulation at all. "What is the point or the moral of the story?" is likely to be one of the first questions coming to the reader's mind once the story is over. Still, many readers probably suspect the hidden existence of symbolic meanings that simply evade their comprehension.

Defined by some critics as a yuppie variation of postmodernism or as a postmodern hyper-realistic twilight zone, (1) minimalism can be ultimately associated with nihilism and cultural relativism. In the minimalist text, the humanist belief in the sublimity of man's existence gives way to the description of pointless lives being lived by utterly non-heroic characters who spend their time mostly watching TV, shopping at the mall, eating junk food, and consuming large quantities of beer. Selfishness and lack of sympathy for other people abound among the characters depicted in this type of narrative. The sense of the heroic, both in its serious classical and modernist meaning and in its parodied postmodernist version, is lost to the minimalist writer whose main interest is to describe contemporary life in the USA.

If no traditional value can hold, then what is left but the mere realistic description of the anodyne and dirty aspects of common life? The minimal replaces the old grand narratives and with them, many may believe, also goes any moral purpose. However, literature cannot avoid arousing the moral demands of its readership and it would be inaccurate to assert that minimalism has ever been immoral. Rather, in line with the turn to ethics in criticism since the 1980s, at least some minimalist writers have felt the need to recuperate an ethical impulse in an attempt to respond to the lack of emotional values that postmodernism brought about with the collapse of traditional master narratives. Especially significant has been in later years the number of philosophers and cultural critics who are increasingly preoccupied with the issues of selfishness, love, and tolerance. The writings of Emmanuel Levinas and, more specifically, the process that he defines as the moral demands of the Other, encounter some parallelisms in Bobble Ann Mason's latest fiction, as suggested in these pages:

   The Other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the
   face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls
   my responsibility, and calls me into question.... It is the
   responsibility of a hostage which can be carried to the point of
   being substituted for the other person and demands an infinite
   subjectivity. (Levinas 82, 84)

In this essay, I intend to focus on the strategies deployed by Bobble Ann Mason in her book of short stories Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, in order to show how despite the apparent bleakness of her views, the writer also provides readers with a moral meaning and an ethical demand that escape from the valueless universe of minimalism.

Joanna Price questions the labelling of Mason as a minimalist writer precisely on account of the author's moral concerns. …