Academic journal article Style

After Epiphany: American Stories in the Postmodern Age

Academic journal article Style

After Epiphany: American Stories in the Postmodern Age

Article excerpt

Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot live or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.

(Italo Calvino)

To what, then, could I have aspired in my craft? Certainly to small things, having seen that the possibility of great ones was historically precluded.

(Aldo Rossi)

To talk about short stories as small things is to risk a return to that lowest of common story denominators: a short story is a story that is short. I want to begin there, nevertheless, by positing some connections between the petits recits, the circumstantiated struggles, the perishing trajectories of love and thought--the materials and occasions of postmodern culture--and some American stories of our time. In these stories, small figures large. It disfigures teleology, displaces universal truths and eternal verities, and eventually the epiphany itself, that point of contact with meaning or wholeness, which has stood so long at the center of our understanding of the genre.

To make such a claim, to suggest that contemporary stories do not inevitably advance toward and can no longer be read in terms of epiphany, is to challenge short-story theory at the point of greatest consensus. The epiphany is, even among critics of widely divergent opinion on other matters, almost a given. "Short stories often work towards a single moment of revelation . . . an epiphany, or instant of radiant insight," Valerie Shaw observes in her volume on the story. "Suddenly the fundamental secret of things is made accessible and ordinary circumstances are transfused with significance" (193). In his widely cited essay on "The Nature of Knowledge in Short Fiction," Charles E. May writes: "The short story attempts to be authentic to the immaterial reality of the inner world of the self in its relation to eternal rather than temporal reality" (329). Mary Rohrberger suggests, likewise, that the story is metaphysical in its orientation and that it represents "the author's probing of the nature of the real." "As in the metaphysical view," she writes, "reality lies beyond the ordinary world of appearances, so in the short story, meaning lies beneath the surface of the narrative. The framework of the narrative embodies symbols which function to question the world of appearances and to point to a reality beyond the facts of the extensional world" ("Short" 81). And in his very recent essay on the genre, Allan H. Pasco concludes that the movement of the story is toward "the essential truth or idea or image which rises above time" (420).

Such views essentialize, I would suggest, what is arguably modern. "I shall call modern," Jean-Francois Lyotard writes, "the art which devotes its 'little technical expertise' . . . to present the fact that the unpresentable exists. To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible" (78). Shaw's concluding description of the short story as a genre is strikingly similar to Lyotard's account of the modern. "The short story's success," she writes, "often lies in conveying a sense of the unwritten, or even unwriteable things" (264). Rohrberger, too, finds "at the very base of the short story" the unpresentable, "the that that is unsaid but somehow manages to be said" ("Between" 43). This assimilation of modernist epistemology into definitions of the genre is doubly problematic for the critic of the contemporary story, in which essentialist notions have given way and metanarratives--whether of cosmic truth, self-knowledge, or, in Eudora Welty's words, "emotions which are eternally the same in all of us" (108)--are increasingly met with what Lyotard terms "incredulity" (xxiv).

Thomas M. Leitch is the only critic to date who has vigorously challenged the claim that "all short stories proceed to a revelation that establishes a teleology, a retrospective sense of design" (131). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.