Walter Abish: Plotting a 'Terrorism' of Postmodernist Fiction
Houen, Alexander, Yearbook of English Studies
Sketches of everyday atrocity
In his introduction to the 1984 edition of Walter Abish's collection of short stories, In the Future Perfect (first published in 1975), Malcolm Bradbury declares the author to be 'quite the most important writer to have emerged in the United States over the past ten years, and the one whose serious inquiry is most surely still continuing'. Winner of the 1980 PEN/Faulkner award for his novel on German Holocaust memory and terrorism, How German Is It (1980), Abish has, indeed, been repeatedly cast by critics as one of the foremost exponents of contemporary, American, avant-garde post-modernism. For Bradbury, however, the affinity between Abish's prose and the postmodern is 'misleading', although he does assert that they 'share' one 'tendency': 'a refusal to name what we call reality as real, a sense that the language which authenticates this or that as history, geography, or biography is a language of human invention' (IFP, p. x). Before examining the underlying tenets of postmodernism, it would be useful to analyse the first short story, 'The English Garden', from In the Future Perfect, which presents an image of language, composition, and sociality that is rather more complicated than Bradbury's brief characterization.
The epigraph to the story, an extract from John Ashbery's 'Three Poems', raises the problem of representational remainders immediately: 'Remnants of the old atrocity subsist, but they are converted into ingenious shifts in scenery, a sort of "English Garden" effect, to give the required air of naturalness, pathos and hope' (IFP,p.1). Brumholdstein, the town portrayed in the story, is built on the foundations of a concentration camp, Durst; this is its atrocity. As the epigraph suggests, the past is not simply abolished by the change of scene. In being forced to 'subsist', it remains persistent, lurking. If the aim of such an aesthetic is to replace the ineffable with an array of surfaces, these surfaces have two distinct sides. The first paragraph of the story indicates as much by incorporating an image of doubled textuality that is irreducible to the purely linguistic:
One page in the coloring book I bought showed details of the new airport, the octagonal glass terminal building to the left, and a Lufthansa plane coming in for a landing in the background. It is a German coloring book and the faces accordingly are coloring book faces, jolly faces, smiling and happy faces. By no means are they characteristically German faces. Nothing is intrinsically German, I suppose, until it receives its color. (IFP,p.1)
On the one hand, the text presents a series of limits: the images exceed narratorial rendering to the same degree that the picture of the plane is not about to land, and the faces are manifestly 'coloring book faces'. That each sign or image cannot fully contain its own signification, or control its referent, is precisely why it can and needs to be filled in. On the other hand, this incertitude is not limited to representation, for things are also coloured by indeterminacy: 'Nothing is intrinsically German'. Nor is anything intrinsically a sign, as the colouring book is itself recognized as inhabiting a space of everyday life: 'Thousands of children each day gravely apply a color [. . .] to everything that fills a space on the pages of the colouring book in much the same way it occupies, visually at least, a space in real life' (IFP, p. 1). Because 'everything one encounters' in Germany requires a 'determining' of its 'lifelikeness', each determination must be seen as making a reality possible. That is to say, if the character of a thing is elicited with each performance, then what is made real is its own potentiality. Consequently, every event or thing remains to some degree a sign of itself, although this does not alter the fact that it takes place and exists as such.
In as much as postmodernism has variously been defined by Jean-Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and others as an 'incredulity' towards 'grand narratives' or 'metanarratives'; a 'radical break' or 'coupure' whereby history is viewed as having come to an end, and a 'dissolution' of a separate, 'autonomous sphere of culture' such that aesthetics is under the hegemony of 'commodity production generally', the questions raised by Abish's text are quintessentially about postmodernism. …