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Realistic, modernist and postmodern fiction each necessitate different narrative techniques. Realistic novels sometimes represented multiple points of view, but these different voices never challenged the omniscient narrator who was in complete control of the fictional universe. The novelist used literary conventions for producing a life-like illusion. Time was linear and language transparent. Modernist fiction, no longer comfortable with the authoritative voice of an all-knowing narrator, resorted to the consciousness of a third person. Stream of consciousness and indirect free discourse were narrative techniques used frequently to show the changing attitude. Postmodern fiction undermined all realistic and modernist representative techniques by a complete shift in perspective. The reflected universe of the preceding periods became a projected world in which none of the certainties about self, language and the universe existed. This shift which McHale sees as occurring from the epistemological to the ontological (1993, 6-11) entails the use of new narrative techniques. Through the use of techniques like inserting writing within writing, intertexuaality, heterotopia, Chinese box structure and mise en-abyme postmodern writers make the reader think about things other than the semantic meaning. Meaning is deferred and the projected universe becomes a fragmented world yielding no hope of a meaning or truth. In this paper I will try to show how Auster uses these narrative techniques in two novels from his late period- Oracle Night and Man in the Dark_how the use of these techniques problematizes the reader's sense of the real.
Episodes which would be considered irrelevant in a realistic or modernist novel add to the novel's lack of purpose and direction. John tells Sydney a story his brother in law, Richard, has told him. (32-40) Judged by the standards of criticism before postmodernism, this episode is a flaw, a mistake on the part of the writer because it is neither related to the frame story nor the story within the story. So are Orr's strange encounters with M.R. Chang. From a modernist point of they seem quite irrelevant. And there is also Orr's screenplay of Time Machine (123-26). These episodes don't add anything to the meaning of the novel and their omission from the novel creates no loss in the meaning or the structure of the novel. The tales within tales and the irrelevant episodes only point to lack of unity, coherence and meaning in the fictional world and consequently the world of the reader.
In Oracle Night , Auster also foregrounds the materiality of the text. By constantly portraying Orr in the process of writing, Auster emphasizes the fact that the text the reader confronts is an artifice, not reality. Throughout the book the reader reads about writing . The book is about a writer who is writing a story about an editor, a story which is left unfinished. This is an example of what Sukenick, quoted by Herman et al calls "the truth of the page". (2005,459) The author is no longer hidden behind the text, as was usual in realistic novels, but appears at his or her desk writing the text at hand. All illusions of reality are shattered and the text seems to undermine any kind of reality. The "reality" of the writer writing the text and creating fictional characters is penetrated by the "reality" of the fictional characters. Both realities are fragmented and in both meaning is deferred as each is interrupted by the other. The reader of such a postmodern novel will probably never feel as safe and secure as the reader of a realistic novel.
Narrative techniques like Chinese Box structure and mise-en-abyme are not the prerogatives of the postmodern era. Correcting McHale who considers these techniques postmodern, Waugh gives various examples of the use of these techniques in Pre-Enlightenment literature: Chinese Box structure in the poetry of Spencer, ontological complexities in Paradise Lost , levels of artifice in Restoration comedy, the play within the play in Hamlet and discursive voices in the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte which are incorporated within the main frame of the narrative in a short while. But Waugh adds that whereas these techniques were used in the pre or post Enlightenment literature to confirm a sense of the real, they are used in postmodern literature to disrupt the notion of reality (1992,55) Indeed postmodern novels like Oracle Night seem not to be addressed to the coherent subject of realistic novel who has a definite identity, but to a distorted and fragmented subject who has no illusion of an identity.
In Man in the Dark Auster disrupts the reader's sense of reality by creating two parallel worlds- a fictional world created by a character in the real world and the real world which the creator of the story inhabits. The insomniac August Brill tells himself the story of Owen Brick who wakes up in a cylindrical hole twelve feet in diameter in another America. This America is suffering from a civil war. Owen discovers gradually this barren world which is occasionally bombarded and in which there are no TVs and few cars. But the most difficult task for Owen is his mission. He is given direct directions by the federal government to return to the parallel America to kill August Brill, the man who has caused the civil war by imagining it. The universes overlap and the reader wonders about the reality of a real world which could be penetrated by a fictional character. Auster's fictional world is layered, leaving the reader confused about the degree of its constructedness. Like Oracle Night in which the story within the story is left unfinished, Brill(or Auster?) leaves Owen's story unfinished.
Like Oracle Night , Man in the Dark is full of apparently irrelevant stories or episodes. Katya's cinematic theory of inanimate objects(15-22), the Tokyo Story(73-79), the story about "the worst race riots in American history" (79-87) and the thoroughly irrelevant war stories that "come rushing in on you, one by one by oneâ€¦": the story Jean-Luc tells Brill and Sonia about the execution of his teacher by the Germans, the story Alec Foyle tells Brill and Sonia about his girl friend's grandmother _the strange love of a German soldier for a Jewish girl. And finally there is the story Sonia's nephew, Bertrand, tells about Francois Declos, the cellist. These stories are not related to each other. Nor are they related to the frame narrative and the fictional world inside it and parallel with it. Although these stories are about war, there is nothing that links them to each other and to the main narrative(s). Moreover , these stories are not are not first hand narrations of things that have happened to or been observed by the narrators but are experienced by other people and then narrated by the narrators of these stories to the narrator of Man in the Dark. The reader will be probably too removed from the actual events to be affected or impressed by them or even to believe their truth.
In Man in the Dark, Auster undermines the reality of a historical event by creating a fictional option for it. August Brill lives in the Actual America which is involved in the war in Iraq, but his fictional character Owen Brick lives in a parallel America experiencing a civil war. By the creation of this parallel fictional world Ausetr not only suggests that America is responsible for the war in Iraq and could experience a civil war as a result of its war policies, but also creates his own version of history. This reading of Auster's political attitude is again stressed in Brill's comments about the war and the tragic execution of titus. The rewriting of a historical event puts Man in the Dark, along with a variety of other postmodern novels in Hutcheon's category of "historiographic metafiction" which she defines as,
those well-known and popular novels which are both intensely self-reflexive and
yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personagesâ€¦In most of
the critical work on postmodernism, it is the narrative-be it in literature, history or
theory-that has always been the focus of attention. Historiographic metafiction
incorporates all three of these domains: that is, its theoretical self-awareness of
history and fiction as human constructs (historiographic metafiction) is made the
grounds for its rethinking and reworking of the forms and contents of the past.
How is the reader's experience to be accounted for in postmodern fiction?
When the reader is confronted with a non linear, forking path text how is s/he supposed to feel? Enraged? Betrayed? Or flattered? McHale sees the effect as "the salutary one of disrupting the conditioned responses of the modernist readerâ€¦, of deconditioning the reader." (1992,81) Spanos as quoted by Waugh has a similar opinion. He believes that even before the postmodern era Western writers have been reluctant in providing clear cut answers for existential questions and cites literature as early as Euripides's Oretes and Shakespeare's problem plays. In these works, he observes, what he calls the "ontological invasion" is so powerful that the writer is forced to deviate Aristotelian norms. It was only when the postmodern philosophers suggested that the notion of the universe as a well-made construct is a lie that postmodern writers abandoned cliché narrative techniques and started searching for a new poetics. Spanos has a thoroughly positive attitude towards this aesthetic decomposition because he thinks that the dread it arouses results not in despair but in hope. Although this Kierkegaardian and Heideggarian dread deprives the reader of the firm grounds upon which s/he used to stand, it nevertheless equips her/him with an awareness which results in the "epiphanic moment of transcendence."(1992,78-86)
Like McHale and Spanos, Cobley also sees this change as a positive one, a welcome departure from the "rupturing effect" of former narratives, but relates the questioning of narrative techniques to a broader context in which narratives of all kind were questioned.
What is clear is that the devices witnessed in postmodern narrative fiction
appeared at a time when there was a broader questioning of the functions of
narrative, not just in narrative fiction but in the much wider field of knowledge.
Thus the questions presupposed in the implementation of such devices made
Postmodernist narrative fiction different in quality from previous manifestations
of 'rupturing' effect. In the practice of history, especially, there were debates
over the ability of narrative to provide a guarantee of the veracity of that which it
re-presented. These debates took place during the same period in which the
notion that narrative was a self-perpetuating phenomenon advertising its own
truth was undermined in fiction. Simultaneous with both, scientific knowledge
was called into question for the way in which it relied on a 'grand narrative'
which no longer spoke to the localized, 'little' narratives of personal pleasures,
identity and circumstances. (2001,188)
Postmodern narrative techniques, then, are not simply playthings in the hands of whimsical writers who are bored with traditional narrative techniques. These techniques stem naturally out of a new recognition of the nature of existence, a recognition that entails not only the writer but also the reader.