After Modernism ran out of steam with the second World War, one strange offspring of Modernism got a lot of press for a time, an ultra-elitist movement that was baptized Post-Modernism (sometimes written as one word, postmodernism). This gave up on the Modernist attempt to capture the taste of life as lived and instead lived in the world of artworks—no longer was it offering the fragments of life, instead it developed the imposed structure. It solved the split of Modernism, in short, by voting for the structure half. But that meant it had nothing to say except to talk endlessly about itself and its own cleverness.
Post-Modernism is ironic, fragmentary, self-referential, sophisticated, and intensely boring, because it ceases to breathe, have sex, or sweat. It’s prim and self-satisfied, rather like the smug and feminized esthete played to perfection by the usually so masculine actor Daniel Day-Lewis in the Merchant/Ivory film of E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View”: the earthy heroine, Lucy Honeychurch (great name, great actress: Helena Bonham Carter) comes into her own when she rejects this ball-less museum piece for his so-physical rival; the last scene shows her sexually contented on her honeymoon, back in Florence where she had gone earlier in the movie. It was Forster who wrote, “oh dear yes, the novel tells a story.” He thought plot inevitable, but boring. Post-Modernism wore the mask of not taking anything seriously, saw itself as perennially playing games, as having an audience that had seen it all and done it all. It was a revival of the precious aestheticism of the end of the nineteenth century, which had Oscar Wilde hoping he would be “worthy of his china.”
Post-Modernism was a movement of the classroom and the art gallery, at its height in the l980s with writers like the deft but too precious Argentine fabulist Borges, the American New Yorker “wasn’t that erudite?” fragment writer Barthelme, and the academic “let’s talk about how the novel is structured and call it a novel” Baltimore-based Barthes: the “three Bs” of American post-Modernist literature, as people usually said in the 80s. (We talk about the “three Bs” of classical music: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahams, so this phrase about the much lesser artists, the post-Modernists, was highly self-congratulatory). Post-Modernist artworks bored visitors to art galleries, who didn’t see the four previous layers of artworks they were referring to: post-Modernist art had to be learned, it couldn’t just be experienced. And an art based on other artworks rather than life is a dead art, a precious art, an art that sooner or later will wither, as post-Modernism did. Arguably, the suicide of David Foster Wallace was its last gasp.
Hence the necessity for Neo-Modernism. It goes back to Modernism and takes it in a different direction than post-Modernism did. What was good about Modernism as a movement was that it told the truth. Life is experienced as formless; we strive towards form. Where it went wrong was thinking form could be imposed—Joyce thinking of his hapless Leopold as a modern-day Ulysses, for example. Modernism also went wrong in thinking of itself as a potentially popular art, being insulted and upset that vast quantities of people were not interested in its sensibility. They won’t: most people are happy for the momentary escape of living with prettier, richer, more athletic people. Large realistic epic novels about multiple generations will always dominate the best-seller lists, and be sought after by agents and editors. People want to tell themselves that things are other than they are. That’s just the way it is: it was the inability of the Modernists to accept that what they did was a literature of the few that curdled their sensibility, drove them to the snide insiderdom of post-Modernism.
Neo-Modernism will be a niche literature, by definition. But it doesn’t wall itself into its ivory tower like Post-Modernism: it does what it does in a corner of the public square. If people want to watch, fine. It’s not seeking to define itself as virtuous because inaccessible.
And it isn’t inaccessible. You just have to be prepared for literature that’s not escapist. Neither is it push-your-face-in-the-seamy-side-of-things, like Upton Sinclair or social realist works from the l930s. It’s about the fragmentary nature of life, and the fact that we can construct larger things out of these fragments. Twilley, my first novel, was written at age 19 in 1974, partly when a student at Haverford College. It has a vestigial plot: a young man, abandoned by his wife, walks in a semi-stunned state through a department store to use the bathroom (half the book), takes a bus ride, and then sits in the house where he grew up before masturbating in an empty field, the culmination of his loneliness. What makes the bulk of the book is the imaginary worlds, some his and some just there for the reader, that emerge from between ordinary things. Between any two steps is a world of sensations—some small and some merely unnoticed. For the fact is that we do fail to notice much of life: we’re intent on where we’re going, and we can’t always be in a state of maximal perception. For the hero of Twilley, the visit to the department store was in search of a bathroom, which took only a few minutes. The pace of reading is much slower, and isn’t really from his point of view at all.
A Structure Opera takes the Modernist realization that all art is structure, whether of actions and feelings or other things (music is a structure of tones, painting of shapes and colors), and develops it: it’s given up plot entirely for another sort of structure, one derived from music. And Fragments in the Form of a Calendar says “fine, you want structure? Let’s take one with no weight, such as the list of days and months: that’s your structure.” They’re related to Modernism because they share Modernism’s great realization, that life as lived is not the same as life as portrayed (that’s also at the heart of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and of all phenomenology). They’re not post-Modernist because they’re about life, not themselves. They’re Neo-Modernist because they avoid the problems of Modernism: their structures make no pretense to weight, as Joyce would have us look for profundity in Homeric parallels, and they cease trying to replace or compete with escapist literature—which will always be with us.
There’s nothing wrong with escape, every now and again, just as dessert is fine as dessert. It’s just that you can’t live in that world, and can’t use escapist literature to understand life, only to run from it. What happens when you come back to reality? Flaubert thought you committed suicide. I don’t think you have to do that: I think there’s another alternative, that you understand the nature of life. This is the process Neo-Modernism sets out to exemplify.