I’m Not Sure Why John Hawkes Is Postmodern

Second Skin John Hawkes

But he’s certainly an incredible talent. I first encountered Hawkes’ writing via the criticism of William H. Gass (in A Temple of Texts), who is a big fan. Now I’m about halfway through my first Hawkes book, Second Skin, and I can’t imagine it will be my last.

There are two things that are principally of interest right now. The first is Hawkes’ storytelling method. It’s a very fragmented narrative, although it doesn’t go so far as something like the French New Novel. I suppose a good reference would be the so-called novel-in-stories, except if you could imagine a novel-in-stories where it was difficult to determine the import of any particular story vis a vis the work as a whole (or even vis a vis that particular story itself). All of the action is framed by a first chapter that takes place in the ostensible present, so I suppose you could chalk up the book’s ostensible disorganization to the working of memory, although that seems too easy for a book as complex and fundamentally interesting as this one.

The second thing is the narrative tone, which is quite unlike anything Ive ever read before. It’s a very detached tone–whimsical, I would say–although there’s an inherent desperation and sadness to the things being narrated that’s completely at odds with the way the voice wants to sound. Perhaps it is the tone of a man desperately trying to deceive himself; or perhaps the narrator is just depressed. Regardless, the prose is simply beautiful; Hawkes was clearly a remarkably inventive user of words.

I still don’t know why all of this makes Hawkes postmodern, although virtually everything I read about him references him as a “postmodern” author. There’s none of the stuff typically associated with postmodernism (e.g. metafiction; cutesiness; cardboard characters). If anyone out there can provide a compelling explanation, I’ll be obliged.

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I’m glad you’re enjoying Hawkes. Everything I had read and heard about him seemed like he would be my Next Favorite Dude, but I pretty much hated The Lime Twig and haven’t really considered reading anything else by him.
I, too, got a much more Robbe-Grillet-y feeling from him than anything else.

Doesn’t the term ‘postmodern’ also cover just the kind of arrogant, dismissive disregard for the traditional features of fiction (narrative cohesion, a tone that gives a damn about what it’s telling you, etc.) that you cite here? Gawd forbid Hawkes should tell a straightforward story in a straightforward way and rely on linguistic ability and strength of insight – no, no, much better to fracture things up all to hell and gone and let the READER do your work for you! It makes me wonder what writers like Hawkes would even say to people like Pete Dexter or Richard Russo, if they were trapped in the same elevator for an hour …

I think there is currently a great deal of inaccuracy and confusion over what is “post-modernism” and it could that it’s because it’s the closet era to us. Time and literary theory have not had the hindsight yet to refine the category. In the strictest sense, I don’t think post-modern is synonymous with contemporary, or modern writing. That’s part of the confusion. I believe it was originally used to define a certain group of writers who were working in the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose attention to language, classical themes of the self and history, and subjective experience shared many of the concerns as that of the modernists. A striking difference was that the post-moderns wrote to remain a literary continuum resistant to popular culture, bold in proclaiming an independence from the market. I think it’s a time period which was thwarted by 1980, and the drastic change in publishing. I think very wrongly writers from the 1980’s on were called “post-modernist but they didn’t fit the sensibility of Hawkes and so many others from that original time. Writing metafiction alone wouldn’t be a defining trait.

Steve Donoghue is proud to be an idiot. Good for him. I think it’s very touching.

Glad I could give you a little Hallmark moment! But I’m more interested (couldn’t be less, now could I?) in what Leora says here, particularly that fascinating word “thwarted.” What change do you see happening in publishing at the advent of the ’80s that thwarted the post-modernists of earlier decades? The added commercialism (major corporations buying up publishing houses and marketing books like corn flakes), or something else? And what are some names from that group working in the ’60s and ’70s, that you have in mind? You stopped your comment too soon! More, please!

Hi, Steve! Thank you! Yes, I did mean when publishing was taken over by corporate thinking and the “big name” “big book” writer prevailed. The kind of brand-name thinking where writers who were high-powered in business, had big agents and huge followings began to dominate the literary scene, with able personalities to promote their books and themselves. This change happened during the Reagan Era and I think it indelibly changed the literary field. Post-modernists, I believe were responding to some of the same sociopolitical concerns that the modernists were reacting to after and between the two World Wars.(Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Joyce, Genet, a whole list of very individualist writers who were interested in their independence from any audience demands. They wanted to work with language and make a literature that was about literature as much as it was about a personal sense of the world). I think the post-modernists tried to pick up where the modernists left off. And the 60’s and 70’s were very sociopolitical, anti-capitalism times. They just took modernism a step further. In this amazing list I would include not only John Hawkes, but William Gaddis, Jerzy Kosinski (his “The Painted Bird” and “Steps”. He won the 1969 National Book Award and even sent out his manuscript under different names to trick publishers), Doris Lessing (Her “Golden Notebooks” could barely find a publisher. She finally won the Nobel Prize but she was a post-modernist heroine, as were the German writers, Christa Wolf, Peter Handke, and Henrich Boll)
I think a lot of contemporary writers have somehow gotten the name “post-modernist” but it doesn’t seem to me to relate at all to the sensibility that formed this writing. And post-modernists were not all throwing away story-telling, plot. Grace Paley, was all about story-telling, oral story-telling, the primitive need to tell a story and so were many other post-modernists. I’m really not meaning to say that thinking more about gaining an audience makes a bad writer I’m just saying it isn’t a post-modernist impulse. I think Roberto Bolano is the only writer I can really think of who would fall into this post-modernist category today, Writing is sort of more a personal religion, a heated confrontation with society, and with a very internal sense of selfhood.
Sorry if I sound so pompous. I studied writing with Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag so I really was entrenched in “post-modernism.” And years later I am so grateful I did. Especially Donald Barthelme, he was so brilliant and a fine, fine teacher. But he really would be shocked to be put in the same category with most contemporary writing. He just wouldn’t fit.

Leora, I agree. In my opinion, postmodernists have primarily innovated in their socio-economic concerns, rather than in their style (which is generally borrowed, and any true innovation of which is widely overblown by critics).

Absolutely, Scott.
and,Steve– Thank you again! I really enjoyed trying to put this into words, even as clumsily as I did. It helped clarify for myself, too, sort of what’s happened to the whole post-modernist movement…

That, Leora, was about as far from ‘pompous’ as you could get! Fascinating! Grace Paley, Bolano, and Scott’s bit about critical overpraise … it’s all got me thinking, which is something us idiots HATE to do! Hee.
So who are the current heirs to the great William Gaddis? Who are writing the novels now that require three or four close readings before they divulge their secrets? I’m guessing most serious readers today would nominate Bolano (THERE’S a party to which I got no invite), but who else?

Hey, Steve, you are NOT an idiot! Really, I think you ask such important questions and with such sharpness. Gaddis really began to draw attention to dialogue as sound (of course among many other thing he did), verbal exchanges are as real and genuine as if you are hearing them in the room.Like Grace Paley and alot of post-modernists, it was a new idea, being a kind of “Story-hearer”and also a unique “voice”. A writer could “hear” characters in a certain medley of voices which then defined their characters. What makes Gaddi’s work look difiicult is that it’s striped of descriptions readers are used to, I think. He goes right for the sound and sense of a character. Donald did that too. In fact Barthelme was really the first to add an appreciation of jazz and sound syncopation, and really Donald came from being an expert in the visual arts, too (he was involved in art museums before he came to New York to write). Donald added pastiche and collage, alot of visual stuff. Gaddis liked characters to speak on and on. For the reader to hear them to know them. . So he really isn’t as difficult as people think, Gaddis just loved obscure allusions. people just aren’t used to reading y listening, the nuances and resonance, verbal exchanges which bear no descriptions. His characters exchange voices. The famous use of using dashes– instead of quotes for dialogue in a novel feels so very Gaddis. He also really nailed the inauthentic popular movement imitating real art and getting away with it (again based on a distrust of capitalism. For Gaddis, people were faking, imitating without depth. And because of the market it could all be faked and make lots of money). This theme dominated “Carpenter’s Gothic”. I think he’s the closest post-modernist to James Joyce in the sense that he wanted to create complex webs, layers which were stocked full of obscure, erudite allusions and labryinths. But, like Joyce, he was hilariously funny, really bawdy, playing around a lot. He wasn’t solemn. I really don’t know any writers off-hand that are like Gaddis, certainly not the contemporary writers who are fearful of doing anything not readable or marketable. Voice and sound on the page–such a major discovery, such excitement, so post-modern! I think there are a lot writers now who feel very Pynchonian to me,but Gravity’s Rainbow seems to be the only novel I can think of from that time that created a large audience. Gaddis was a tough act to follow. Cynthia Ozick wrote a brilliant essay when Carpenter’s Gothic came out about how Gaddis might have been the LAST real Joycean and she gave a warning that we’re losing that kind of “great novel”, a novel inviting in all the senses, sound and sight, that peels away aritfice, isn’t afraid of philosophy, and socio-political themes as its engine, a novel that sticks by the dictum of authenticity of experience. What is “truthful” I mean, even if what rang truthful wasn’t logical or comprehensible.
Hope that helps! It’s so complicated and I’m sure others know much more than me.

Just a correction. It was actually Gaddis’ “A Frolic of His Own” that was Gaddis’ last novel. It’s about the pseudo-literary world. About a playwright plagiarizing and hungering for instant fame. Really as all of Gaddis’s work, is about narcissism and artifice in the society. So sorry.
A Carpenter’s Gothic though also was about fraud and artifice, too, in its way.
Here’s a really good description of Gaddis:
William Gaddis writes as if he is using an Uzi instead of a typewriter. He writes, in fact, as no one has ever exactly written before. His characters and events are delineated not by narration but by dialogue, in staccato bursts of language–words, words, words, If the reader can persevere, Gaddis’s novels reveal an articulately satiric view of a world Gaddis says he found “wanting to be explored.”
Carpenter’s Gothic:
“This story of raging comedy and despair centers on the tempestuous marriage of an heiress and a Vietnam veteran. From their “carpenter gothic” rented house, Paul sets himself up as a media consultant for Reverend Ude, an evangelist mounting a grand crusade that conveniently suits a mining combine bidding to take over an ore strike on the site of Ude’s African mission. At the still center of the breakneck action–revealed in Gaddis’s inimitable virtuoso dialoge–is Paul’s wife, Liz, and over it all looms the shadowy figure of McCandless, a geologist from whom Paul and Liz rent their house. As Paul mishandles the situation, his wife takes the geologist to her bed and a fire and aborted assassination occur; Ude issues a call to arms as harrowing as any Jeremiad–and Armageddon comes rapidly closer. Displaying Gaddis’s inimitable virtuoso dialogue, and his startling treatments of violence and sexuality, Carpenter’s Gothic “shows again that Gaddis is among the first rank of contemporary American writers”

Actually — and I hate to sound pedantic here, but I love Gaddis and want everyone to read all his books — his last novel would be the posthumous “Agape Agape.”
Just sayin, y’all.

hey, you are absolutely right, kgt. Not pedantic at all. Thank you!
Huge apologies for being so muddled. I forgot about the post-humous book!


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