The Postmodern Resuscitation of the Individual

“If the modern is the zenith of progress and development, then, …postmodernity is a period of decline in which wars rage incessantly and the humanist projects of the Enlightenment are abandoned (Malpas 37)”, is the eloquent summary for the postmodern world. Postmodernism literature sees this and uses the tools of irony, allusion, and realistic outrageous imagery in order to break the readers of their delusional world of uniqueness within a capitalist’s society. With every billboard, commercial, and walking brand logo that bombard the everyday life, people lose a little more of their individuality. Brands provide an illusion of feeling safe and secure when making a purchase, and now that being a consumer has become a major part of life, feeling safe is very important. To keep up with demand, companies employ the subliminal messaging to trick their buyers into living a consumer priority lifestyle. To aid in this, the irrational desire to buy, consume, and demand from more large scale company products is created from the unconscious desires solicited through advertising. Everything down to the color of fonts is specifically designed to attract people to that product, whether they need/want it or not. To counter this at the core, postmodernism literature expresses itself against the “norm” and portrays the flaws of the world by using the lies of fiction to tell the true story.

Beginning in novels, famous authors such as Bret Easton Ellis, fight against the conventions with the extreme of compulsion, violence, and complete lack of depth within his writings of American Psycho. This particular novel utilizes the full one-sided scale of ‘surface characters’ to portray a modernistic New York, with high scale modern people, going about very obvious meaningless lives. “‘Just, you know, have the guts to face, uh, reality,’ I tell him. (Ellis, American Psycho 371)” Lies pile upon lies and not even Ellis’s characters can figure out the names of the other characters. Ellis also employs the unreliable narrator to add to the enveloping chaos of the world. Constantly, fellow characters, “And there are many more people I, uh, want to want to, well, I guess murder, (Ellis, American Psycho 145)” mishear the character of Bateman and not realize what he has just said, confusing it with a more normal phrase they have heard one-hundred times over. However, the reader can never tell if this is what was actually said or if this is just what he wanted to say. Throughout the book, Ellis alludes to the paradox of being the person others see and being the individual one wishes to be, which describes “postmodernism [as] the style of our age, and a particularly contradictory one at that. (Parker 41)” The contradiction that Ellis reveals is the illusion of individuality and the actual herding with the masses. Every avenue of repulsive reality used in American Psycho, is stricken through to the other end of the spectrum in Lunar Park with gushy fake sustenance. Here Ellis forms a world with the tools of obvious foreshadowing; cheap irony, and a Steven King sequel plot to entice the readers to continue on trudging through the story. Despite Lunar Park being an easier read than Psycho, it’s slap in the face of product demands that emphasis that our world has become accustomed to order and expectations. Ellis exploits the errors in our culture in a drastic way to emphasis the questioning routines of daily life: “I needed to take a Xanax and I would go down to my office, maybe finish what was left of one of the grams, drink another margarita and mellow out alone. (Ellis, Lunar Park 94)” The Xanax, the grams, and the margarita all characterize the harshness of the modern world that does not wish to be talked about, much less thought about in most forms. The harsh reality “the Xanax” that over seventy percent of Americans are on prescribed medication, is another way Ellis throws reality into the face of his readers, and is very hard to ignore when even the family dog, Victor, is being medicated.

After so many severe and mixed reviews of American Psycho being proclaimed a guide to murdering young women, Lunar Park is the iconic quick sell novel full of overused plots and recognizable characters flaws as it’s opposite to his earlier novel in order to “please” his readers. “‘Honey, look, I wouldn’t put myself behind the wheel of a car under the influence, let alone our kids, okay?’ Her face softened and for the first time this morning she smiles genuinely, without forcing it, without any affectation. It was spontaneous and unrehearsed. This moved me to ask, ‘What? What is it?’ ‘You said something.’ ‘What did I say?’ ‘You said ‘our’.’ (Ellis, Lunar Park 185)” As the two main characters discuss the safety of the children, despite the obvious trust issues they both possess, the focus of the characters is that Bret said ‘our’. Though this is a major turning point in the book, it is for the not obvious reasons, other than he is seeing their family as a whole for the first time. The focus of the fairy tale romance of Bret finally saying ‘our kids’ after they have been married, symbolizes the allusion of over fifty percent of marriages failing in the modern world. The increase in divorce and medicated people should be dead giveaways that there is a serious problem within our society, which Ellis addresses in the novel, and is blatantly portrayed between these two characters.

Though the type of character creation that is easy to identify and the novel received much more positive reviews than its former American Psycho, but its popularity is still lesser than that of Psycho, which has become a movie and a play. Ironically, American Psycho, which bashed capitalism so heavily, has now fallen into the same category as those of genre fiction and product novels. “Consumers participate in the culture they consume, and their participation changes what they consume. Meanwhile, the participation of audiences and the marketing strategies of corporations make multiple media converge. Harry Potter, for example, began as a novel, but it turned into a massive multimedia constellation of novels; films; video games; authorized and unauthorized websites, blogs, and books; action figures and other toys; reading groups; classes; and sports. Readers respond and participate in an enormous variety of ways across the cornucopia of Harry Potter reading, play, fantasy, writing, and watching. The electronic dimension of reader response is growing so rapidly that any accounts of it will soon quaintly out- of-date. (Parker 330)” So, what does this mean that American Psycho has now become consumed by the culture? This is a all tell sign of the embrace of the harsh realities of our current trend loving civilization.

The type of “product demanded” book writing, as demonstrated by Lunar Park, is explained when we look at pre-modern art versus postmodern art. “As an image for this new depthlessness, Jameson contrasts two painting: ‘A Pair of Boots’ by the Dutch modernist artist, Vincent Van Gogh, and ‘Diamond Dust Shoes’ by pop artist Andy Warhol. The former depicts a pair of battered boots caked in dust in a context, that of the agricultural life of the peasant who presumably owned them, and provides the viewer with a sense of the rural world from which they came. The latter, in contrast, presents a collection of women’s shoes floating freely in space, and apparently also free from any social context whatsoever. According to Jameson, Warhol’s painting ‘no longer speaks to us with any of the immediacy of Van Gogh’s footgear; indeed, I am tempted to say that it does not really speak to us at all. Nothing in this painting organizes even a minimal place for the viewer… [It marks] a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense, perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms…’ (Malpas 119)” In this context, American Psycho is equal to that of Van Gogh’s painting, even more so because Van Gogh’s painting was not well accepted when first created as was Psycho, and Lunar Park is on the level of Warhol’s painting. While, Lunar Park may have been a more enjoyable to read, the “flatness” does not stick with the reader as profoundly as the unique style of that of American Psycho. “Warhol’s’ shoes are infinitely reproducible, interchangeable, superficial, and the lack of context, just one commodity from a potentially endless collection in which use value has become entirely irrelevant, (Malpas 119)” which can be said about Lunar Park as well.

It took many years, with much analysis, for critics to grasp the interwoven web of truth behind Ellis’s intricate world of outrageous lies. Ellis’s unique and uncanny ability to produce literary works that did not fit the well-known criteria for a “Best Selling” novel, threw readers for an unforeseen loop. Thankfully in time, critics and readers began to grasp its understanding on the basic level. “Though a general consensus regarding Ellis’s work in specific and “blank fiction” in general, such a characterization hardly accounts for the form of Ellis sentences, which stretch and flex in order capture the glittering minutia of our own fallen social reality. (Conley Page 117)”

The next area of postmodern literature to consider is in the field of drama. Postmodern plays have the handy visual element to aid the overall voice and theme of the piece when conveying their story. Some of the modern playwrights, such as Norris and Gionfriddo, use irony and outrageous imagery to depict the harsh realities overlooked by the masses. In Norris’s play, The Pain & the Itch, he uses the severe tragedy of giving a child a sexually transmitted disease that was given to her through birth, to surround the audience with the inevitable truths of the world. Though this drama is filled with satirical points, the overall mood is very depressing and down to earth. The realism interlaced within the fictitious story line drags the audience into a dark place that they would never wish to find themselves. “And they put me on hold. For a minute. And you know, the mind devises these scenarios. You start to panic, and there you are on the phone with…the people you’ve paid to protect you. Pay your taxes to protect you. And so maybe you say something stupid without thinking. To the police. About how someone who works in your home might’ve done something…deliberately given some sickness…to a child…So …I guess…so, yeah, so I guess…well, I guess the person who said that was me. (Norris 27)” This dialogue of such atrocities in combination with the fact that the young girl is never heard throughout the play alludes to the obvious traumas felt by the daughter, Kayla. The self-centeredness of the adult actors forces the audience into a self-reflection. Just as with American Psycho, early critics missed the overall theme of the piece and proclaimed the literary work to be full of morbid satire. But later critics helped to revive the piece of its true purpose later on with, “Mr. Norris’s hyperbolic view of his characters’ iniquity is fueled a little too obviously by moralism. His aim is to expose and condemn the shallow nature of the liberal views espoused by members of the urban bourgeoisie, people who “feel bad because what they practice doesn’t square with what they preach,” as Cash puts it. “Which makes them feel every bit as bad as the materialistic barbarians they despise!” But the practices in “The Pain and the Itch” are too unrelievedly repellent to be mistaken for the real behavior of real people, so Mr. Norris’s diagnosis is likely to fall on deaf ears. (Isherwood)” Norris focuses on the issue of repression among the many of the adult characters. The subconscious plays a key role in most aspects of life, including the influences of products and the compulsion to participate in capitalism. Repression is an active problem in postmodern society now and can be a very ironic sub-theme to have in a drama. “Repression, drives (instincts), and defenses. When we feel threatened by our drives, we often defend against them and repress them. That generates the unconscious, which consists of repressed drives. Freud argued that excess repression of psychological drives leads to neurosis… We sublimate repressed drives, meaning that we redirect them to other activists, which is how we build culture and civilization. (Parker 115)”

The society flaw of subconscious repression follows as the sub-theme in Gionfriddo’s drama, U.S. Drag. The main characters thirst for easy fame as though it were the oasis within the Sahara. Each character fights for their slice of fame in their own twisted ways. Gionfriddo uses the psychoanalytical themes of repression, unreliable narration, and the blatant masochistic threat of searching out a serial murderer, in order to force the audience to feel compelled to watch the seen unfold in front of them. In this piece, the truth is contorted to fit the story of the characters, instead of the other way around. The unreliable narration of the characters portrays the unreliability of the world to comprehend the atrocities, such as that of a mass killer on the loose. “Angela. Is your story true? If your story’s not true, then it’s a novel. Christopher. Truth is an individual construct. If you believe in only one truth, you can believe in only one storyteller. Postmodernism completely exploded that idea, revealed it for what it was- sexist, racist, classist…a way to marginalize certain groups. (Gionfriddo 23)” Gionfriddo utilizes the unbound truth to her advantage to entice the audience to think. The unclear ending within the drama leaves the twist of questions, to wonder if there was such a murderer on the loose. While one of the main characters was in fact stabbed, the scene that this incident took place is conveniently cut out and the only one who knew what happened is one that is not know for her morals. This leads a side character to draw the audience into a possible conclusion of doubt: “Victims speak of being “encompassed: and “engulfed”. They talk about Ed like a lover, albeit a rather aggressive one. Yet none of them can provide a physical description. The composites they produce are useless. Are we, I begin to wonder, imposing unity and order on a bunch of disparate attacks that have nothing at all to do with one another? (Pause.) If they even occurred at all.” The outrageous implications of individuals crating the illusion of a killer is very harsh and has to be considered by law officials everyday, however, this is overlooked by the masses in the real world. This imagery of a possible skulking killer and a badly wounded young New York woman pulls the audience away from their fantasy trifle of which shoes to buy or if there designer bag gained enough recognition. The dwindling afterthought of curiosity after the play sticks with the audience forcing them to wonder if people are really that shallow for fame. “Ms. Gionfriddo does capture the viciousness of a certain kind of New York dream. In the end, the lesson these women learn is simple. Fame is fame, however you get it. So when you meet a notorious serial killer in a dark alley, don’t run away. Ask for an autograph. (Zinoman)” Gionfriddo utilizes an additional standing theme for many postmodern literature pieces, in that the romantic interests harsh imagery of never to follow the “cookie cutter” role of happily ever after. If a character does end up with a partner, it is not out of choice or they are not satisfied with the coupling of the pair. The falsehood of the “American Dream” and Disney, have painted a captivating mural of endless romance and blossoming soul mates. This is not the case and while most modern individuals with agree with this, the standards are still set at this heightened level. Gionfriddo rips this apart within the drama, Becky Shaw. “(A rush to get this out before he stops her.) Listen to me, max. We have damage. People like Andrew and Suzanna will always run from us when we show them who we are. (Aim and…Fire) I see everything you are and I’m still here. When I was at the hospital, they asked me for a name…someone they should call in an emergency. A spouse, a parent. A child. I don’t have any of those people you don’t either. (Gionfriddo 69)” Becky and Max each portray and endless array of personal troubles that stem from status quote and societal acceptance, both are rooted to capitalism. Gionfriddo, as a postmodern literary author, breaks down the delusions crafted by childish fantasy propaganda. The years and generations of children hardwired to faithfully believe in the end of troubles or have lasting loves without work or commitment from both parties. These fallacies, while heart-warming stories, have driven through millions of children’s minds false expectations leading, or at least not helping, the divorce rate of the modern era. This theme of a fantasied shattered love connection is later is confirmed by the character Max, “see, you are why civilization is gonna end. You would choose a disgusting reality over a beautiful fiction. I don’t understand that. I want The Love Boat. I do not want a real boat with real lovers. ( Gionfriddo 19)” This reoccurring theme throughout postmodern literature is evident in every piece of literary work sampled thus far with many still using this as at least a subtheme for their work. In Becky Shaw, this theme is portrayed with a glimmer of irony wrapped in the stained silk of outrageous imagery when the dating pair is robbed before they can even get to the restaurant.

The last key style in postmodern literature to consider is that of poetry. The ancient art, first utilized by bards, foretold of the tales of the heavens and explained the mysteries of the world. In postmodern poetry, it is the poem itself that needs the interpreter for the intricate dance of words that when strung together make the rhymes of the Iliad seem like a well-explained textbook. The poet Seidel captured the essence of postmodern literature with his immense use of mockery and overflow of electrifying imagery: “Razzle-dazzle on the surface, wobbled-Jell-O sunlight, / A goddess and her buttocks walk across a bridge, / Electrocute the dazed, people can’t believe it’s her. (Seidel 25)” Seidel takes poetry to a whole new level with his indirect and interpretive free approach to his works. This forces the reader to not only decipher their personal meaning of the poem, but also to contemplate on what that meaning represents in aspect to the real world. As the irony gushes from his poems like a sap from a maple tree, the structure of the poems are more often than not highly sporadic and with this chaos of words, forces the reader to think on the true meaning. “The American trophies covered in tears that deck the American halls. (Seidel 6)” This phrase is the ending line for Seidel’s literary piece named Kill Poem. This poem’s themes with hunting, death, and the end of things and though the words convey this message, the true meaning of the poem is about the end of handmade services and goods. It references the Savile Row, civilized life, and imported goods. He focuses the reader to understand the changes in commodities and lifestyles. The world has shifted away from small businesses and to mass corporations, and continually refers to the world now as “a killing field.” Using Marxism, Seidel paints the world with its dark colors for his readers, revealing the true human nature and the death of something great to world. Marxism focuses on the materialistic social development within our modern world. The need for brands and the need to flaunt the status by affording the more expensive brand items. “Marx argued, exchange value takes on a power of its own, for commodities have the capacity to enhance desire, leading to what Marx called a commodity fetish. If Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century saw a world mesmerized by commodity fetishism, surely that concern has magnified many times by the twenty-first century, and many critics, from the conservative new critics to contemporary Marxists, have wondered about the role of art and literature as commodities as well as about the role of art and literature in competition with commodities. (Parker 215)” With this in mind, Seidel’s literary works take Marxism with into its words and centers this into a revelation of desire: brands, commodities, goods, and more desire to have it here and now. The best way to describe the postmodern effect that Seidel has as a poet of he world, is stated: “The simplest answer is that he’s an exhilarating and unsettling writer who is very good at saying things that can seem rather bad. When a Seidel poem begins, ‘The most beautiful power in the world has buttocks,’ it’s hard to know whether to applaud or shake your head. But that’s not the entire story. There is also the peculiar attraction — and occasional repulsion — of the Seidel persona. (David)” After reviewing all of the different main styles of writing, postmodern literature is the revolution against the darker aspects of capitalism that are starting to consume more of the world in a much more rapid growth. It uses irony to lighten the mood and reveal the facts that people do not want to acknowledge in a non-hostile or accusatory manner. It uses allusion to help the target audience relate to the opinions expressed regarding capitalism and its many flaws. It also uses outrageous imagery to shock the reader into realizing the extensiveness at which the corruption around us has consumed the people unto their own knowledge. With each generation, this blight of consumer lifestyle will grow exponentially. Postmodernism literature is a hope to continue to force the masses to think for themselves, to interpret for themselves, and to have their own opinions that are not fueled by popularity. “Thus, when an advertisement of the broader consumer culture that advertisements participate in asks us which new car (or new shoes or deodorant or flavor of ice cream or smartphone) we want, we think it through and then choose this one or that one. We may even think-and the system encourages us to think- that we have a genuine choice and that our choice expresses our individuality…We do not respond by saying, ‘Wait, I don’t need a car…’ And we do not say that the system that baits us into thinking we need them leads to an economic structure that distributes income and political power unequally and abusively. Instead of expressing our individuality, we let a screen of bogus individuality block us from realizing that we are acting more or less like everyone else. (Parker 224)”

Work Cited

Ellis, Bret E. American Psycho. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1991. Print.

Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print. Malpas, Simon. The Postmodern. London And New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, Print.

Norris, Bruce. The Pain and the Itch. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 2007. Print. Gionfriddo, Gina. U.S. Drag. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 2006. Print. Gionfriddo, Gina. Becky Shaw. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 2010. Print.

Seidel, Fredrick. Ooga-Booga. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. Print.

Orr, David. “ON POETRY: The Edge of Night.” The New York Times 22 May 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2013. <;.

Zinoman, Jason. “Two Single Women, Stylishly Shallow, in Pursuit of a Killer.” The New York Times 3 Mar. 2008. Web. 29 Oct. 2013 <;.

Isherwood, Charles. “The Indiscreet Moral Defects of the Bourgeoisie.” The New York Times 22 Sept. 2006. Web. 22 Oct. 2013.

Conley, John. The Poverty of Bret Easton Ellis. Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. Volume 65, Issue 3. Pages 117-137.

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