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Omniscience, Paranoia, and Postmodern Fiction

Broadly, there are two diverging traditions evident in contemporary fiction. The first is often called “realism” and is today most notably evangelized by the critic James Wood, who in his writer’s handbook How Fiction Works praises literature that approaches what he calls “the real” and holds up Gustave Flaubert as the pinnacle of the novel form. The second tradition, meanwhile, has neither as consistent a name nor as persistent a defender, but it’s often referred to by the shorthand “postmodernism”—not “postmodernism” in the technical sense as its used by academics and literary theorists but instead in the looser way that writers like David Foster Wallace talk about it, a catchall term for fiction that’s less interested in realism and the “authentic human experience” and much more in metafictional ideas about fiction’s inherent artificiality.

Since Wallace’s 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, which critiqued postmodernism and called for a “New Sincerity” in fiction, most literary fiction has hewed towards a James-Wood-style realism, and postmodern novels written in the style of Thomas Pynchon have been dismissed by reviewers as antiquated and inhuman. But after reading Ned Beauman’s 2017 madcamp literary historical thriller Madness is Better than Defeat, I began to wonder if “postmodern” novels might be back in fashion—because not only was this novel so much more alive than a lot of the traditionally “realist” fiction I’d recently read, it also served as the perfect metafictional defense of postmodern fiction itself.

Madness opens with a man wrestling an octopus in an underground New York club, a scene which functions both as homage to Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (in which the paranoid hero Slothrop rescues a woman being attacked by an octopus on a beach in France) and also as a message to the reader that the following pages will certainly not be invested in “the real.” The novel’s main plot then centers on a film crew from Los Angeles and the employees of a corporation from New York who in 1938 both travel to a recently discovered Mayan temple in the Honduran jungle, the former to shoot a comedy entitled Hearts in Darkness, the latter to disassemble the temple and bring it back to New York on the whim of their company’s founder. The two expeditions end up in a standoff that lasts twenty years, during which time the crews end up creating their own society in the jungle. The novel itself is narrated, though, by a CIA officer named Zonulet who in 1958 is looking to find the temple for himself—and without spoiling too much, something within the temple has given him the power of omniscience, allowing him to go in and out of the minds of all of the various characters on the expedition and tell a third-person story that moves back and forth between 1938 and 1958.

Beauman is thus clearly interested in ideas of omniscience and perspective and the larger question of what exactly makes a novel. Zonulet himself is very self-aware of the novelistic quality of his own account (he frequently compares writing a CIA report to writing a novel—“The agency generates millions of pages of documents a year, much of that in the form of first-person narratives, and although the internal literature of the agency may never have had its Modernist or its Beat period, it’s absurd to suppose that a bunch of neophiliac college-educated guys at their typewriters would be totally unaffected by what’s going on out there at the publishing houses that in some cases they’re secretly funding.”), and because of this it can be easy to dismiss him as “unreliable”—but of course, that unreliability is exactly Beauman’s point, that all fiction is inherently artificial, a construction of multiple perspectives from a supposedly omniscient and likely paranoid narrator. Paranoia is another classic trope of postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon, and for Beauman it likewise is one of the central qualities that makes a novel a novel. “Don’t you realize,” one of the characters asks of Zonulet, “simile is a form of paranoia? Proposing a connection between two things because you and only you can make out some hidden correspondence in the manner of their operation?”

Thus, for Beauman, fiction can never be “real” because its always someone’s construct— a perfect encapsulation of the central idea of postmodern fiction. In How Fiction Works, James Wood might criticize postmodernism for its flat characters and lack of seriousness, arguing that because “no one really exists” there is no “real menace”—but as Thomas Meany recently argued in an article in The Times Literary Supplement, Wood’s obsession with realism and his prioritizing of aesthetics over politics is just another product of the 1990s post-Cold-War end-of-history ideology, a belief that just as human society reached its apex with American liberal capitalism, the novel reached its own pinnacle with Flaubert-style literary realism, implying that postmodernism is thus as obsolete as socialism (and I would suggest too that David Foster’s Wallace “New Sincerity” movement represents another similar post-historical reaction). In defiant opposition to the limited worldview of James Wood, Ned Beauman proves with Madness is Not Defeat that history and postmodernism are far from over. Here, in 400+ exuberant pages, we get a glorious pastiche of the mid-twentieth century, from the CIA to the United Fruit Company to Hollywood to British anthropology, and all of it constructed with a masterful postmodern vision, like the Mayan temple at the novel’s center.