the Uncool postmodern

Twice in Lee Konstantinou’s The Last Samurai ReRead, he comes close to saying the quiet part out loud. First, in the preface, “I first read the book in 2007, thinking I might want to include it in a project I was writing about novelists who were trying to move beyond postmodernism,” (Konstantinou 2022, xiii). Then again in the opening chapter, “When it has been discussed, The Last Samurai has largely been written about as if it were part of the postmodern tradition.” (Konstantinou 2022, 11). As somebody whose research expertise in his faculty bio for the University of Maryland includes “Postmodern and Contemporary Textual and Digital Studies,” perhaps Konstantinou isn’t in the best position to be explicit about it. Whatever the reason for the sheepishness with which the message is delivered, it comes through loud and clear in this book: Postmodern is not cool, nor is it something to aspire to be. 

Having worked at a bookstore for most of the last three years, this was a trend I had been starting to notice on my own. The late David Foster Wallace has become something of a stand-in for a certain kind of Bad reader: the literary bro too engrossed in outdated ideas of White Male Genius to have learned about the unsavory details of Wallace’s personal life, missing the ensuing outrage. As one of the poster boys for the postmodern movement as well as one of its biggest critics, Wallace has now come to represent all of postmodernism’s worst tendencies, particularly the ironic and metafictional tropes that Wallace himself tried to get away from. Superficially, it makes sense that Konstantinou would want to rescue this book that he admires deeply from being associated with postmodernism and all of its “negative” connotations. 

How, then, to understand DeWitt’s own “keen interest” in Wallace? (Lorentzen and Sicher 2016). Could it just be that she and Wallace were contemporaries, with DeWitt’s The Last Samurai coming out just four years after Infinite Jest? While DeWitt openly views herself in competition with Wallace, there seems to be a deeper connection between the works, as Konstantinou himself notes in his book on DeWitt. “It’s often taken as an example of one of the most prestigious postmodern genres, encyclopedic narrative,” he writes on page 11. Another (in)famous example of an encyclopedic novel, a genre generally characterized by the length of the books and their incorporation of almost excruciatingly detailed technical knowledge, is of course, Infinite Jest. He takes issue with the gendered tenor of prior reviews, which depict DeWitt as an outsider in a genre that’s typically been described as a “boys’ club,” and successfully debunks a prior reviewer’s claim that DeWitt was among the first to prove that women could be learned too. 

Konstantinou does not, however, offer as strong of an argument for why The Last Samurai as a text should be understood as something other than a postmodern, encyclopedic novel. His essential claim is that The Last Samurai challenges the distinction between emotion and intellect, which is an interpretation of DeWitt that seems sound enough to me. It’s not clear, though, how this makes her work stand far enough apart from the postmodern tradition, especially considering his list of six other novels by women in the encyclopedic tradition on the preceding page, ranging from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans from 1925 through Karen Tei Yamashita’s 2010 release, I Hotel. He doesn’t claim that DeWitt was the first to challenge this distinction in her allegedly postmodern work, and I don’t think he’s even trying to imply as much. But what, then, remains of his claim that DeWitt’s novel is categorically different from books like Infinite Jest

The Last Samurai Reread doesn’t offer much of an answer to this question, and just about abandons the topic of postmodernism for the remaining 110 pages of the book. His analysis of the text is thorough, and the book is a genuine contribution to what will hopefully be a growing field of DeWitt scholarship. And yet, months after having read the book, I can’t get past this professor of postmodernism’s explicit, yet half-hearted attempts to distance The Last Samurai from postmodernism. To me, it feels like a lazy capitulation to a certain kind of “cool” reader of literature, one who would never be caught dead even dating somebody who had read Infinite Jest in anything but an ironic way. The way he implies without saying that the work is not postmodern and is sure to position Wallace’s name within a few sentences or words of the genre give the impression that the two can’t be separated, and operates under the assumption that we all know why that’s a bad thing. 

Finding some resolution to our culture’s relation to artists who have abhorrent personal lives is not in the scope of this essay. Nor am I really all that interested in determining whether The Last Samurai is or is not postmodern. If a professor of postmodernism can’t find it in himself to define the term in his own book or articulate much of an argument as to why DeWitt shouldn’t be considered encyclopedic, I don’t feel like I should have to either. Instead, I am urging critics to stop ceding an entire literary genre to one infamous example. It’s one thing to snicker at a dopey customer who fits the caricature of a DFW bro when you’re on a lunch break as a bookseller – recreating that superficial analysis in an academic book is an entirely different, and I think, much more malicious literary practice. 

Perpetuating the notion that postmodernism is a Canceled white man club ignores the vast tradition of postmodern literature by non-white authors. Konstantinou himself names Karen Tei Yamashita, whose Tropic of Orange comes the closest to Infinite Jest in theme and structure (minus the endnotes) as any other book I’ve read. Not to mention the entire catalog of Percival Everett, whose distinctly ironic, metafictional work is still being shortlisted for major literary prizes in 2022 and onward. The label has even been applied to world famous authors like Salman Rushdie and Ursula LeGuin, whose fame and work predate DFW’s apparent ascension to King of the Postmodern. It seems that critics have only abandoned the redeeming qualities of the genre more recently, in the wake of the literary public’s turn on Wallace himself. 

Had The Last Samurai performed as DeWitt had hoped and outsold Infinite Jest, it’s unlikely that there would be any debate as to whether the novel was postmodern or not. Had it gotten the recognition it deserved in its first printing, reviewers would no longer have to compare it to more popular contemporary works to argue for its relevance. Maybe, though, in embracing The Last Samurai’s distinctly postmodern qualities, we can start to redefine the genre in a way that more accurately reflects the diversity of the genre and the authors who have belonged to the tradition even before Infinite Jest was ever published. Instead of scrambling for a new word for writers like Everett or Yamashita who do not resemble the contemporary postmodern prototype, we change the prototype to reflect what the genre has been since its inception. Maybe then, postmodernism can become cool again. 

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