It’s okay if you’ve never really understood what postmodernism is—not many people really know. You can spend hours reading critical theory and still not really get it, because part of its thing is that you’re just not supposed to get it. This literary movement is especially helpful when you’re cornered in a conversation and literally have no idea what people are talking about—just drop in a line about the “surprising, yet subtle postmodern implications.” This intellectual-sounding yet impenetrable statement will turn the tables and it will be someone else’s turn to be confused. After a nod intended to convey understanding, they’ll move on and avoid the topic altogether.
White Noise, by Don Delillo
As one of the titanic works of postmodern fiction, White Noise is a must-know for anyone hoping to look like they know anything about contemporary literature. Though it’s a little dated now, the novel focuses on the darker side of modern technological advancement. Themes of consumerism, fear, intellectualism, and the degradation of the nuclear family are brilliantly synthesized, and the story is told from the ironic viewpoint of a middle-aged man who has the ability to comment on the surrounding absurdity while simultaneously being completely wrapped up in it. The book is hilarious and also terrifying. The use of technology is merely a distraction from the inevitability of death—the Airborne Toxic Event hangs above us all.
- Say this: “SIMUVAC is the simulacrum at play. Reality is replication.”
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
. . . because, like Dubliners, everyone who talks about this book has absolutely, positively read the whole thing. For undergrads, mention of this book is purely a strategic power play. Like White Noise, the book is often humorous while exploring huge topics like the authority of media and advertising, addiction, linguistics, identity, and science. Wallace certainly gave himself a solid platform to cover all of this—the whole thing runs over a thousand pages, features numerous plots and subplots, and has been categorized as an “encyclopedic novel” due to its extensive use of endnotes and footnotes (where much of the story is actually told).
- Say this: “It’s textbook deconstruction: narrative cohesion disregarded in favor of a seemingly complex yet uncontrolled splatter of unresolved, nonlinear information.”
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Morrison is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most celebrated authors alive today. Her writing is consistent and intense, featuring vivid descriptions and real, gritty dialogue that often serves as a commentary on the alienation of and within the African American community. Beloved focuses on the lives and shattered identities of former slaves as they struggle to make themselves present in a free world that seems so distant from their oppressive past. Sethe, a mother who has fled from slavery with her children, is haunted by her time spent working on the plantation as well as an event in which she is almost caught and forced to return. Because of her inability to recover from her past, Sethe forms a devastating relationship with Beloved, a young woman she believes to be her daughter.
- Say this: “No more judging books by the back cover. Historical fiction and crazy women and ghosts are fiction at its absolute best.”