You Gotta Know These Postmodern Authors
- Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) was a Russian-American author. His 1955 novel Lolita depicts Humbert Humbert’s obsession with the adolescent Ramsdale resident Dolores Haze, whom Humbert nicknames “Lolita.” Humbert becomes Lolita’s stepfather by marrying her mother Charlotte, who soon dies. Lolita and Humbert travel the U.S. before Humbert enrolls Lolita at the Beardsley School for Girls. There, Lolita is cast in a play written by Clare Quilty, and devises a plan of escape. In Nabokov’s highly meta-fictional novel Pale Fire, a 999-line poem of the same name by John Shade is the subject of a lengthy commentary by the scholar Charles Kinbote. However, Kinbote’s notes are more concerned with himself than with the poem, revealing that he thinks of himself as King Charles, the exiled monarch of the land of Zembla. Nabokov’s other books include the novels Ada, or Ardor, which recounts an incestuous relationship; Invitation to a Beheading, about the condemned prisoner Cincinnatus, and The Defense, a Russian-language novel about the chess player Aleksandr Luzhin. In his memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov wrote about his wife Vera and his scientific interest in butterflies.
- Jorge Luis Borges BOR-hayss (1899–1986) was an Argentine short story writer who often dealt with meta-fictional themes. His story “The Library of Babel” depicts an infinite library made up of hexagonal rooms, which contain every possible 410-page book. In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” the fictional 20th-century author Pierre Menard writes a line-by-line reproduction of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which is much more interesting than the original because of the historical context in which the new version was produced. Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” describes an imaginary realm, created by a secret society of intellectuals, that gradually intrudes into the world of the story. “The Aleph” is named after a point from which every other point in the universe can be perceived. Many of Borges’s best-known stories appeared in the collections Ficciones and Labyrinths, the latter of which is named after a common motif in Borges’s work. For example, in “The Garden of Forking Paths” the author Ts’ui Pên tries to create a metaphorical “labyrinth” by writing a novel in which every event is followed by every possible outcome. The story is narrated by Ts’ui Pên’s descendent, Dr. Yu Tsun, who kills the Sinologist Stephen Albert to convey a coded message to German forces during World War I.
- Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was an American novelist best known for the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel centers on Billy Pilgrim, who experiences his life out of order after becoming “unstuck in time.” Like Vonnegut, Billy survives the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Billy is also kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians, and displayed in a zoo along with the actress Montana Wildhack. The Tralfamadorians have a fatalistic attitude towards mortality, which is mirrored in the novel’s repetition of the phrase “so it goes” after any mention of death. Vonnegut’s earlier novel Cat’s Cradle describes a fictional religion called Bokononism, which was founded on the Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. The plot of Cat’s Cradle partly focuses on ice-nine, a substance invented by Felix Hoenikker that has the power to destroy all life on Earth.
- Italo Calvino (1923–1985) was an Italian author. In his 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, the even-numbered sections are presented as the first chapters of a number of different books, each of which breaks off abruptly at a climactic moment. The odd-numbered sections are addressed in the second person to “You,” the reader of “Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.” You and a fellow book-lover named Ludmilla investigate oddities in the novels you are reading, in the process encountering a best-selling author named Silas Flannery, the deceitful translator Ermes Marana, and a scholar of Cimmerian literature named Professor Uzzi-Tuzii. Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities is framed as a conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, who describes 55 fictional cities to the Mongol ruler. Calvino is also known for his fantastical short stories, some of which are collected in the volume Cosmicomics and narrated by an ancient being named Qfwfq.
- Joseph Heller (1923–1999) was an American novelist. He satirized Army bureaucracy in his novel Catch-22, which was based on his experiences as a bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. The novel is set in Rome and on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, where John Yossarian is stationed with the 256th Squadron. “Catch-22” is a rule stating that airmen do not have to fly missions if they are insane, but that applying to be excused from flying missions is proof of sanity; consequently, there is no way to avoid the dangerous missions. Characters in the novel include the arch-capitalist mess officer Milo Minderbinder, who sets up a syndicate called M&M Enterprises, and Major Major Major, who is accidentally promoted to the rank of major because of his unusual name. The novel’s main antagonist is Colonel Cathcart, who continually raises the number of missions that airmen must fly before they are allowed to go home. In 1994 Heller wrote a sequel to Catch-22, titled Closing Time.
- Don DeLillo (born 1936) is an American author. His 1985 breakout novel White Noise is narrated by Jack Gladney, a professor of “Hitler Studies” at a Midwestern college. After a chemical spill results in an “Airborne Toxic Event,” Jack’s wife Babette begins taking a mysterious drug called Dylar. Three years later DeLillo published Libra, a novel about assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s participation in a fictional conspiracy against John F. Kennedy. DeLillo also wrote the 1997 novel Underworld, in which the waste management executive Nick Shay buys the baseball that was hit by New York Giants player Bobby Thomson in the 1951 “Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
- Thomas Pynchon (born 1937) is a reclusive American novelist. His 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow follows Tyrone Slothrop, a lieutenant in World War II whose sexual encounters seem to predict the locations of future V-2 rocket strikes. A number of characters in the novel are trying to find the secret of a mysterious device called the Schwärzgerat, which is to be installed in a rocket with the serial number 00000. Pynchon also wrote The Crying of Lot 49, in which Oedipa Maas suspects that she has become entangled in an ancient conflict between the Thurn und Taxis and Trystero mail delivery services. Other Pynchon novels include V., in which Herbert Stencil searches for the mysterious title entity, and Inherent Vice, about the Los Angeles private investigator Doc Sportello.
- Salman Rushdie (born 1947) is a novelist born in India, who holds British and American citizenship. Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight’s Children follows Saleem Sinai, a man with an enormous nose who is born at precisely the moment that India becomes independent, giving him telepathic powers. Other members of the novel’s title group—the people born within an hour of independence—include Shiva, a child with enormous knees, and the magical Parvati-the-witch. Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses begins as the actors Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha are miraculously saved after their plane explodes over the English Channel. Upon being betrayed by Gibreel, Saladin seeks revenge by ruining Gibreel’s relationship with the mountaineer Allie Cone. The Satanic Verses was condemned in a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The fatwa accused Rushdie of blasphemy, and ordered Muslims to kill Rushdie, his editors, and his publishers. In 1998, Iran agreed not to actively seek Rushdie’s death. Rushdie described his years of hiding in the memoir Joseph Anton; the title refers to the pseudonym that Rushdie adopted, which was inspired by the authors Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. Rushdie’s other novels include The Moor’s Last Sigh, which is narrated by the swiftly aging Moraes Zogoiby; The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which was loosely inspired by the legend of Orpheus; and the young adult books Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life.
- David Foster Wallace (1962–2008) was an American author. His massive 1996 novel Infinite Jest depicts a future North America in which years are named after corporate products. The novel is set mainly at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House and the Enfield Tennis Academy (where Hal Incandenza is a student). Hal’s father, James, directs “the Entertainment,” a dangerously enthralling film sought by Quebeçois terrorists known as the Wheelchair Assassins. Wallace’s other novels are The Broom of the System and The Pale King, the latter of which was left unfinished at his 2008 suicide. Wallace is also known for his essay collections, including Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
- Zadie Smith (born 1975) is a British novelist. Her 2000 debut novel White Teeth depicts the Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal and his English friend Archie Jones, who both live in London. Samad’s son Magid becomes an atheist scientist who joins Marcus Chalfen’s project to develop a genetically modified “FutureMouse,” while Magid’s twin brother Millat joins a Muslim fundamentalist group called KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Both twins sleep with Archie’s daughter, Irie. Smith’s other novels include NW, which takes place in northwest London; Swing Time, which describes a troubled dancer named Tracey; and the academic novel On Beauty, which is loosely based on E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Will Nediger.