Contemporary Fiction

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All these different reactions to realism you can think about in terms of literary movements. For example, early on in the history of the novel, there was a Gothic movement. Gothic novels were full of things that could never possibly happen: giants and ghosts and strange monks. These were produced at the same time as there were realist novels about people living their ordinary lives. Then in the twentieth century, there was modernism.

Writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf tried to be more real than real. For example, when we talk to people, our minds do flash back to the past or flash forward to the future: perhaps we are thinking what we will have for lunch. Modernist writers try to reflect that, and this makes their novels in some ways harder to read, more interior. After modernism came postmodernism. Writers such as Salman Rushdie or Angela Carter again questioned realism, this time by using pastiche, retelling stories from different angles, and being self-referential.

Postmodernism began to lose its energy in the s. So, is there a major literary movement that succeeds postmodernism? Well, the short answer is no. However, I think we can discern three different strands in contemporary writing. The first trend is that of writers who use postmodern tricks, yet do so in way that is slightly less adventurous or experimental. There has also been a return to modernism. Writers such as Ali Smith have produced difficult and beautiful novels that hark back to Virginia Woolf and to James Joyce in a very self-conscious manner. In that novel, you get the beginning of a story, and then within that story, the characters find a diary, and you get the diary.

In the diary, the protagonists find some letters, and then you get the letters.

So you have lots of the first half of stories but no ending, no closure. It is funny and moving, but it is also quite frustrating. David Mitchell has learned from Calvino in Cloud Atlas , which is a sort of science fiction novel that has been hugely successful. In this novel, you find stories that interlock like Russian dolls. But here, you also get the second half of all the stories, so your desire to hear the whole story is met.

That is an obvious example of a writer learning clever postmodern tricks, but domesticating them.

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The novel has a strong storyline, and offers a sense of closure. Post-postmodern writers are keen on restituting a sense of narrative. Yes, indeed, and with writing as a technology. You become so wrapped up in the novel that the writing somehow disappears. But postmodernism and post-postmodernism are constantly drawing attention to the technology of writing itself.

They constantly remind you that what you are reading is only a story. Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. One of the things that David Mitchell plays with is different technologies of writing. The story is told by means of a diary, pulp fiction, a film script, and a science fiction orison which is a sort of communication device from the far future.

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Then the middle story is a type of folktale told in an invented language. So the novel is very interested in the technologies of its own representation, and how they change over time. You suggested that Ali Smith is a writer who harks back to modernism. Can you expand? Of course.

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It is the story of a family that goes on holiday, implodes and then comes back together again. The story is told in a variety of different ways. There is a narrator who is a very clever young girl. Then another narrator is a pretentious and depressed young man.


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The step-father is an English academic; his chapter is told in a type of pastiche poetry all the way through. This is very reminiscent of writers like Virginia Woolf. Yes, there are many Joycean elements in this novel. In particular, there are two passages that are made out of film titles taken from history of cinema that echo parts of Ulysses.

These passages are strange and quite demanding, but also beautiful. Teaching and writing about contemporary literature, are you ever tempted to ask writers about their influences? To a certain extent.

It is worth bearing in mind that even when writers are willing to discuss their work openly, what they say is rarely the case. Asking about influence is an exception, and is often illuminating. The writers they have liked, are excited by, try to imitate, or have grown out of, usually tells you a great deal about their work. One of the most important influences is W G Sebald. Sebald was born in Germany, lived in Britain, and died in a car crash in , just after the publication of his novel Austerlitz. Sebald has had a huge, almost subterranean influence on literature.

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His first three or four books are hard to categorise. The walking tour results in him having a nervous breakdown. Everything he sees is connected to destruction. Or he sees a small-gauge railway, and he discovers that the train was originally built for the emperor of China, although it was never sent due to the Boxer Rebellion, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Sebald has influenced writers such as Robert MacFarlane , who intellectualises walking and experiencing in his environmental writing.

You learn about the people he meets while travelling. For example, he meets an extremely well-educated Muslim migrant in a phone shop in Brussels, and they talk about left-wing politics. Simultaneously, you learn scraps about the narrator, as it were from his reflections in other people. Many of the stories in this novel are about migrants, and the movement of people getting into America, or failing to get into America. Although I want to avoid spoilers, as the novel develops, you uncover something very unsettling about the narrating main character.

In the novel, migration is closely related to the theme of looking in the city, and of blindness. Indeed, there are different levels of blindness. The most obvious blindness is that of the populations of New York or Brussels to migrants and the effects of migration.

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There is another sort of blindness, in which the narrator is escaping from something, and is blind to his own behaviours in all sorts of interesting ways. How can Dave Eggers write an autobiography of someone else? This sort of joke is typical for Eggers.


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  6. This book switches from autobiography to fiction. What is the What is a similarly strange mixture of a book. You might say it was ghost-written by Dave Eggers, but his name is on the front cover as a writer. You might say that it is a novel that is true to life, but it is also an autobiography: Achak Deng is telling his story.

    The title alone is supposed to make you a bit anxious.