post modern

Who’s Ruling the Rules?

I’m thinking that folks writing books in this flowing stream-of-consciousness manner are either would-be, envious, behind-the-times  Joycists  or angry  anti-Strunkists revolting against every red-inked correction they ever received from instructors whose job was to make their writing readable.
But, then, I’m an old lady, taught the conventional punctuation of the early 1900’s by Teacher Kuhnau, who was born in Germany and understood that rules are important.
And I went on to teach teenagers the same rules he taught me.  We diagrammed in my classes. We rewrote essays until they were close to perfect. For years–until I began to realize that the red marks I was making on all those papers weren’t creating better writers, only better punctuationalists. Then I loosened up a little, wrote more Good!’s
and fewer Run-on!’s.
Only when I started writing full-time did I discover that my own writing was loosening up also.  I used fewer commas, forgot what semi-colons were for, got in the habit of  creating phrases instead of sets of words that could be diagrammed.  Forgot how to diagram.
Felt good, this sense of freedom. Maybe overdid it sometimes. I still believed in quotation marks, though, and my paragraphs had places in them to breath.
Then, through an attempt to get Graffiti Grandma into a Publish on Demand format, I paid for the manuscript to be proofread. The novel came back with digital red marks (the way it’s done now) on every page.  For a minute I thought Teacher Kuhnau was back. It took a number of hours and numerous pots of coffee to get through my reader’s corrections.  I learned a lot: that dumpster is spelled with a D; that too many had’s are deadening; that incomplete sentences are okay, for emphasis; that commas and semi- colons create a rhythm; that M dashes sometimes work even better than commas– a little like my old German teacher taught me.  I like the new look of Graffiti Grandma.  I’m inspired to try to get it published again; it breathes so well now, with at least one hundred new commas. 
So, I’ll never write two-page paragraphs with no commas unless I get inspired by too many cups of coffee and the event of rain outside my window after three months of yellow light and sweat when I walk the dog and try to find a cool place to read the latest novel by a post-modernist who is protesting the control he’s lived under for forty years and can finally throw off the chains of punctuation and write the way he’s always wanted to but no teacher would accept his premise that periods are a barrier to inspiration and  no publisher would even read his dystopia novel until a courageous young MFA’s short un-perioded story was accepted by a cutting edge literary magazine and began the revolution that is causing havoc in much of the reading world as it tries to read and inhale at the same time and which has brought these novels to my desk on this rainy day.


 The title got our attention.  And the fact that it had won a Pulitzer, which in my book club’s estimation is even better than a Booker. We made that decision after reading three English–accented winners in a row and several of us have sworn off of them for a while.  So we voted okay to a Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
            We have a rule that at least one of us has to have read a book before we choose it, and Allen said he had.  So had I, but it was a while ago and all I could remember is that it had raised my hackles.  I couldn’t remember why.
            I read it a second time. Usually in re-reading, I discover things  I missed first time around, but this time I recalled what had irritated me about this book.  I didn’t much like most of the characters, the story was not told in a  linear sequence, beginning to end, I never found an arc of any kind in the narration,  and the point of views switched so often I had to think before I assumed I knew who was talking.  The changes from past tense to present made my head swim.  Not only that, one complete chapter was a sixty-five page power point presentation.
            Seemed as though this author broke just about every rule I’ve ever known about writing a novel.  Did she do it on purpose?
            One critic called the book ‘post modern.” I knew about post partum, post menopause, post traumatic stress, post bikini-bathingsuit-ability, but I had to look up in Wikipedia to discover what post modern literature is.  Turns out, Jennifer Egan followed all of the po mo rules, if post modernists actually have rules.  And her story, Pulitzer in hand, walked away with reviews like  “A new classic in American fiction,” (Time) and “At once intellectually stimulating and moving,” (San Francisco Chronicle).  And many more even more effusive.
            And I was jealous.  When I break the rules, would-be agents tell me they didn’t fall in love with my novel(s), that the arc is obscure, that maybe I should just try writing from one POV, or linearly, or  (now I’m reading between the lines) I should forget about writing about old women.
            However, while I didn’t fall in love at first sight with Goon Squad, upon the second read, I realized that Egan had captured real people acting badly, and sometimes quite unexpectedly well, loving and not loving, failing and occasionally succeeding.  She had a firm grip, even in the power-point pages, on the anguish of being human in a unsteady world that changes before our very eyes.
            I’m beginning to understand that breaking rules, when done with purpose, can open a story like a whacked water melon, its characters and their lives spewed willy-nilly all over the place like slilppery black seeds.  It’s up to the reader to pick them up, toss some, plant a few. Who knows who or what will come up green and new next spring?
            Graffiti Grandma is not quite there.  Not even close.  But I am inspired to take another look at her,   at what makes her human, what makes her universal.  Thanks, Jennifer.

Scroll to Top