The Zig of DFW…

The great Modernists (Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Woolf) zigged away from tradition and rewrote the book. Depth over surface.

David Lodge, in Consciousness and the Novel, wrote about a literary shift, a zag, that occurred in fiction with the late Modernists (early postmodernists?) to more extended  dialogue, more surface work–something that wouldn’t have happened without the influence of cinema.

Novelists like Waugh, Greene, Orwell and others represent the reverse of “modernist privileging of depth over surface…a striking readjustment of the ratio of dialogue to narrative, of direct speech to the rendering of characters’ unspoken thoughts.”


“The emphasis on dialogue and external appearances in these novelists, leaving thought and feeling to be implied, was not the only effect of cinema on the novel.  It also brought story back into literary fiction.”

So those writers tossed a grenade on their elders’ desks and zagged away from the older zig; zagging back to more traditional forms, but filtered through new technologies; the adaptation of cinematic narrative techniques in fiction.

The accelerating century produced another great literary zig with postmodernist writers like Vonnegut, Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon who tossed smoke bombs that haven’t yet been completely snuffed–though folks like John Gardner did throw themselves over them in a reactionary realist zag.

Consider Infinite Jest.  Certainly the chapter-length continuous dialogues and other lunacies of DFW would not have been possible without film, TV and more recent technologies.  Since he was writing Infinite Jest at the dawn of the world wide web V 1.0 (’94-’95) his wild use of endnotes would seem to hypertextual—click here and zoom off to some other place. (Imagine a footnote here with a discussion of the idea of place, textual maps that help fuel non-realist fiction.)  Just make sure you’ve kept an analog finger bookmark so you can navigate your way back.  Then dog-ear your favorites. Infinite Jest is a thicket of its own webs with low-hanging branches that might knock your head off.

And in our increasingly circuit board flat world, with much of our fiction routed through strictly realist filters I am zigged to see an unruly Pynchonian horn being tooted.


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