Playing with Expectations

Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel

by Preston Park Cooper (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 177 Pages
Series: Modern American Literature, Volume 70


Playing with Expectations: Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel explores a merging of works by African American novelists to promote critical acceptance of postmodern literature and advance the legitimacy and usefulness of postmodern literary techniques. This book examines novels by Ishmael Reed, Charles Johnson, and Toni Morrison, and two novels by comparative newcomer Colson Whitehead – all of whom have used postmodern techniques not only to help their work be read, but to gain a racially wide audience that is open, willing, and able to understand.
Jean-François Lyotard’s concept of local narratives and grand narratives helps show how African American novels, using postmodern strategies, function as small-scale narratives. Consequently, these narratives, set up in opposition to hegemonic metanarratives, offer readers an alternative mode of thinking to that offered by the larger, more widely diffused and self-distributing grand narratives. By providing realistic characters in ways that defy the typical grand narratives of race, as well as the expectations of storytelling itself, readers are stimulated into new realizations about previously accepted ideas, and become prepared to spread the now-realized truth about the inaccuracies of the racist grand narratives.
This book is a vital and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation about storytelling and race, and will engage readers in classroom discussions dealing with race, postmodernism, or twentieth-century literature in a more general sense.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Lyotard and Metanarratives
  • Reed, Johnson, Morrison, Whitehead, and Metanarratives
  • African American Literature, Culture, and Metanarratives
  • Teun A. van Dijk’s Elite Discourse and Racism
  • Discourse and Racist Metanarratives
  • Lyotard and The Postmodern Condition
  • Postmodern Theory, Postmodern Strategies
  • Chapter Two: Ishmael Reed
  • Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo, and Experiments with Style
  • Mumbo Jumbo and Expectations of Time and Genre
  • Fiction vs. Nonfiction, Fiction vs. Reality
  • Japanese by Spring
  • Defiance of Expectations in Japanese by Spring and Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down
  • Flight to Canada’s Postmodern Exposure of Slavery
  • Flight to Canada and the Breaking Down of Boundaries
  • Flight to Canada and Poe
  • Flight to Canada and Levels of Reality
  • Issues of African American Identity in Regard to Writing and Rewriting
  • Afterword
  • Chapter Three: Charles Johnson
  • Defying Expectations in Middle Passage
  • Middle Passage’s Postmodern Play with Modes of Discourse
  • Middle Passage and Intertextuality
  • Playful vs. Serious Treatment of Issues
  • An Inheritance of Mixed Influences
  • Race, Literature, and Johnson
  • Dreamer: A Novel
  • Doubling and the Constructedness of Narratives
  • Appropriation of Authorial Identity, Including Johnson’s Own
  • Chapter Four: Toni Morrison
  • Beloved
  • Paradise
  • Song of Solomon
  • The Bluest Eye
  • Jazz
  • Chapter Five: Colson Whitehead
  • The Intuitionist’s Mysterious Narration
  • Vagary as the Author’s Tool
  • A New Metaphor for Inhumanity
  • Intuitionism, Sight, and Invisibility
  • Communicating with Everything
  • The Perfect Elevator/Novel
  • Delivering Messages
  • John Henry Days
  • The Atypical Vignettes
  • Whitehead and Comic Books
  • John Henry Days and the Power of Pop
  • Whitehead and Recursive America
  • Chapter Six: Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Works Cited
  • Works Consulted
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Martha Cutter, who gave me valuable advice at various points, and Dawn Lashua’s help and advice and encouragement was also extremely important to me.

I also thank my parents, who have encouraged and supported me and have always believed in me.

Most of all, I would like to thank my wife Barbara Lien-Cooper. Her support and love, her courage and patience and kindness, made this possible.← vii | viii →

← viii | 1 → CHAPTER ONE

African American writers are producing successful and critically noted novels using postmodern techniques. Because postmodern African American writers and their techniques are quite complementary to one another, they have met and merged in a partial symbiosis. Initially, the work of African American novelists reflected the efforts to advance, critically and in the popular esteem, a collective body of work. In a gradual process, but especially in the last four or five decades, these efforts have sometimes met and mingled with the efforts to promote critical acceptance of postmodern literature, or at least the legitimacy and usefulness of postmodern literary techniques.

The need to be heard, to be read, to gain an audience that is open, ready, willing, and able to understand is an extremely important factor motivating African American writing. It is advantageous, therefore, for the African American novel to find and use techniques that allow it to reach a racially wide audience, techniques that will succeed in spite of the fact that writing for such an audience of readers risks losing a portion of some readers’ identifications with the issues and viewpoints the novel presents. Instead of pretending that an American audience of readers does not have cultural splits along racial lines when it comes to identifying with a given racially-charged message or viewpoint, some of the most successful African American novelists have chosen to use postmodern narrative techniques, writing for and thereby pointing out to the readers that they are united by their ← 1 | 2 → postmodern American society, even though they live in a racially divided society. They cannot pretend to ignore the problem of racial division, because they need to write about the problem.

Postmodern strategies, by the very nature of the ways in which they function, promote identification and acceptance in the reader. They cause the reader to accept that, whoever this author or narrator is, he or she is offering a story in which at least some of the important characters are living in a world which is postmodern: difficult to control or understand, impersonal, lacking in the amount of meaning they would like to have in their lives. These characters are often ironic, or else self-consciously flaunting the irony inherent in their lives. Having shown the reader that they have situated the characters in a world whose postmodern qualities the reader shares, the authors can then proceed to deal with the problems of racial division and cultural lack which they wish to address. It is also important to remember that postmodern narrative techniques often work because they are based on the same principles as humor. Postmodernism, when successful, is fun. The way that the postmodern takes the conventional and the formulaic and the expected and turns it on its head uses what the reader already knows to reduce what has gone before to a level of absurdity, helping to ensure that the reader can be encouraged to think about the author’s points without feeling preached at or lectured.

Lyotard and Metanarratives

In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-Francois Lyotard rejects what he terms “metanarratives” (“grand” or “super” narratives), such as Christianity, Marxism, and the myth of scientific progress, because they purport to explain the world in ways that are in fact not “true” but arbitrary, intolerant of difference, and always in the service of one or another vested interest seeking to gain or retain power. Lyotard suggests that we live in a time when such narratives are no longer even tenable, if only because it is no longer possible to represent the majority in any given time or place to subscribe to a single set of beliefs. This being the case, argues Lyotard, the contemporary or “postmodern” world is left to pledge allegiance to what he calls “mininarratives” or “micro narratives”: provisional, temporary, contingent “explanations of things.” Lyotard argues that the postmodern seeks to present the unpresentable, and that its writers are working without the normal rules in order to determine the rules of “what will have been done” (Lyotard 1984, p. 81).

In contemporary America, perhaps no group of Americans has had as much reason to be suspicious of national grand narratives—of, for instance, the American Dream, our myths of the self-made man, our conviction that everyone possesses ← 2 | 3 → inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—as have African Americans. It is perhaps no accident that several critically acclaimed, and often quite popular, African American novelists have written books that take dismissive aim at the grand narratives official U.S. culture has pretended to subscribe to and believe in, novels that replace such myths with provisional, temporary, contingent explanations of things.

If African American novels that use postmodern strategies function as small-scale narratives that are set up in opposition to hegemonic metanarratives, we must ask how these strategies are successful. Besides generating some critical excitement and/or various controversies, preferably spilling out beyond the insular scope of academia, and besides allowing the writers to have their personal societal needs fulfilled, how successful are these novels at challenging metanarratives? What is successful about these stories in regard to the metanarrative-versus-localized-narrative conflict? I wish to look at these novels in order to examine how they were written in such a way as to offer the reader an alternative mode of thinking, an alternative viewpoint, to that offered by the larger and more widely diffused and self-distributed metanarratives.

Reed, Johnson, Morrison, Whitehead, and Metanarratives

In subsequent chapters, I would like to examine exactly which national grand narratives have been discarded in the fiction of Ishmael Reed, Charles Johnson, Toni Morrison, and Colson Whitehead. All are critically acclaimed African American writers who use postmodern strategies. As a whole, they do not tend to single out the same hegemonic narratives to reject, although each individual author does have specific narratives which he or she keeps returning to dismiss and undermine through his or her works.

Often, for example, Reed dismisses the idea that African Americans would be content and treated as equals if they would only accept American metanarratives such as Christianity, and/or the hegemonically-approved version of American history. Morrison’s works tend to repudiate the notion that African Americans and women of whatever race—but especially African American women—have equal treatment or equal opportunities with men, and that it is not true that the past must play a role in present American happiness. In a similar fashion to Reed and Morrison, Johnson especially enjoys demonstrating that the American past, as it is generally imagined, is a fiction that limits our present. Whitehead tends to reject the idea that men and women in postmodern society can attain or are attaining the American Dream. He suggests that no one can be really happy without being fully cognizant of one’s true lack of freedom and rejecting the lie that “things are ← 3 | 4 → okay.” However, to say, broadly, that each of these authors fights these metanarrative statements is a generality, and such a statement is very limited. In truth, each author deals with a set of oppressive fictitious cultural statements that is at least slightly different for each novel.

I have chosen these writers because of the influence of Reed, Morrison, and Johnson on later writers, African American and otherwise. These writers offer excellent examples of using postmodern techniques, although the clear-cut evidence of the postmodern nature is obvious only in some of Morrison’s works. These writers are successful in using a variety of techniques to infuse their styles with postmodern elements and choices.

Postmodernism is a category, and is closely linked to modernism. Therefore, we must draw boundary lines on it at some point, chronologically speaking. I believe that postmodernism grew out of modernism, but has become something quite different. Modernism is rational, objective, and believes in progress. Postmodernism does not believe in the possibility of constant rationality, does not believe in objectivity, and does not believe progress can happen “until things get straightened out,” which may not be possible depending on which “things” the statement refers within a given situation. Here, those “things” are most often going to be racism and racist metanarratives.


VIII, 177
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Toni Morrison Colson Whitehead Postmodernism African American Novel
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. VIII, 177 pp.

Biographical notes

Preston Park Cooper (Author)

Preston Park Cooper received his PhD in literature from Kent State University. He currently teaches English at Austin Community College. He wrote two chapters in Cross-Cultural Visions in African American Literature: West Meets East (2011), one of which he presented as a paper at the 2007 MLA conference: «‘A Beautiful Black Butterfly’: Eastern Aesthetics and Postmodernism in Ishmael Reed’s Japanese by Spring.» He has also written book reviews for the African American Review.


Title: Playing with Expectations
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