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Playing with Expectations

Postmodern Narrative Choices and the African American Novel


Preston Park Cooper

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.
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Chapter Two: Ishmael Reed


← 20 | 21 → CHAPTER TWO

What impedes the peace talks that would lead to a more peaceful co-existence is the monopoly that performance intellectuals arguing for a monocultural standard have in this debate. Print is still one way to talk back. (Reed in his introduction to MultiAmerica 1997, p. xxiv)

David Mikics’ essay on Ishmael Reed in the online journal Postmodern Culture examines the relationship between Reed’s postmodernism and his goal as an African American writer, but while Mikics’ observations on these subjects are quite on-target, his approach is rather different from mine. In Mikics’ view, the successful use by Reed of these two literary directions being combined into individual works is pleasing yet surprising, as opposed to simply being logical. Part of the way Mikics’ perception of this blending is clear from the way Mikics situates his working definition of postmodernism:

Reed’s work suggests how African American tradition, which generally—not always, but generally—wants to depict the survival of a people and a culture in its original, authentic strength, can be reconciled with postmodernism, which destroys the notions of origin, authenticity and tradition itself (Mikics 1991).

This concept of postmodernism better fits the title of deconstructionism, and although deconstruction, it is true, is often an important part of postmodernism, the two are not interchangeable.

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