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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 Three: Charles Johnson


← 56 | 57 → CHAPTER THREE

In his 1990 novel Middle Passage, Johnson creates a narrative of slavery and of a slave ship that in both stories, differs from and follows the norms of more traditional adventures set at sea in some unusual ways. The narrator and main character, Rutherford Calhoun, a black ex-slave from Southern Illinois, talks and thinks in a manner that seems very unlike any reader’s expectations for such a character. Further, the story is set very specifically in the year 1830, allowing the observant reader to prove that there are various anachronisms in Middle Passage. While some may be unintentional or at least not directly intentional, others seem wholly intentional. Johnson’s style and methods in the novel raise many questions. For what purpose does Johnson use elements of postmodernism and intertextuality in Middle Passage? In what way or ways is Johnson using time and aberrations of time in Middle Passage, and why? What problems does Johnson have with racial and literary “typing,” both for his characters and for himself? Middle Passage is a novel that allows Johnson to successfully express in fiction many of his beliefs about culture, literature and our expectations of each. A few articles have been written about Middle Passage that point out postmodern elements in the novel, but always to illustrate some other point; thus far no one has attempted to explore why Johnson employs postmodernism as he does. However, in Middle Passage, which represents years of literary effort on his part,...

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