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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 Five: Colson Whitehead


← 124 | 125 → CHAPTER FIVE

“I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.”—Colson Whitehead, from a 1999 Salon interview with Laura Miller

At first glance, it seems that Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is doing a number of things differently from, say, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. In the latter book, Reed goes to great pains to detail and make things real. These things are not so much his characters and his setting in the local sense, but rather Mumbo Jumbo’s world at large, such as the conspiracies, the history, the dialogue and the language of the characters, and the present itself—which for readers is now history, since Mumbo Jumbo is a period piece. The world of Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is put together rather differently. Where novels are typically specific, The Intuitionist is vague. The Intuitionist sometimes leads to more critical questions than it answers. In an interview, Whitehead says,

The people who influenced me a lot in college, when I first started reading the non-Charles Dickens kind of Victorian novel of manners they foist on you in high school, were people like Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon, stuff like that. Ishmael Reed. I like those guys, but they have a finite amount of books and I’ve read them. (Weich 2003)

The first part of this passage makes sense immediately. Whitehead has an aversion to pre-modernist works that are locked into a strict set...

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