If, Literature

If, Modernism, and Metamodernism

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As the publication of If recedes in the rear view mirror, and I move on to some other projects, I find myself wondering whether I took the right approach to presenting the novel.

When I decided to write If, I had in mind two general models, both modernist: Hemingway’s attempt, in his earliest stories, to “write one story about each thing that I knew about,” and Joyce’s attempt in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to show the evolution of the character’s linguistic consciousness through the form of the novel. In If, it’s not so much the narrative voice as the genre and style of the novel that change in response to the protagonist’s development. I guess you could say that if the stylistic shifts in Portrait can be seen as reflecting how the protagonist might write (or, earlier on, think), the stylistic shifts in If often reflect what the protagonist at a given place in life might read.

None of the publicity materials for If mentioned either of these modernist models.

Instead, I tried describing the themes and form of the novel in a variety of ways, to various interviewers, with varying degrees of success — as covered in these posts. I often highlighted the connection between the unusual branching structure of If and gamebooks like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, thinking that some readers might find this appealing in a nostalgic way. I wrote a back cover for the publisher, and a “Product Description” for Amazon, that probably presented the novel as more playful and less dark and thematically difficult than it actually is.

Now I wonder whether it would have been better to be more open about the novel’s ambitions. I wonder whether framing If, for example, as a kind of contemporary reaction to Portrait might have been more helpful than emphasizing the branching-narrative aspect of the novel. Readers might have been more prepared for the fact that If, in many ways, isn’t trying to be a pleasant read — any more than Portrait is a pleasant read. It’s meant to be difficult. It’s meant to be the kind of book that rewards close reading, that is susceptible to conflicting readings — in other words, the kind of literature that I’ve found most valuable in my life.

Or maybe I was better off focusing on gamebooks. Who knows?

A final unexplored possibility only occurred to me very recently when I came across Seth Abramson’s writings on “metamodernism.” Oddly enough, I never encountered this term while studying literature, and ran across it for the first time in a blog post about the actor Shia Labeouf‘s performance art — and then heard about it again in a review of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

To the extent that metamodernism refers to a refusal to decide between irony and sincerity, nostalgia and experimentation, a novel like If — a literary exploration of youthful cruelty, violence, and shame, presented in the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel — seems like it could fairly be described as a metamodernist work.

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One thought on “If, Modernism, and Metamodernism

  1. Pingback: Dendritic fiction: the structure of If | Against the Logicians

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