As many critics and theorists argue, postmodern writing is marked by a crisis of representation. Postmodern literary work mostly does not refer to outer reality, but to the complex system of linguistic and other "discourses". One of the main characteristic features and aims of postmodern writing, though, is not to gloom, distort reality, but to show the inability of the human mind to perceive and understand the "objective" reality, the autoritarian and objective "truths". Many authors, including Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan, show that the advanced technology able to reach wide audiences seems to be this manipulative power able to shape and distort the public opinion, the vision of reality and objective "truths". The development of high technology has stimulated the development and spreading of the mass media and mass-circulated popular magazines manipulating the cultural tastes of broad audiences.
In their novels Richard Brautigan (Willard and His Bowling Trophies: A Perverse Mystery) and Donald Barthelme (The King) use the language of both media (radio, television, newspapers) and popular genres (medieval romance, pornography, thriller) to show, on the one hand, the inability of language to convey the "objective truths", the "objective" vision of the world, and, on the other one, the manipulative power of popular culture at shaping public opinion and the "low" cultural tastes of broad audiences.
It cannot be said, however, that either Barthelme's or Brautigan's novels, or generally postmodernist texts do not refer to social reality. "Representing" either "contemporary" reality, contemporary protagonists (Brautigan) or historical (medieval) characters (kings, knights, princesses) mingled with contemporary, even "real" ones (Walesa, Hitler, Ezra Pound - Barthelme) both authors not only undermine the genres with tradionally stable structure, but also show the distorting power of representation.
Brautigan in his novel Willard and His Bowling Trophies uses the language and textual strategies especially of pornography and thriller to emphasize the negative aspects of popular cultural forms in the context of American cultural tradition. It is especially the violence (physical, sexual) and its imagery which dominates this novel. Violence is understood as a natural aspect of protagonists' behaviour and lives. Imagery of violence occur in both relatively separate sections of the novel - in the section with the lovers' couples it is especially the sexual violence manifested in deviant sexual practises (sadomasochism of Constance and Bob) and in the Logan brothers section it is a real, physical violence, murder and death. Violence in Brautigan's novel seems to be directly stimulated by popular culture and media and turns to ritualistic practises, ritualistic behaviour which replaces human communication. His protagonists are rid of their individual, specific, natural identity and gain "public" identity manipulated by the media and popular culture "discourse". Constance's and Bob's sexual practises are inspired by their reading of Gothic sadomasochistic novel and watching TV and films: "Bob tied a knot in the center of the hankerchief as he had seen on television and in the movies..." (Brautigan 20).
He was staring at the cow in the same way that he read comic books.
Their reading of popular cultural magazines seems to be a direct stimulation of their violence:
He'd never killed anybody before. He turned the comic book a few pages to some characters in the comic book who were killing each other. They were using axes and it was very bloody. A hand was lying on the floor. The hand did not look happy. (122)
In Brautigan's novel, media, film and comic books represent popular culture as the manifestation of consumerist culture for broad audiences, one of the negative aspects of which is their power to influence not only the public opinion, but especially the public behavior. This consumerist aspect of culture is supported by Brautigan's juxtaposing of imagery of popular culture and eating habits. Perception and understanding of film, comic pornographic books thus becomes, for Brautigan's protagonists, on the one hand, an act of mere consumerism as represented by eating , on the other one their perception of reality and reality mediated by media and popular culture merges into a vision of the world they understand as the only one, the only "real world". The exaggeration and irony are the means which emphasize the stupyfying character of the act of consumerism associated not only with the eating habits, but also with consumerist culture in general. The image of both couples' kitchens, for example, is juxtaposed to achieve this effect:
Patricia and John's kitchen was directly underneath Bob and Konstance's kitchen and they were at this moment all in their own kitchens.
In addition to it, Logan brothers' decision to become killers is stimulated by a banal, unmotivated and exaggerated decision stimulated by the lack of their favourite drink:
"Sure," he said. "Let's kill them."
Brautigan's protagonists are thus rid off their individual, natural and human identities and turn to be only the imitating models of their prototypical popular cultural models. They thus gain, paradoxically, a mass, or collective conciousness and idenity which seems to be "...signs of increasing corporate and beaurocratic and cybernetic control of collective experience and thought" (Russell 213).
In difference from Brautigan's rather explicit treatment of the influence of popular culture and mass media on the behavior of people, Barthelme depicts his protagonists as entrapped in the "collective discourse" of different linguistic utterances represented by radio, newspapers, medieval and contemporary, colloquial as well as professional speech, all fighting for their legitimatization. The medieval and contemporary, real historical and fictitious characters are depicted as self-reflexive and metafictional constructs unable of positive development meditating on their "roles" both in fiction and reality. Their acting turns only to "behavior " (Hoffmann 1982) since there is no logical, "rational" connection between different elements of the basic narrative situation (Hoffmann 1982) and psychological, social and historical background and codes (Fokkema 1985) are replaced by an intertextual "situation". The dialogical compositional framework enables Barthelme to develop self-reflexivity which draws the readers' attention to the fictitious, artificial status of his characters and to differences between fiction and reality. Most of the characters, as I mentioned above, meditate instead of being able to develop any meanigful action. For example, the queen meditates on her role and function:
But to be a queen, even a country sort of queen, is toknow boredom. Chatting up the wounded in the hospitals, for instance. God knows they've suffered and are suffering, but there's just not much to say."Hallo, where are you from? You seem to be lacking a leg, there." I haven't the gift for it. (65)
Rid of their individual identities, thus Barthelme's protagonists become only the symbols of various "discourses" and practises and gain a "mythical" role. Barthelme's juxtaposition of real historical personalities (Winston Churchill, a former Polish president Walesa, Ezra Pound), characters known from medieval romances (king Arthur, Launcelot, Guinevere, kings, knights) and "fictitious" characters (journalists) undermine the understanding of historical time and emhasize the "fictitious" character of all events and actions. History, past and present merge into a fictive construct in which these characters gain the symbolic and allegorical dimension. The symbolic characters representing different authorities, different manifestation of power merge into an allegory on the use and misuse of institutionalized power in human history. Thus, for example, not Arthur, Guinevere, but also the other characters represent the symbols of power/colonizers or the colonized/oppressed . The Red Knight, for example, is not only a medieval, but also a contemporary representative of power. His speech is a parodic version of the communist rhetoric, especially a parody on the idea of the collectivity and cooperation:
The party embodies the collective wisdom of the people," said theRed Knight. "Also, the Party has access to information the individual doesn't have. I much prefer leaving important decisions to the Party than to a crowd of loonies in Parliament. (Barthelme 58)
The Blue Knight is a symbolic representative of an aggressor, Sir Robert, the Brown Knight, a past fame of the colonized Scotland, and the Black Knight representing Africa is a representative of an oppressed nation.
"The Bolshevik anti-morale," said Ezra, " comes out of the Talmud, which is the dirtiest teaching that any race ever codified. The Talmud is the one and only begetter of the Bolshevik system...You would do better to inoculate your chidlren with typhus and syphilis," said Ezra, "than to let in the Sassoons, Rothschilds, and Warburgs. (7)
Such utterances, "discourses", short tracts merge into a mere rhetoric, clichés, pharases, or "dreck" loosing their meaning:
"Walter the Penniless addressing the multitude.
These novels do not explicitly criticize the function and role of both media and popular culture in the contemporary world, but using such typical for postmodernism devices as parody, irony and pastiche express a critical moment which is associated not only with the contemporary culture in general, but also with some aspects of American cultural tradition. Linda Hutcheon stipulates the function and understanding of parody arguing that
Parody in postmodern art is more than just a sign of the attention artists pay to each others' work.....and to the art of the past. It may indeed be complicitous with the values it inscribes as well as subverts, but the subversion is still there: the politics of postmodern parodic representation is not the same as that of most videos's use of allusions to standard film genres or texts... (Hutcheon 234)
Hutcheon sees postmodernist parody as "...a value-problematizing, denaturalizing form of acknowledging the history (and through irony, the politics) of representations" (Hutcheon 225) and acknowledging its role in contemporary imaginative writing she observes that "...postmodern parody does not disregard the context of past representations it cites, but uses irony to acknowledge the fact that we are inevitably separated from the past today - by time and by subsequent history of those representations.There is a continuum, but there is also ironic difference, difference induced by that very history" (Hutcheon 226).
As Hutcheon suggests, one aspect of the use of parody in the postmodernist literary text is its subversive impulse and the ability to show both different "sensibility" of contemporary man through the use different representational devices. These devices draw the percipient's attention to the very nature of the representational process and to ontological questions (McHale 1987).
Both Brautigan and Barthelme use parody as the means of showing the power of language and representation as well as its ability to influence and shape the human vision of the world. It is especially the language of media and popular culture they use to show their subversive function. Barthelme's protagonists' self-relfexive parodic meditations crossing the time and genre boundaries show the understanding of the world as a linguistic process one must find an orientation in in order to be able to perceive at least its partial meaning. The imagery of power developed into the allegory express Barthelme's criticism of both man's use and misuse of both physical and linguistic "virtual" power. The language of media and popular cultural forms becomes his protagonists' language of understanding and perception of reality. This perception, however, is chaotic, incoherent, fragmentary and unstable, for them no coherent and unitary vision of the world is possible.
Brautigan's protagonists, on the other hand, are less self-reflexive, more coherent parodic representatives of their generic prototypes. Brautigan's coherent use of the narrative strategies of the popular genres, especially of the pornography and thriller, criticizes the consumerist moment of American popular culture. Both authors' criticism is expressed especially through their use of parody and irony as a part of their criticism. In Barthelme's case, the parodic effect is mostly achieved through his protagonists' dis/placement in inappropriate contexts in which they use inappropriate language - medieval pompous speech of the genre of the romance is juxtaposed, for example, to the contemporary speech marked by colloquialism and vulgarity. Brautigan's protagonists represent distorted, parodic versions of their generic prototypes and use their language in an ironic context. In the pornographic section of Brautigan's novel, deviant sexual practises do not evoke the sexual excitement, but boredom and disgust, and the end of the novel represent an ironic paradox - Logan brothers who turned from peaceful common children to brutal killers kill, in a brutal scene reminescent of the thrillers, the wrong couple. Their behaviour and acting shows a criticism of some of the American "myths", especially the myth of the sport success, or the myth of a peaceful provincial life. The Logan brothers become killers because their bowling trophies were stolen which symbolically represent their "stolen identity" of peaceful and obedient kids.
Both authors show, as it was suggested, although in different ways, the power of language and linguistic representation in shaping the man's vision of the world. While Barthelme shows man as a victim of this linguistic play and an inability of language to communicate "objective meaning", Brautigan shows the language, especially of popular culture as a representative of consumerism and consumerist culture, as rooted in particular cultural tradition this tradition being influenced by the advanced technology which is able to reach the mass audience and manipulate their cultural tastes.
Barthelme, Donald. The King. London: Minerva, 1992.