This December marks the fiftieth anniversary of Oedipa Maas’s first appearance in print, as part of “The World (This One), the Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and the Testament of Pierce Inverarity,” a story Thomas Pynchon published in the December 1965 issue of Esquire. Oedipa’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, would be published in full in March 1966. Where would postmodern literature be without her? Where would critical definitions of postmodernism be? And why does this slim novel continue to exert such power over us? As a ubiquitous book turns a half-century old, these are questions worth reflecting on anew.
Though published in 1996, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest appears to be the defining novel of the twenty-first century, both in the questions it raises and in the way it attempts to answer them. Infinite Jest arrived on the scene just as a dominant cultural narrative began to take hold with a vise grip, strangling all other ways of approaching human meaning. In her book Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything, F. S. Michaels points to the story of economic efficiency as the central narrative of our time, one that is supplanting all other ways of understanding human meaning and worth: “in the economic story, your best choice is always the most efficient choice” (11). In his essay “Farther Away,” fellow novelist and Wallace’s friend Jonathan Franzen also alludes to this all-encompassing narrative, arguing that Wallace’s purpose in Infinite Jest was to battle the “the monocultural specter” that haunts our age. But neither Michaels nor Franzen hits the target precisely when it comes to why this monoculture thrives: The driver of monoculture—the narrative of efficiency—is technology.
Richard Bruce Nugent’s Gentleman Jigger (Da Capo Press, 2008) remains a curious product from the greater Harlem or “New Negro” Renaissance era (ca. 1919–1940). It is also one of the period’s few significant lost novels and best satires, one that only saw publication in 2008 thanks to Nugent’s friend and editor, Thomas Wirth.
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