An Essential Postmodern Reading List


Yesterday, Dalkey Archive released a new edition of William Gaddis’ postmodern masterpiece, The Recognitions , the book that Jonathan Franzen called “the ur-text of postwar fiction.” The new edition reminded us of our undying love for postmodern literature — the chaotically playful, the metafictional, and the experimental alike — and inspired us to check out a few books missing from our collection, so we’ve put together an essential postmodern reading list for devotees both old and new. Click through to check out some of our favorite works of postmodern lit — and since of course this is only a starter list, and there are many important postmodern works not listed here (we don’t have unlimited reading time, you know), be sure to let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorites in the comments.

The Recognitions , William Gaddis

Organized like a triptych, this book, whose many shifting scenes and characters are concerned with fallacy, mistaken identity, and forgeries — an extreme of the Holden Caulfield syndrome, as it were. Characters lose their names and gain others, dialogue may float unattributed, allusions abound. Gaddis famously said, “I do ask something of the reader and many reviewers say I ask too much… and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page.”

Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace

Wallace’s giant, non-linear novel begins with an answer to a question asked in Hamlet, and from there on out is filled to the brim with pages-long endnotes (some of which have their own footnotes), literary references, and film theory. In true postmodern form, the whole book is a huge comment on its own bookishness, giving you hints on how to read it in the text, and also in true postmodern form, it’s pretty hard to figure out everything that’s going on. You’ll just have to read it again.

Sixty Stories , Donald Barthelme

As Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times, “Donald Barthelme may have influenced the short story in his time as much as Hemingway or O’Hara did in theirs. They loosened the story’s grip on the security of plot, but he broke it altogether and forced the form to live dangerously. O’Hara played with the brand names of our things, and Donald Barthelme plays with the brand names of our ideas. While Hemingway and O’Hara worked with specific feelings, he works with the structure of our emotional makeup.” Indeed, Barthelme’s work is rife with allusions, intertextuality, and a supreme disregard for the traditional (at the time, at least) form of the short story — stories may be just a few words, or several pages without a punctuation mark, or an accumulation of details that make the reader search for the plot themselves. They are mostly, however, amazing.

Labyrinths , Jorge Luis Borges

One of the forefathers of the postmodern tradition, David Foster Wallace himself referred to the writer as “the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature.” Labyrinths is aptly named — each story or essay is a maze of sorts, whether parabolic, linguistic, or full of thematic riddles. A great primer on the works of Borges, this collection is an essential on any postmodern shelf.

House of Leaves , Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski’s intensely claustrophobic novel uses almost every trick in the book: multiple narrators, text in unusual places, insane typography, and copious footnotes. Another labyrinth both in form and story, deciphering the novel is a demanding job, and you feel sometimes as though it might just trap you inside forever.

Gravity’s Rainbow , Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon’s masterpiece has been described as “literally an anthology of postmodernist themes and devices.” Containing over 400 characters and winding and weaving through a series of episodes, the novel is one of the most complex and linguistically interesting books of the period.

Pale Fire , Vladimir Nabokov

One of our favorite Nabokov novels, Pale Fire is comprised of a 999-line poem called “Pale Fire”, written by the fictional John Shade, along with a couple hundred pages of commentary by his self-appointed editor, Charles Kinbote. An engrossing metafictional spiral into the increasingly deluded mind of an obsessive editor, the book is filled with literary mania, questionable motives, and endnotes that refer to and contradict each other.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress , David Markson

The postmodern giant’s seminal work is a dizzying, disturbing book either about a woman who has gone mad, or about a woman who is the last woman on earth, or both. A stream of consciousness winding around boulders of myth and theory, this book is kind of unclassifiable. Plus, as Wallace famously raved, “[the fact] that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes Wittgenstein’s Mistress pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.”

Blood and Guts in High School , Kathy Acker

A metafictional book, highly aware of its own book-ness, Acker’s most famous work is a veritable collage of styles, narratives, and storytelling tools, incorporating drawings (sometimes somewhat pornographic), dream maps, visions and other artifacts into the text. It’s an incredibly complicated and difficult novel, but definitely worth your while.

The Sot-Weed Factor , John Barth

Barth himself has described this novel as his entry into the postmodern form, explaining, “Looking back, I am inclined to declare grandly that I needed to discover, or to be discovered by, Postmodernism.” Indeed, the novel both parodies and rewrites the facts, histories and literary forms that concern it, starting Barth off on a long career of influential postmodern works.