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Narrative Configuration

Postmodernism greatly impacted the novel as a genre and its main tenets. The previous centuries had striven towards the unification of meaning, towards grand narratives that offered to unravel the mysteries of human experience on earth. These grand narratives or meta-narratives proposed to transcend their own limits and capture essential aspects of man’s existence. The postmodernists however reject this idea of totalistic narrative, observing the power relations established by the grand narratives.

The meta-narratives inevitably claim precedence over the marginal stories that have a limited scope. The postmodernist novelists overturn the previous narrative order. Instead of focusing on great heroes and symbolic quests for ultimate experiences and the ultimate truth, they focus on narratives that have narrower, individual scope. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye are essentially postmodern narratives that undermine the meta-narratives. As it shall be seen, both of the narratives focus on anti-heroes, individuals who do not fit into the world they are a part of.

Both of them are marginalized characters, contradicting the grand narrative pattern of the hero that embarks on a symbolic quest. Henry in Bukowski’s Ham on Rye and the narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man are both anti-heroes, whose lives are permeated by sufferance, isolation and ridicule. Unlike in the traditional narratives, in the two stories under discussion the protagonists do not achieve initiation or enlightenment of any kind. Their path is laid with obstacles and disappointments and it does not lead anywhere.

The postmodern narratives bring into focus marginal issues that are outside the mainstream focus of society. Jean Francois Lyotard, defines postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives”: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define ‘postmodern’ as incredulity toward metanarratives…The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great goal” (Lyotard xxiv). As the French postmodernist notes, the postmodern narratives lose their great heroes and their great goals.

As it shall be seen, both Bukowski and Ellison portray characters that cannot adapt to the mainstream society and are therefore outside the center of power. The social discourse is essential for constructing the individual identity. Also, both Bukoswski’s and Ellison’s novels can be decoded with the aid of Bhakin’s theory of the “dialogic imagination”. According to Bhaktin, the novel is no longer a unitary construct, a single discourse given in a single voice. Actually, it is the place of confluence of many distinct voices, which can be heard all at the same time.

Bhaktin notes that the modern novel had to suit its techniques in order to be able to describe the rapidly changing reality that surrounds it: “Only that which is itself developing can comprehend development as a process” (Bhaktin 7). Bhaktin’s theory of the novel and Lyotard’s view of the postmodern narrative can both be applied effectively to the narratives of Bukowski and Ellison. Bukowski’s and Ellison’s heroes and their lives are not projected in the distant past. Their experiences are part of the palpable, contemporary reality.

As Bakhtin emphasizes in the Dialogic Imagination, contemporary literature distinguishes itself from high, classical literature through the fact that it mingles its narrative thread with the present instead of placing it in a distance space of the memory: “In general, the world of high literature in the classical era was a world projected into the past, on to the distanced plane of memory, but not into a real, relative past tied to the present by uninterrupted temporal transitions…”(Bakhtin 19). Bukowski’s and Ellison’s heroes are both part of the actual present, where they have to suffer the common plights of ordinary men.

The narrative time and space lose their absoluteness. As Bakhtin notes, living reality can be mocked while the dead realities can only be represented with solemnity: “Alongside direct representation—laughing at living reality—there flourish parody and travesty of all high genres and of all lofty models embodied in national myth. The ‘absolute past’ of gods, demigods and heroes is here, in parodies and even more soin travesties, ‘contemporized’…” (Bakhtin 21). Everything in the contemporary story descends to the common, living reality, where heroes are only ordinary human beings.

The same can be observed of the language in contemporary fiction, which is depleted of solemnity as well. The characters in contemporary fiction use marginal dialects, slang and common form of everyday speech. Moreover, the narrator also employs low language to describe the narrative world. There is no ultimate, permanent meaning in the present as such and the narrative maintains this transitory quality. The characters are not symbolic or exponential individuals, but rather common people who do not fit into a pattern.

Henry in Ham on Rye and the narrator in the Invisible Man are individuals who try to adapt to the social roles that they have to play but eventually find it impossible to do so. They are defeated in the end precisely because they do not match the society’s expectations of them. Unlike the heroes of myths and fairytales, the two young men are afflicted by ordinary and even ridiculous pains. In the tales of the Brothers Grimm for instance, the hero or the heroine is always a superior creature that is unmatched by other mortals in one feature or another.

They are chosen as exponents of their society and their lives are exemplary and fantastical. The story of Rapunzel features a young girl of tremendous beauty that is locked up in a tower by a wicked witch. Her magnificent blond hair is the stairway that the lover will use to climb up to her. The extraordinary hair is a mark that sets Rapunzel off from all the rest of the world. Also, the girl in the story titled the Goose – Girl has silver hair, another physical mark of her superiority. This is the symbol that finally distinguishes her from the impostor bride, the maid that wanted to take her place.

All these features indicate that the heroes and heroines of a fairytale are absolute human beings who live in an absolute and magical past. They are not affected by ordinary plights, but on the contrary they are helped in their quests by all animals, human beings or fairies. They are moreover always different from the all the other human beings. In Ham on Rye, Henry is a misfit who has to grow as the only child of a cold and loveless family. Moreover, the social environment also proves extremely unfriendly. Henry’s early life is marked by the Great Depression, which affects almost every family in his neighborhood.

With an aggressive father and a placid and unaffectionate mother, Henry grows into an individual who is unable to communicate and relate to the world that surrounds him. The bullies he gets at school for being unable to play sports and later on, for his disfiguring acne, make him withdraw even more into his own world. The character that Bukowski portrays thus does not fit into any general description of the human kind. While the literature of all times portrays misanthropes, Henry is not a typical individual from any perspective and cannot be resembled with famous isolated characters such as Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger.

Camus’ character embodies the tendency of modern man towards isolation and alienation. Bukoswski’s protagonist in Ham on Rye is only an individual who does not suit the requirement of the mainstream society. The author portrays the society that surrounds him as a relentless environment, meant only for the survival of those that best fit its standards. He also shows how a medical condition, Henry’s extreme case of acne, can render an individual unacceptable for society. The protagonist is, in this respect, Frankenstein’s monster, who is forced to live outside society because he does not correspond to its requirements.

Bukowski deceives the audience’s expectations for sympathizing with the protagonist. Although the audience has to see the world through Henry’s eyes, his vision is ultimately particular and limited and cannot elicit sympathy or even understanding. This is obvious in Henry’s own thoughts. When he has to endure his father’s aggressiveness for instance, he feels completely disconnected from the outside world, from the millions of people who are engaged in different activities: “The whole world was out there indifferent to it all, but that didn’t help.

Millions of people were out there, dogs and cats and gophers, buildings, streets, but it didn’t matter” (Bukowski 50). The boy is only conscious of the abuse that he has to suffer, an abuse that gives him a sense of absurdity and bafflement. The pain and humiliation inflicted by his father make him see everything else from a distance. His ability to understand the world is completed defeated because his own ego is constantly abused by his family and by the other members of society alike.

Another important aspect in Henry’s development is the fact that he feels estranged from everyone, including his family. Throughout the novel, the boy and his family are alienated. Henry does not give any signs of communicating with either his father or his mother. The sensation that he describes in the beginning of the novel, of “being surrounded by white empty space” translated this feeling of complete isolation: “I didn’t like the way they walked or looked or talked, but I didn’t like my father or mother either. I still had the feeling of being surrounded by white empty space.

There was always a slight nausea in my stomach. ”(Bukowski 65) The precipice that separates Henry from the world is immense and seems impossible to fill. Through the dry narrative style, Bukowski portrays Henry as an individual who is unable to harbor emotions and communicate with the surrounding world because of the abuse he has suffered. What is important is that Henry cannot define himself because of the way in which he is treated by the others. The sense of identity is never born in him since he does not find his place inside the social configuration.

Thus, Bukowski’s novel accomplishes the postmodernist purpose of focusing on the isolated and marginalized individuals. The feeling that society works only through impositions, without actually offering authority in the cases where it would be necessary, dominates the protagonist. In episode where Henry fails to save a cat from his friends and their aggressive bulldog, he briefly meditates on the impossibility of relying on society as a protective force: “Where were the grownups? Where were the authorities? They were always around accusing me. Now where were they? ” (Bukowski 103).

The authorities do not become involved in this case of injustice and cruelty, although they are always present where there is no actual need of control. This is symbolically represented in the absurd and regular punishments that Henry gets from his father for having missed a leave of grass while mowing the lawn. Another way in which society makes its presence felt is through its absolute control of the distribution of chance. As Henry notes, society does not give him the possibility of trying and bettering his sports skills and therefore denies him the right to be a part of it: “Red and I were getting better and better.

Practice, that’s all it took. All a guy needed was a chance. Somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn’t” (Bukowski 44). Henry’s inability to be part of the sports team is significant, not only because it adds to his defeat, but because it showcases the individual’s vain struggle with social norms. Another interesting episode is the one in which Henry is applauded by his English teacher for an essay he writes about the president’s visit to their school.

As he is unable to witness the speech because he has to mow the lawn, Henry writes an imaginative essay that describes the arrival in a pompous way. When the essay is appreciated by his teacher, he realizes that society feeds on “beautiful lies”: “So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me. I looked around. Juan and his buddy were not following me. Things were looking up” (Bukowski 63). Henry is therefore an isolated and abused individual, who cannot find his place inside the social world.

Bukowski’s novel portrays the extent to which the individual can be abused and marginalized by society, which leads ultimately to a complete effacement of identity. In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the character undergoes similar sufferance and ridicule on the part of society, only it is now accompanied by a racial undertone. Moreover, the narrator here is a slightly more sophisticated character, who is animated in the beginning by high hopes and only comes to the realization that he is virtually “invisible” to society later on.

The ultimate effect of the society’s perception of the protagonist is basically the same as in Ham on Rye. Ellison’s protagonist finds himself engaged in a useless battle, which, as he realizes, is lost before it even begins. He strives to find his identity only to realize that he does not exist in the face of social prejudice. For the society that surrounds him, he is not a human being but a specter illuminated only by misconceptions and prejudices. The protagonist feels that he will always be forced to wear a mask in front of the others.

His color will never give him a place in the mainstream society: “That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact” (Ellison 8). At the beginning of the novel, the main character observes that his quest for identity is baffled from the start since he can be nothing else than what he is in the eyes of society, an invisible man because of his colour: “I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man! ” (Ellison 13). One of the very significant scenes in the novel, that of the Battle Royal describes a nightmarish landscape in which a few black high school graduates are made to fight blindfolded on a box ring, in front of the most important white men of the community.

The story is told from the point of the view of the young and naive narrator, who cannot well comprehend the racial hatred that surrounds him and his position as a black man in the society he lives in. The narrator is himself part of this mock and absurd fight, which takes place right before the speech he was going to utter before the drunk “big shots” of his town. Without knowing what was in store for him if he accepted the invitation to hold a speech before them and prove his rhetorical skills, the young man is taken aback by the fact that he is made to fight his colleagues.

What is interesting in fact is that the narrator recounts the story of the “battle royal” while holding back any comments and maintaining the appearance of blindness and ignorance. The young man is still unaware of what is happening to him as he takes part in the battle. His being blindfolded and unable to see himself and the others fighting is a symbol for his actual blindness to the social reality he was a part of: “But now I felt a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness. It was as though I had suddenly found myself in a dark room filled with poisonous cottonmouths.

I could hear the bleary voices yelling insistently for the battle royal to begin” (Ellison 18). He is young and confident in his own abilities and he can only focus on his purpose for being there: his speech. Even at the height of the absurd fight, he still thinks about his speech and about impressing the white men with his skills, without realizing that the masquerade he is made to be a part of deprives him of all his dignity. He believes in himself and even feels superior as an individual and he is blinded to the prejudice that surrounds him.

To the others, he is only an “invisible man”, a colored person who does not belong in their society. The blindfold he wears during the fight is therefore a metaphor for his youthful hopes and his ignorance towards the way in which he is perceived by the others. The symbol achieves a dramatic effect, as the young man sees himself very differently from the way in which he is seen by the white community. Thus, Ellison’s Invisible Man also portrays a marginal character who is forced to live on the outskirts of society.

Like Bukowski’s novel, Invisible Man looks at the marginal voices that could not be heard in traditional narratives. The protagonist is “invisible”, he simply does not exist for society except as specter of prejudice. Henry in Ham on Rye undergoes a similar transformation under the influence of society. His ego cannot develop its identity because of the abuse that he is submitted to by the social forces. Both stories are the opposite of meta-narratives in that they portray misfit individuals with petty goals.

Moreover, the protagonists are affected precisely by the social forces that overpower and restrict them at all time, not allowing them to develop an identity. Works Cited: Bhaktin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982. Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: Ecco, 2007. Camus, Albert. The Stranger. New York: Penguin, 1983. Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952. Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairytales. New York: Bantam, 2003. Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

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