Who Killed the Postmodernist?
Appreciation for a New Novel
Daniel Taylor loves stories. Fifteen years ago he wrote a book about their “life-shaping power.” Then five years ago another one about “how to share your stories.” Now he has written his first novel, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist. This time he creates a story to defend the power and necessity of stories against the story-killers.
I love this book.
There is a death to be solved. No. Professor Abrahamson, won’t let us get away with that sentence. “One doesn’t solve death, does one. One solves a mystery or a crime.” All right. There is a crime to be solved. A few tragic souls, like Abrahamson, still hang on to the importance of words.
Professor Richard Pratt (not to be confused with the Reformed theologian and author of the same name) was not one of them. He has been dead for six months. He was found lifeless on the street thirteen floors below his hotel room in St. Paul — with a hole in his chest. His wife is not satisfied with the police effort to find the killer. So she contacts one of Dr. Pratt’s former graduate students, Jon Mote, and asks him to see what he can find.
The real crime to be solved is, Who killed the story-killer? For Pratt was the great story-killer — a deconstructionist (you’ll see below what this is). He was Professor of Contemporary Culture, “specializing in literary theory, film, and Native American erotica.”
This is the story of Jon Mote’s pursuit of who — or what — destroyed the deconstructionist. The problem is that Mote’s mind is rapidly disintegrating. There are voices in his head, and they are not constructive.
Real-Life Link to Sanity
His unlikely partner in the pursuit of the killer is his sister Judy. It’s going on thirty years since their parents were killed in a car accident, when he was nine and she was thirteen. They grew up with uncle Lester “who believed more in God’s wrath than God did.” There are dark memories that neither Mote nor his sister can allow into their world.
Judy is mentally challenged, and serves, ironically, to keep Mote from losing his mind. Taylor never names Judy’s condition. Clearly she is one of Taylor’s heroes. She will be one of yours as well. Picture, perhaps, the happiest kind of chromosomal anomaly, and you will be close.
She has a quality of being that is somehow soothing. Maybe she lacks the complexity necessary for sustained unhappiness. She is elemental in a compound world. . . . She projects trustworthiness. If she can’t calculate, she also cannot be calculating. She cannot strategize, maneuver, orchestrate, simulate, feign, invent, hedge, or dissemble. She is therefore totally unfit for this world, or most fit of all.
Her brother is the opposite. His world is “compound” — and coming apart. In the late 1980s, he had been a student of Pratt when he was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Until he dropped out.
Before long Mote and Judy stumble onto motives that turn five people into suspects. Brianna Jones, a graduate student in English, may have been having an affair with Pratt. “She has a kind of dignity,” Mote observes, “that we used to respect before we were taught to associate dignity with pretense and reserve with inhibition.”
Then, of course, there is Mrs. Pratt herself. She never did measure up to her husband’s intellectual standards. And wives who are reminded often enough that they don’t measure up can start to think dark thoughts about Mr. Perfection.
Then there is Dr. Smith-Corona who had been hired by Pratt to bring a feminist flare to the English department, even though she had just been rejected by the department of “Women’s Studies.” You’d think she would feel beholden to Pratt. But that was not her way. She had found some dirt, and was blackmailing him.
Clash of Stories
But this novel is not about intra-departmental intrigue or marital misfortunes. It’s about the clash of worlds — or as Professor Abrahamson would say, civilizations. Do stories really matter? Does it matter if they are mere power moves? What if they are true? What if they are foundations for meaning and justice and survival? Would they be worth killing for?
The real combatants in this clash are Pratt, the deconstructionist; Abrahamson, the Jewish lover of classics, who was edged out of the English department because he was out of step with “cultural studies,” and whose father was drowned by the Nazis; and Verity Jackson, “a black woman of indeterminate age,” who said, “I am nothing without my stories,” and who stormed out of Pratt’s final speech hours before his death.
Now these are real suspects! When deconstructionist language games meet survivors of the gestapo and lynching mobs, the stakes are higher than adultery and department politics. The veil of academic respectability is rent more visibly by the raw realities of public evil. Some things are worth dying for. But killing for?
Avant-Garde Has a Short Shelf Life
What was it about Pratt that kindled such vehemence in Abrahamson and Jackson? What’s the big deal? Mote says about Pratt, “He didn’t have principles, he had attitudes. Better, he had moods.” Isn’t that innocuous? After all, he considered himself the great advocate of play. Not just advocate, but liberator! Finally play had been set free. According to Pratt,
Play is now possible again in the West, as it has not been since Plato’s poet-free Republic, since the Apostle’s Creed, since Newton’s law and all other creeds, systems, explanations — in short, since all soul-quenching metanarratives tightened their fingers around our throats, choking off all the life-giving breath of impulse, élan, and eroticism.
Pratt saw himself as the great liberator. And for that liberation to be complete all the slave-masters had to go.
- Like realism. “Realism is the fascism of literature.”
- Like wisdom, love, and courage. “Literature offers us neither wisdom, nor love, nor courage, nor home. . . . The writer floats freely on the winds of Language, taking us everywhere and nowhere.”
- Like marital faithfulness. As his wife discovered, “You have to be careful when you link up with a man who says he doesn’t believe in truth — capitalized or otherwise. Pretty soon he won’t believe in you either.”
- Like sin and guilt. “No fixed boundaries, no metanarratives, no sin, and, voilà, no guilt.”
- Like Truth. Which he finished off the night he died.
His final speech, just hours before he was killed, ended with a glorious flourish of the avant-garde:
And out of the death of monolithic “Truth,” we anticipate, irony of ironies, our freedom — the freedom of women from patriarchy, of people of color from racism, of the poor from capitalism, of writing from mimesis, and, underlying it all, of language from the delusion of meaning.
However, as Mote notes, “The problem with being avant-garde is that avant-garde has a short shelf life.” Pratt, the deconstructionist, would be dead before morning.
Gestapo of Language Games
But really? Isn’t the university a place where people like that can play their games safely, while the rest of the world actually stays on their side of the road, and hopes a lover will take seriously what we put in the letter?
No, said Abrahamson, the Jew. It isn’t safe. They think they are playing. “They care about words the way a nineteen-year-old boy cares about sex. Words are a game to them. They can be inflated and deflated like a balloon. They’re cotton candy, impressive enough to the eye and sweet to the taste, but ultimately just spun sugar, a wisp of sweetened air.”
But they are not playing. They are destroying. Abrahamson’s father had been killed by the truth-denying language twisters in Budapest in 1945. “I have lived under circumstances that make one believe in the categories of true and false, good and evil. Wiping away such categories serves oppressors and death.”
Pratt was not only destroying lives; he was destroying all human greatness. He and his kind were replacing it with smug, faddish judgmentalism. Abrahamson twisted the knife:
We have never been so opposed to talking about the moral dimension of literature, and yet we have never been more moralistic and judgmental. And whom do we judge most harshly? The great writers and thinkers of the past. They were, we convince ourselves, little more than imperialists, abusers of women, exploiters of the poor, defenders of a corrupt status quo. Their poems and novels and plays, once thought to be works of genius and insight and wisdom, are now paraded about like handcuffed prisoners being carted to the guillotine. And we, the teachers and scholars, lead the young in howling our abuse.
Abrahamson saw Pratt as the destroyer of everything he loved. And love is the right word. Mote was envious of Abrahamson’s capacity for love:
It must be great to love something that much, to find it that important. Why, he loved Tolstoy more than I ever loved my wife (and I still do love her). . . . He approached each work we studied like a shy lover.
Mote had studied with both men. Both loved. “But Dr. Pratt loved literature . . . in a different way — more like a mistress than a wife. . . . Language was nothing more than a tease.”
Black Stories Matter
Verity Jackson had shouted down Pratt and was escorted out of his lecture the night he was killed. He had touched something very deep. Mote didn’t think she could kill anyone. But her rage was discernible when she spoke to him.
I’m nothing without my stories. I need them all and I need them to be strong and life-sustaining things. How can they be strong, Mr. Mote, if they fall apart so easily in the hands of people like Dr. Pratt? . . . If words are such weak and self-destructing things, then there is no truth, and if no truth, there is only power, and we, of all people, know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of power.
What do poor people have if they don’t have words? Do they have tanks? No. Do they have money? No. Do they have the majority of votes? Absolutely no. If they don’t have words that can truthfully and powerfully tell their stories — in a way that can change things — they are poor indeed.
When she stood to oppose Pratt in the hotel ballroom of the professional gathering the night of the killing, she knew whom she was defending.
Dr. Pratt wasn’t just talking against Big Brother and God and most of the writers who have given me hope in life; he was also undermining Martin and Malcolm and Sojourner and Gandhi and anyone else who ever said, “This is wrong and things should be different.” Words may just be play for him, but they aren’t play for people like me who depend on their stories.
Dead Roots Can Rise Up
Mote — the failed graduate student turned detective — had his own reasons for needing to be rid of Pratt. Pratt had “liberated” him from Holy Writ and Holy Reason. And with them had gone the “stable, knowable world.” And absent stability, Mote’s mind was spiraling toward his own self-destruction. “I am drawn to the edge of the mind where thought descends into randomness and randomness into emptiness and emptiness into oblivion.” Thank you, Dr. Pratt.
But Judy was still here. And if anything, Judy was stable, predictable. Her “fondness for cliché is positively ontological. Clichés provide a kind of conversational proof that the universe is ordered. Clichés are something you can depend on.”
The way this book ends (and I won’t spoil it here) is about as satisfying as a murder mystery can be, without being naïve. Maybe I like this novel so much because Mote’s parents were like mine. Maybe the dead roots can rise up and give hope. “That was the nice thing about our parents. They were quasi-fundamentalists, but only mildly infected, the fever tempered by wide reading and a love of music and general optimism about life.”
And what’s more, Mote’s father was the lead custodian at Bethel College in St. Paul where I taught in the late 1970s. And I think I knew him. But that’s another story.
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