Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061



"Sentimentality or Sustenance: Art in Postmodern Novels Then and Now"

What a . . . what rotten sentimentality, I can still hear his voice. What a vulgarizing of something as tremendous as the Passion, this is what happens to great emotions, this is the way they're rotted, by being brought to the lowest level where emotions are cheap and interchangeable. (William Gaddis, The Recognitions 127)


The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up. (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch 559)

William Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions (1955), is considered a masterpiece of postwar American literature that helped to establish, along with Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), the genre of the long postmodern system novel that reached its apex with Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). Cutting through the complex, near-Joycean style and volumes of interconnected characters and interrelated stories that put off initial critics reveals The Recognitions to be a prescient postwar critique of the inauthenticity, unoriginality, and falsity of art and image that will eventually characterize ironic postmodern literature and hyperreal postmodern culture. The characters fall prey to the pernicious culture in action as well as existential psyche: they not only forge art and plagiarize music and literature but also mistake their own identities and descend into madness. On the other side of the literary history and continuum of the postmodern novel is Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch (2013). Compared to Gaddis's labyrinthine difficulties, Tartt's prose is simple and direct (some critics called it childish). An epic bildungsroman, the young protagonist survives a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art that killed his mother and, reeling from maternal loss, paternal exploitation, familial displacement, and PTSD, deteriorates into a fragmented identity distinguished by abject emotions self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. While he deals fake antiquities similar to characters in The Recognitions, art constitutes not a sentimental and vulgar falsehood that flails minds and culture but rather a secret and sacred source of existential sustenance as well as a catalyst for his psychological recovery. In the early postwar postmodern novel then, art was considered ironic and exhausted; in the post-postmodern novel now, art should be sincere and necessary.


This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Sentimentality or Sustenance: Art in Postmodern Novels Then and Now." Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association, Lord Baltimore Hotel, Baltimore, MD. 8 Nov. 2018.