A work of postmodern fiction is one that defies the conventions of “regular” storytelling. By regular, I mean a story with a beginning, middle, and end—one that has characters, some sort of plot, and a conflict with a resolution. This is the basic formula for any type of story, and it was the goal of the postmodernists to skirt around these traditions in an experiment with language, character, and plot. One specific way that a postmodernist might muck up a story is through changing the way a narrator is perceived in the story and presented to the reader. This can be done through an unconventional narrator, such as those created by John Barth in his “Frame Tale” and “Night Sea Journey” and Donald Barthelme’s Snow White.

John Barth’s “Frame Tale" is a postmodern story in its simplest form. Here the reader is instructed to cut out a 1” thick strip from the first page of the book upon which one side reads “ONCE UPON A TIME THERE”, and the other is printed “THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN”. The slip is also printed with corresponding marks, so that when connected it forms a mobius strip: ONCE UPON AN TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN... and on and on and on. The point here is made pretty clear: a story is something that has become so diluted that it is now a parody of itself. The narrator of this yarn—made a traditional storyteller with the fairy-tale beginning of “Once upon a time...”—becomes a mindless automaton, endlessly repeating the same thing without ever saying anything of importance. As the first page of Barth’s collection of short stories Lost in the Funhouse, “Frame Tale” sets the tone as one where conventions are mocked and ignored. The feeling you get from this first story is at once humorous and unsettling. While one can chuckle at the absurdity of a never-ending story, you also get the impression that Barth intends you to continue reading it forever.

If you are fortunate enough to catch the gag and move on to the second story in Lost in the Funhouse, “Night Sea Journey” again challenges your traditional notions of what a narrator should be. The crux of this story is pretty simple: the “night sea journey” refereed to in the title is the journey of a sperm from its point of origin—don’t make me say it—to its eventual victory as it joins with the egg, or defeat as it dies like countless others before him. As the sperm swims it speaks to us, telling the reader about its current crisis of faith, discussing philosophy as seen by a sperm—the night sea swim is all it knows. Here again Barth re-defines what a narrator is supposed to be. A narrator is normally one who tells a story, as our intrepid sperm cell does, but it is normally assumed that the narrator is some sort of intelligent life. Be it a human or omniscient creature with power over the whole story, a narrator isn't normally regulated to a single celled organism whose function—aside from discussing philosophy with the reader—is to thrash around and make its way through the female reproductive organs. This new perspective opens up several doors of perception within the reader’s minds. First, we are given a new perspective on what the so-called “miracle of life” might be like for those in the trenches, so to speak. Second, it reinforces the “outside the frame” mindset the reader should be in as far as the narrator, and to a larger extent the story, are concerned in Barth’s book. Third, it “begins” the story of Ambrose, the quasi-protagonist of Lost in the Funhouse.

In Snow White, by Donald Barthelme, we are given another sort of challenge as far as the narrator is concerned: to find out who he/she/it is. Barthelme’s re-telling of the classic fairy tale and Disney movie already is challenging our notions of fairy tales by setting this adaptation in New York City and giving Snow White and her seven men a less than wholesome relationship, but through the book the reader is trying desperately to figure out who the narrator is. Traditionally, a story has one narrator, or if it has more than one it is clear when the point of view changes and who is “speaking.” In Snow White we are never directly told who the narrator is, and the point of view changes so much that we never given anything to hold on to. Another way Barthelme challenges the concept of narrator is that the various juggled viewpoints, whoever they are, don't tell any real story. We are presented with a long series of vignettes with no ties from one to the next. Its almost as if the narrator in this novel has gone on holiday, leaving these scenes to be interpreted by the reader. Not only do you not know who is telling the story, but whoever is telling it is not doing a very good job.

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