The Best Postmodern Short Stories

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Postmodernism came to prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. As the name suggests, postmodernism developed out of modernism: it came after modernism, both in the sense that it chronologically followed it, and in the sense of extending, and to some extent critiquing, the aims and attitudes of modernism.

Characteristics of postmodern fiction tend to include: ‘breaking the fourth wall’ (i.e., reminding us that what we are reading is nothing more than a fictional construct, a story invented by a writer, rather than real life); an interest in metafiction (stories about stories, or about storytelling); and a playful attitude to language and the techniques of storytelling.

Below, we select and introduce some of the best postmodern short stories which aim to deconstruct the short story form, using metafiction and playfulness to comment on the act of storytelling itself.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’.

This is a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). The story, narrated as a non-fiction account by the fictional Menard’s equally fictional friend, sees the title character attempting to write Miguel de Cervantes’ seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote: not rewrite it, but write it as if for the first time, word for word, without copying the original.

The story is witty, funny, and absurdist – even postmodern – and raises some intriguing questions about literature and readership. The story invites to reflect how our response to a work of literature is always governed, at least in part, by our knowledge of its author, and when it was written (when we know this information).

Julio Cortazar, ‘Axolotl’.

‘Axolotl’ is a short story by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar (1914-84). The story was published in Cortázar’s 1956 collection End of the Game and Other Stories. ‘Axolotl’ is narrated by a lonely man who regularly visits the local zoo, where he becomes fascinated by the axolotls in the aquarium. In time, he states that he, too, is an axolotl, and feels he has become one of them.

We have analysed this story in more detail in a separate post.

Clarice Lispector, ‘The Fifth Story’.

‘The Fifth Story’ is a 1964 short story by the Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist and short-story writer Clarice Lispector (1920-77). In the story, a narrator describes how she prepared a recipe of sugar, flour, and plaster in order to get rid of a cockroach infestation.

However, this simple event is described in five different ways, with the story gaining significance with each new telling of it. Lispector’s narrator even begins her story by acknowledging that it might be given a number of different titles, depending on which version of the story one follows.

We have analysed this story in more detail here.

Grace Paley, ‘A Conversation with My Father’.

Originally published in the New American Review in 1972 before being reprinted in Paley’s 1974 collection of short stories, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, ‘A Conversation with My Father’ is about a woman who visits her elderly father, who is suffering from heart disease.

What makes this metatextual and postmodern is the daughter’s profession: she’s a writer, who is rebuked by her father for not writing accessible fiction. The daughter tells her father a story, but he dislikes the ending.

Donald Barthelme, ‘The School’.

‘The School’ is probably the best-known short story by the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89), whose work is sometimes labelled as ‘postmodernist’ (a label he was not entirely comfortable with, but which he accepted) and, occasionally, ‘metafiction’ (a label he was less happy with).

Published in the New Yorker in 1974, ‘The School’ is a short story about death, in which a series of animals and, eventually, children die at a school. One of the teachers at the school narrates these events, and the story ends with a discussion between the teacher and his pupils about the meaning of life when all life is filled with, and must end in, death. We discuss the story in more depth here.

Margaret Atwood, ‘Happy Endings’.

And talking of ends and endings, here’s a fine example of postmodern metafiction from the Canadian novelist, poet, and short-story writer, Margaret Atwood (born 1939) which deals with how stories end. In ‘Happy Endings’, which was published in 1983, we read six alternative storylines which feature a relationship between a man and a woman.

Much of Atwood’s story is about delineating the six different scenarios, each of which involves a relationship between a man and a woman. But as the story develops, the author breaks in on her characters more and more, ‘breaking the fourth wall’ to remind us that they are mere ciphers and that the things being described do not actually exist.

Tim O’Brien, ‘How to Tell a True War Story’.

Many postmodern short stories are concerned not so much with what the story is, but how it is told. Tim O’Brien (born 1946) is an American writer best known for his 1990 book The Things They Carried, a collection of linked short stories about the author’s experiences in the Vietnam War. ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ explores the problems inherent in trying to tell an authentic story about the Vietnam War.

Lydia Davis, ‘The Caterpillar’.

This is a very short story by the contemporary American writer Lydia Davis (born 1947). The story is about memory, consideration, and the small and ordinarily overlooked, focusing on someone who finds a caterpillar in her bed one morning and then drops it while trying to carry it downstairs and outside.

Lydia Davis’s work takes the everyday and, without sensationalising or melodramatising it, brings out the latent significance and symbolism residing in the smallest or most quotidian details. In this respect, her work bears the influence, not of postmodernism, but modernism: her work seems to call back (without being overly indebted to) Virginia Woolf’s mark on the wall.

Amy Hempel, ‘The Harvest’.

In this story, the narrator, following a horrific car accident, attempts to come to terms with the shocking event that has left one of her legs permanently damaged. However, the second half of the story begins with the narrator admitting that not everything we have read in the first half of the story was true …

David Foster Wallace, ‘A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life’.

Let’s conclude this pick of the best postmodern short stories with a very short story indeed. Published on ‘page zero’ of Wallace’s 2000 collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the story is about how our behaviour is ultimately motivated by our longing to be liked by others.

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