No one has ever been able to come up with a good definition of “postmodernism,” though plenty of ink and hot air has been expended in the attempt. Fredric Jameson, writing back in 1983, tried and failed; Ihab Hassan, four years later, finally gave up and made do with vague descriptive terms like “indeterminacies” and “immanences.” The best anyone seems to be able to do is to compile lists of attributes or tendencies: postmodernism is not unified, after all; it is not so much a movement as a state of mind.

The editors of the new Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology have fared no better than Hassan and Jameson in their attempt to define postmodernism, finally deciding simply to run through various properties that can generally be agreed upon as being postmodern. “In the arts,” they write in their introduction, “postmodern traits include pastiche, the...


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