Twenty-five years ago contemporary critical writers on recent fiction were busily proclaiming, celebrating, mourning, or heralding 'The Death of the Novel'. Today, with the novel still very much alive and kicking, it is 'The Death of the Self' that must occupy our critical attention. So we are told. In fact, fictional persons have also been dying for the past twenty or so years. As early as 1969, yet with all the fervour of later postmodernism, the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's SlaughterhouseFive announced:
There are almost no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters, (p. 110) Judging by similar proclamations in novels by the 'recognized'
postmodernists – Abish, Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Borges, Brautigan, Burns, Butor, Calvino, Coover, Cortazar, et al., – it seems that the human 'subject' has disappeared from postmodern fiction. There are no 'persons' any more. Indeed, Fredric Jameson has suggested that this can be read as postmodernism's most radical insight:
Not only is the bourgeois individual subject a thing of the past, it is also a myth: it never really existed in the first place; there have never been autonomous subjects of that type. Rather this construct is merely a philosophical and cultural mystification,
which sought to persuade people that they 'had' individual subjects and possessed this unique personal identity. (Jameson 1985, p. 115)
Yet, although postmodernism's ontological disruption (its suggestion that textuality is the primary 'reality' of a world and a book fabricated through discourse) mediates a disintegration of belief in the full humanist subject, such a loss is usually cause for lament. It seems that the imagination longs nostalgically for, and thus in a sense continues to reproduce, the illusion of full subjective presence.