ALTERNATE PERSPECTIVE: A POSTMODERN READING
The terms “Postmodernism,” “Poststructuralism,” and “Deconstruction” are complex and broad terms that describe movements in America that developed in the late 1960s and have affected a number of academic and intellectual disciplines. Certain key theorists are associated with the movement: Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Michel Foucault. American literary scholars such as Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Barbara Johnson argued for including these European movements in American literary theory.
These movements share a rejection of modernist ideas about how knowledge is constructed, how meaning is made, and how viewers or readers understand texts. With regard to postmodern literary criticism, postmodernists and poststructuralists argue against any universal meaning that transcends, or is separate from, language. In practical terms, “deconstructing” a text is based on the assumption that “a text has multiple interpretations and that it allows itself to be reread and thus reinterpreted countless times,” and that “[u]ltimately, a text’s meaning is undecidable” (Bressler 129).
One poststructural concept can be applied particularly to Bradbury’s Death Is a Lonely Business: the concept expressed by Michel Foucault in his essay “What Is an Author?” (Davis and Schleifer). Foucault’s essay analyzes the different concepts and meaning assigned to the word “author,” which means more than just the proper name of the person who is believed to be the one who produced a text. The “author” is also a function—partly a function of privilege (as compared to “writers,” authors create “literature”) and partly of classification. The function of the author changes over time and varies among different cultures, so there is no single or simple meaning for the word “author.” Foucault traces different meanings through several centuries, analyzing the different functions associated with authors assigned to different categories (such as “sacred,” “scientific,” “poetic,” etc.).
Critics and reviews that focus more on Death Is a Lonely Business as a “murder mystery” ignore its autobiographical elements. The book is the first of three autobiographical texts in which Bradbury the “author” presents himself as an adult character, not as the child of his earlier autobiographical fantasies. Read as a murder mystery, this novel breaks some conventional rules to focus more on characters and images as well as fantastic elements.
However, the novel can also be read as a postmodern text, one in which the author, “Ray Bradbury,” whose name appears on the title page of the novel, deconstructs the notions of the author as a stable figure and genres as simple categories. Within the pages of the book (a material object which can be purchased), the Narrator of the novel, who never gives his “proper name,” is engaged in writing a novel that he titles Death Is a Lonely Business after his first encounter with the murderer (15). Both the actual novel published by “Bradbury” the author and the novel being written by the Narrator of the story have the same title.
The extent to which Bradbury deconstructs the genre boundaries is shown in how the mystery plot is not resolved in any way that will be familiar to readers of the genre. The lack of closure at the end, the questions about the murderer’s chosen victims, the lack of reliance upon clues, the transformation of the police lieutenant into a writer, and the fact that successful completion of novels save the Narrator and Elmo Crumley from the midnight visitations are all ways in which Bradbury deconstructs mystery conventions and focuses on writing based on a shifting sense of self. Additionally, the novel’s insistence that stories about life and death (“murder mysteries”) need to be considered in close association with other texts about life and death (“literature”), shown by the literary knowledge of the Narrator and Elmo Crumley, is another way in which genre conventions and relative status are dissolved.
A large portion of the novel is autobiographical in nature. The Narrator’s life in Venice, California, the stories he writes (and sells) during the course of the novel, his fiancée, and his sudden breakthrough from selling to pulp magazines to being published in the glossy mainstream magazines are all also part of the biographical information published about Bradbury. No sources about Bradbury’s life include his solving a number of murders during this time, however, so those elements are part of the mystery plot. Refusing to assign a proper name to the character of the Narrator and building in the multiple layers of “novels” break down binary distinctions that readers may have counted on existing, especially those that clearly establish authors of fictions as different from authors of nonfiction or those that separate an author’s life from his books.
A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990):
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