As outlined in my “To the Lighthouse” piece, modernism is form of fragments, reflecting the uncertainty of the times. As a consequence of modernising contextuality, can the form ever be relevant again or has it been since?
Perhaps the best use of fragmenting can be found in Harold Brodkey’s 1991 work “The Runaway Soul”, a novel which kept the spirit of modernism very much alive and well. The Kirkus review describes it as “a psychic web of small electrical events feeding and racing everywhere, and never stated formally. Nothing happens now: every action arrives through a veil, often at merciless length.”

Fragmenting seems appropriate for a writer who began his career as a short story writer – his first short story collection “Love and Other Sorrows” was published in 1958, at the tail-end of the Modernist movement. Six years later, he signed a book contract for his first novel, but he continued to publish short stories, largely in the New Yorker, featuring a set of recurring characters which he announced as “fragments of the novel.”

By the time “The Runaway Soul” was published in 1991, times were uncertain in America. The Presidency was held by George H.W Bush Senior. He had entered office at a time of uncertainty and change in all directions, with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union happening early on in his presidency. After an initial record-high approval rating of 89%, his popularity quickly declined when he broke his “no new taxes” pledge and the country also sank into recession. Peoples certainties had clearly been knocked – surely, in the literary world, modernism was ready to be relevant again?

“The Runaway Soul” is only on the fringes of classic status, but it deserves so much more. The Guardian's James Wood said that “Originality is the novels ambition, procedure and its subject,” but it actual fact there is little in “The Runaway Soul” which does not feel familiar, done before in some way. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it matter little; borrowing from the best (Joyce, Proust, Faulkner) makes this novel hugely effective.

Sometimes, it is recycling past techniques which makes things most relevant to the present. Thus, whilst it managed to escape the label, “The Runaway Soul” is not only a great modernist piece but an exercise in the very nature of postmodernism.

Amy Britton