Fracturing and Distorting:
The Overlap Between Postmodern Literature
and Postmodern Mathematics
Written by Elizabeth Brunner at Cal Poly, 1997, for English 511: Postmodern Literature, taught by Professor Carol MacCurdy.  Posted online April 1999. 
       Interdisciplinary Parallels
From 1939 through 1965, Nicolas Bourbaki wrote thirty-one volumes of a treatise entitled Éléments de Mathématique, but -- with conspiratorial overtones worthy of Thomas Pynchon -- this prolific mathematician proved to be the fictional creation of a mischievous group of primarily-French scholars (Boyer 629). With a similar air of playfulness, a small society formed in Paris in 1960 to combine mathematical techniques and literary forms. Known as Oulipo or the Workshop for Potential Literature, this group pioneered such experiments as a sonnet flipbook which allows lines to be combined into 1014 possibilities and a novel which deliberately avoids any word containing the letter e (Paulos 167). Appropriate to a nation continually seeking the avant-garde lead, these French explorations into the borderland between math and literature represent whimsical examples of the interdisciplinary merging common in the global postmodern age. 
In the contemporary America novel, such category-crossing allows fiction to confront the ambiguity, fragmentation, and disorientation resulting from technological alienation. We live in a time when television characters seem more familiar than neighbors, when telephone calls reach computerized voice messages rather than live operators, and when the primary threats to our species are not natural predators but man-made tools of military destruction and the side-effects of environmental toxins. As a result, novels increasingly reflect -- either explicitly through plot and scene or implicitly through language and image -- the looming presence of technology. 
Although many scholars have investigated connections between postmodern novels and revolutionary developments in quantum mechanics, scant attention is paid to mathematics, the symbol-based language of physics, science, and technology. Because the disciplines of math and literature since World War II operate from common underlying assumptions, I hypothesize that the deliberate precision of mathematical principles can clarify the ambiguity integral to postmodern fiction. 
Certainly advanced mathematics use terminology applicable to contemporary novels: distortion, multi-dimensional, infinite unknowns, arbitrary nature, abstract space, hypercomplex systems, unexpected cohesion, pattern discernment, broader limits, transformation (morphing), pathological functions, formalism versus intuition, primitiveness, and unified knowledge. Contemporary math focuses on fundamental structures shared between corresponding mathematical specialties, just as contemporary literature crosses genre-boundaries and questions the structure of the novel itself. Increasingly mathematicians study unusual cases and show irreverence towards established theorems; similarly, writers use unreliable narrators, marginalized characters, and shifting voices to challenge reader complacency. 
Drawing upon these interdisciplinary parallels, I apply mathematical conceptions of symmetry and asymmetry to Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, fractal geometry to Toni Morrison's Beloved, and topology to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping