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 thirtyone 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 primarilyFrench 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 avantgarde
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 categorycrossing 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
manmade tools of military destruction and the sideeffects 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 symbolbased
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, multidimensional,
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 genreboundaries 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. 