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Contemporary Literature (kafka on the Shore, the Sympathizer, Can Poetry Matter, Hillbilly Elegy, Exhortation)

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Contemporary literature is literature written after World War II through the current day. Products of contemporary literature mirror and reflect a society’s social and/or political perspectives, which the authors show through pragmatic characters and life-like connections to current events. When we talk about contemporary literature and think back to the beginning of it, we have to acknowledge the time period in which it began in, World War II and the neighboring events. The dismay of the war, including bombs, genocide and corruption, were the road that led us to this new kind of literature, it presented a way to share thoughts and feelings about these horrifying events. It is from these real-life motifs that a new period of writing was discovered. While there is not a specific type or structure for contemporary writing, each piece sends a different message from a person living through and after World War II. Yet, not all works revolve around the Holocaust or war accounts. Contemporary pieces of writing focus on speaking about the injustices in the world, as well as the propositions and questions that arose during this frightening time in global history. The war served as a stimulant for this change of mind, and the authors writing during that time deliberately and unknowingly elucidate this change in thinking through their writing.

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Kafka on the Shore, published in Japan in 2002 by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, now translated into English, is an example of contemporary literature written about post war events. Comprising two separate but complementary plots, Kafka on the Shore jumps between the two, alternating each of them throughout the chapters. The odd-numbered chapters tell the story of 15-year old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from his father’s house to escape an Oedipal curse and commence his journey in search of his mother and sister. After numerous adventures, he finds asylum in a library in Takamatsu, managed by the detached and isolated character of Miss Saeki and the more sympathetic character, Oshima. The even numbered chapters tell the story of Nakata, an old man who lost most of his intelligence during an accident and as a result, acquired the ability to speak to cats. Nakata finds a part time job as a lost cat finder. One missing cat in particular, moves him far away from his home and out into the outside world for the first time in his life. He makes social acquaintance with a truck driver named Hoshino, who takes him on as a passenger in his truck and quickly becomes very attached to Nakata.

Kafka on the Shore demonstrates a combination of pop culture, detail, reality, an interrelated plot, and dominant sexuality. It also features an increased focus on Japanese traditions, in particular, Shinto, a series of ritual practices to be carried out hastily in order to form a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past. The power and artistry of music as a communicative artistic form is one of the fundamental themes of this novel. The title of the book itself, Kafka on the Shore, comes from a song Kafka is given on a record in the library where he found refuge. Philosophy is also an essential theme throughout the novel as many character dialogues and monologues are inspired by their own examinations of the world around them and their relationship to it. Beethoven’s music, specifically that of the Archduke Trio, is used as a compensating analogy to support the themes of the novel. Other conspicuous themes in the novel include; the importance of self-sufficiency, the relationship between dreams and reality, the idea of fate, and the subconscious mind. The frameworks of Kafka on the Shore is creative and original. Kafka and Nakata’s stories are told alongside each other, running alternatively. Kafka, the teenage boy, narrates his own story in the first person. While Nakata’s story, in contrary, is told in the third person. That choice in narration, in a cunning way, accurately describes his own way of talking and thinking as a consequence of a wartime calamity. Nakata’s accident made him lose a part of his intelligence, thus making him less expressive and fervent, which is why Murakami gave him a voice by way of third person, embodying to Nakata’s character itself. I found that very impressive and profound. In this story, the characters encounter ghosts, it rains fish and leeches, and the characters visit comprehensively different worlds, like the place that hangs between life and death. At some parts throughout the story, the subconscious of the characters will narrate the story and we see different sides to the characters. Murakami makes the reader feel like he/she is part of this surreal world, the audience feels like they are stepping inside of the characters shoes; for the younger audience, relating to Kafka may be easier to to share their feelings and thoughts relating to their own lives, their own relationship to the world and what they contribute to it. Kafka on the Shore is also amply filled with quotations from old ideologies, such as; Greek Gods, old English literature, and even Franz Kafka (also one of the protagonist’s name). Inclusively, Kafka at the beginning of the story runs away from his father’s home as an escape from an Oedipal prediction, which is related to Greek mythology. Although some parts of the novel were tedious and dragged along in a sense, I found that the supporting characters stood out, making them memorable to the story overall. The theme of this novel is dreary and disheartening, but it has a sense of humor in some parts, although it might not be the usual cheery type of humor most people are used too, but I find it made the story intricate and magnificent. Haruki Murakami writes in a Kafkaesque kind of style that makes his world fully authentic, convincing and sustainable. While this book might not be for everyone, there is no disagreement that Murakami has an ingenious grip at writing, and his technique and aesthetic is worthy of remarking.

The Sympathizer, published in 2015 by Vietnamese-American professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, is another excellent example of contemporary literature written post Vietnam War. The book tells the story of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 and living as an American exile in Los Angeles. The story is set as the flashback of a political prisoner who is being terrorized during a confession investigation. The American exile is told through the point of view of a half-Vietnamese, half-French undercover communist agent. The spy remains unnamed throughout the novel from the fall of Saigon, to the refugee camps, to the relocation in Los Angeles, to his time as a film consultant in the Philippines, and finally to his return and captivity in Vietnam. The point of view of this book is reflected on the literature of the war, not to mention how literary the Vietnam war was, and because of it, produced and created an endless number of pieces of fiction and nonfiction writing. Nguyen was born in Vietnam but was raised in the United States from a young age, this book reflects his perspective on the war and its aftermath. Through his writing, he gave the voiceless victims of the war a voice, and shined a new light and perspective to an event that happened more than forty years ago. Some universal themes in this book were: the fallacies between the East and West and the moral crisis everyone all over the world who are forced to choose between now what’s wrong or right but rather what is right and right. The protagonist and narrator, although nameless, was a very memorable character, whom because of his migration, was now Americanized, dividing his heart (his culture and background, Vietnam) and his mind (his new life in the U.S). By far the most distinctive stylistic feature of this book is the anonymous narrator who provides the commentary throughout the story. The narrator guides its reader through the discrepancies of the war and of American identity. The first person narration evolves from the foundation for the plot of the book: a confession from the protagonist/narrator to the communist law enforcement trying to get him to explain his exile. The communist impounders force him to write and rewrite his narration of the events, in an effort to correct or change his philosophical views on American and the South Vietnamese enemies. The question of race and ethnicity and the equivalent cultural class, is a repeating theme throughout the novel and predominantly debated in the scenes where the characters reach Los Angeles. The refugees surrender to the American way of life physically, but mentally and emotionally, they continue to long for their old lives back home in Vietnam, secretly scheming to make a return once and for all. Their adaptation consists of setting up small are specifically for native Vietnamese communities, where the order stays the same as in their homeland, Vietnam. In an attempt to arrange our protagonist a much needed breather from his complicated secret life, the narrator created a mini sub-story in the form of a movie in the Philippines which is supposed to praise the American efforts done during the Vietnam War. Once the movie is over, we are taken back to Los Angeles, where the Captain (protagonist) prepares for his return which ends up in his own imprisonment. This is when we learn who the mastermind between all the political games is, and we get to witness the practices of the Communist regime at its finest. Surrender was achieved through hard labour, heinous tortures based on Soviet techniques, mind games to the extreme, with the desire that the brain-washed brains would absorb the revolutionary ideas and beg for forgiveness from Vietnam. The imprisonment scenes are very intense and horrifying, yet the climax is predictable and the confession is barren of emotions, which was worrisome. Through this we can see how the writer failed to institute a connection with the reader.

The Sympathizer is a heavy novel that focuses on the political realities of the fall of Saigon in 1975 and its aftermath. The construction of a rather cold and emotionless journal, provides a vivid understanding of the cultural ranges of the American-Vietnamese relationship and into the spying and manipulating world of the Communist regime. This book in comparison to Kafka on the Shore, is a book that mostly makes an incredible historical point of view of contemporary writing, but is a feeble story from the perspective of character development and action. Because the narrator of the novel is cold and aloof, as readers it is difficult to share thoughts, ideas, and feelings because there is not much to work with in those departments. The revelation at the end of the book is the insight that saves the narrator from utter despair and anguish. Despite everything that he had faced, his people and him still considered themselves revolutionary, they remained most hopeful of creatures (humans), a revolutionary in search of a revolution, although all they really wanted to do was live a normal life. This was the first time any real emotional connection was felt throughout the 382 pages in the book.

American poetry, although completely different than novel writing, has also changed extensively within the last two centuries. In his essay, Can Poetry Matter, Dana Gioia says that American poetry today, now belongs to a subculture. It is no longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. The spread of new poetry and poetry programs is astonishing and has historically broken record. Making a living as a poet today is much easier than it had been in say the eighteenth century which now include even opportunities to teach college level classes in creative writing, as well as elementary and middle school level classes. Over the past half century, as American poetry’s specialist audience has steadily expanded, its general readership has declined. Leading critics rarely review poetry and practically no one reviews it except for other poets. A new novel or biography is reviewed on or around its publication date, a new collection by an important poet might wait up to a year for it to be noticed, if it even gets reviewed at all. Until about thirty years ago most poetry appeared in magazines that addressed audiences on a wide variety of subjects such as, politics, humor, fiction, and reviews.

The spread of literary journals and presses over the past thirty years has been less of an increased demand for poetry among the public but rather a desperate need of writing teachers for professional acceptance and validation. A poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers of the poetry and not the audience who is intended to read these poems, and in the process, betrays the principles of the a the integrity of the art has been betrayed. Consequently, most contemporary poets, knowing that they are essentially invisible in the larger span of things, focus on the more intimate forms of lyric and verse. The other side of the debate is that poetry today goes more in depth of things rather than superficially like it had been previously. Music for example, while not immediately considered poetic, is lyric and verse, which in modern day American poetry is considered poetry. The Swedish Academy honored Bob Dylan with the most prestigious literary award in the world and some contemporary Americans poets and scholars have boycotted the selection. Bob Dylan, who has been around since the early 1960’s, songs portray the complexities of song and self. Dylan’s songs ask who is the self, what the conflict is, how does the chorus help show that; his songs serve as measure of connections and talk about a conflicted self which is what modern music is all about. Music is more than a bodily experience and is fully engaged with ideas of what literature can do today. Lyrics in music today are similar to what people on social media today portray of the self. The Swedish Academy honored Bob Dylan with the most prestigious literary award in the world because his lyrics were an impeccable illustration of what poetry has become today and it gives us a hint of where it’s headed in the future. Gregory Pardlo, an emerging, award winning contemporary African American poet, demonstrates an engagement in lyrical text analysis. Like Bob Dylan, Pardlo writes about conflicts of the self, he digs deeper into issues, raising the level of complexities of the self. In his book Digest, Pardlo writes about a wide variety of types of conflicts oneself can have. It touches the audience to dig deeper into themselves and really reflect on life in parts rather than as a whole. Both Pardlo and Dylan have done a fascinating job at exhibiting what American poetry is today. It makes connections with the self as not just part of oneself but also as a part of history. For the future, poetry is headed towards the direction of spoken word poetry which continues to grow in popularity and significance. Spoken poetry gives poetry an extra touch of emotion and it makes the general audience go more in depth of themselves and think about all the different complexities and discover something new about the self. There are two sides to modern American poetry, like in literature, there’s the conservatives (canon literature) and there’s the contemporary writers (modern) and this debate is clear, but it will be ongoing for the time to come.

A different type of writing genre, but still considered contemporary literature, is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy offers an insight into the rage and resentments that fuel today’s political revolt amongst what used to be the working class. Vance learned to despise the people who depended on others and especially criticized the people who were unable or unwilling to find work and make their lives better. He believed that people stayed poor because they didn’t work hard enough to meet their ‘personal responsibility’, even if he believed at one point he was one of them and his family were still those kind of people. Vance learned to drop what threatened to develop, into a destructive self-hate, resentful, and eagerness to blame a system that left his family and community feeling neglected, unheard, and betrayed. On the checklist of modern privilege, Vance has everything that in America would create for a successful and accomplished American Dream. Vance is white, male, straight and Protestant, but although he meets the qualifications for modern privilege, his backstory is misleading. His people, the ‘hillbillies’ or rednecks, weren’t immigrants that came from South America or Europe, they were white Americans who for generations had lived in poverty. Vance’s ancestors were sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, millworkers, all low-paying, body-killing jobs that over the years shut down or no longer provided the support the workers needed to sustain their families.

Hillbilly Elegy has given incredible insights into why Donald Trump was demonstrated so attractive to the American white working class living in the middle of nowhere America during the presidential election. We can see how ‘hillbillies’ could embrace and accept Trump, a xenophobic misogynist with an erratic temperament, as not only one of their own, but as leader of this country. Vance indicates how a sense of victimhood and the habit to blame others for their problems and struggles was successfully utilized during Trump’s campaign. Immigrants, terrorists, the governments of other countries, Obama, and black people are all seen as responsible for the lives that ‘hillbillies’ have lived for centuries, but as Vance points out, blame everyone except themselves for their own misfortunes. For people born and raised in the American middle class today and being well educated in a functional working school system, this book will open your eyes to what’s on the opposite side of the ‘1%’. The working class that was until recently truly a “working” class, but has lately been deprived not only of work and monetary stability, but also of dignity and shoved to the bottom of the social class scale. Whether or not you agree with J.D. Vance’s argument, you must give him credit for his touch on such a taboo subject today. He frames his critique abundantly, looking at this issue from multiple lens and specifying that it isn’t laziness that’s destroying the ‘hillbilly’ culture, but the habit of blaming others for adversity and not seeking the actual root of the dilemma is what is going to leave ‘hillbillies’ stuck in an impoverished society for many generations to come. Classical literature also referred to as canonical literature, was once referred to the literature written by the Ancient Greeks and Romans (Plato, Cicero, Socrates,) however, nowadays it is generally used to refer to anything written before the 20th century (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Milton). An example of a canon writer and someone whose writing I admire, would be Franz Kafka. Although Kafka was a German-language novelist and short story writer in the late 18th, early 19th century, his work entirely has been found to be closely related to his life. Franz Kafka who is considered a canonical writer, demonstrates through his stories that people have to adjust their sexuality, religion, and target the idea of the Oedipus Complex or Freudianism. They must also deal with injustice and the hypocrisy of authority figures. Kafka demonstrated his views on life through the protagonists in his stories; his protagonists struggle with accepting their sexuality, dealing with family pressures that often times ruined or took away the personal goals of the character and led him to a life of misery. This is what Kafka would call Kafkaesque; the things in life that change our perspective completely and change who we are. In many ways Kafka was a canon writer with contemporary ideas and thoughts. Like Kafka, Vance zooms in deeper into his descriptions and writes them in a way that is more familiar for the audience/readers to really connect and understand what they’re reading. By relating to the audience, the writer keeps the readers intrigued and reading and that is what makes a writer a good writer. The way they handle the element of description in their writing is in a way that keeps the audience intrigued the whole way through, it describes even the slightest detail without dragging it out too much, it connects with the audience to give the reader an increased understanding in the root of the story. Kafka’s personal life and life as a young boy influenced who he became in his adult life. Kafka felt like he had failed in the basic life goals in life and that is what triggered to create the protagonists in his stories that lived Kafkaesque lives. Growing up in a family who come from a long list of ancestors also shaped and changed how Vance saw life in his adulthood. He knew he wasn’t going to make it far in life if he stayed hillbilly and reflected on that cultural lifestyle as not only an insider to that culture but also as an outsider looking into this culture.

Exhortation, one of the eleven short stories in Tenth of December written by George Saunders begins with a straightforward anecdote of typical annoying supervisor to staff communication. The short story is an email written by Todd Birnie, the division director of a company to his staff about the March performance statistics. Two aspects of the story that I thought were written effectively were sentence structure and word choice. The entire first paragraph is a representation of who Todd was as not only a person but as a supervisor/director, his word choice and paragraph structure give the email its lengthy annoying feel to make us the readers feel like this is our supervisor emailing us in real life. Typically, what makes Saunders’ craft and technique different in my opinion is his tone. The tone of this story is what brought the story to life in me, the reader’s head. I was able to clearly picture Todd and even how his staff would have reacted to this email and how it would have turned about in the workplace. Would the numbers go up? Would they meet the quota? What would happen to them and possibly their jobs if they didn’t change? Typically, what makes Saunders’ craft and technique different in my opinion is his tone. The tone of this story is what brought the story to life in me, the reader’s head. I was able to clearly picture Todd and even how his staff would have reacted to this email and how it would have turned about in the workplace. Would the numbers go up? Would they meet the quota? What would happen to them and possibly their jobs if they didn’t change? Saunders matches up to what is considered to be a masterful modern approved storyteller such as authors like, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and O’Connor because present day literature is short and straight to the point, as well as it is told in times after the world war. Literature is not quite as long as old literature books are and Saunders does just this and this is how he represents contemporary fiction and the art of modern literature. I feel that this story was shorter than maybe some of the other short stories in the book but it was one of the stories that had the most imagery and really had me grasped. Even though I was rather annoyed with Todd and the director/supervisor I imagined him to be, I was really intrigued with trying to fill in between the lines of the story. I enjoyed going more in depth with the storyline behind the short story but I was also appreciative of the short length of the story. The way Saunders ended his short story was so accurate as to what would have happened in a real life case. Looking briefly back at the last fifteen years, the contemporary books come from a somewhat wider geographical area than before, even if those books are largely written by a few Western-educated Anglophone authors. Globalization as a theme of contemporary literature is, not surprisingly, common or ubiquitous. The once-popular vision of a globally unified venture operating in a practically borderless world has lost its original goal, it was weakened not just by politics but by the realities of doing business in markets around the world whom have very different motions and regulations. As for publishing, the media industries and specifically publishing industries are undergoing major changes and has the communications industries are being subjected to globalization. Globalization meaning the markets producing media products such as: films, television shows, sound recordings, books, magazines, and newspapers, are being focused from one developing country to another. As a consequence of language advances, media products that begin their careers in English speaking countries, have a considerable ‘head start’, both in conditions of actual buyer numbers as well as in terms of the probability of getting translated and therefore becoming bigger and more successful. Having achieved the supremacy that it has, this is also the reason why English has become one of the top international languages.

As a budding writer, something I have learned about contemporary literature from reading these texts throughout the semester is that description is everything in any kind of writing. The way a writer describes and says things in his/her writing is whether or not the piece of writing will be successful. What I have learned about craft and technique when it comes to this particular element is that it is important to describe and relate things in a way the audience will get a better understanding of the concept being deciphered. In my future work I want to approach the element of description in a more detailed manner, I’m going to further break down my thoughts in ways the audience has to immediately understand and picture what I am saying. Added to that, demonstrating emotion and feeling through my characters, is a way for the readers to connect to the characters, therefore connecting to the book itself. When there is no showing of emotion, like in The Sympathizer, it is very hard for an author to connect with his/her audience. By further developing my character emotionally or finding a way to connect with my readers emotionally, I can guarantee them to be absorbed into my writing through it all.

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