The postmodern elements in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood may well outnumber (or out-yell) the modernist ones, deviating from the formalist definitions of the latter movement in several ways. Joseph Frank distinguishes this example of her work from those of authors such as James Joyce, but the novel cannot be said to possess the "new depthlessness" by which Jameson defines the truly postmodern. Barnes wrote between the blurred lines of the modern and postmodern; Nightwood emerges from the haze a complex and often difficult book intimately linked to both.
The breakdown of temporality is adequately evidenced in Nightwood, as one might increasingly expect from a modernist novel as the first half of the century drew towards World War II. Lacking a strong narrative thrust, Barnes portrays characters as lost in their relationships as they are in time. Events transpire or are hinted at, their significance revealed only later via equally dense explanations by other characters (Dr. O’Connor’s monologues in the closing chapters go some way to establish, if not a perfect chronology, a psychological narrative that can stand in for "real" time). Relying more heavily on the internal than the external for situating story and character are characteristic of modernist literature, but it is at the level of character Barnes stretches into the postmodern.
As Joseph Frank illustrates in "Spatial Form and Modern Literature," even the powerhouses of modernism, Joyce and Woolf, steadfastly employed quotidian details to establish the naturalist aspects of their writing. The daily life, its real locations and deeds, which juxtaposed with their thoughts defined a new kind of realism, radically different from that typically ascribed to the 19th Century. Barnes, however, dispenses with even that, making "no attempt…to convince us that the characters are actual flesh-and-blood human beings." They are nearing the state of total abstraction, our perceptions of them determined primarily by a network of references and descriptions offered by the narrator. They are as photo mosaics, symbols and images of outside data arranged to create a larger portrait, provided the reader stands back far enough to see it.
The unstable points of reference, the demands made upon the reader to unite the spaces and times into a coherent structure without a reliable starting point psychologically or realistically, challenge the reader’s ability to generate a whole meaning. Indeed there may well be no unified cogent value, in which case the text may "resist interpretation," as Jameson suggests a postmodern work does. Elements of the postmodern are at least as present as those of the movement that preceded it, if in fact the novel does not greatly overstep its temporal bounds.
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