Published in 1989 before such things had become commonplace, Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters is a postmodernist anti-novel that may even be said to be anti-history, despite its title. Each of its ten chapters is actually an independent short story focusing on major events from world history. Chapter 1 sets the tone, as well as introducing its most prominent recurring motifs: arks and woodworms. The opening chapter offers a version of what was really going on with the whole tale of Noah from the perspective of woodworms, who were denied official access to the Ark but managed to slip aboard as castaways.
The second chapter also takes place aboard a ship: a cruise liner based on the ill-fated ark of hostages, the Achille Lauro. The woodworms return in the following chapter as the defendants against charges of causing structural instability in a church. Another chapter has a Titanic survivor, the Biblical Jonah and Jewish passengers from the Ship of the Damned being denied safe haven as ports in the U.S and elsewhere.
The interconnected of the novel’s distinctly unconnected narratives is part of the overarching design by Barnes to take aim the way both faith and history are defined by spectacular individual moments in time. Humans, in creating traditional history, then piece together retrospectively to create meaning out of connections which do not organically exist.
A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters is not just an example of postmodernism; it is specifically an exhibition of the Fabulist sub-genre within the larger postmodernist movement. Fabulist postmodernism posits a more literary view of history, in which the connectedness of seemingly unrelated events, people and turning points is metaphorical rather than causal and which can be apprehended only through reference and allusion, rather than through fact and biography.