Back on Wednesday I promised plf515 that I would take a stab at writing a 'What are you reading' diary focusing on a special topic. My chosen subject is the post-ironic hero. I hope you find some value in it, but as with all 'What are you reading' diaries, consider this an open thread to share with us what books have caught your fancy.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them – while yet others run kicking and screaming only to have greatness chase them down and beat them with a stick. That latter group is a type of post-ironic hero.
Post-irony, what the heck is that? To answer that we have to step backwards to the postmodern novel. It seems to me that the postmodern novel wasn't so much a reaction to the modernist novel as it was a parallel reaction to the realist movement. The novels of the 19th and early twentieth century where based on realism and tended to have clear morals. The novels featured recognizable heroes who, often against great odds, overcome some obstacle or evil villain. The stories end with a triumph or an epiphany of one sort or another. There are some great novels from this period, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Withering Heights, Jane Eyre, Emma, Moby Dick, and the list goes on and on. All great books by any standard, but in the twentieth century there was this growing frustration that everything had already been written. If you put your hero in deepest darkest Africa, or your heroine in outer-space, it is really just a costume change, not a new novel. Or as Jorge Luis Borges said “The certainty that everything has already been written annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.”
So, what is a starving writer to do? Reject the moral tale, the tidy ending, in fact avoid any simple declarative message altogether. There is no absolute truths, good is not totally good, and evil has its reason for being the way it is. The Post-Modern novel relies on irony, often treating serious subjects in an almost playful but dark manner, like Heller and Vonnegut's approach to World War II.
But what happens to our poor starving writer when irony becomes the norm and can no longer convey his message? He becomes sincere.
If you will allow me, I would like to discuss how irony become the norm in society and neutered for writers before describing my post-ironic hero. In Lee Konstantinou essay “The Co-optation Problem: Postirony in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl,” [excerpt here] he describes how counter culture itself has been cooped by commercialization.
According to the standard historical narrative, the counterculture staged a hip rebellion against the stultifying mass culture of the 1950s, compelling young Americans to reject gray flannel suits in favor of oppositional Beat, hippie, punk, New Wave, and eventually grunge styles. From within these countercultures, the gravest threat to a particular oppositional style’s authenticity came from the mainstream absorption and reproduction of the cultural codes by which the hip distinguish themselves from the masses. Thus, the historical progression of countercultures explains its stylistic mutations by means of a cooptation thesis: this thesis asserts that crass commercial interests systematically neutralize the revolutionary power of hip countercultural styles by turning them into commodities. The cooptation thesis found its ultimate expression in the early 1990s when some young critics began to claim that even irony, that ultimate weapon of the countercultural sensibility, had lost its oppositional power. Corporations now strategically deployed irony to sell their products. Mainstream culture embraced irony as its official style. Young authors began to advise their peers abandon irony in favor of a rebellious return to sincerity.One of the clearest examples of the post-irony writers is David Foster Wallace. In his short story Good Old Neon [pdf], Wallace presents the story of a successful suicidal yuppie media buyer who feels he is a 'phony' and 'incapable of love'. An obvious cliché. But, by the use of the first person narrative, Wallace is able to wrench away the irony from the reads control and basically say, 'Yes I know this is a cliché, but I am being sincere. I really am telling you what I am telling you.' Wallace's story is not about a media buyer, or his suicide; it is about human consciousness. That is the heart of what post-irony is. 'Yes it has been said before, I know it is a cliché, but I really mean it, every atom of your flesh is as dear to me as my own.'
The cliché is a device that post-ironic art uses commonly. In movies it can be seen in Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. He takes a tired cliché but infuses it with beautiful cinematography and a deep meaning
You can find it in music with the videos of Die Antwoord, a band that looks foolish, but makes really good music. [Ironically this video starts with an advertisement, and I should also mention, is not suitable for British school kids. Do not watch this at work.]
I have already rambled on longer than I had meant to, so let's get to the Post-Ironic hero. Not surprisingly, since I already quote him at length, I am going to look at Lee Konstantinou's hero of his comic novel Pop Apocalypse, Eliot Vanderthorpe Jr. The book is set in the near future where the internet has transformed into the 'MediaSphere' and everything is a commodity – even peoples reputations. Eliot is the trust fund rich kid of the most powerful man in the world. One day, in a drug induced haze, he has a moral revelation that exploitation underage passed out teenage girls for media consummation is probably a bad thing. He rescues the girls – but in a horribly messed up way. He cold cocks the son of the Prime Minster of England with a champagne bottle, and destroys a very expensive camera. Rather than stand up for his heroic act, he fleas, and damages not only his own reputation, but that of his family's as well. Eliot is not a bad person, he is just not a very good person, and he knows it. He has a girlfriend that he is sure he really loves, but still can't keep from cheating on her. Later in the book Eliot learns he has a doppelganger and goes to San Francisco to confront him. He uncovers a plot to plunge the world into a thermal nuclear holocaust. After having sex with a freelance journalist, he saves the day. But once again he messes up the 'heroic' act, embarrassing his family in front of the president and world media – as he crashes from military grade amphetamines – and there is a sex tape to boot. Even at the end when he is parachuting onto the world stage to stop his double from killing the leader of the Arab world, Eliot once again loses focus, and instead rams into a cow. Still in the pursuing confusing, the world is saved, and his girlfriend professes her love for – Eliot's double.
Eliot knows he is not a good person. He does not want to be a bad person, but he knows that it is true. He definitely does not want to be a hero, but greatness keeps chasing him down – and beating him with a stick.
That is the fate of the post-ironic hero. They are not particularly good people, in fact most are phonies. They know that. They do not deny it. These new heroes allow the writer to take the ironic cliché away from the reader and focuses it on what they are tying to say.
In another book by John Hill, Horns, the hero is a usually hung over slacker who wakes up one morning only to discovery he has becoming a devil. He does not want to be a devil, and goes out of his way to explain it away, but the truth of the matter is that the author has made him a devil, whither he likes it or not. The book is presented as a horror story, but the horror story is just the cliché Hill uses to express his sincere thoughts.
All of this has been about how to tell a story. When Mr. Darcy can no longer be the hero to tell your story, you turn to Captain John Yossarian. And then when Captain John Yossarian can't tell your story, you turn to Eliot.
That's it. That is all I have to say. Now it is your turn.