Wallace and post-postmodernism


I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I liked his take on the danger and ultimate destructiveness or our compulsive culture irony, that snarkiness at the heart of so much of pop (and hip) culture.  Something I’ve been wondering about too, especially reading Pynchon.

Barth called postmodernism a literature of exhaustion, but he felt it was a response to the exhaustion of old literary forms and themes.  I read the phrase differently, though.  It’s a literature that exhausts somehow, mostly through an ironic destruction of the pretenses it holds as its target.  So it’s funny and trenchant and often has the appearance of profound depth because irony suggests that there’s an intelligence at work observing and judging the subject of that irony.  But it’s essentially an abandonment of something else — the genuine, the earnest, the vulnerability of a real work of art.  (This isn’t as true with Pynchon and maybe it’s more relevant to the TV and film descendants of postmodernism, but it does touch on what you give up when your writing is so aggressively self-aware.)

Anyway, from Wallace — who I really like, and who comes across as being a kind of insecure, lost genius, and whose writing is much more personal than I expected, like a weird cross between David Sedaris and Dave Barry almost.  But this is just excellent:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entrendre principles.  Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.  Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…  The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.”  To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. (81)

A few thoughts here.  First, this is a great description of the genuine storyteller, isn’t it?  At some point the obsession with being perceived as a hip non-conformist becomes a terrible kind of conformity.  That’s not all that profound an idea, but it’s true.  Second, this is kind of what I was going for when I was writing about Pynchon’s endings.  That, not as intent but as effect, the closing of Oedipa’s story is an exit from irony and self-reflection.  It’s a catharsis because it prefigures postmodernism’s own “hip fatigue” and finds it just one more artificial barrier preventing genuine human connection with the outside world.

And also, isn’t this why Crowley is so great?  He’s not really hip — nothing strange or involuted about the narrative structure, although he does get experimental and his books aren’t always easy to read.  But he’s good for the same reason, ultimately, that writers have been good for centuries — because they connect, and they reimagine the world in a way that edifies us.

And one last thing… hasn’t this same principle always really been the measure of good literature?  The avant-garde may change and go through distinct (or less than distinct) literary periods, but good stories have always found an audience, and not just for mass consumption.  There is more than just the mass-market bestsellers and the experimentalists.  In that big space between the two, great writers do and have always existed.

About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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