Kevin Guilfoile

Irony, It Has Happened To Me

08.27.09 | 37 Comments

Someone recently sent me an unpublished manuscript to read and while the book itself had many things to recommend it, there was one sentence that made me laugh. I won’t use the same context because I don’t want to embarrass the author, but the gist of it was something like, “It’s so ironic that you brought garlic bread because I made marinara sauce!”

In other words the writer used the word “ironic” to mean “entirely congruous,” the exact opposite of ironic.

Of course, people have been misusing the word irony for a lot longer than Alanis Morrissette has been writing songs, but this one tickled me in particular, creating as it did something of a set theory paradox–a use of the word irony that did not mean irony but was nevertheless an unintended example of it. Wallace would be pleased by the circular nature of that, I suspect.

Several of these posts have pointed to Wallace’s expressed distaste for irony, but you never cease to find examples of people calling him an ironist. I’m sure this is related to his use of satire and especially metafictional techniques, which have long been associated with irony. But it’s hard to imagine anyone would read Infinite Jest with anything like a careful eye and not feel the earnestness with which it is written. Even when Wallace uses the word irony, it’s usually in a pejorative sense, either from the POV of the White Flaggers and their “irony free zone” or by a Canadian sneering at ironic Americans.

The introduction to my edition of IJ was written by Dave Eggers, who is often compared to Wallace. That connection is usually made through Eggers’ use of footnotes in the front matter to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a memoir not a novel. And like Wallace, Eggers is often used as the critical poster boy for irony, despite the fact that Eggers might just be the most earnest writer we have.84

The truth is my generation, which is also the generation of Wallace and Eggers, has had irony imprinted on it. We grew up with Letterman and came of age with the Simpsons. In fact, with the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this month, it’s been amusing for me and others my age to watch the seriousness with which the boomers take their nostalgia. The popular music of our own youth was terrible and we know it, but we have this arch fondness for Men at Work85 or whatever because it still triggers these sense memories of being young and worry-free and gloriously hormonal. What you have in Wallace and Eggers are writers who have instinctively appropriated this ironic reflex and put it in the service of sincerity–the techniques other writers have used to distance the author from the text they use instead to engage the reader with it.

On page 694, Wallace has a much more sophisticated take on the same idea:

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip–and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naiveté.

The mask is stuck there even on Wallace, but he has found a way to put it to nobler use.

I’ve seen people refer to this as post-irony, but that does nothing to clarify the issue (is a post-modernist not also modern?) and the issue needs clarification. Most people who have read neither writer (and some who have) still think they are leading contemporary examples of ironists.86 And the problem with that assumption is that everything they say then becomes suspect. Every time Eggers speaks, media-types and bloggers parse his words for the real meaning when the real meaning couldn’t be clearer.87 Wallace answers a simple question–What are ten books you like?88–and half the people don’t believe him.

I don’t think anybody hereabouts needs one, but here’s an irony palette cleanser: Roger Ebert’s terrific essay this week in which he talks for the first time about his 30 years sober with AA. If you have time, I encourage you to read the comments, especially the varied reactions from other AA members (some are angry that Ebert has violated Tradition 11 by shedding his anonymity and talking publicly about the meetings). It’s an excellent companion piece to IJ.