We had to get beyond irony: How David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and a new generation of believers changed fiction

Irony, once the hipster's favorite weapon, had become exhausted and rusted into cynicism. Enter "Infinite Jest"

Published March 27, 2016 10:30PM (EDT)

Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan   (AP/Tina Fineberg/Hachette/Pieter M. Van Hattem)
Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jennifer Egan (AP/Tina Fineberg/Hachette/Pieter M. Van Hattem)


Believing in stuff

The American 1990s saw the rise of a second popular eschatological vision, one primarily socioeconomic but no less millenarian in temper than the vision offered by "Left Behind." In the fall of 1989, in the National Interest, Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History?” which argues that the end of the Cold War might well have proved Hegel right: history might indeed have ended—and permanently enthroned liberalism—in 1806 with the Battle of Jena. Fukuyama’s conclusion is in one sense optimistic. He regards liberal, consumer- oriented capitalist democracy as the best of all possible political worlds. Serious rivals had systematically proved themselves not only morally bankrupt but also pragmatically unsustainable. Though all nations everywhere had yet to arrive at the ideological “Promised Land,” it was inevitable that everyone would in due course hear the “good news.” But the news was not all good. The end of history might also be viewed as “a very sad time,” as an era in which “daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” When history ends, we face nothing less than “centuries of boredom.” Such is life in the secular millennial kingdom. However else we might attack the end-of-history thesis—and even though Samuel Cohen makes a convincing case that many major American writers took a historical, “retrospective turn” in the 1990s—Fukuyama’s claim rep- resented something like posthistorical common sense after the end of the Cold War. It was, as David Foster Wallace writes in "Infinite Jest," “a post-Soviet and -Jihad era when . . . there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear, and the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own philosophical fatigue and hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage.”

Life in postindustrial democracies came to seem listless and without flavor; loneliness and a kind of bland sadness were all one could expect of the new world order. At the end of history, irony transformed from an instrument of revolution to a symptom of the impossibility of revolution. In a 1994 issue of The Modern Review, a London-based cultural studies magazine, Toby Young linked ubiquitous irony to the end of history: “it’s difficult to imagine what a post-ironic sensibility would be like. It’s a bit like finding yourself at the end of history. You’re bored because you’re not participating in any historic events but you can’t very well up sticks and go and fight in a war in a less evolved society. To do so would be untrue to your own historical experience; it would require you to unlearn the lessons history has already taught you. And what would be the point?” One can detect the same weariness of tone (“what would be the point?”) in the writing of Richard Rorty. Finding himself at the end of history, Rorty feels compelled to undermine any philosophical ambition to fuse our private and public commitments, leaving us in a position in which our public political commitments must remain philosophically ungrounded. Though he would reject the historical necessity of liberalism’s final victory, Rorty nonetheless thought that the left should “concede Francis Fukuyama’s point” and agreed that “no more romantic prospect stretches before the Left than an attempt to create bourgeois democratic welfare states and equalize life chances among the citizens of those states by redistributing the surplus produced by market economies.” At this moment, capitalism’s Cold War victory, individual irony, and philosophical antifoundationalism merged into a single discourse. Irony’s dominance could sometimes seem like the unavoidable cultural and philosophical consequence of our having arrived at history’s end. This background clarifies the ultimate stakes of discovering or inventing a viable post-ironic ethos. Both David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers sought to reconnect private and public life, and they pursued this aim by used techniques associated with postmodern metafiction to attempt to generate forms of belief theory held to be no longer possible.

For Wallace, post-ironic belief underwrites the possibility of genuine human communication. This is why Wallace distrusts the death-of-the-author thesis and constructs his fictions around a drama of unfulfilled communication. When the wraith of James O. Incandenza appears to the convalescing Don Gately, late in Infinite Jest, he explains that he created the irresistibly addictive avant-garde film “Infinite Jest” in order “to contrive a medium via which he [James] and the muted son [Hal] could simply converse,” a form of entertainment that “would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life.". Wallace himself claims to know in his “gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another,” and justifies his conviction with reference to a reading of Wittgenstein as an incipient post-postmodernist, someone who understood the deadly necessity of transcending solipsistic relativism. Eggers and many of those associated with his various literary enterprises (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, McSweeney’s Books, The Believer, Wholphin, his network of 826 tutoring centers), for their part, explode bibliographic form, conflating text and paratext, in order to regenerate a sense of wonder around reading, all of which is part of an effort to undermine what they take to be an overly cynical or snarky literary culture. Eggers’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity! (2002), proffer an aesthetic of the “quirky,” an aesthetic also visible (as we will see) in the various exhibits of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles. Wallace and Eggers write against a culture defined by solipsism, anhedonia, cynicism, snark, and toxic irony—a culture whose disenchantment and sadness can be traced back, in one way or another, to the consumerist end of history. Their primary oppositional strategy is to imagine a characterological countertype to the incredulous ironist.

I will call this countertype “the believer,” after Eggers’s influential magazine of the same name, though Wallace is arguably the architect of this post-ironic ethos. When he calls for the rise of an “anti-rebel”—a kind of post-countercultural or newly earnest countercultural figure who opposes a now mainstream irony—Wallace does not give a positive content to the figure, but this antirebellious believer is quite different from the one imagined by LaHaye and Jenkins in Left Behind. In Left Behind, secular postmodernity and neoliberal globalization demand a counterforce that returns to biblical fundamentals. Wallace, by contrast, cannot accept a religious response to the fallen world, nor can he embrace a simple return to a preironic sensibility. Wallace wants to invent a new form of secular belief, a religious vocabulary (God, prayer) that is emptied out of any specific content and is engineered to confront the possibly insuperable condition of postmodernity. This desire to believe is part of the lineage of the avant-garde and simultaneously criticizes that tradition. Eggers, meanwhile, has taken the impulse behind Wallace’s fiction and has successfully popularized it, transforming Wallace’s post-irony into a literary brand that promises consumer reenchantment, a kind of (nonprofit) retail avant-gardism. Lee Siegel has criticized Eggers for propagating a “self-conscious equivalence between decent living and good writing” and has denounced “the McSweeneyite confusion of good intentions with good art, and of its blithe elision . . . of truth with untruth, prevarication with pretense.” Whether or not he is here fairly criticizing “McSweeneyite” art, Siegel correctly identifies a key formal strategy embraced by many post-ironists: the elision of “truth” and “untruth” in pursuit of creating belief and reenchantment. In what follows, I will treat post-ironic belief both as a theoretical project and as a literary intervention.

Understood properly, post-ironists differ from writers of “hysterical realism,” a category the critic James Wood associates with a range of authors including Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie, Wallace, and Zadie Smith. By equating canonical post-modernists with those who have sought to succeed postmodernism, Wood misses that these younger writers have developed a critique of metafiction that, in its interrogation of the status of belief, resembles his own attack on hysterical realism. In a review of Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997), Wood argues that fiction constitutes an invitation to belief, or rather—in a secular age—an invitation to read “as if” one believed in fiction: “Fiction demands belief from us, and this request is demanding in part because we can choose not to believe.” Wood distinguishes the ontological commitment required by some religious traditions from the reader’s belief in fiction. Fiction can, at best, only “gently request” that readers act “as if” they believed. Belief in fiction turns out to be a metaphorical sort of belief. This argument suffers from an obvious contradiction: How can fiction “demand” from us a stance that, by definition, belies choice? Belief is involuntary, which is not the same as saying it is unchanging or saying that all beliefs are equally fixed. Nonetheless, a believer is someone who cannot help but hold his or her particular ontological convictions. The leap from nonbeliever to born again in Left Behind is thus not directly the product of will, but arises from an act of freely chosen submission or supplication, a willingness to be changed. Likewise, for Don Gately, Wallace suggests that practices identified with religion (kneeling, prayer) may precede belief—they may be necessary preconditions for belief—but that the transition from nonbelief to belief happens apart from one’s will. Wood might counter my criticism by suggesting that he is throughout his writing using belief in a consistently metaphoric sense. The problem with such a counterargument would be that Wood is actually correct that fiction demands belief of us. We do judge novels based on what they can convince us to believe. We believe or disbelieve in fiction based on a range of criteria—aesthetic, cognitive, social, historical—over which we exercise only partial control. This is the only reason that writing can sensibly be described as “plausible” or “implausible.” In its modes of world-building, and no matter the genre, every narrative engages with our capacity to believe. What we believe in (or disbelieve) includes a range of complexly interlocking phenomena. Not only do we read fictions using ontological criteria—judging its social, historical, and scientific plausibility—but fictions can often make ontological demands of us, can try to convert us into believers. If the job of the novel is to make a persuasive request of us to believe in the events depicted, then hysterical realism fails for Wood because its too-rapid accretion of interesting detail breaks the trance of credulity. “[Zadie] Smith does not lack for powers of invention,” Wood writes, with reference to a characteristic passage in White Teeth. “The problem is that there is too much of it . . . on its own, almost any of these details . . . might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other . . . As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic.” What Woods denounces is the sort of novel that, in its particulars, cannot be faulted for lacking realism, but whose overall pattern takes on an implausible shape. Global implausibility disrupts the local pleasure one might take in a work of fiction that more judiciously doled out its unlikelihoods. Novels of hysterical realism simultaneously feel allegorical and do not allegorize; they present characters that almost but do not quite rise to the level of the identifiably human. Hysterical realism’s hysteria short-circuits its realism.

So Wood is, in a sense, right. Fiction tries to compel belief from readers, but certain techniques—often associated with metafiction— can erect barriers to belief. Nonetheless, Wood’s attack on hysterical realism fails on two fronts. First, it does not address metafiction’s historical mission. After all, undermining a naïve version of realism— disrupting the process through which belief formation occurs—was precisely the goal of this type of fiction. To fault a mode of writing for successfully achieving its aims, Wood would need to make a case that those aims are not worth pursuing in the first place, which he does not do. Even in How Fiction Works, he promotes realism (or more precisely, works that possess what he calls “lifeness”) by critical fiat. Second, Wood misunderstands Wallace and Smith’s complex relationship to postmodernism. Post-ironists often try to cultivate belief among readers, and are reacting against the same picture of metafiction and postmodernism they learned about in university literature departments. For his part, Wallace carefully studied academic criticism on postmodernism. The Harry Ransom Center includes heavily annotated copies of Tom LeClair’s In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel as well as Frank Lentricchia’s Introducing Don DeLillo. Like Wood, Wallace came to find postmodern literature wanting in “final seriousness.”

Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction, published in 1984, expresses what remains the consensus view on the historical mission of metafiction. Though there are many different techniques associated with metafiction, all draw attention to practices of reading and writing, often by exposing how worlds of fiction are embedded within higher-order fictional worlds. Metafiction “self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.” When we read characters reading, we are supposed to become aware of how our own reading habit is homologous to the inscribed reading practice.

Metafiction’s power to “pose questions” about reality depends on a homology between fiction and society. Waugh emphasizes “the extent to which the dominant issues of contemporary critical and sociological thought are shared by writers of fiction,” suggesting that transformations in fiction and society are linked. The specific nature of this link remains ambiguous. Are writers of metafiction studying contemporary sociological literature—or arriving at their own amateur sociological insights—and seeking to allegorize these findings? Is the turn to metafiction a coincidental development? Or does some underlying shift in the world—economic or epistemic— account for this homology? Answers differ. Waugh distinguishes between “two poles of metafiction”: one that “finally accepts a substantial real world whose significance is not entirely composed of relationships within language; and one that suggests that there can never be an escape from the prisonhouse of language.” Despite these serious differences, Waugh treats all metafiction as a species of critique, a way of exposing myths and ideological cant.

Either metafiction is an allegory for the breakdown of master narratives and coherent frames in the social world (the weak interpretation) or metafiction, because it changes our relation with language, actually breaks down our confidence in norms, values, and conventions, such that we’re thrown into a bottomless well of doubt (the strong interpretation). This latter, strong interpretation has often been compared to a version of critical self-consciousness associated with Romantic irony, and especially Friedrich Schlegel’s fragmentary commentary on irony as a mode of “permanent parabasis.” Either way, society and culture become especially susceptible to the critical power of metafiction. According to the traditional understanding, metafiction is a form of irony because it forces the reader or subject to question all grounds for understanding, including the grounds one uses to justify being an ironist in the first place. Hegel, and Kierkegaard after him, called this form of questioning irony’s “infinite absolute negativity,” its self-negating nature. Metafiction does not therefore undermine this or that belief, but belief as such. It operates according to an inverted mechanism found in Left Behind. Like LaHaye and Jenkins, metafictionists assume that if a range of vocabulary could be mapped cleanly onto a domain of worldly things, then literary or ontological realism would be possible. We would have to take seriously some version of a correspondence theory of truth. By foregrounding linguistic self-referentiality or the infinite connotative range of words, metafiction tries to show that such a mapping is impossible, undermining our naïve belief in realism. Educated in this consensus view, post-ironists such as Wallace and Eggers attempt to use metafictional techniques differently—to help readers cultivate belief. In an unpublished contribution to James L. Harmon’s Take My Advice, Wallace makes the connection between irony and belief explicit: “Ridicule, nihilism, sarcasm, cool, and irony worked for the USA’s young when there were big adult hypocrisies for the young to explode and thus transcend . . . But now there are no really interesting hypocrisies left: you can’t be a hypocrite if you don’t even pretend to believe in anything. Irony and cool keep us from believing in stuff.” In his novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” Wallace takes great pains to deny that “cynicism and naiveté are mutually incompatible.” “Westward” links the belief in the importance and power of irony to the university, the creative writing workshop, and critical theories of postmodernity. If a cynic can be naïve, then someone nonnaïve can be also noncynical. Wallace attempts to help his reader adopt a stance of nonnaïve noncynicism by means of metafiction. What is paradoxical about this project is the emptiness of the proposed post-ironic belief. Post-ironists do not advocate a stance of belief toward any particular aspect of the world, but rather promote a general ethos of belief.

By this account, post-ironic belief might easily be mistaken for what Amy Hungerford calls “postmodern belief,” a “belief without meaning” or “belief without content” whose purpose is to “hedge against the inescapable fact of pluralism.” The language we use is similar, but I would resist this equation. Hungerford outlines a tradition of “belief in belief” that meant, above all, to sustain faith without having to commit to any particular religious community. By contrast, post-ironic believers are interested in belief apart from questions of social pluralism or religious institutions. Moreover, by Hungerford’s account, New Critical arguments against “the heresy of paraphrase” vouchsafed a religious function for literature; but as we saw in my first chapter, it was irony that made poetry resistant to paraphrase in the first place. So, though she doesn’t describe it in these terms, postmodern literature’s “belief in belief” depended on a prior, tacit affirmation of irony. Unlike postmodernists such as Don DeLillo, however, post-ironic believers do not want to keep faith with irony. Irony’s disruptive negativity seems too threatening. This is why it would also be a mistake to describe post-ironic belief as “metaironic.” Metairony is “a gambit . . . to turn irony back on itself,” but such a practice quickly threatens to become merely a higher-order iteration of the ironist’s infinite absolute negativity. Wallace and Eggers’s project more resembles what has been called New Sincerity. Adam Kelly focuses on the intersubjective anxiety that drives much contemporary fiction (including that of Wallace, Eggers, Dana Spiotta, Jennifer Egan, and Colson Whitehead), arguing that such fiction “asks what happens when . . . inner states lose their originating causal status and instead become effects of that anticipatory logic.” What is new about New Sincerity is that, though it understands that there is no pure form of communication, it nonetheless seeks to invent new ways of negotiating the problem of coordinating inner and outer states. But Kelly’s account does not address the specific threat these writers see in irony. We might wonder, for instance, whether the “anticipatory logic” that demotes the centrality of the “acting self” is a form of irony. I would argue against this equation. The battle between inner and outer motivation, which dialectically resolves itself in the form of New Sincerity, can arrive only after a prior struggle, the struggle to achieve post-ironic belief. If they did not believe in the actuality of other persons, Newly Sincere writers would not feel much need to lash together inner intentions and outer performances in the first place, let alone ask readers to trust in them. Post-ironic belief must precede the ethics of New Sincerity. Wallace’s commentary on Wittgenstein’s private language argument is one effort to vouchsafe the grounds for such belief. We also see the importance of belief in Eggers’s fictionalized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, What Is the What (2006), which ends with the following lines: “How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.” Valentino Achak Deng’s prefatory declamation of his “belief in humanity” uses similar language: “Since you and I exist we can make a difference!” While our trust in Eggers’s and Deng’s sincerity matters—we hope neither is being mercenary in proffering Deng’s story of suffering—the ultimate stakes are more profound but easy to overlook: Deng’s very existence. Likewise, it is easy to misread Wallace’s declaration that fiction ought “to dramatize the fact that we still ‘are’ human beings, now. Or can be.” Here too, nothing less than existence—both our being human and the dramatized proof that we are—is at stake. The post-ironic believer therefore does not only affirm the fact of the existence of other persons but also attempts to reconstruct our capacity to believe, seeking a literary means of dissolving the barriers that block that capacity.

Excerpted from "COOL CHARACTERS: IRONY AND AMERICAN FICTION" by Lee Konstantinou, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

By Lee Konstantinou

Lee Konstantinou is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Books Dana Spiotta Dave Eggers David Foster Wallace Don Delillo Fiction Infinite Jest Irony Jennifer Egan