Between the sentimental, the gothic, and the ironic CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN
WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE NARRATIVE MODE to capture the last few years of US history? What mode will fit the times going forward? Political eras lend salience to certain sorts of stories. We have just lived through a gothic phase of history, and a new sentimental age is upon us. These two modes of narrative have been alive, if not always dominant, in America since the eighteenth century, and they have lately defined our politics. The tropes of the Trump administration were those of a gothic nightmare—sexual perversion and predation, the sinister influence of forces emanating from the shadowy east, the capture and abuse of innocent women and children, nefarious doings in gaudy dwellings. By contrast his successor is the benevolent and nonthreatening patriarch—mourner of tragically sacrificed wife and children, faithful husband of four decades, father welcoming home a prodigal son. In Biden the possibility of the loving family is restored, the White House transformed from a haunted (and infected) castle to a national shelter from the storm, a well-guarded fortress against the resurgent demons of the American past.
Yet an inverse vision persists on the other side of the political divide. The QAnon conspiracy posits a corrupt liberal elite trafficking in youngsters and profiting from their sale and exploitation in a secret global market, an all-pervasive criminal enterprise lurking just beneath the surface and ever about to be exposed. Within this paranoid (and gothic) matrix, Trump is (or was) a romantic hero-avenger always on the verge of jailing the perpetrators, who also happened to be his political adversaries. The fantasy Trump peddled to his followers was the sentimental narrative of restoration, appealing to the aggrieved who imagine their advantages slipping away, repulsive to progressives who (rightly) conceived of such restoration as regression, a retrenchment in the mire of past and still-lingering injustices.
These ghosts were never banished and have been joined by new specters at once novel and archaic. The pandemic with its murky rumors of origins in bats and pangolins or foreign laboratories; incessant episodes of police violence and mass shootings; a still-raging opioid epidemic: all these partake of the gothic, not to mention the ensuing end of the world via climate change. We have been yearning for a return to the sentimental. But the sentimental narrative is a fragile one. Its recent political buzzwords—“dignity” for Biden, “hope” for Obama—are punctured by the slightest disappointments. Really the best thing these sentimental politicians have going for them is the looming presence of gothic villains, Trump and Putin, or worse, a second Trump who is equally as charismatic and not so obviously disgusting to liberal and professional sensibilities.
Joe Biden, Wilmington, Delaware, July 16, 2020. Adam Schultz/Biden for President
What the sentimental and the gothic have in common is that they are both at root children’s literature, delineating good and evil, marching away from ambiguity. Something is missing from each of these narratives: irony. To think it was once believed that irony ruled the country and that we were its captives, too knowing to be capable of real feeling. When pundits—most prominently Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter—wistfully declared the death of irony after 9/11 it was soon obvious that they were wrong, that the ironic wouldn’t fall as easily as towers made of glass and steel. The true slayer of irony arrived a few years later in the figure of Obama. Or was it his supporters, at least certain of them? Joan Didion, in her last piece of political writing, said that what troubled her about the Obama candidacy, besides the sense that we (liberals) were getting what we wanted, was that “only the very young were decreed capable of truly appreciating the candidate.”
Again and again, perfectly sentient adults cited the clinching arguments made on the candidate’s behalf by their children. Again and again we were told that this was a generational thing, we couldn’t understand. In a flash, we were back in high school, and we couldn’t sit with the popular kids, we didn’t get it. The Style section of The New York Times, on the Sunday after the election, mentioned the Obama T-shirt that “makes irony look old.”
Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.
I couldn’t count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people’s babies dressed in Obama gear.
Leave aside the comic image of Joan Didion receiving pictures of tykes in Obama onesies. Those babies are now teenagers. They are called Gen Z and they make TikTok videos that often demonstrate a knowingness beyond their years. Didion had hit on the then nascent generational conflict that has come to define our discourse (as the way we talk is now called, without irony). That consumerism is part of the equation is no accident. Back in the 1990s, popular and literary culture was marked by an ironic ambivalence toward consumerism, hostility mixed with acquiescence—think of the way corporations in Infinite Jest sponsor and rename the years of the calendar (“Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”), or the arguments in Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland’s Baffler anthology Commodify Your Dissent, in which rebellion becomes something that’s bought and sold. But the last decade has seen a shift toward enlightened or “conscious” consumerism. The buyer chooses among products that are more or less politically palatable; ad campaigns have shifted from marketing rebellion to marketing virtue. The villainy of corporations has become diffused in the competition of societal amelioration.
In our literature, the shift was marked broadly by a turn among the most ambitious anglophone writers from the systems novel to autofiction. One thing these forms have in common is a high level of self-consciousness. But in systems novels, authorial self-consciousness—typically diffused among a wide cast of characters—did not translate into a sense of autonomy or control: What path brought a kid from the Bronx to a high-powered career in waste management? Characters in a systems novel understand themselves to be inhabitants of a world too large and complex for them to understand. Their response is an ironic and paranoid disposition. Autofiction restores at least the illusion of autonomy in the hands of an authorial alter ego. Often that fate is to become an artist or writer and the proof that that fate has been realized is the book in the reader’s hands. Across the novels of Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti there is a diminishing level of ironic distance projected by the authors on their alter egos that parallels their and their alter egos’ self-realization as writers and assimilation to the adult middle class: the process of becoming an artist yields to questions of family and parenthood. Along with it comes a different disposition toward consumerism. Here is the narrator of Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) at a Whole Foods as a tropical storm is threatening New York City:
Finally I found something on the list, something vital: instant coffee. I held the red plastic container, one of the last three on the shelf, held it like the marvel that it was: the seeds inside the purple fruits of coffee plants had been harvested on Andean slopes and roasted and ground and soaked and then dehydrated at a factory in Medellín and vacuum-sealed and flown to JFK and then driven upstate in bulk to Pearl River for repackaging and then transported back by truck to the store where I now stood reading the label. It was as if the social relations that produced the object in my hand began to glow within it as they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.
Note the way “marvel” and “majesty” here of the seemingly glowing social relations of the supply chain outweigh “murderous stupidity”: readers know as well as Lerner’s narrators that the cost of globalized commerce is the crisis of climate change, which is the cause of the scarcity in the corporate grocery store where the narrator now stands holding a shrink-wrapped bag of ground coffee beans from South America. There’s no single villain: we’re all a little bit guilty and all facing a death sentence. The system that sustains and might kill us is met with equanimity rather than irony.
LESLIE A. FIEDLER, whose 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel remains the best book on the roots of the gothic and the sentimental and their interplay in our literature, held that best sellers are really holy scriptures. Thus the best-selling fictions in English of the past decade, E. L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, were sentimental erotica that emerged out of fan fiction based on a gothic source: the vampire pulp of the Twilight series. The past year has seen the reexamination of a best seller from seven decades ago, Lolita: a gothic story told in the ironized form of a sentimental romance. The question is often raised: Would it be published today? Set aside the fact that, like Fifty Shades of Grey, Lolita didn’t have a mainstream publisher until it was already a cult phenomenon (largely thanks to praise in Britain from Graham Greene): the problem with Lolita today wouldn’t be so much a problem of content—stories of child abuse and abduction are published all the time (see recent novels like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling); the problem is a question of point of view and irony. If we can’t handle Lolita today, it’s because it’s not immediately obvious that Humbert’s passionate self-defense is part and parcel of Nabokov’s moral condemnation.
Disaffection used to be cool, but irony has never been more suspect: online it’s common to see people diagnosed as “irony pilled,” “irony poisoned,” or sick with “irony brain.” Touchstones of the ironic sensibility of the 1990s, like Seinfeld (a target of Jedediah Purdy’s 1999 anti-irony tract For Common Things), are regarded as charming if mildly problematic relics of a kooky and not yet enlightened past. Two of the literary ironists who emerged in that era, Colson Whitehead and George Saunders, have published surrealist epics (The Underground Railroad; Lincoln in the Bardo) that treat the history of slavery with otherworldly empathy. Irony was absent from the two gothic epics with literary pretensions published in the last years of the Obama era: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire both feature innocent and sad young heroes victimized by villains out of fairy tales (evil monks and evil doctors; a wicked stepmother and a sinister uncle).
Gothic elements have been put to more subtle use in a wave of Gen X Midlife Crisis Novels. Some of these books are realist narratives (Hari Kunzru’s Red Pill, Jenny Offill’s Weather, Lerner’s The Topeka School), and others stray into more fanciful dark satire (Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible, Sam Lipsyte’s Hark). All of them see their protagonists’ midlife problems mirrored in global political crises. The evils may be disembodied (climate change for Offill and Millet) or personified (fascists for Kunzru, Lerner, and Lipsyte), and our heroes may even face the threats with some measure of irony. But the prospect of being cast out into wilderness and wasteland looms for each of them. The dark forest is the place where trolls live. Lately we have another name for it: the internet.
Critics have responded to our recent literature with uneasiness about the moral status of fictional characters. How political are these novels? Are their characters’ politics genuine or merely empty avowals? Is self-awareness merely an ironic dodge for writers working from a standpoint of privilege? These questions about sentimental stories of bourgeois assimilation (the not very ironic fictions of Sally Rooney and Andrew Martin come up) are germane because of the now obscure roots of these narratives in Christian morality, where the currency is purity, though sexual purity has given way to hazy notions of having an ethical reputation and a positive self-image. The currency of the gothic is defilement. When the protagonist is the defiler, like Humbert Humbert or Patrick Bateman, he comes cloaked in irony. When the protagonist is the defiled, we enter the irony-free zone.
Cynicism is one of the names we give the ironic sensibility when we don’t like it. Irony is a way of saying things without meaning them and meaning things without saying them. It’s a way of being in two places at once: guilt and innocence; good and evil. Irony can be a numbing response to political and cultural malaise, as David Foster Wallace had it, but it can also be a form of defiance born of rage and pain. The most ironic voice in American literature belongs to the narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The gothic horror show of 1930s America he traverses is recast as a brutal picaresque through the force of his voice. Among contemporary narrators his most obvious heir is the narrator of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s recent pair of thrillers, The Sympathizer and The Committed. A double agent and a gangster, an immigrant and a refugee, a torturer and a torture victim, bastard son of the colonizer and the colonized—he occupies too many identities to settle for one at any moment. Nguyen’s books are rollicking comic monologues that are also didactic political fictions complete with reading lists at the end. They are funny, they are resonant, and they are set decades in the past. Nguyen has argued in the New York Times that US fiction is on the verge of a political turn: apolitical empathy exercises practiced by largely white writers will be superseded by radical genre experiments conducted by writers of color. He’s done a good job of describing his own political burlesques, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more books like them.
We may be deluged by ironic radicals or we may become them ourselves. We may be stuck between Trump’s insults and Biden’s platitudes, both of which greet irony with effective antibodies. We may live forever among complacent liberals and nostalgic reactionaries. We may be coughing our way from one needle prick to the next, the sight of strangers’ smiles a wistful memory. We may be in the streets raising our fists at cops who’ll never go away. We may be stuck in the dark with the Wi-Fi down, like one of the characters in Don DeLillo’s recent novel The Silence: babbling in the manner of forgotten sportscasters while our friends are in the other room doing something gothic.