I finished Salvador Plascencia's fascinating first novel, The People of Paper, last night and have been carrying it around in my head all day.
It is almost too much of a cliche to say, but this is a very very McSweeney's novel: typographically innovative, vaguely and sometimes not-so-vaguely magical realist, ironic yet also filled with bottomless emo heartache, a sort of inverted metafiction where the flouting of convention is meant not to reveal the artificiality of literary convention as such but to expose the raw nerve of the real (read: bottomless emo heartache) to daylight, a kind of post-postmodern sublimation of Suffering into Wonder.
I am having a dissonant reaction to the book.
First, the writing is absolutely fantastic: well-crafted sentence after sentence, totally sustained and focused over 240 pages, though these terrific sentences all in the end are rendered in the same style, beautiful, yes, but cover to cover Plascencia. I did also enjoy the metafictional conceits: El Monte's war against Saturn was pretty amusing at times, a physical rendering on the page of what Alex Woloch has described as "character space." I adored Baby Nostradamus, about whom the less said, the better. See for yourself.
And yet, and yet.
Narrative threads pop up and disappear without much explanation. I do not unduly give away any spoilers to say that Merced de Papel, whom given the title of the novel you would expect to be quite central to its "plot," is done away with rather suddenly and seems overall to amount to an extended joke. See the paper person accidentally burning herself!, giving paper cuts to men who go down on her!, etc.! She does not, in my view, rise above the sum of her gag appearances, which is unfortunate.
Whatever my reservations about the book, however, I've begun to think about writing a chapter on PoP when I turn my dissertation into a book--in that oh-so-mythical well-nigh-magic-realist future--perhaps in conjunction with Junot Diaz's Oscar Wao or Sesshu Foster's Atomic Aztex.
In the latest Adbusters, Douglas Haddow gives us his takedown of modern-day hipsters, a popular activity in hip glossy magazines and journals of opinion.
It may be unfair to critique this article, which doesn't pretend to be a profound explication on the origins and meaning of hipsterdom, but stuff like this irritates me. The reasoning of this article is quite muddled, and it subscribes all the usual countercultural myths, which any careful reader of Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool ought not subscribe to.
Ever since the Allies bombed the Axis into submission, Western civilization has had a succession of counter-culture movements that have energetically challenged the status quo. Each successive decade of the post-war era has seen it smash social standards, riot and fight to revolutionize every aspect of music, art, government and civil society.
Here for example we have very predictably conventional nostalgia for a sort of countercultural rebellion that never really took place, for an unrealizable ideal of "authenticity" that has somehow magically been co-opted.
The original hipsters--zoot suiters, "tea" smokers, bebop lovers--were so subversive, so utterly explosively status-quo smashing, so rebelliously "hep" to life in the "underground," that they were praised to no end (Cab Calloway's "Hepster" Dictionary went through six editions, it sold so well) and investigated by major figures in the literary establishment (like Kenneth Burke and Ralph Ellison) and prominently profiled in highbrow magazines (like Partisan Review).
In short, there was never an "authentic" countercultural rebellion which in any way threatened anyone or anything, which was not already "sold out" from birth, not that Haddow explains what it is he and the hipsters he derides think they're rebelling against.
Even the much-fabled punk was around for about thirty seconds before British academics--like Dick Hebdige--began to write scholarly treatises on how punk irony would subvert middle class conventionalism and how Western imperial hegemonic mega-capitalism would come crashing down before the might of the craftily-repurposed safety-pin. How did that turn out, guys?
When will people finally learn that rebellion through "subversive" style was and will always be a dead end, if the goal of such rebellion was anything more than making middle America slightly uncomfortable, if such subversive style isn't also accompanied by serious organizing and sustained collective political action.
Don't get me wrong, I'm as against imperial hegemonic mega-capitalism as the next guy, but Noam Chomsky seems not to need to wear skinny pants or make his hair into a red mohawk to attack it. Participants in the civil rights movement were about as conservative and suit-wearingly conformist as they come.
Haddow regards style far more seriously than he should.
Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.
I mean, what's the argument here? Is it "I was into these now-cool things before they were cool and am therefore more authentically cool than you"? Who cares if people like to wear plain V-neck tees and prefer to drink Pabst? Whether you love or hate hipsters, what harm do they cause? Is it not perfectly plausible for a hipster also to be authentically politically engaged, regardless of the sorts of banal parties and after-parties he or she may attend after hours?
Finally, the biggest howler in the short article:
Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations.
Does this guy know anything at all about the history of "counterculture"?
It was not long after Jack Kerouac published On the Road, that Rent-a-Beat services allowed you to hire your very own Beat for your very own hip Beat parties. The Beat was perhaps the biggest media and marketing darling of the century, in whose "rebellious" shadow we all still live.
And it was Malcolm Cowley who noted--in his 1934 Exile's Return, well before the Allies bombed the Axis into submission--that the Bohemian ethic of Greenwich Village was, at root, an ethic of consumption. Living for the moment meant consuming stupid lifestyle products now and worrying about the consequences of that consumption... never.
If you think the way you dress or the music you listen to or parties you attend will help you buck the System, stop the Man, or overturn the Machine, you are destined to be sorely disappointed, again and again.
Which isn't to say hipsters aren't odious human beings. They are, I agree. But they're also largely politically irrelevant, as far as I can tell.
I have some good news to share with my adoring reading public (about 2 to 5 of you a day, if Google Analytics is to be believed).
My essay on William Gibson's Pattern Recognition and branding theory, drawn from the trendspotter chapter of my dissertation, has been accepted for publication by a big cultural studies/theory journal.
It will be available in the Summer of 2009. More information to come.
In the WSJ, James Seaton reviews Praising It New, an anthology of writing by the New Critics, edited by Garrick Davis. In the space of a short review, Seaton--quite remarkably--manages to blame all of the following for our corrupt contemporary literature-hating ways:
Television shows, movies, instant-messaging, Facebook, blogs, "writers with literary pretensions" who are "now hyped beyond their merits," the concern of cultural theorists with such nasty topics as "race, gender, class, linguistics and colonialism," the evil children of the 60s who hate literature and humanism (and the New Critics!), anti-capitalists (this is the WSJ after all, so you knew that was coming), and relativists who think every interpretation of a literary text is equally valid.
What an astonishing array of literature-haters! If we could gather them all together in a room, they might even more effectively conspire to crush what little remains of our anemic literary culture.
To be fair to this review, contemporary critics do have a tendency to unfairly malign the New Critics. While preparing to write my dissertation chapter on the figure of the hipster in Ellison and Pynchon, I found myself reading many forgotten New Critical writers. They came across as generally smart and insightful readers of literature, and beyond that they had a huge practical impact on the literary writers of their day. And it is also true that critics were generally much more a part of our public culture than they are today.
Which is not to say that the ratio of good to bad criticism differed from today's crop of young critics. Most of it was crap, while a small slice of it was brilliant. If in thirty years an anthology of the best theoretical writing of today were compiled, some Seaton-analog writing in a WSJ-analog would indubitably lament how unfairly maligned the Age of Theory was and decry the ways that newfangled nanotechnological brain implants have eroded our love of literature. Which would be true enough, as far as it goes.
What Seaton does not discuss is that the New Critics he praises in his review are the very best of the first-generation. There was a second generation, much maligned for producing rote and mechanical studies that searched in highly predictable ways for paradoxes and ironies and ambiguities in this or that text. In the late 50s, as Thomas Pynchon mentions in an interview with David Hadju, it was often a sort of insult to be called a critic. Randall Jarrell, a beloved critic and poet in his day, described this state of affairs as the "Age of Criticism," another insulting phrase.
The fact is, deconstruction, politically-engaged criticism, and other new schools of thought emerged out of a collective sense that the New Criticism had gone as far as it could in its research program. That it was exhausted. Some politically-oriented critics considered deconstructionists to be reactionary aesthetes. Deconstructionists and other post-structuralists accused Marxists of all sorts of intellectual crime. And so on.
I can testify to the fact that literature is alive and well, both inside and outside of the academy. People read classics, albeit in an expanded canon, though probably not expanded enough. Most of what we do in the classroom is a testament to practices of close reading developed in the 40s and 50s, colored with this or that new theoretical tint. And the rate of novel production today is just staggering. Yes, much of what is published stinks, but that was also true in previous decades. Finally, critics are still vitally important to the process of canon-formation, in a million direct and indirect ways.
So no, the literary-critical sky is not falling.