Hypocrisy and Irony

December 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Martin Chuzzlewit.

Before reading this book, I’d never thought of irony as a form of hypocrisy.  But hypocrisy is one of the major themes of this book, and Dickens handles his most hypocritical characters with such a huge helping of irony that I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It’s most obvious with Seth Pecksniff, who really is eminently loathesome. Pecksniff is a hypocrite of the highest order: he pretends even to himself and his family that his motives are pure, his intentions godly, his actions just.  When we first meet him, Dickens already dislikes him enough to show him in a bit of slapstick: the wind slams the door of his house in his face, pushing him down the stairs.  However, he’s introduced as “a moral man: a grave man, a man of noble sentiments and speech.”

Dickens more or less sticks to his strategy of having his narrator superficially present Pecksniff as an honorable man (so far, at least, halfway through the book), although calling someone moral  “especially in his conversation and correspondence” is a rather funny way of calling someone moral.  He lets the man’s actions and demeanor do the dirty work for him.  (Finally, 350 pages in, he resorts to a footnote to differentiate Pecksniff’s convoluted self-justification from “the Author’s” own beliefs; this is, I believe, the first time the narrator repudiates Pecksniff without using irony.)

Dickens wrote Chuzzlewit after visiting America for the first time, and his disillusionment with the New World seems to be the driving force behind the entire book.  The overwhelming hypocrisy of a “free” country justifying slavery to itself appalled Dickens.  (So did the lack of clean tablecloths, proper manners, and party politics, apparently, and Dickens does occasionally harp on these points in the American sections of the book.  It seems rather petty of him.)

On the other hand, the book also has its anti-hypocrites: whereas Pecksniff and Montague Tigg/Tigg Montague put on airs whenever possible, Tom Pinch and Mark Tapley serve and are never satisfied with their service, never sure they’re doing enough for those they consider as doing them a good turn (who have typically wronged them).  Tapley, especially, is a model anti-hypocrite: he seeks opportunities for “credit” for being “jolly.”  Of course, it’s no credit to one’s character to be jolly when things are going well, so he comforts himself in the worst of situations by reminding himself that his good spirits and service to others (especially the selfish, oblivious Martin Chuzzlewit) will finally give him the opportunity to stand out in a world which seems mostly happy, to him.  Both Pinch and Tapley think the best of others, or at least act as though they expect the best of others.

Dickens’s ironic descriptions of his characters and situations fascinate me in all of his books — that droll, frequently indignant, quintessentially Victorian voice, laying all that’s improper to delicate waste — but especially here, when attacking the very tactics he seems to employ.  I always wonder how much Dickens really did think it best not to say the worst of what we think of others, even when dealing with his own creations, and how much he simply knew his audience well enough to know they’d eat up these tactics.  Of course, Dickens is never one to play close to the vest, not really: his sympathies and antipathies are always clear, reading just below the surface, and he takes his vengeance mostly through incident, often brutal or deadly.  He is somehow a remarkably subtle and remarkably broad and obvious author, simultaneously; and it seems to me that his irony, especially his ironic stance toward his characters, is one of the things that keep me reading him.

The Comedy of Voice and Punctuation

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Reading next: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Well, here’s something completely different. Jaime, my wife, has been a big fan of Portis for some time now. She’s been telling me to read DOTS every month for years now. I finally succumbed, since I’m trying to sprinkle Southern lit into my reading more regularly and it seemed like a good summer book and a good travelling book. (Which it was: a good laugh on an airplane never hurts, and it was appropriate to read about the Texo-Mexican scrublands while flying over the Southwest. Although, if we were to emulate the experience of the book, one of the engines would have started shaking and fallen off.)

And it’s true: Portis is funny as hell. Also, funny about hell. I don’t think Ray Midge’s descent into Belize is exactly a Dantesque journey — I’ll write about this hopefully tomorrow: I think the journey is something of a way to comment on the place departed, the American South — but, nevertheless, things do get a bit hellish now and then.

Gross over-generalization time: It’s harder to write fictional comedy in the first person than the third. No fair counting romans a clef or autobiographical stand-in narrators. Is that obvious? I don’t know, but I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this book. Third person allows for authorial interpolations on all characters, a focus on details those in the story cannot notice or would not mention, an “impartial” scene setting, and, most importantly, a shifting viewpoint, the ability to capture reactions and relationships in ways an author cannot when bound to a single, involved narrator. All of this is the very stuff of humor, setting up both the narrator and his or her readers to feel the superiority to the subject on which so many jokes are based. I can’t imagine A Confederacy of Dunces from the point of view of Ignatius or any other character, for that matter: it is too important to see them all bouncing off of each other, their personalities too strong to allow any of them to dictate the narrative.

Portis doesn’t give himself this luxury. He writes from the point of view, not just of the main character, but of a fairly… um… idiosyncratic main character. He’s something of a drifter, returning to school again and again to start one or another career path, only to lose interest or his nerve. He’s dependent on his fairly wealthy father for money. He’s a military history buff who refuses to read fiction.

And, while educated, he’s not your typical narrator who’s smarter than everyone around him. He’s a schlub from Little Rock, with few skills and fewer prospects. He’s no writer. While there’s much of the comedy of situation and personality in this book, many of the laughs — for me, anyway — come from Ray’s voice and even the punctuation Portis chooses, especially the exclamation point.

I suppose the word for Ray’s narration is deadpan, although I’ve never heard a completely satisfying definition of same. It’s true, though, that his narration betrays little emotion much of the time. But it’s more the juxtaposition of disparate modes or levels of language that he uses that tickles my funny bone. Rather than piling on snippets, here’s a longish section which encapsulates much of what I find funny in the book’s language:

In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.

Then I saw an old man walking up the median strip pulling a wooden cross behind him. It was mounted on something like a golf cart with two spoked wheels. I slowed down to read the hand-lettered sign on his chest.



I had never been to Jacksonville but I knew it was the home of the Gator Bowl and I had heard it was a boom town, taking in an entire county or some such thing. It seemed an odd destination for a religious pilgrim. Penance maybe for some terrible sin, or some bargain he had worked out with God, or maybe just a crazed hiker. I waved and called out to him, wishing him luck, but he was intent on his marching and had no time for idle greetings. His step was brisk and I was convinced he wouldn’t bust.

The third interesting thing was a convoy of stake-bed trucks all piled high with loose watermelons and cantaloupes. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that the bottom ones weren’t being crushed under all that weight, exploding and spraying hazardous melon juice onto the highway. One of nature’s tricks with curved surfaces. Topology!…

“Hazardous melon juice” is one of the funniest noun phrases I’ve ever read.

It’s funny after that, too, but one must stop somewhere. Part of what’s funny here is embedded in the fact that Ray never reads fiction, I think: the telegraphed statements — “I was amazed.” — add some unquantifiable comedy, but make sense only for someone who’s not very comfortable with personal narrative. The fact that he was an engineering student also plays into that last paragraph. Ray’s character can seem like a loose bag of experiences and quirks, sometimes, making him into a savant of sorts. But it pays off in narration like his waving at a Jesus-freak and contemplating the freak’s chances of busting. And I’ve always been a sucker for a blend of meticulous detail and technical language with laid-back qualified “maybe” and “some” sentences.

Then there’s that exclamation point — “Topology!” These exclamations recur throughout the book, and they’re almost always funny, and they almost always crack me up when I think of them delivered in a Southern manner, with an Arkansas accent. It’s realistic, I guess I’m saying: funny because it’s true. Another funny moment comes in a bar in Laredo, when Ray explains his method of avoiding germs on bar glasses. “A quick slosh here and there and those babies are right back on the shelf!” These moments of excitement or intensity are often ironically funny, although I never get the sense that Portis condescends to his narrator. I think a large part of their effectiveness is simply due to the fact that there is very little else in the way of punctuation, besides periods: simple sentences, few commas, certainly no colons or semicolons or question marks. The surprise of those exclamations, frequently fragments, somehow heightens the humor.

For the Ladies

May 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Boccaccio’s preface seems remarkable. The main thing most people (self included) know about the Decameron is that it’s bawdy; but the preface is a remarkably subtle, perhaps ironic, discussion of love lost, won, represented.

I’m reading the 1972 translation by G.H. McWilliam; his introduction focuses on how badly the work has been translated in the past. This does little to soothe the great torture of reading translated literature, the monolingual reader’s insecurity about the quality of the translation: how much do I trust word choice? To what degree do I infer meaning based on sentence structure, tone, or vocabulary? To what degree is the meaning of the words I read match the original author’s intention? Nevertheless, I must say that the language so far seems remarkably fluid, beautiful, and interesting.

The very first sentence of the preface surprised me, and overturned my expectations: “To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.” Boccaccio goes on to explain that he received comfort from many others as he had experienced a love “far loftier and nobler than might perhaps be thought proper.” The love was, apparently, only from afar or perhaps just never declared (although the passage seems intentionally cryptic, in a lovely way); Boccaccio has passed through the painful stages of longing for it to the time when he can think back on his passion with nostalgia, “the delectable feeling which Love habitually reserves for those who refrain from venturing too far upon its deepest waters.”

Boccaccio goes on to explain that, in gratitude for the support he received, he intends his work to provide support in kind for those who most need (and will most appreciate) it. Therefore, he dedicates his work to “the charming ladies.” But not all ladies: only “those who are in love.” He says he wants ladies to read his book for advice as well as entertainment. By “in love” he clearly refers to the kind of passion he, himself, partook in and overcame: a physical, unrealistic love, I suppose. He refers to it as an “affliction” which can be overcome by reading the following stories, to discover what should be avoided in love, and what appreciated. Just as remarkable as the first sentence of the preface is the last: “If this [ladies being freed from the affliction of their love] should happen (and may God grant that it should), let them give thanks to Love, which, in freeing me from its bonds, has granted me the power of making provision for their pleasures.”

Give thanks to Love for torturing Boccaccio, so they can be freed from Love? For making him pass through a purgation of his lust to reach the point when he can pleasantly look back on his infatuation? It’s tempting to see this as an ironic, jesting statement, and, in retrospect, to see the entire preface as ironic (how, indeed, was he “helped” to overcome his unrequited love?): is Boccaccio saying that, no matter what he may write in his dedication to throw the Church’s censors off his scent, the book to follow will celebrate carnal love?

In the introduction we are introduced to the background of plague-ridden Florence in 1348, and the theme of pity and compassion for the dead and dying resurfaces, Boccaccio lamenting the lack of it among the citizenry inured to the sights of corpses, even of their own relatives. And then we are introduced to the group of ten — seven women, three men, all respectable and wealthy, all having lost many relatives to the plague. They decide to flee the city. Boccaccio had earlier said that many “callously maintained that there was no better or more efficacious remedy against a plague than to run away from it.” What are we to think of these young merry-makers? What are we to make of their palace on a hill, two miles outside of Florence, and their plans to shut out the world entirely, leaving their troubles and the world’s behind for a utopian society in which each of them will lead the group for one day?

Paging Dr. Wallace to Chapter 66…

February 22, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

See the previous post for the beginning of this head-hurting argument. To dive back in:

Only there are more layers of jokes, see. Bachelder makes a joke near the end of chapter 51 about “apologiz[ing] for the whole bear porn thing” in reference to his next chapter, a hucksterish promo for a skeevy porno site about bears. And he also, near the end, goes over the top: he makes his argument about satire into a plea for a connection between writer and reader on a personal level, wishing the reader could come over for a chat and a cup of coffee.

This is deliberately, manipulatively over the top. I would fear that Bachelder is trying to skewer DFW here. I would fear he intends this whole quiz interlude as a satire on DFW’s bedrock hopes for a less ironic, better informed, more engaged populace, and on DFW’s stated hopes that he can connect with his readers in a meaningful way through/despite all his rhetoric. But, instead of (or along with) these fears, I suspect that Bachelder doesn’t have enough control over his material to be conscious of this apparent critique. And I think that just perhaps it is simply intended to be, um, funny.

Just a few more points to reference here. Chapter 62, “We Know You Know,” is a “commercial” for Sexy Pants. It’s the kind of inspection of consumer culture’s motives that DFW does in his sleep. It’s a funny chapter, although it falls a bit flat at the end and is a bit more basic than you’d hope. (It’s no “Mister Squishy,” let’s put it that way.) In the aftermath of Infinite Jest, you could also read this chapter as a meta-narrative on DFW’s desire to show the inner workings of marketing schemes. The tag line for Sexy Pants–“Savvy is Sexy”–could be seen as referring not just to the pants, but to the marketing of DFW and the whole cult of the hip-young-author in general.

And then we get, in chapter 66, “Entertainment Exhaust,” direct quotes from DFW himself. The form of this chapter is a kind of command-and-response. So we get:

Tell about irony.

It’s tyrannical.

Tell what else D. F. Wallace says about it.

It’s bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well.

Tell about the new rebels.

They won’t be scared of sentimentality or melodrama.

Now, lemme tell you something: this book is an orgy of irony. In the very next chapter, the youngest son of the Norman family, Curtis, is shot in a grocery store when he does not hit the deck–because “it’s so embarrassing to get duped, to fall for the old fake gun trick.” There is a tender scene–the only one thus far–in which Curtis confesses to his father that he is afraid to die. So: melodrama. Sentimentality. Pathos, even.

This chapter is entitled “Bear v. Shark: The Rising Action.” Ironic much?

Well, so how does Bachelder refute those original arguments of Calvino that we started with–that satire places the author in a position of moralism and mockery? My view: so far, he doesn’t. He confirms them. He’s mocking and he’s moralistic. Advertising is bad: it ruins our quality of life! Slow down, don’t watch so much TV! Can’t you see I have a plan for you? Look how stupid you look! Look how stupid so much of our culture is! That’s what I’m getting here. I’m not getting any of the heart of the matter that I get from DFW.

The funny thing is, Bachelder clearly adores Wallace, pretty much based this entire book on “E Unibus Pluram,” and just about says so in a Bookslut interview a few years back. I actually don’t think he intended these counter-currents. I think he was a young author who wasn’t quite in control. Unconscious Rule #1 of the young fiction writer: When all else fails, be clever. I think Bachelder was trying to write a smart book about TV, media saturation, modern American life, in a way that would impress his peers. And he may do that–I haven’t finished the book yet, after all. Don’t get me wrong–it’s been a very funny book, I certainly appreciate his rendering of the consciousness of the manipulated boys, the lonesome father. But I think what chapter 51 and its aftermath (which includes another quiz chapter, a more seemingly straightforward one, btw) shows us is the dangers of influence and appropriation. Because I suspect Bachelder has written the exact book he didn’t want to write: duplicitous, self-serving, contrived, counterproductive. Which is what all experimental fiction is when it fails to grasp its own point.

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