Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On the Irony of Being Fundamentally Misunderstood . . .

Mark Leyner
August 2006
Photo by David Shankbone

I've always hated being misunderstood, which happens rather too often since I don't express myself well orally, and that explains -- to a great extent -- my daily blogging, for I have the possibility of making myself clear . . . although I sometimes like to play around with ambiguity, thereby defeating my aim of being fully understood, unless my readers happen to realize that I'm being ambiguous, in which case, I've been understood.

I was reading in the NYT yesterday about a misunderstanding between two reputable writers, David Foster Wallace and Mark Leyner, reported on by Adam Sternbergh in "Mark Leyner, World-Champion Satirist, Returns to Reclaim His Crown" (March 21, 2012). Apparently, they were frenemies:
David Foster Wallace, in a long essay published in 1993 titled "E Unibus Pluram" about TV, fiction and irony, launched a weirdly sustained attack on Leyner, dismissing his work as "both amazing and forgettable, wonderful and oddly hollow."

Just for the sake of referentiality, here's a cut from Wallace's essay on Leyner's putative irony, for that will prove to be an issue of dispute:
Leyner's ironic [1990] cyberpunk novel [My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist] exemplifies a third kind of literary response to our problem. For of course young U.S. writers can "resolve" the problem of being trapped in the televisual aura the same way French poststructuralists "resolve" their being enmeshed in the logos. We can solve the problem by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic.

Sternbergh read the essay at the time and was bothered by it, for he liked both writers. Wallace is long gone, dead by his own hand, so he can no longer be asked any questions about that essay, so Sternbergh turned to Leyner:
When I asked Leyner about it, 20 years after the fact, he claimed he wasn't confident he’d ever read the essay in full. Though as we talked, it became clear he was more than familiar with its arguments. He and Wallace were friendly, if not exactly friends -- they shared an editor and, at least one time, cigarettes . . . . Leyner has only one strong objection to the essay. "I never thought of what I did as ironic," he says. "And I think that's a fundamental mistake in David's take on my work. I always thought of my work as being animated by a spirit of unhinged generosity. And transparency. Neither of which can be defined as irony." He does sound slightly pained when he admits this. Not upset by the perceived attack, per se. But rather saddened that this unhinged generosity, as he puts it, could have been so seriously misunderstood.

I find this interesting because I know how difficult irony can sometimes be to spot. Since the ironic means its opposite by undermining what it literally says, then if it's finely well-expressed, it can hide in plain sight. Conversely, or perversely, sincerity can be mistaken for irony because -- thinks the ironic mind -- what seems sincere might be irony lurking in disguise. Perhaps that's what happened in Wallace's 'critiqual' reading of irony in Leyner.

Ironic, no?



At 5:07 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I've read most of Leyner's novels and several of the essays he's published in various magazines. His superb command of English vocabulary leaves me green with envy.

The "gateway" Leyner novel for me was his hyper-absurdist Et Tu, Babe. It features a fictionalized version of Leyner, who maintains his status as super-successful novelist by systematically tracking down and killing all his literary rivals. This Leyner is so vain that he has his own initials surgically tattooed onto his internal organs. In his free time, he gets high by sniffing preserved samples of Abraham Lincoln's fetid morning breath.

My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist is a much earlier work in the Leyner canon, and it shows: the novel's humor is not as refined and developed as it would become later on. Same goes for his I Smell Esther Williams. Leyner's later works, though, are gut-bustingly funny: along with Et Tu, Babe, he wrote Tooth Imprints on a Corndog and The Tetherballs of Bougainville, both of which I loved.

One of my best buddies, Dr. Steve doCarmo, wrote his dissertation on the modern American novel; part of his diss focused on Leyner. Steve's the one who first introduced me to Et Tu, Babe, and I'm forever grateful.

As for Mr. Wallace... can't say I've read anything by him. I know of his Infinite Jest, but have long been daunted by the sheer size and heft of that novel.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I know these two novelist mostly by reputation. Your description of Et Tu, Babe tempts me . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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