Tag Archives: irony

Shameful Irony

We didn’t get a chance to talk about it in class, but one of my favorite essays in Consider the Lobster is “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Considering the subject matter, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Wallace. But, not to sound overly cheesy, I found the essay to be extremely moving and heart-warming.

The essay reminded me of how amazing Wallace is at using one backdrop or situation as an excuse to discuss or comment on about ten other things.   And that’s what I feel he does so beautifully in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s.” Yes, September 11th is in the story; it’s there and looming in the background, but the essay is much more about the people, about Bloomington, Illinois, and about himself.

Through his experience on the day of and the day after September 11th, we get a glimpse into the lives of the community in Bloomington, the people who “aren’t unfriendly but do tend to be reserved” (128). We learn about the tendency of people in Bloomington to watch TV together: “what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something” (134). TV, for the people of Bloomington, is the main venue with which they experience the rest of the world, the rest of reality. And because they desire to experience the world together as a community, watching TV becomes a social phenomenon. (An interesting point because it seems to be contrary to Wallace’s argument in E Unibus Pluram that TV fosters a cycle of utter loneliness…)

On the day of Horror, Wallace himself partakes in such communal television viewing. And even while the Horror is going on around him, the most profound insights Wallace gathers that day have to do with the immediate people around him rather than what is happening on TV. He realizes that though the Bloomington women aren’t stupid or ignorant, they are decidedly “innocent” (139). And that in Mrs. Thompson’s living room around the TV, “there is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism…” (139). Wallace goes on to explain that it would occur to no one in the room in Bloomington, Illinois that “all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves” (139) or that there are any number of cynical and detached observations that could be made about the situation unfolding. He claims that “nobody’s near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before” (140). In describing what the Bloomington women don’t do, Wallace essentially admits that he himself made these cynical and hip observations in his head. But, for the first time in a Wallace essay, I feel like there is a palpable sense of shame attached to such “po-mo” remarks: “part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F—‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies” (140)

In the rest of Wallace’s work, yes, cynicism and irony is bad and is a cage, but no one seems to be truly ashamed of being trapped in that cage. Some people may want out and try to get out, though I don’t think we’ve seen any succeed. And for those who can’t get out, there is not much guilt involved because it is pretty clear that being trapped in the cage of irony is the norm. But, when Wallace is surrounded by “truly decent, innocent people” (140), he acquires a sense of guilt from his cynicism. And it was that guilt that was, at the same time, so heart-wrenching to witness but also, so refreshing to see. It was really interesting to see Wallace confront his irony and cynicism in a way I don’t think he’s ever done before.

And this essay made me wonder if we have, in fact, encountered any characters who have harbored much shame because of their cynicism or irony. I’m feel like we haven’t (I’m not sure if Neal in Good Old Neon actually felt guilty or shameful as much as he felt frustrated and fed up), but I could be missing someone. Any ideas?

“The whole idea of treating cancer by giving the cancer cells themselves cancer” p 572

I don’t know how Wallace comes up with some of this stuff.

The passage on pages 569-574 is really funny, but I’m wondering what the deeper significance to the rest of the novel is.   This is the passage where Mike Pemulis comes across a blind-folded Idris Arslanian and the two start talking about how much of the NNE waste gets catapulted up to the Great Concavity to counteract some crazy growth that occurs as a result of a lack of pollution in the area.   The lack of pollution was caused by an idea of JOI’s in which two highly toxic and radioactive particles combined to create some sort of stable, non-toxic compound.

But, in a classic DFW ironic twist, this lack of pollution in the area caused everything to grow so lush and rapidly that the area became what sounds like a sci-fi planet, with “rapacial feral hamsters and insects of Volkswagen size and infantile giganticism and the unmacheteable regions of forests” (573).   So now the problem is that the area needs more radioactive and toxic stuff, and this is why garbage is catapulted up there.


We can never fully predict the consequences of our actions.   This little anecdote highlights the fact that in our world, everything is dependent on something else.   If one problem gets solved, another one crops up in its place.   Everything is “annular” (possibly DFWs favorite word.)

I think this has a lot to do with the issue of second-order vanity and the ironic loop that we are all caught in.   People try to hide their vanity, but instead of eradicating vanity all this does is make the problem worse.   Similarly, now that irony has become such an integral part of our culture, we can sort of ignore all the different levels of irony that we deal with every day, but this does nothing to actually solve the problem.   Eliminating pollution and waste creates a need for more waste.

And so this is my problem with Wallace’s proposed cure for cancer: giving the cancer cells cancer.   Let’s believe for a second that it is possible to give cancer cells cancer by “getting force-fed micromassive quantities of overdone beef and diet soda, forced to chain-smoke microsized Marlboros near tiny little cellular phones” (572).   Giving the cancer cells cancer may kill the cancer cells, but there are still tinier cancer cells within the cancer cells within the human body.   Shouldn’t this be just another endless loop that humanity will probably be caught in forever?   Or is Wallace attempting to provide an example here of how a cycle can end?

Mario Stands Alone

Over the course of reading Infinite Jest, we’ve all pretty much come to the conclusion that Mario holds a unique place in the novel. He stands apart from all the other characters in the novel, both physically and emotionally. In the last section of reading, we learned a little bit more about Mario and about what exactly makes him so different.

In a society where irony, cynicism, and sarcasm prevail, Mario doesn’t fit in. His seeming ignorance and his inability to understand the language of irony around him causes him to be largely ignored by most of the characters in the novel. Ignored might be too harsh; maybe it would be better to say Mario is not exactly listened to. His words and ideas don’t seem to be taken for their full worth by the other characters. But, to the reader, (or at least to me), Mario’s naïveté serves as a refreshing reminder of what it would be like to view the world unironically.

We learn that “the older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy” (592). While everyone else in the novel is trapped in the cage of cynicism, unable to express true emotion and instead hiding behind a veil of irony, Mario is left outside of the cage. He can only understand the truth in its purity. Therefore, he fails to grasp the significance of the winks and the nudges that normally accompany any truth.

This is why Mario likes visiting the Ennet house. The Ennet House residents are all learning how to rid themselves of Substance addictions. But, the foundational principle of the AA program is not to rid the alcoholics of their addictions first and foremost, but instead to release their members from the cage of irony so that they may then be open enough and truthful enough to slowly work their way to sobriety. The escape from irony comes first (through the meaningful work of doing clichés, etc.), and only then can one escape addiction. “…Mario’s felt good both times in Ennet’s House because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside” (591). Mario, in his attraction to pure truth, enjoys being at the Ennet House because all of the residents are in the process of stepping out from the cover of cynicism and becoming truthful themselves.

But the most important question to address when it comes to Mario is what does it mean that Mario, the only truly unironic character, is also the only extremely physically disabled and deformed character? Near the beginning of the book, we learn that “Mario is basically a born listener. One of the positives to being visibly damaged is that people can sometimes forget you’re there, even when they’re interfacing with you…That’s why bullshit often tends to drop away around damaged listeners, deep beliefs revealed, diary-type private reveries indulged out loud; and, listening the beaming and brady-kinetic boy gets to forge an interpersonal connection he knows only he can truly feel…” (80). Here, it is implied that the only reason Mario is able to be so truthful and irony-free is because of his damaged quality. It is only because he is ignored and becomes invisible that other characters can drop the “bullshit” when talking to him.

This is my bone to pick with DFW. If all of Wallace’s work is about the cage of irony and how we need to get out of it and get to someplace free and open and truthful, why create the physically-impaired Mario as the only example of someone who has escaped the cage? In so doing, Wallace seems to be implying that it is only those who are abnormal, those who are flawed, and those who are ignored by the majority of the society that are able to escape from under the cover of the veil of irony. Yes, Wallace introduces us to the problem of irony in our society, but he himself doesn’t seem to be able to do more than diagnose the problem. Where is the solution?

Throwing the Word

I have a confession: I like to throw the word “irony” at literary analysis. I like to use it as a last resort weapon to finish off a paper. When I need to describe a funny or coincidental event or word usage, I lob in a good “it seems ironic that…” and shut the book.

The dictionary definition of irony is: “the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning”. The definition I have given ironic is “what I find interesting, in kind of weird way”. Without naming names, there was a song that adhered to the latter definition, and probably aided this confusion. Rather than using the dictionary definition, ironic is synonymous with coincidental, funny, sarcastic, unexpected, cynical or strange.

And the reason, I think, is irony’s prevalence. It has become so widespread and so deep that I safely assume everything is ironic. “I don’t really mean what I’m saying” (67) has grown beyond a writing device and rooted itself in everyday speaking. There are conversations where each line is laced with sarcasm and the conversations ends, awkwardly, with nobody having staked out an opinion. Never saying what we mean or meaning what we say saves us from defending an opinion by mocking others. Irony is a handy strategy, and thus a popular one.

The new fake news shows, the Daily Show and Colbert Report, are decent sample cases of ironists being “impossible to pin-down.” (67) The Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart, has made many on-air political statements, often valid, thoughtful ones. When asked about his show’s political influence and responsibilities, he shrugs it off as “the show that follows Crank Yankers.” He is both political pundit and comedian, and somehow neither. Then there’s Colbert, who has made a career of saying things he doesn’t believe, unless he does. Colbert and Stewart use humor to cloud what they believe, but the shows’ selling point are these beliefs, the political relevance. Through comedy, they can make and retract claims better than any politician.

Other cases of “I don’t mean really mean what I’m saying”   dot U.S. culture, in self-referential sitcoms and self-aware ad campaigns. And there’s good in this. Not saying what you mean makes for biting, insightful humor. Wallace’s qualm with this misdirection is not its presence but its dominance; it’s everywhere, it’s unavoidable. There is more mockery of conviction than conviction itself. This difference between what is said and what is meant is so common in U.S. culture, it’s easy to assume nobody means what they say.

As since irony seems to be everywhere, why use a strict definition? This was my rational; so in past papers, sarcasm, cynicism, or any amusing coincidence became “ironic”. I even used irony in lieu of “interesting”. Irony can be anywhere, so anything can be ironic.

When I used the word “ironic”, I often meant another word a little further out of reach. Maybe cynical, maybe hypocritical, maybe coincidental. All of these words are tied to irony, but only sometimes. There were other words, more fitting if less convenient. At risk of repeating Wallace, never saying what is meant is now standard and expected; irony is everywhere. I was wrong, though, to label everything ironic when another word better matched what I meant.

Yes, I’m self-conscious… but am I self-conscious enough?!

Though we’ve already discussed it quite a bit, I thought it worthwhile to organize some thoughts on the plight of post- postmodern writers and the role of self-consciousness and irony in fiction (and in TV and film and non-fiction, for that matter).  

DFW’s perspective is often oversimplified to “anti-irony.” This tag gets right that he does not think irony the supremely useful narrative technique that many postmodernist writers seem to think it is – as a narrative device he is wholly against it – but an important  distinction to make is that he does not shy from irony in terms of imagining genuine characters. This is to say that irony and sarcasm are undeniable parts of the modern psyche, and in service of building characters honestly it is not merely OK but actually  important  to include ironic wit. This perspective is evident in all of his fiction, most notably in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The other great contemporary writers seem to understand irony in the same way; DFW, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Cynthia Ozick, and a few others have all made it a project to juxtapose generous narrators (or narrative methods) with ironically-minded characters.  

But how do they get away with it? With a less talented author behind the wheel, such generosity would be sentimental and uninteresting and banal. The only answer I can put my finger on is the sentence-by-sentence quality of the writing. Though this feels like a real cop-out, in terms of finding big, theoretical reasons behind their ability to balance sincerity with self-awareness, I think it’s the truth. Each of these authors – DFW more than the others, more than anyone by a long shot – has in his/her writing a special density and control that makes all other writing feel almost intolerably lazy and full of air. Some of this feeling has to do with intelligence. For DFW, and for others to a generally lesser degree, the level of consideration and mastery put into each word and phrase leaves no room for readers to doubt his intellect or sincerity. We come to trust him through admiration.  

The difficulty, then, is for writers with less than superhuman talent and control to gain their readers’ trust. Those of us that are able to avoid the too-sentimental, too-cliche side of the abyss are those that then end up as ironists, stuck wondering: “… but am I self-conscious enough?”. We can, however, look to DFW, Franzen, Ozick, and Russo for guidance. Russo, in particular, writes in a pitch-perfect, restrained, unshowoffy prose: almost textbook fiction, is such a thing could exist. On a sentence-by-paragraph-by-chapter level, Russo builds his stories traditionally. The thing to admire is his voice; he consistently finds a narrative voice which, though it may not have the pyrotechnic intellect of DFW, is almost immediately trustworthy. That’s  just  one way of doing it.

W/r/t TV and Film, the best shows seem to use irony much as DFW does, as an inescapable part of life, used in service of creating genuine characterizations. I won’t list shows, but I will say that HBO has gotten really, really good at this. The same rule seems to go for great films. (One notable exception is Shakespeare in Love, which is one of my favorite movies. S in L has a great deal of narrative ironic wit but does not dwell on its own jokes and so does not come off as self-satisfied or showoffy. Another reason it gets away with irony is that the overall project of the film is so romantic and sentimental – and the characterizations so generous – that irony serves as a mitigating factor, a way to correct the balance. In my humble opinion, S in L is one of the best-written movies ever.)