- Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction by Lee Konstantinou
In this timely and well-researched monograph, Lee Konstantinou (University of Maryland, College Park) offers a literary history of irony in post-World War II U.S. fiction. Rather than opting to treat irony as just a "trope or figure," Konstantinou (invoking Randolph Bourne) implements a "characterological approach" that illustrates how irony might also be construed as "a life, a specific (often oppositional and critical) way of being in and interpreting the world" (xi). Dividing the book into five sections that correspond to distinct "characterological types" that he identifies as emerging since 1945—the Hipster; the Punk; the Believer; the Coolhunter; the Occupier—Konstantinou seeks to chart the [End Page 115] "transition from irony to postirony" through these figures (36). In doing so, his book also seeks to engage with ongoing debates about periodization; in his assertion that postmodernism has "at some unspecified time, achieved a newly historical status," Konstantinou joins the growing number of scholars aiming to name "our post-postmodern moment," offering "postirony" as his contribution (3, x, 37).
The first half of the book is dedicated to irony, with chapter one offering discerning readings of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) and Thomas Pynchon's early texts in relation to the Hipster, whilst chapter two engages with the radical aesthetics of the Punk, William S. Burroughs, and Kathy Acker. In recent years, it has become something of a critical shibboleth to assert that irony was inherently rebellious or countercultural during the middle decades of the twentieth century, only to be co-opted and corrupted by marketing and media gurus at some point in the 1980s (a claim perhaps most famously propounded by David Foster Wallace, the guiding light of Cool Characters). Konstantinou is keen to challenge this commonplace, however, noting that this countercultural stance was in some ways already complicit with the systems—in the above cases, the liberal establishment and neoliberal economics, respectively—that it ostensibly emerged in response to. Whilst his argument is detailed and persuasive, Konstantinou's engagement with irony occasionally becomes subordinate to his probing of possibilities for countercultural rebellion, especially in the latter chapter. Indeed, this criticism could be extended to the book as a whole; the concept of irony itself is sometimes only tacitly implied, with the broad and impressive extent of Konstantinou's research occasionally obscuring his own authorial voice. Accordingly, a more explicit sense of continuity and narrative progression would have enhanced the book as a whole. Moreover, irony's cultural dominance is just accepted as a given, rather than challenged (of course, in a study devoted to irony one would not perhaps expect a refutation of its importance, and yet some dissenting opinions might have been gestured to).
Granted, Konstantinou is not alone in this; irony is in danger of becoming a catch-all term. Indeed, this is engaged with directly in the second section of the book—"postirony"—where Konstantinou is at most perceptive and challenging. Chapter three looks at the work of Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, and their emergence at a time when "capitalism's Cold War victory, individual irony, and philosophical antifoundationalism merged into a single discourse" (168). Through a number of excellent close-readings, Konstantinou shows how these authors respond to their milieu by attempting "to reconstruct our capacity to believe," giving rise to the figure of "the believer": a character type that "knows that there's no ontological ground for his faith, but he paradoxically needs to pray anyway, to live as a believer, in order to render life liveable" (176, 166). This is not a rejection of irony per se, but an attempt to move beyond positions that could be framed as "uncritically earnest or naively nostalgic" (8). Again, the general implication that neoliberal capitalism, irony, and postmodernism/poststructuralism have become conjoined—another example of a further emergent critical consensus—is perhaps overplayed, but Konstantinou's chosen examples seamlessly echo his claim. Konstantinou's most important insight, however, might inadvertently prove to be his identification of Wallace and Eggers' strategy as a...