Screw Irony: What Jonathan Franzen Learned From David Foster Wallace

06/29/2011 03:11 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

Today's most respected and relevant literary critic, James Woods, describes today's most respected and relevant novelist, Jonathan Franzen, as a "cultural ironist, always a twisted adjective ahead of his characters." In keeping with this assessment, Woods places Franzen in a group he has coined the "hysterical realists." Woods explains that this group was fathered by a young, uber-ironic Thomas Pynchon and epitomized by Zadie Smith. Woods' designation, though it might seem like an academic quibble, actually points out a fascinating feature of post-war American culture: sometime after 1967, a group of mostly male novelists mocked political and emotional earnestness and created a brand of fiction that satirized -- but stopped short of criticizing -- hedonistic consumerism. These novelists gained acclaim, popularity, and influence in the diminishing world of literary fiction. Now, the sidebar on Franzen's Wikipedia page succinctly explains: "Literary movement: Hysterical realism."

I'd argue that there's a lot at stake in those four words, at least in the realm of literature and how its commentary on America is interpreted and distributed. They've brought the opinions of a critical authority on a widely read text to more people than anything else I can think of in an age that, frankly, could use literature's lessons. I'd also argue that the Woods-Wikipedia gloss of Franzen as a hysterical realist misrepresents his two most well-known novels, The Corrections and Freedom. Last, I think that "Literary movement: Hysterical realism" is especially problematic because it mangles Franzen's triumph: his heartfelt critique of contemporary America's defining affect, nonchalant irony, or his answer to N+1's big question: "What Was The Hipster?"

An early indication that Freedom would like to resist the Black Satirists' ironic tradition is that the novel's villain, Richard Katz, reads one of their seminal texts, Pynchon's V. As Franzen sees it, Katz represents the underside of acting too-cool-for-school: selfishness that quickly becomes immorality. Katz takes advantage of his best friend in small ways for decades and then sleeps with his wife, and rather than make use of his intelligence in a socially constructive manner, Katz opts for a career in punk rock, a genre Franzen lampoons as ham-fisted nihilism. In my favorite scene in Freedom, Katz watches as emo-wonder boy Connor Oberst (Bright Eyes) pours out his heart and mystifies a crowd in a way the aging rocker, too concerned with seeming above his audience, can't.

It is far easier to mistake Franzen's third novel, The Corrections, for the work of a V.-admiring smart aleck rather than the product of a stodgy Midwesterner on the side of authority. Especially on a first reading, the tone can appear to be Gogolian in its dark comic irony, which could lead one to think that the whole novel is irreverent. And to be sure, the novel includes bursts of look-mom-no-hands postmodernism. But Franzen's comic irony serves a different purpose than that of a writer like Pynchon and reflects a more nostalgic sensibility.

But Franzen would need the help of a contemporary in tackling the Black Satirist legacy. While Franzen is the great dramatist of the age of conspicuous consumption and our country's ironic distance towards its effects, his close friend David Foster Wallace is the age's great theorist. In Wallace's non-fiction, the problem of nonchalant irony extends beyond the hipster, whose true ascendance to the mainstream Wallace tragically missed. Wallace contends that, with Watergate as a watershed, post-industrial American youth cannot take politics or their parents' values seriously. They end up mocking everything, including earnestness in relationships, and devolve into self-absorption. As for the authors' personal connection, Franzen considered "[Wallace] 'as his "main rival,'" and said that Wallace's Infinite Jest, 'got me working, the way that competition will get you working." I'd go so far as to say that The Corrections is, at its core, an artful dramatization of Wallace's take on irony.

In "E Unibus Pluram," Wallace argues that Pynchonian irony has become cultural law: TV sitcoms teach that in order to be cool, Americans must act with irreverence towards authority. They do so by depicting father figures with traditional values who are mocked by their wives and children. Franzen designs The Corrections as a subversion of the law of irony as Wallace describes it. Alfred Lambert resembles Archie Bunker, except Alfred is intelligent and vindicated by the novel's moral logic. By resisting his wife's demands to invest in the stock market, which seems at first glance like an old man's destructive stubbornness, Alfred holds on to his modest savings. His son Gary, by contrast, who belittles his father as if he were a nastier version of a sitcom kid, "takes a bath" on a technology stock.

The ironic tone that predominates the beginning of The Corrections is, in short, a red herring. Like Chip, a hilarious young man who discards his Queer theory and leather jeans to start a family in the Midwest, the novel undergoes a bildungsroman of its own. It shifts from satire of the decade's frivolity ("Installed above the Nightmare's coffee bar was a screen that gave running ironic tallies of TODAY'S GROSS RECIEPTS") to solemn depictions of Alfred's deterioration ("Like a wife who had died or a house that had burned, the clarity to think and the power to act were still vivid in his memory"). The novel itself matures to meet the serious task of chronicling the death of a serious man, and in his son Chip, the coming-of-age of a serious young man to replace him.