I have a hunch that the comedy of self-consciousness, in other words, self-consciousnessery, has about exhausted itself. It is the prevailing tone adopted by white male American novelists and writers from about the 90s forward. I’ve been reading 10:04, Ben Lerner’s novel, and finding it both less irritating and less amazing than Leaving the Atocha Station – and this is significant. Lerner’s first novel was to self-consciousnessery what, say, Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans was to metaphysical poetry – it pushes the tone and tic to such an extreme that it undergoes a fatal crisis. Hmm, perhaps my analogy isn’t perfect – to my mind, the self-consciousnessery of LAS produces something interesting, the picaresque rouge as uber-self-conscious American. Perhaps it was the Spanish locale. Perhaps there was a subtle reference to Lazarillo de Tormes or Quevedo.
As David Foster Wallace made clear, self-consciousnessery with its endless fastidiousness and play of retraction and assertion was, in part, a response to a previous generation of asshole writers (Mailer, Updike, Bellow, Roth, etc.). Politically, the self-conscious style was supposed to mark and check the white privilege – heteronormativity, y’all, the great white whale itself, this time as hero. But of course it did no such thing. Updike, perhaps the most assholeish of the previous generation’s writers still set on foot and dealt in novelistic terms with a host of female and black characters. SC-ery, to my mind, has largely failed to pick up the challenge. Perhaps I can exempt The Corrections from this charge, but otherwise, the story for the women – upper class, college educated, white – largely falls into the same as-it-ever was: women are seen as objects of romance or as failing to be objects of romance. Their interest, in other words, is outside themselves. Esse est percipi, which is one of the great formulas for disempowering the other - the colonialist principle elevated to a cosmic injunction. Thus, the meaty american story of the last couple of decades is approached only obliquely. That story, of women – mostly upper class and mostly white – experiencing the market place and upward social mobility – escapes the SC-ery trap, which is, perhaps, designed not to trap that historic moment.
As an aside, here, let’s not be heteronormative ourselves about that moment. It is definitely a story of class and race as well. For the vast majority of American women, lean-in feminism is a joke, another management ploy in order to keep labor cheap and disorganized.
Along with 10:04, I’ve been reading a much more obscure book about NYC. Stanley Walker’s Mrs. Astor’s Horse was published in 1935. Walker was just coming off his stint as the news editor of the New York Herald Tribune, a position he held down beginning in 1927. He’d seen the peak of the Jazz Age and its collapse in the Depression. Someday, given the perpetual nostalgia for accounts of New York City low life and glamor, Walker’s book will be reissued. I can just see a NYRB edition, with a preface by Luc Sante. Walker’s tone is keyed to his generation’s wisecracking white male American. It is a language that uses the slang of the ballpark and vaudeville, and that plunges into what the American Mercury, Mencken’s magazine, used to call curiosae Americanae – the eccentric side of American life. Eccentric in the broad sense that includes lynching and the antics of California radio evangelists. It crunches down on electrocutions and adultery among the rich, with the aim of casting an unflattering light on the American booboosie, the eating, drinking, ticket paying esse who loved nothing more than gawking at the spectacles of that which supposedly violated their norms.
Mencken, Winchell, Ring Larnder, and the early New Yorker wits were very good at this. Because it is the kind of writing that presupposes the yawning cretinism of the American middle class, one might be lured into thinking that it is performing a progressive critique. But as the progress of Mencken showed, it wasn’t. It was the kind of satire that does a turn around in the fifth act. Although the businessman is a Babbit, heaven help us if we take the economy out of his hands. Although the ossified WASP is ridiculous as any kind of arbiter, in the end, he is our true bearer of civilization and lets not mess with our current arrangements, lest we get Bolshevism.
Within those limits, though, this enjoyment of the American carnivalesque does give us a point of view from which to see the limits of S.C.-ery, and in particular, the latter’s surprising piety about res publica.
About which more later.