I am freaked out by realism

by on Jan.19, 2011

The documentary Helvetica, which I watched over the holidays with my partner & partner’s parents, got me thinking a bit more concretely about my discomfort with a certain strain of highly anticipated postmodern novels. The neat ones–the ones that attempt to catalogue the heap while taking advantage of the heap’s many attractions. For Christmas, my in-laws gave us a copy of Freedom, and so I read it with this typographic analogy in mind.

Many of the designers interviewed tell us that Helvetica’s charm is in its clarity, its clean finish, its uniformity.

Helvetica’s a product of modernism, mechanical looking, sanitary, friendly in the way that the lady-voice on your laptop is friendly–as in, has the affect down, is manufactured to perform 1. legibility, followed by 2. friendliness. Not just product, Helvetica is the darling of modernism (check the NYC subway system signage).The documentary goes on to examine the “postmodern” reaction to Helvetica in the form of Raygun magazine, grunge liner notes, and other such venues of near-illegible scrawl. Fallacy of imitative form, because the world is an illegible heap, so must be our text at even the visual level.

Supposedly, on one side of history we’ve got the modernist invisible-narrator & his counterpart font-that-the-reader-should-never-notice, and on the other side (known as now or the future), we’ve got the postmodern self-aware-narrator & font-that-intercepts-the-reader.

Indeed, obscuring scrawl and narrative-blurring self awareness are postmodern tactics.  But we shouldn’t be fooled by the apparent mess. It’s actually a very neat and clean relationship. Messy = messy. Confusing = confusing. Difficult = difficult.

**the difference between work that proceeds via a postmodern tactic and work that is symptomatic of postmodern conditions**

That is what I am thinking about. In the big F’s big F, we’re invited to parse the character’s post(ish)-Freudian psychology. They act in their own (granted, sometimes internally competing and not always own best) interests and/or as agents of the plot–that is, they do useful things.  They use the potty.  They shift allegiances for reasons.  They enjoy listening to music, gossiping, and sexy feelings, and they suffer subtle narratorial contempt.

David Gates from The New York Times Book Review on the author’s earlier novel: “it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world…”  It is hyper-real.  It’s real-time cinema, a hyper-reel.  It’s hyperactively real.  It can’t stop producing a world that is very much like the world we’d agree upon, though in more lyrically elegant terms, slightly neater and more systematic.  Even when someone touches his own poo-poo.  It’s a snarky/sneaky/snaky Helvetica, a clever sans-serif that gets to say past and future in the same breath.

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Aaron

    This is interesting stuff. I am sort of wondering where David Foster Wallace fits into this analysis. Infinite Jest is interesting because it is a big book full of rambling asides and footnotes, written in something approximating stream-of-consciousness. A lot of readers unfamiliar with it assume it is po-mo in a complicated, self-referential sort of way, and it is.

    But like Franzen, there is also something deceptively simple about it. When you start reading it, you realize that in many ways it is a very simple book and the narrator is pretty much just talking in an easy, conversational style.

    Some kind of weird bait and switch goes on with Infinite Jest– a knee jerk assumption (rightfully, perhaps) that it is a messy po-mo meta-narrative, followed by the seductive realization that it is actually quite an easy read and pulls one along with narrative-based, Franzian-type realism.

    I think this high-wire act is part of its appeal– it tip toes along the border giving the reader a certain satisfaction in being hip to a messy po-mo text, while also spoon feeding the reader a conversational, realist narrative/character-driven story.

  2. Aaron Apps

    This is interesting. I do think that it speaks more to the fact that such hyper-realist work doesn’t take into account some of the most pressing considerations of our technocratic milieu from a stylistic standpoint when a work can speak to (shiver) so much more in and out of itself.

    I do think it is important to note that the documentary was somewhat misleading–capitalism will incorporate whatever makes it fresh (however this incorporation is always going to be leveled and simplistic). The points you make about grunge, etc. seem appropriate.

    I am interested to hear more about the distinctions you’re drawing between different varieties of the postmodern. I think I get what you’re getting at, but I’m always skeptical of jumping to conclusions when someone drops a ‘post’ term. I’d be interested to hear more about the distinction you’re making there and the implications you think it has on what you’re saying about po/po (‘sincere’ / ‘hyper’ ) realism.


  3. Whimsy Speaks

    […] praise (I think) of this font:  “Helvetica in the form of Raygun magazine, grunge liner notes, and […]

  4. Danielle

    Intriguing stuff, Aaron! Infinite Jest also has those threads of American ballad, Dylanesque narrative–where you can’t follow or aren’t supposed to follow the narrative in its entirety. Like the Quebecois separatists, whose tangled story reminds me of Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary, & the Jack of Hearts. I’ve listened to that song 80 bazillion times, and I still can’t keep track of it.

    I haven’t read IJ in its entirety, (or in a long time), but I do think there’s a difference between what DFW and some of the other pomo fellas have done/do.

    I guess I’m drawing a distinction between:

    work that has symptomatically postmodern narratives and characters–novels where the characters don’t appear to have coherent interiorities, where the narratives refuse to cohere, less chronological fashion, where self-awareness doesn’t lead to clearer understanding of the characters’ motivations, etc–Brett Easton Ellis’s Glamourama, Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Jonathan Lethem’s earlier stuff, Joyelle’s Flet!–or the sort of novels wherein the postmodern condition becomes manifest on/in the body–Audrey Niffenegger, Charlie Anders, Matthew Derby, Can Xue (arguably), Blonde (again), etc.–

    and novels in which the postmodern tactics, the self-awareness, the hyperreal acknowledgment of digestive functions and petty motivations, etc., scan as compassionate &/or authentic.

    Why do we (as a culture) so adore these novels that supposedly REVEAL MODERN LIFE? Why do we like to hear our ironic common knowledge delivered back to us in more lyrical terms? Why do we like to see characters pooping, but don’t like to see them get grotesque? I should definitely include that last question in more essay assignments ;).

    Anyhow, I’m still fussing around with this idea…yakking off the cuff :).