17th May 2003
I went to an English teaching conference the other day and a hermeneutics expert sent me away with a list of the best books for the study of English Literature. Books considered old yet still worth studying had not been published when I was at university. It seems 1977 was some cusp between the old and the new, exemplified by an aged F.R.Leavis coming to talk to a packed hall of youngsters at Leeds University. He was the famed dinosaur of literary studies, revered yet on the way out, yet the new kids on the Eng Lit block were only rumours. Whole schools of critical theory have since been founded and developed.
I recently learned that I have written one of the founding works of 'post-ironic literature'. The news came from Jared Walker, who edited my story Everything I Am for Blithe House Quarterly. It is, he tells me, the first such work in the history of that magazine.
I've been wondering what the term means. Going back to the origins of 'Everything I Am' helps. The book's lead character, Arnold, sprang into being when I was in our house in the French Pyrenees. I was alone and a in a difficult perdiod in life, and had no agenda for writing other than to find my way back to some sense of harmony with myself. Stroking the soft spikes and flesh of a young horse chestnut, a radiant green, triggered one scene in the story. I think of chestnuts as hard things whose spikes can cause pain. This was an insight into their real nature. Humans are as natural as anything in the natural world. Arnold, the story's lead character and narrator, is tracked through a sequence of his tales as he grows up this side of corruption. The world might want to turn him in one direction, but his nature steers him in another.
The perfect diction of a young male voice on the BBC World Service triggered another scene in the story. In just a couple of perfectly delivered words it was clear the speaker was gay. My story's hero, Arnold, was born gay; his parents realized this at his birth and so rejoiced that their perfect family unit was already complete. The story has no 'coming to terms with gayness', no 'coming out' - it simply concerns the perfect blossoming of one of nature's wonders. (Those early tales are part of a separate story, 'The Lovely Life of Arnold', due out in the States in the next issue of the 'Harringtom Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly'.)
So post-ironic literature, perhaps, focuses on moments of perfection in life, untrammelled by vicissitudes. It is brave rather than naive. It understands that life elsewhere funnels itself into a negative spin and loses its sense of the marvellous, but it refuses to be dragged downwards. So much of the western literary canon - Anna Karenina, The Doll's House, Madame Bovary, King Lear, you name it - has characters achieving their perfection through the moment of their extinction. We have been trained to find the greatest value in tragedy. Post-ironic literature cannot succumb to tragedy.
The term 'post-ironic literature' implies a chronology, following on from 'ironic literature', though I suspect examples can be found from all ages. One story I've just read, first published in 1998 by Donald Rawley, fits my understanding of the term completely. Called 'Baby Liz', the lead character is a perfect replica of Liz Taylor, only she is 3 feet tall. She is settling contentedly into an early retirement from her showbiz career, though the future beckons. This new future is made up of appreciation, as exampled by this observation as Baby Liz goes wandering with a young boy who has become besotted with her. "On the way home, they will pass wild mustard weed, and mint in thick patches, and Baby Liz will make a mental note to cut some for a salad." Nothing in her life need lack appreciation, though nothing is hyped beyond the contents of itself. Post ironic literature offers a life that has learned to contain itself, in delicious context, as magical as those scenes in glass bubbles that rain down snowstorms when shaken. "It's a place where Baby Liz has settled and grown like a vine," Donald Rawley's story continues, "with violets, sweet flowers, pictures of the glamorous career in silver frames, and her second ex-husband Sidney still calling, romance in his distant voice."
Of course irony exists in such a created world, the irony readers bring from the experience of their own lives. The hope, in time, is that they can put down such a heavy load and skip along unladen for a while.