The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer once argued (I am immediate sorry for this pretentious lead-in, by the way) that people understand irony only to the extent that they are in agreement with the person addressing them. As in, I can only really understand Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report because I largely agree with his values and his caricature of the typical American conservative. I don’t think this is wholly true – surely there are a lot of conservatives who at least get where Colbert is coming from on a conceptual level – but it goes a long way towards explaining why some irony can be incredibly abrasive: the speaker positions themselves and their presumed reader as a kind of in-jokey, self-congratulatory and consciously exclusionary pair.
Literary irony in particular can be guilty of this. A lot of postmodern American literature that emerged in the ‘60s and continued until the ‘80s (I’m thinking of writers like William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Robert Coover) is marked by a distinctively facetious and irreverent tone that assumes the reader is as clued-in and hypereducated as the writer, and if they’re not, nuts to them. This style seems to have fallen out of critical favour in the last couple of decades, maybe as a result of David Foster Wallace’s public disavowal of it and his yearning for a more sincere kind of fiction, or maybe because of a shift in perception as to what good fiction is and should do.
American expatriate Nell Zink’s recent novel Mislaid, however, reads like a kind of revival of this sensibility. Not in the sense that it shares the same concerns, but that it’s unafraid of arcane or highbrow references, relies heavily on wordplay and irony, and couldn’t care less if you ‘got’ it or not. The book follows Peggy Vallaincourt, a young would-be writer who has a brief affair with trust-funded poet Lee Fleming. She falls pregnant, keeps the child, hurriedly marries him, and then has another kid. But Lee has other interests, and after promptly melting down, Peggy splits with one daughter, and takes on a new dubious identity down in the American south. It sounds compelling, and it is, but Zink is a strange, erratic writer, and this journey is narrated in such a zany, caustic voice that if you don’t identify with it, you might be pretty put off.
Zink’s rise to literary fame has been a strange one. In 2012, she struck up a friendship with novelist Jonathan Franzen (the same Jonathan Franzen who recently wanted to adopt an Iraqi war orphan in order to better understand today’s youth – up yours, Franzen!), who suggested she take herself more seriously as a writer. To prove that she did in fact take her work seriously, she wrote her debut novel The Wallcreeper in four weeks. Published last year when Zink was 50, the book received enormous amounts of praise from such institutions as The New York Times and The New Yorker, and levitated her to heights of serious critical adulation.
And deservedly so. Mislaid is a bizarre book, and certainly more challenging that a lot of contemporary fiction, but it also has a lot to say about gender and racial identities. Maybe this is what sets is apart from more intensely cerebral, postmodern writers: while Zink occasionally seems a little too clever and struck by her own wit, she is willing to use her smarts to examine some essential human subjects.