Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Sarah Freligh’s fiction piece, Authentic
John: William Burroughs said that the title of Naked Lunch came from that moment that, as you’re bringing your fork to your mouth, you really see it clearly in all of its queasy reality. Would our lives be more authentic if they were comprised entirely of Naked Lunch moments? Would that even be tolerable?
Sarah: Nice irony already: A quote from Burroughs, the guy who tried—and failed—to shoot a drink off his wife’s head, about seeing clearly. . .
I don’t know about the lives of others, but as a writer, I don’t trust the “all of a sudden” moments, in stories or in real life. Epiphanies tend to be hard earned, an accumulation of all that’s happened before; even then, there’s maybe a tick of change or recognition on the part of the character, nothing more. We still exist in the gray areas.
That said, I do live for the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s world turns to color.
Is there, really, anything but Elk’s Clubs in the future for any of us? Should we start patronizing them right now, just to get a head start?
The Dow dropped seven hundred points yesterday, so yes to the Elk’s Club. Be sure to learn the secret handshake first. Unless you prefer to pay $15 for your double dirty martini . . .
What is the most authentic possible hairstyle? Elk’s Club Blue? Or something like a mullet, where the wearer couldn’t possibly be accused of ironic self-knowledge?
Probably the Barbie Bubble, the hairstyle that came after the ponytail. Think of it as a protective helmet of hair. It looks good on everyone—women, men, cats.
Have we, finally, reached Peak Irony? Is it time to stop pretending that everything can be reduced to a knowing wink? And if so, is that a frightening concept, that we might have to acknowledge that some things deserve to be taken seriously?
I remember the days after 9/11 when we all felt like we were made of glass and treated each other accordingly. We thought that carefulness would last, but it didn’t. A week later we were back to flipping off the guy who cut us off in traffic.
George Saunders has written beautifully about the necessity of irony in life and fiction, and how it’s “exactly what’s needed to drive the wedge into the truth.” To do so, that wedge needs to be sharp and exact, otherwise it’s just clever and superfluous, that “knowing wink” you refer to above. Or worse, it comes off as mockery. So for the writer of fiction, especially in the twenty-first century, it’s a tricky tightrope to negotiate, between some kind of moral center and the truth.
Years ago I took a class in graduate school titled “Irony and the Novel,” which I didn’t appreciate enough at the time for the terrific assemblage of master ironists and their novels, especially Jane Austen and Ford Madox Ford. Austen’s use of omniscient point of view allows a detachment on the part of the narrator, a distance from which to observe, report and comment, while Ford in The Good Soldier relies on a totally unreliable narrator, John Dowell, to achieve irony. Both writers drive a wedge into the truth but do so in very different and yet satisfying ways.
Ultimately, the knowing wink rather than honest irony is probably a failure of artistry. It’s the easy way out.