Books

In 'Cool Characters', a Cultural Monstrosity Is Wrangled

Lee Konstantinou provides America with the definition of "Irony" it probably needs. As long as there's a dictionary nearby.


Cool Characters

Publisher: Harvard Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: Lee Konstantinou
Price: $39.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

Given its status as one of the most elusive, contentious, and misunderstood concepts in American culture, to write an entire book on not only the definition, but the effects of irony is no easy feat. Yet this is exactly what cultural critic Lee Konstantinou has set out to do in his in-depth text on the subject, Cool Characters. Focusing on the literary history and mechanisms of irony and post-irony/postmodernism in American fiction, Konstantinou attempts to creative a definite text on a subject most have given up on trying to understand. While providing an extensive roadmap of essential ironic texts, characters, and theories, Konstantinou writes a book that is both exhaustive and exhausting in its content.

Cool Characters is the most recent text in the study of Post-WII American Fiction, or the dawning of what is deemed “post-modernism” in literature. If modernism, or literature stemming from a post WWI world, sought to overturn and deconstruct traditional American narratives following the horrors of “The Great War”, post-modernism did the same following the Second World War. Konstantinou examines the progression and transformation of post-WWII literature through five character types in culture and literature: the hipster, the punk, the believer, the cool hunter (or trend-spotter) and the occupier.

While figures such as the hipster, punk, and occupier are well-ingrained and recognizable in modern culture, Konstantinou’s primary focus is the literary depiction of such characters, starting with the original American “hipsters”. A far throw from the cultural punching bag they are today, Konstantinou presents the mid-20th century “hipster” as a figure dedicated to “symbolic action”, or oppositional actions, language, and outlooks, meant to deviate from and undermine the flaws of contemporary language and narratives, and the kind of oppression and exclusion such social institutions can inspire. A key tool in such a battle has been the use of irony, a word with an admittedly perplexing history.

Taking modern conceptions of irony into account, especially its conception as an outlook inspiring more apathy, cynicism and disenchantment than progress, Konstantinou highlights the transformation of irony as a deconstructionist, countercultural vehicle across the decades of the 20th and 21st centuries, and highlights the various figures who epitomized such counterculture in each era. In doing so, Konstantinou analyzes both the merits and inherent flaws of certain ironic outlooks, never completely praising or criticizing any of them.

At its best, Cool Characters is a highly analytical and informative look into the history of a number of subcultures few know much about, and yet which has produced or inspired some of the country’s most respected literary artists, (e.g., Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, David Foster Wallace). It traces the increasing struggle of the American counterculture to avoid assimilation into the American marketing machine, as well as its efforts to prove its worth past its inherent deconstructionism towards constructivism and progressive action. From an empirical, analytical and academic standpoint, Cool Characters is expertly structured and supported. This, perhaps, is also its greatest flaw.

For a book so focused on texts and characters seeking liberty from the trappings of language and what Konstantinou deems “semiotic totalitarianism”, much of Cool Characters is, ironically, best described as such. Readers not already familiar with a particular academic language will often find themselves alienated in their struggle to keep up, and Konstantinou does little in the way of inviting them in. Frequently, casual readers will find themselves wondering if they perhaps missed a definition or two, only to realize it was never explained to them in the first place. The overall sensation can feel like that of being beat over the head with a glossary that wasn’t sold with the book.

The book’s approach to its readers is best exemplified in the introduction, in which Konstantinou manages to write 45 pages about the “Character of Irony” without ever providing a concrete, baseline argument as to what “irony” is. Especially given irony’s status in American culture, where its definition and purpose are so nebulous and confused to the extent that it’s become culturally ironic to use “ironic” incorrectly (Alanis Morissette’s classic song, “Ironic” comes to mind), to not provide a grounded, fundamental conception of “ironic” before analyzing it is a glaring oversight. This introduction, unfortunately, sets the tone for the kind of experience a casual reader can expect.

Konstantinou’s language varies from insightful and intriguing to infuriatingly unreadable. Many passages involve copious implants of direct quotes from other texts, leaving entire pages feeling like passages from a college senior thesis, and often leaving Konstantinou’s own voice lost in the fog. In an era when writers are still fighting an uphill battle in favor of academia and the written word, much of Konstantinou’s text is more an argument for why readers have found themselves frustrated. The furthest thing from a beach read, Konstantinou’s text, while insightful will require for most a long attention span, perseverance and an open web browser. For a book so in argument of regaining a faith in the joy of reading, Cool Characters often overshadows any conceptual fun or appeal with its complexity and theory, making it at times, in the words of David Foster Wallace, “hellaciously unfun”.

When Konstantinou does allow his own voice to break through, Cool Characters develops a certain intrigue. One of the more accessible sections of the book revolves around David Foster Wallace’s approach to post-modernism. Particularly, the section involves an in-depth look at Wallace’s attempts at waking readers up out of what he views as irony’s “disbelief”, and finding a way to reignite a passion for reading and text. Wallace’s means for doing this, by writing one of the most famously difficult reads of all time, Infinite Jest, is questionable, as Konstantinou indicates. However, the section drives at the heart of literary theory: the relationship between reader and text, and the battle of the author to remind readers why they choose to read and engage with art in the first place.

The remaining issue is the wide range of ways that people are affected by and choose to interact with art. While Infinite Jest may attempt to engage readers with its challenging content, it certainly doesn’t have the following, or loyalty that say, Harry Potter does. The question, then, as it has always been, is how to challenge, engage and enlighten readers without alienating or patronizing them through a lack of appeal or enjoyment. It’s a battle that all post-modern texts and criticisms have fought in their continual efforts at literary deconstruction, and Cool Characters is certainly no exception.

What Konstantinou ultimately views irony as, it seems, is less an inherent political tool, but a waking up to political action. While irony itself is too inherently cynical and detached to directly inspire any progressive change, it may be a helpful tool in looking at one’s own sphere of existence and highlighting it's flaws. It may not be the vision, or even the cause, of a better future, but it may highlight what’s in the way of one.

In the book’s concluding section, Konstantinou describes the most contemporary of these post-modern characters: the occupier. Representing a movement whose political legacy and endurance are still being debated, the occupier stands as another example of an ironic figure who, to Konstantinou, embodies an antiestablishment sentiment without necessarily grasping the motivation for institutional change. In order for Occupy, and any antiestablishment movement, to have a true legacy and inheritance, he argues, it must both critique the establishment and suggest a replacement. It must show cynicism towards what doesn’t work, but optimism towards what could:

We must, therefore, cultivate within ourselves an ironic understanding of our own countercultural inheritance while simultaneously developing a nonironic commitment to learning how to build enduring institutions that have the capacity not only to rouse spirits, but also to dismantle the power of those whose strength partly depends on our cynicism.

Konstantinou concludes his book with a still nebulous, but perhaps more streamlined, definition of irony:

Irony did not, even in its most avowedly countercultural forms, necessarily aid projects of human liberation… The ethos of irony is always political -- in that it always recommends a specific relationship between individual and collective life -- but it does not have a predetermined fate or political content.

It seems, therefore, that the regular confusion over irony’s definition is somewhat the point. What’s consistent about it, however, is that it can’t be done alone.

Cool Characters is definitely a chore to get through. It’s researched, in-depth, and theoretically sound, and in many instances lends itself to very interesting analysis and thought concerning literary structure. However, it’s complexity often muddles its communication. A blurb on the book’s back cover from author Michael Clune describes the text as “of enormous interest to graduate students and professors in the field, as well as to anyone interested in the state of contemporary literature.” Unfortunately, it often feels like only the former half of this statement is true, or at least it’s the demographic Konstantinou seems most inclined to address.

Konstantinou’s book is one that certainly doesn’t fail in what it sets out to do, but doesn’t always succeed in sharing his obvious passion for his subject with the reader. When it does, mostly in later sections, Konstantinou’s thoughts should be enough to revitalize at least a certain interest in postmodern texts, and their relation to a seemingly post-postmodern world. Like irony itself, perhaps Cool Characters may not perfectly relay its message, but it may encourage one to look outside one’s literary horizons.

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