By Isaac Butler
now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson,Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Lifeand the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)
Any garden-variety SAT crammer can tell you that any statement that contains "always" or "never" is likely false, and in this case, Deresiewicz makes a big mistake in lumping in Jonathan Lethem as someone who writes books that always let the audience off the hook. In fact, I'd argue that with few exceptions, Lethem's books end on profoundly disturbing, disruptive notes.
His work is deceptive, however, becuase it is actively fun to read. He's an exuberant, clever, perceptive, hip, maximalist writer. But comparing him to other exuberant, clever, perceptive, hip, maximalist writers is actually helpful here. Lethem's books don't work like Michael Chabon's books, for example, which nearly always end on notes of redemption for their protagonists and come down firmly on the side of celebrating life.
Lethem is very, very good at subtly getting the guests in his books. Whether it's taking his very High Fidelity protagonist in As She Climbed Across The Table and pushing him into Highsmithian obsession and self-destruciton or having Dylan Ebdus grow up to be a pathetic, self-involved jerk so haunted by the unhealable traumas of childhood that he is unable to see the world in front of him in Fortress of Solitude, Lethem's characters, the sites he creates for readerly empathy and identification, almost always end up in a bad state because of the very things that cause us to identify and empathize with them in the first place. Even You Don't Love Me Yet, the most comedic of Lethem's novels, ends on an odd note, with the gradual realization that the protagonist of the novel is probably an alcoholic, little growth on anyone's part, and the reader realizing the novel's central relationship is likely doomed to failure.
The book where this is the most overt is actually Chronic City, which I've written about here and here, and where the protagonist, a man named Insteadman, willfully chooses ignorance, a kind of tending of his own garden, rather than confront the difficult, shifting, self-contradicting truths he's brushed up against over the last four hundred pages. I don't think it's coincidental that Chronic City also proved the most critically controversial of his work.
Part of the challenge with Lethem-- if you can call it that-- is that his style of writing often defaults to comedic gestures, Fortress of Solitude excepted. But we shouldn't mistake comedy with a lack of seriousness, or laughter with letting us off the hook. I think that's where Deresiewicz goes astray above. All three of his examples of "truly disruptive" work are dark and work through the mechanisms of tragedy. But tragedy is not necessarily more serious (or more accurate, or more disruptive) than comedy.