A COUPLE OF MONTHS AGO, while vacationing in South Florida, I was lying on a beach when, all of a sudden, a single-engine Cessna came puttering across the sky, toting an aerial advertisement that read: “THE REAL YOU IS SEXY.” I sat there for a moment blinking in the sun. It was a message that seemed to fly in consummate symmetry with the insecurities of its audience: sunbathers with calf implants and spray tans, toupees and silicone breasts. Like all good advertisements, it managed to create an existential problem that its product would supposedly solve. In this case, the remedy could be found at Aerie, an offshoot of American Eagle that hawks preppy fashions to affluent young people. The ad was supposed to be an assurance, a variation of that old saw about true beauty being on the inside. But its insistence on “the real you” was an insinuation of doubt, a soft rebuke, as if, by simply lying near the ocean, I was committing a minor fraud.

Where to find this “real you”? And, upon its discovery, how best to communicate it to the world? This anxiety has a long pedigree, first arising amid the revelations of the Enlightenment, when individuals were no longer beholden to the stiff hierarchies of feudalism but could tear away the garments of their socially determined roles in order to reveal their authentic selves. Thinkers like Rousseau believed that such a quest for self-discovery would accelerate the promises of democratic equality. “It is a great and beautiful spectacle,” he wrote, “to see man raising himself from nothingness by his own efforts; dissipating with the light of his reason, the shadows in which nature enveloped him.”

And yet while the notion of liberal individualism was a midwife to Western democracy, its insistence on authenticity ultimately proved to be an impossible existential struggle, a paradox that lurks deep within the language itself. The English word “person” comes from the Latin persona, meaning “actor’s mask” or “dramatic role,” which suggests the very notion of an authentic self is illusory, a house of cards that topples under the slightest breath of scrutiny. Such was the contention of the midcentury sociologist Erving Goffman, who, in his 1956 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, used the theater as a metaphor for the various performances we give throughout the day. One reads a script with the bank teller, dons a costume for one’s employer, and follows stage cues with one’s spouse. The self, Goffman suggests, “is not an organic thing that has a specific location whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.”

Never before in history, one could argue, have individuals been so acutely conscious of the extent to which personhood is performed, especially when one is constantly swiping through social media platforms in order to monitor, with fussy custodial care, the dazzle and sheen of an online persona. “Our culture demands total transparency, at the same time that it demands near-constant performance,” the philosopher Michel de Certeau writes in his book The Practice of Everyday Life. “So how can you know a person?”

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This existential slipperiness of personhood is one reason why the art critic Dan Fox, in his new book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, feels justified in debunking the rhetoric of “pretension,” a word that is typically leveled as a pejorative. After all, if inauthenticity is our shared fate and all social encounters are unavoidably performative, on what grounds can anyone call out another’s acts of cultural deception?

Early in his disquisition, Fox wonders why children who investigate the world through “pretend” and “make believe” are seldom accused of pretentiousness, whereas adults who experiment with the liberties of masquerade are inevitably charged with duplicity. He spends the better part of his book admonishing us to recover the whimsy and caprice of youth, to dredge those childish things we might have long ago put away. Because “[t]he baselines against which authenticity and pretentiousness are calibrated vary wildly,” we are instructed to reserve judgment and adopt a broad democratic tolerance for everything we encounter. “So you thought the film you just saw was pretentious, and so was the date you took with you. You thought the food and service at the restaurant where you had a bite to eat after was also pretentious. But pretending to be … what, precisely?” Fox asks. Because there is no Platonic ideal, no unblemished paragon waiting for us on the far side of shams and imposters, any judgment of authenticity or accusation of fraudulence should, in Fox’s opinion, be stubbornly regarded as just so much arrant nonsense. “When a person decides that a restaurant is pretentious,” he concludes, “the ‘authentic’ restaurant to which it’s being compared and the values that provide The One True Restaurant with its bona fides are seldom revealed.”

Usually, critics can be counted upon to enumerate for us the metrics by which we might judge whether a restaurant or a work of art should be regarded as redoubtable or legitimate. Fox evinces an unswerving reluctance to draw such distinctions. His final recommendation on behalf of pretension is that it “keeps life interesting,” which seems like a pretty low bar to clear. In the end, his book comes to epitomize a new genre of criticism that forgoes the task of evaluation and instead admits that all qualitative assessments are futile, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless. Maybe so, but Pretentiousness is, as a result, baggy and oblique, loosely organized around a scattering of muzzy proclamations that do not clarify the central concept but stretch it to the point where it no longer seems to mean anything: “Pretension is taken to be synonymous with snobbery.” “The pretentious is often what is unfamiliar.” “Pretension is a name game.” “Pretension is about overreaching what you’re capable of, taking the risk that you might fall flat on your face.” “Pretension is a question of optics.”

Near the end of the book, Fox recounts a childhood in England spent listening obsessively to his older brother’s LPs (Kraftwerk, The Cramps, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and loitering around Oxford to keep tabs on the latest urban-youth couture (“striped tees with black jeans, winklepickers, and shades”). Here his motivations become more legible, as the “philosophical” defense of pretentiousness devolves into a memoiristic apologia for his own life choices, buffeting them from the hail of other people’s opinions:

A classist usage of the word “pretentious” might describe a teenage pupil of a state comprehensive school wanting to go and study fine art at Oxford University but it was a pretentious ambition that changed my life forever. There I came into contact with new ideas, people with perspectives new to me. Three years later I moved to London, got a job on an art magazine, started a career as an editor and writer, and ten years after that I found myself living in New York.

Perhaps denizens of the United Kingdom, who often make a blood sport of patrolling shifts in accent and prosecuting acts of class betrayal, will find Fox’s valentine to his adolescence unexpected and heartwarming. But from this side of the pond, Fox seems unduly preoccupied with the question of pretentiousness, and in an age when cultural chameleons like David Bowie and Lady Gaga have acquired the status of Olympian gods, it’s unclear why this type of self-creation warrants such a breathless and thunderous defense.

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Perhaps it boils down to a simple matter of geography. In the United States, the engine of prosperity has always been its bootstrap logic, a fierce belief in the power of self-determination. It’s taken for a fact that if you wish to succeed in this country you must not resign yourself to the small-town myopia of Jimmy Gatz but must pursue, with pathological determination, the urbane mythomania of Jay Gatsby. Which is another way of saying the metabolism of the United States runs on the empty calories of self-delusion, and the main reason why pretentiousness doesn’t hold a prominent place in our imagination is that, in a supposedly “classless” United States, a citizen finds himself in an eternal state of transubstantiation, endlessly scrabbling up the social ladder toward some next higher echelon of selfhood — one that is usually denoted by the altitude of one’s tax bracket.

While the European Enlightenment may have been ground zero for the authenticity question, it arguably gained renewed vigor in the United States during the middle of the last century, when conventional sources of meaning had been trampled in the stampede of liberal secularism and the trusty passions of faith and ideology were swapped for the chilly tenets of scientific materialism. Critics like Andrew Potter have suggested that the trajectory of postwar American culture has thus been marked by a profound spiritual crisis, a frantic quest to replace the moral values of God and country with some other locus of absolute truth.

This long odyssey to find new meaning would find its most faithful rendering in the work of postwar novelists. In his dazzling new book of literary criticism, Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction, Lee Konstantinou examines how books as varied and venerable as Infinite Jest and Invisible Man have reckoned with this dire social landscape, one blighted by irony and ennui. For Konstantinou, irony isn’t merely a political trope or a rhetorical mode. It is an “ethos,” an attitude, a way of existing in the world, and his densely researched study presents us with five literary archetypes that have either embraced or rejected it: the hipster, the punk, the believer, the coolhunter, and the occupier.

Konstantinou begins with the novels of the 1950s, a time when hipsters and beatniks took up the ethos of “cool” irony to cope with the specter of nuclear annihilation. Irony’s most vociferous champion at the time was Norman Mailer, who in a 1957 essay for Dissent argued that the best way to deal with this “bleak scene” was “to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.” Through the scrim of several decades, Mailer’s prescription sounds less like a manifesto for freethinking individuals than it does ad copy for one of those Lincoln commercials narrated by Matthew McConaughey. But at the time this contrarian spirit was taken to be genuinely radical. Allergic to dogma and resolutely opposed to degrading effects of ideology, the hipster was “defined more by what he disavowed or stood against than by what he fought for.”

The problem with the hipster, as history has made clear, was that trading bourgeois earnestness for bohemian irony didn’t actually do anything to rectify the depredations of capitalism. Instead, hipsterism became just another style, an attitude susceptible to the very forces of establishment co-optation that the hipster’s eccentric strategies of parody and slang sought to avoid. This was to be expected. As early as 1934, critics like Malcolm Cowley were predicting that the outlook of nonconformity would inevitably be repackaged as a “consumption ethic,” since “self-expression and paganism encouraged a demand for all sorts of products — modern furniture, beach pajamas, cosmetics, colored bathrooms with toilet paper to match.”

A similar fate would befall Konstantinou’s second character type: that rowdy provocateur known as “the punk,” whose literary exemplars he finds in the novels of Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs. The bone and gristle of the punk movement was its ambition to dismantle the architecture of consumer culture and vandalize mainstream values in the process. No longer would corporate behemoths shove factory-produced merchandise down the throats of docile consumers. Instead, the punk would “democratize the means of cultural production” by publishing zines, crafting buttons for jacket lapels, and selling albums for not much more than cost. Or that was the idea, anyway. A modern reader will find it hard not to cringe at how easily youth marketers were able to appropriate this insurgent creativity, sparing themselves the anguish of predicting which products would appeal most to these neon-haired ruffians.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that nihilism, cynicism, and irony would become so pervasive in mainstream culture that the antipodes of sincerity, earnestness, and ideological commitment would begin to seem like rogue concepts. The patron saint of this “postironical” age was David Foster Wallace, who sought to condemn a strain of contemporary literature that deferred inflexibly to the faddish moods of torpor and dispassion. In his now famous 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace valorized the unsexy heroism of ethical commitment, arguing that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.”

Yet the paradox of Wallace’s own fiction, as Konstantinou argues, is that while it sought to defend the spiritual advantages of belief, it never adumbrated a doctrine of values that might be worth espousing in the first place. His idealism was a form without substance, an elegant but empty frame. For Konstantinou, this generic belief is best exemplified by one of the heroes of Infinite Jest, a jugheaded drug addict named Don Gately, whose unhealthy relationship with Demerol eventually leads him to commit a string of violent burglaries. The main thrust of Gately’s story takes place after his brief stint in prison, when he finds himself living in a halfway house and trying to abide, with grudging persistence, the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though Gately has come to his atheism without much apparent deliberation, he still bristles at the group’s totemic faith in the “higher power,” a nebulously defined cosmic being to whom he’s supposed to surrender his will — that is, if he has any chance of evading the clutches of this disease. Veterans of the group (long-sober members whom Wallace calls the “crocodiles”) caution Gately against abstract argument, suggesting that addicts are chronic overthinkers prone to harebrained rationalizations, which can often lead to relapse. Such caveats prompt him to trade his skepticism for simple, practical action, and soon he begins to pantomime the rituals of this strange faith even when it makes him feel like a credulous fool. He drops to his knees for prayers every morning. He studies the group’s literature with unstinting, ecclesiastical devotion. And rather than making himself the center of his service, he commits himself to supporting “the alcoholic still in need,” a solemn pledge that, by the end of the novel, brings him to an act of unexpected martyrdom.

Konstantinou classifies characters like Gately as “believers,” a term meant to carry a whiff of disparagement. (It refers, as well, to The Believer, the house organ of the early 2000s literary tendency with which Wallace is identified.) Because Wallace fails to enunciate concrete values by which his readers should live, his commitment to postironic belief strikes Konstantinou as fleecy and abstract, “more concerned with overthrowing the rule of a particular type of person, the ironist, than with changing the institutional relations that facilitated the rise to this type.” In the end, Konstantinou criticizes Wallace in much the same manner that George Orwell attacked Charles Dickens, whose work was “always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure.”

In the early years of the 21st century, the believers were supplanted by a new squad of literary characters that Konstantinou calls “the coolhunters,” whom he finds in Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. These coolhunters are deeply conflicted creatures, centaurs of competing ideologies. Young, ebullient, and extremely well-educated, they yearn, like the believers, to discover new forms of “authentic” self-expression. But unlike their earnest predecessors, they have resigned themselves to the neoliberal market and live out their days amassing subcultural capital that they can repackage in mass-consumable form to be sold for profit at retail centers across the United States. “[W]e’re on the cusp of something really wonderful,” one coolhunter says in The Savage Girl: “A renaissance of self-creation” where “we’ll be able to totally customize our life experiences — our beliefs, our rituals, our tribes, our whole personal mythology — and we’ll choose everything that makes us who we are from a vast array of choices.” Strangely enough, this homily resembles, in both skin and skeleton, Fox’s sweeping endorsement of pretentiousness, a radical faith in the doctrine of self-fabrication. In this depoliticized market culture, where products are untethered from social or religious moorings, individuals are free to select beliefs from a buffet of bespoke politics and à la carte theologies. Brand loyalty becomes a weak surrogate for religious allegiance or ideological commitment. The project of the coolhunter, in Konstantinou’s view, only reinforces the staunch edifice of capitalism.

If the market invariably absorbs its opponents, is it even possible to challenge the powers that be? To whom can freethinking individuals turn? What type of character can thrive in this inclement political environment? For Konstantinou, there may be hope for his final literary type, “the occupiers,” whom he recognizes in an emergent category of literary fiction that he calls “the postironic Bildungsroman.” Novels like Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens (both 2013) feature characters who “traverse from a state of political naivety through a phase of cynicism or postmodern irony, arriving finally at a state of postironic political commitment.” But while there is much to admire about the occupier’s renewed zest for communal life, Konstantinou worries that without “specific ambitious, sustainable, scalable, and — yes — sometimes dull political projects, such postironic celebrations of local freedom threaten to regress into Bohemian consumerism” (which some critics have argued was the plight of Zuccotti Park). Moreover, because the occupier often relies too heavily on “prefigurative rhetoric,” which provides only a forecast of the postcapitalist future they wish to inhabit, the movement unwittingly offloads the rigors of actual political change to future generations. As with all Bildungsromans, the hero at the end of the story may acquire a new level of self-awareness, but on the last page, he’s usually still a callow adolescent, incapable of imagining the drudgery involved in true adult commitments.

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Cool Characters ends here, cantilevered over empty space. Ultimately, Konstantinou hankers for a new “characterological” type, a person willing to complete the modest spadework of building robust political institutions. But this hope seems somewhat perfunctory. Upon finishing the book, it’s difficult not to feel as though we, as a culture, have reached a dead end, that our quest for authenticity has bred nothing more than a series of postures and attitudes that, if they hadn’t sprung up by themselves, would have been invented by market demographers anyway. Perhaps we are stuck in the age of “cool,” when all roads to larger causes inevitably circle back to the adolescent project of exalting the self.

Still, as someone who began his reading life when the “believer” archetype was in vogue, I was (somewhat predictably) disappointed to see this literary movement presented as yet another failed solution to the problem of irony. Of course, it’s always unnerving to see one’s youthful ideals reduced, through the patness of historical study, to a movement or “type.” But I came away feeling that Konstantinou had missed something crucial about this generation of writers, which in addition to Wallace includes Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and George Saunders, among others. The appellation “believer,” while convenient for his purposes, is ultimately shortsighted, especially since it was Wallace and his contemporaries who first began to explore the sort of “dull” collective engagement that Konstantinou calls for in his conclusion, who sought to create characters less interested in secularism’s onanistic romance of the self and more concerned with submitting to deliberate causes.

One contemporary novel that is notably absent from Konstantinou’s survey is Wallace’s The Pale King (which he reviewed for this website in 2011). Published posthumously after its author’s suicide in 2008, the unfinished novel concerns a group of IRS agents in rural Illinois who subject themselves to soul-withering drudgery in order to complete the thankless task of balancing the nation’s accounts. At the center of the book is a character named Chris Fogle, a product of a 1970s suburban upbringing in Chicago, who is a self-professed “wastoid” — “the kind [of nihilist] who isn’t even aware he’s a nihilist.” Through a fog of prescription drug abuse, Fogle coasts through his adolescence, sneering at Christian classmates for their odious naïveté and reserving a special condescension for his father, a boring Ward Cleaver type. One might say Fogle is a mongrel of countercultural pretensions, a composite sketch of the postwar literary archetypes that Konstantinou describes. Like Mailer’s hipster, he equates politics with consumerism’s twin gods of fashion and attitude (“I had a metal peace-sign pendant that weighed half a pound”; “My essential response to everything was ‘Whatever’”). And, like a good punk, Fogle believes that nothing really matters, which justifies spending long, vegetative afternoons getting stoned in front of the television, tripping on Obetrol and watching As the World Turns. He’s come to believe, much like the author of Pretentiousness, that because identity is malleable and no cause is better than any other, he should simply pursue whatever happens to “interest” him at any given moment.

It’s during one such afternoon, when the program returns from a commercial break, that Fogle finally awakens to the meaninglessness of his existence:

I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real — I was free to choose “whatever” because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose — I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter […] If I wanted to matter — even just to myself — I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way.

Becoming an IRS agent might seem like an unexpected route out of this cul-de-sac, but Wallace renders Fogle’s decision to join the “service” with spiritual undertones, lending it the tenor of a religious conversion. (It is a Jesuit accounting professor who sways him to this profession.) In the end, what endows the decision with value is that it requires “the loss of options, a type of death, the death of childhood’s limitless possibility, of the flattery of choice without duress.” Ultimately, Wallace characterizes the IRS as a form of civic engagement that can be seen to embody the burdens and virtues of adult life: “Effacement. Sacrifice. Service.” Far from flimsy abstractions, these battered terms do not promise the feel-good consolations of belief for belief’s sake. Instead, at least within the moral universe of the novel, they are enacted through a discipline of other-directed action. For Fogle, as for Wallace, salvation comes through the act of committing yourself to institutions that lie outside the evanescent whims of the self.

Operating within Konstantinou’s characterological framework, we might see the characters in The Pale King as those to whom the label “agent” might be usefully appended. Not only because it aptly describes their vocation at the IRS, but also because their particular brand of service — what Tocqueville called those “daily small acts of self-denial” — chimes so harmoniously with the word’s etymological roots: a person who acts on behalf of another; a person who takes an active role or produces a specific effect.

Perhaps characters like Fogle fall short of Konstantinou’s prescription for fiction that will rattle the foundations of market capitalism (although, as Thomas Piketty has recently reminded us, the establishment of the graduated income tax in 1913 played no small part in putting an end to the deprivations of the Gilded Age). And yet this eschewal of self has obvious political ramifications, in that it thwarts the chief gambit of neoliberal systems, which is to shift the focus away from collective life toward the individual, to turn matters of politics into categories of identity. Perhaps the literary figure who can, in the end, escape this pernicious cycle will be a character who is less focused on the impotent, market-driven imperatives of authenticity, on finding “the real you” — less focused, in a sense, on being an “interesting” character — and more disposed to actions that transcend the limited itineraries of the self. Following such directives, as we have seen, takes on many attitudes but obliges only one master. Good fiction shows us that there are others. Whom do you serve?

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Barrett Swanson is the 2016–2017 Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing.