The Massachusetts Yankee in Bad Decline: a Review of “Selfie, Suicide: Cairey Turnbull’s Blue Skidoo”
June 16, 2019
Selfie, Suicide opens rather oddly, on our protagonist Cairey Turnbull digesting an eggs benedict and bottomless mimosas. Immediately the language is notably ornate and on first glance comes off as pretentious, but it serves two important purposes. First, it sets a tableau, in a sense similar to an opening sequence in an artistic movie. Notable examples of such a sequence is David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which opens with a beautiful, perfectly manicured lawn. A man has a stroke and dies and the camera zooms to the hideous insects and detritus underneath. This sequence illustrates what David Foster Wallace called “the unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.” For Logo, what is the message or tableau of this opener?
Superficially it sets the scene, specifically that of a hip town, it could be Brooklyn, Austin, any hipster lebensraum (a phrase coined by Logo) SWPL town where $3 egg brunch goes for $15 with a little hollandaise and bubbly orange juice. Further, it illustrates that the identity of those in the millennial age is defined by consumption. Great authors of the first half of the 20th century were a product of tumultuous times, Kurt Vonnegut was a German prisoner of war in Dresden when allies bombed. Joseph Heller flew bombing raids over Italy in WW2. Thomas Pynchon’s first major publications were press releases for Boeing’s surface to air missiles, a testament to post WW2 ascendance of US hegemony. By the time of Infinite Jest the struggles of young Americans boiled down to competition in athletic events against each other, rather than international or class struggles. Wallace had conveyed that the greatest humanity and maybe specifically Americans could achieve was to be a world class punter or tennis player.
The eggs benedict serves a second, plot-related purpose but you’ll have to purchase the book to find that out. Here is a link to Amazon but there are other options as well.
The cultural critique of Selfie Suicide is that even that level of competition in Infinite Jest has been rendered meaningless. The millennial identity is defined by curation and consumption, specifically of other artistic content. What is the latest television intellectual property and how does it resonate with our carefully curated in-group? Perhaps even more importantly, how does is make our out-group gnash its teeth? The part of our brain developed over millenia to retain and generate familial bonds and stories, to maintain a familial narrative, is now dedicated to remembering who was the 2nd AD of a monopoly industry intellectual property. In this world the individual creator is rent asunder in favor of the curator, one that can distill entire lifetimes into four or five words and a B-roll and play it for an audience.
Selfie, Suicide addresses what is the true value of the artist in a world that only values curation. Logo illustrates a world with some sci-fi and speculative elements but is a very serious novel. In the physical world the plot is rather simple. Cairey is a down on his luck artist that attempts to go on a date with a young lady to a museum. There are flashbacks that tell his life story and the renowned and famous curator / reality TV star. Cairey’s hero’s journey is psychonautical.
Cairey struggles against this post-post-modernist culture. (Which is what, exactly, the future?) Postmodernism is a useful term to describe post Nabokovian black humorists like Thomas Pynchon, Barth, William Gaddis, Joseph Heller. In an interview with Charlie Rose, DFW said that:
“Postmodernism was the first text that was highly self-conscious, self-conscious of the writer of persona, and about the effects the narrator had on the reader and the fact that the reader probably knew that.
A lot of the schticks of postmodernism, the irony, the cynicism and irreverence, are now part of whatever it is that is innervating the culture itself. Burger King now sells hamburgers with “you gotta break the rules”
Wallace was hyperbolic here at least in a sense. All of these features of postmodernism had been illustrated in earlier great works. Laurence Stirne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (1759) introduced many of the hypertextual irreverence known to mark postmodernism. The central irony of Don Quixote (1605) is that the protagonist read too many adventure novels and loses his sanity. In Goethe’s first long form masterpiece, Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship (1795), the eponymous hero leads an acting troupe on a tour through Germany and acts as a commentary of both the play itself and the popularity of Hamlet in Germany roughly two centuries after it was written. Lengthy passages written in detail explain how the product of a seafaring English Culture should be adapted for a largely landlocked German audience.
Thus, there is a continuous interplay between the trappings of ironic or irreverent meta-fiction and sincerity that has been lasting not for decades but for centuries. What has changed is that the medium of entertainment has shortened and amplified the cycles of sincerity and irony. First in television the staid approach of the Cleavers and Mayberry. The postmodern authors seem so unique in contrast to these new and revolutionary media producing such homogeneity. In film and television, the 80s marked a return to a new type of authenticity with John Hughes comedies, sincere Stallone movies and Dr. Huxtable. Then like clockwork, the nihilistic grunge of Seattle and the irreverent Seinfeld acted as a counter to the outdated moral expositions of the Facts of Life.
In literature, we are definitely in a period of New Sincerity, one that is aware of the hypertextual and hyper-media influences on the egregore and nested with its knowledge of irony is a sincere heartfelt message, usually endorsing a global neoliberal agenda. Think of the women cosplaying like the Handmaid’s tale (Now available on Netflix) on the capitol steps. What is unique about Selfie Suicide is that it is also a vehicle for New Sincerity, but contrary to the neoliberal hegemony. In between self-aware puns and jokes (some of which are funny, others, MEH), Logo writes in a way that is earnest in the same manner as Rupi Kaur or Sufjan Stevens but far more effective. He is eager to show you what is ugly about Cairey Turnbull’s life. Cairey’s artistic struggles are commodified without his consent. Here’s a brief example of the authenticity of Turnbull’s woes once he feels that his life is a joke:
“& this-oh lord how it makes sense! How explicable he is to himself in these terms! Yes- how innocent he is in this surmise! How helpless, how frail, how victimized is he in light of this revelation! What hopeless resignation, what relief here, to be slave to his archon of supernaturaly iniquity. How helplessly, beautifully, reliably doomed!”
There is no irreverence or ironic self-detachment here. Social media has allowed these cycles of sincerity and irony to churn simultaneously, requisite upon who you, the audience, stacks onto your feed. Although many of Logo Daedalus’ contemporaries here at Autistic Mercury and on twitter are irony bros, your humble author always viewed Logo as a sincerity bro. He eagerly scraps with the blue checkmark class, the ones that breezed through university and got jobs at the Atlantic or Esquire by pretending to read the books that Logo actually read. And so, the sincerity and authenticity he portrays in Selfie Suicide is that of the Yankee in decline, foreshadowed by DFWs own fascination with suicide and self-destruction threaded throughout Infinite Jest and Pale King (and his life apparently). George Saunders, another prominent author also has made a career out of portraying the culture of the simulacrum of authenticity. By stripping bare many of the postmodernist elements of these prior authors, Logo is able to take a more direct and less abstruse look into the descent of the New Englander (and honestly, the Artist) in decline.
The ironic and irreverent allows a character or narrator to provide some distance from their own emotional reaction to events within a narrative, but in our hypertextual media world it closes the distance between artist and audience, as if to say, you and I are not so different, friend. Selfie Suicide is a meditation of sorts on the more frequent oscillations between irony and sincerity, between artist and audience, and how the medium through which they communicate is ever more fluid.