The Theory Generation

Teju Cole. Open City. Random House. 2011.

Jennifer Egan. A Visit From the Goon Squad. Knopf. 2010.

Jeffrey Eugenides. The Marriage Plot. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2011.

Ben Lerner. Leaving the Atocha Station. Coffee House Press. 2011.

Sam Lipsyte. The Ask. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2010.

Lorrie Moore. A Gate at the Stairs. Knopf. 2010.

If you studied the liberal arts in an American college anytime after 1980, you were likely exposed to what is universally called Theory. Perhaps you still possess some recognizable talismans: that copy of The Foucault Reader, with the master’s bald head and piercing eyes emblematic of pure intellection; A Thousand Plateaus with its Escher-lite line-drawing promising the thrills of disorientation; the stark, sickly-gray spine of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics; a stack of little Semiotext(e) volumes bought over time from the now-defunct video rental place. Maybe they still carry a faint whiff of rebellion or awakening, or (at least) late-adolescent disaffection. Maybe they evoke shame (for having lost touch with them, or having never really read them); maybe they evoke disdain (for their preciousness, or their inability to solve tedious adult dilemmas); maybe they’re mute. But chances are that, of those studies, they are what remain. And you can walk into the homes of friends and experience the recognition, wanly amusing or embarrassing, of finding the very same books.

If so, you belong to what might be called the Theory Generation; and it has recently become evident that some of its members have been thinking back on their training. They are doing so, moreover, in a form older than Theory, a form that Theory has done much to denaturalize and demystify (OK, “deconstruct”): the more or less realist novel, which describes individual lives in a fairly linear manner in conventional, if elegant or well-crafted, prose. Take, for instance, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a young woman named Tassie raised in rural Wisconsin, who describes the shock of her first term at her state university:

Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of sunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

The deadpan Midwestern humor, so pointedly stark in its syntax, brilliantly evokes the moment of initiation into Theory: spoken over rather than spoken to, Tassie can only, at least at first, receive Theory as a style. Thad’s read his Eve Sedgwick; Moore clearly alludes to the public controversy surrounding Sedgwick’s “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” the 1989 MLA paper that became a touchstone for conservative think pieces about the decline of academic literary studies. That episode isn’t available to Tassie, however; for her it’s all just a conversation overheard — which encapsulates the constant state of Theory in the American classroom, where debates with concealed or unnamed interlocutors (Derrida with Marx; Foucault with Hegel) become a cacophony of crossed lines. What is audible to her is intonation, the grain of those theoretical voices. Put less metaphorically: the way professors dress and talk, the stylistic alternatives they offer.

The same admixture of the high theoretical and the personal animates a moment in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad:

“What on earth have you got in that backpack?”

It’s Cora, Lou’s travel agent. She hates Mindy, but Mindy doesn’t take it personally — it’s Structural Hatred, a term she coined herself and is finding highly useful on this trip. A single woman in her forties who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the thready sinews of her neck will structurally despise the 23-year-old girlfriend of a powerful male who not only employs said middle-aged female but is paying her way on this trip.

“Anthropology books,” she tells Cora.

“I’m in the PhD program at Berkeley.”

Older and more self-assured than Tassie, Egan’s Mindy is able to apply Theory directly — here, by using Lévi-Strauss to make sense of a complex adult triangle. She is beginning to intuit the promise of using Theory to read situations in her everyday life: “Mindy has even wondered if her insights on the link between social structure and emotional response could amount to more than a rehash of Lévi-Strauss — a refinement; a contemporary application.” But applying Theory to the self, rather than simply being struck by its strangeness, is just another stage: “She’s only in her second year of coursework.”

For decades it’s been easy to trace the impact of Theory on the novel, but largely in the novel’s more experimental or formally innovative reaches; for instance, among the Theoretically sanctioned practitioners of the nouveau roman (Robbe-Grillet, Sollers, Sarraute), or the Anglo-Americans who, after the late ’70s, seemed intent on adding the torque of Theory to their own narrative twists (from DeLillo to late Pynchon, Winterson, Foster Wallace, Tom McCarthy, et alia). There still exists a robust cottage industry — exemplified recently in Judith Ryan’s The Novel After Theory — eager to explain how the contemporary novel has been making room for Theory, draining it of its rebarbative terminology (and much of its snob allure), putting it into concrete situations. It’s a vision of a strangely conservative and undialectical postmodern utopia, in which novelists and critical theorists would march hand in hand, each new theoretical vista finding its narrative mate, while syllabi virtually constructed themselves.

This rather boring, seemingly “advanced” idea — that Theory would alter the novel’s very DNA, so that it would no longer be possible to write fiction the same old way — may hold good for writers working in a recognizably high-postmodern fashion. But now comes a wave of fiction that tells a more complicated, less academically consecrated story. Theory, it turns out, might be most interesting not when it changes the form of fiction, but when it becomes an uneasy part of fiction’s content. In recent novels by college graduates of the late 1970s or 1980s — Egan, Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte — and younger writers, such as Teju Cole and Ben Lerner, Theory is judged from within the forms it tried to dismantle (psychological realism; the bildungsroman), by criteria Theory could only recognize as regressive or naïve: What kind of a person does Theory make? What did it once mean to have read theorists? What does it mean now? How does Theory help you hold a job? Deal with lovers, children, bosses, and parents? Decide between the restricted alternatives of adulthood? If novelistic realism aspires to be a history of the present, that present now includes — in the educations of writers themselves — the Theory that relegates novelistic realism to the past.

So far, two responses to this trend are apparent. The first — common to much of the publicity surrounding The Marriage Plot; listen, if you can stand it, to Terry Gross’s gleeful sneering about “tropes and signs” in her interview with Eugenides — is a desire to have these novels confirm the story of Theory’s demise or comic irrelevance, so that we may once and for all consign Theory to the vast bin of ’80s kitsch, along with Duran Duran and shoulder pads. The second, more sensitive response welcomes a realist appraisal of people steeped in Theory. James Wood, praising Teju Cole’s Open City in the New Yorker, singled out Cole’s ability to show deep reading in critical theory (Barthes, Benjamin, Said, Deleuze, de Man, and more) as “simply and naturally part of the whole context of a person.”

The problem is that these novels aren’t at all sure that Theory can be outgrown like fashion; that, having learned about “tropes and signs,” one can easily dispense with that knowledge. Taken seriously — and for the most part these novelists take Theory with all the seriousness one might wish, often to the point of comic effect — Theory explodes the idea that we might know any “whole context” of ourselves. These novels don’t entirely regret, nor do they entirely accept, Theory; they satirize it with unease. It’s a register best indicated by the double negative, a perfect example of which is the ruefully perplexed formulation from Lipsyte’s The Ask, describing — what else? — the narrator Milo’s college days: “We drank local beer, smoked homegrown and shake. We used words like ‘systemic,’ ‘interpellate,’ ‘apparatus,’ ‘intervention.’ It wasn’t bullshit, I remember thinking at the time. It just wasn’t not bullshit.”

Of course, it would be a mistake to see the realist novel as somehow anti-intellectual, incapable of engaging with ideas. In fact, the list of ideas that the novel has comfortably swallowed is motley and daunting. Associationist psychology (Tristram Shandy); evolutionary biology (Middlemarch, Tess of the D’Urbervilles); finance capitalism (The Way We Live Now, JR); psychoanalysis (Confessions of Zeno); post-Newtonian physics (The Crying of Lot 49) — realism has stretched to include these realms and countless others, many of which — like midcentury existentialism — became standard elements of American humanistic education. Call them the Ideas of Our Times.

Now think of the much smaller set of ideas that realism can’t readily swallow but can only portray, usually through emblematic, almost allegorical characters, because these ideas are poised against realism itself: convulsive, revolutionary political energy; transformative religious fervor. Call these the great Others of realism, recurrently ready to find realism’s small-scale focus and individual humanism either complicit or weak. To which set does Theory (be it of poststructuralist, rhizomatic, or Frankfurt-school coloration) belong?

A good comparison might be found in the great Russian realists of the 19th century. Nihilism in Turgenev or utilitarian utopianism in Dostoevsky: these aren’t ideas that the novel has to, or even can, assimilate; it can only acknowledge their existence. Turgenev’s Bazarov and Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin implicitly reject the assumptions — liberal, individual, psychological, ameliorative — of the form in which they are rendered. The very idea of novel-writing, in the world as they conceive it, is regressive in the extreme: thus Bazarov dismisses the Schiller and Goethe of Nikolai Kirsanov, his friend’s father, and expresses his preference for the materialism of Ludwig Büchner’s Stoff und Kraft. These characters and the ideas they incarnate are at least potentially like Theory: they stem from a new, fringe kind of education, hostile to what they perceive as the backwardness of novelistic narration, and speak for an understanding of the world that would make nonsense of the (novelistic) individual. The novel responds accordingly by plotting their demise while allowing us some lingering attachment to these doomed rebels; thus the logic of plot and that of human experience are seen to cohere in “the way of the world.”

But do the Theory-trained characters of novels like The Corrections, The Ask, or The Marriage Plot possess anything close to the demonic energy of a nihilist like Bazarov? You can imagine them talking to Bazarov — even agreeing with him most of the time — but by comparison they seem harmless, at the mercy of the world Theory has equipped them to deconstruct. Temperamentally they seem closer to Tolstoy’s kind-hearted searchers; Theory is for them like Freemasonry for Pierre Bezukhov, a seductive phase of education that is finally too cultish and self-enclosed to make sense of the world’s upheavals. Or perhaps it’s more like homosexuality in Evelyn Waugh: a maturational phase that has to be abandoned in order to take one’s place in the social order. (The Ask‘s Milo, again, on his college education: “I learned about late capitalism. And how to snort heroin.” To which his interlocutor, a streetwise and profane older lawyer, says: “Did they teach you anything about being a man while you were learning about late capitalism, whatever the fuck that is?”) Does Theory threaten to break apart the norms of the realist world, or do we just need to wait for these characters to outgrow their reading?

This is the odd space these Theory Generation novels inhabit, making them peculiar novels of ideas.1 Their writers have read enough Theory at a young enough age to be in continued thrall to its power; they do justice to the disorienting shock those texts once had, and perhaps still have. Yet they are old enough to ironize (tenderly or bitterly) that power. Their depictions veer from caustic to nostalgic to regretful; their fictional readers of Theory are disappointed, maladaptive skeptics. It is as if the too-human frailty of these characters means that they fall short of the demands of Theory — a cunningly ironic demonstration (of a kind familiar from the entire history of realist fiction) that these demands might fall short of human needs.

If you had to pick the first shot in this conflict, you could do worse than reread the section in The Corrections in which Chip Lambert, former holder of an “assistant professorship in Textual Artifacts,” teacher of “Consuming Narratives,” lecturer on phallic anxiety in Tudor drama, and casualty of a drug-fueled affair with an undergraduate, heads repeatedly to the Strand Bookstore to sell his large, costly collection of Theory. It is a miniature triumph of realist notation at its most aggressive. Starting with his Marxist theorists, whose collective sticker price of $3,900 is knocked down to $65, Chip works his way through “his feminists, his formalists, his structuralists, his poststructuralists, his Freudians, and his queers” to raise money for expensive dinners to impress a new girlfriend. Reduced at the end to “his beloved cultural historians,” Chip “piled his Foucault and Greenblatt and hooks and Poovey into shopping bags and sold them all for $115.” The pathetic, specific numbers, the terribly accurate roster of names (not just famous Continental names, but the kind of American academics that demonstrate Franzen’s realist-insidery expertise): this is what Theory is worth.

Scenes in which the vain things of this world are sold — auctions, foreclosures, negotiations with pawnbrokers — occur often in realist fiction, always expressing the hard principle that our ideals don’t translate into market terms. In the end, our fantasies or desires or self-delusions come to the bar, not of Truth, but of what others will give us for them.

Franzen (Swarthmore ’81), Eugenides (Brown ’83), Egan (Penn ’85), and Lipsyte (Brown ’90), among others, were well placed to observe the first vehement arrivals of Theorists in the classroom. Theory felt then — and perhaps still does, in a more routinized way — as esoteric and mysterious and potentially demoralizing as any other adult experience that college promised. The battle seemed epic: it pitted the Makers of Things — poets, novelists — against the Unmakers of Ideologies. The price of entry to many humanistic disciplines, in many corners of America, was to choose the latter. Not that it was a hard choice. Everything around you — public discourse, social demands, economic ironies — demanded critique. “We were stuck between meanings,” The Ask‘s Milo recalls. “Or we were the last dribbles of something. It was hard to figure. The fall of the Soviet Union, this was, the death of analog. The beginning of aggressively marketed nachos.”

Among other things, it was the moment — call it the long 1980s — when the American university, no longer content to describe or study the socially critical function that artistic avant-gardes had claimed as their own for over a century, became itself the host for the avant-garde. This was literally the case — universities began to house and pay significant European thinkers at the moment their influence in their native lands began to wane. Unlike their predecessors who arrived before and during World War II, figures such as Derrida did not come merely to wait out a conflict. Instead they came to conquer, with newly formed journals, reshaped departments, grad-student protégés and acolytes, and translations produced by university presses and read in pedagogical contexts. The result was the institutionalization of Theory, its submission to the logic of an academic market that demanded regular infusions of new insight; but it was also the transformation of the institution itself, which now began to think of itself as ineluctably avant-garde in function.

There were ironies. Among the cheapest was the complaint that these theoretical avant-gardistes were, thanks to employment and tenure, comfortably middle-class — a complaint that ignores the long tendency of Western modernity to remunerate its critics. The more potent irony was that by transforming itself into an engine for critique, the academy ceased to believe in the goal of socialization — making good citizens — that was still one of its functions. (As Richard Rorty had it, the price higher education paid to keep this irony unexamined was to cede secondary education to conservatives.) At the center of this irony was the liberal arts student, tasked with learning to critique social norms before having consciously or fully lived them. It is both socially and aesthetically significant that so much recent virtuoso realism has come from writers who were undergraduates at precisely this moment, often in the places where Theory had most prestige.

To combat claims that realism was a source of critical knowledge — be it knowledge in the mode of Zola’s gritty naturalism, or Henry James’s more psychologized motto, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost” — Theory made a sneaky move in the game by claiming to speak for true critique. The critique of realism — the naïveté of its faith in representation; its complicity with banal cultural narratives — was leavened by the sneaking fondness for realism that theorists themselves, even the most canonical, exhibited. Recall Barthes on Flaubert, Deleuze or Kristeva on Proust, Adorno on Balzac, Jameson on Gissing. Jameson in particular devoted himself to a patient explanation of how, in a certain historical moment, realism served a critical function, however distant that moment might now be.

For the student, it didn’t take much insight to see that realism was to be pitied. Dismissed as (pick your favorite) politically inert, bourgeois, retrograde; just another series of conventions and codes, mannered and risible as local TV news; or — worst of all — sheerly middlebrow, realism could match neither the smooth avant-gardiste whose visible disdain for the rest of the party attracts admiring glances, nor the genre novelist whose belly laugh loosens up the room. A concern for everyday compromise, an interest in lyricism straitened by recognizable syntax, some sardonic humor, a bit of adultery, or debt: the creaky old realist novel was no one’s first choice to take home. It didn’t seem up to offering critique or getting us from one meaning to the next, unless it had Theory as a wingman.

By the end of the ’90s, the easy equation that Theory gave you — realism is a tool of capitalist rationality, a product and not an imaginative artifact, a tool of the status quo — had the feel of a truism. But once an argument hardens into a truism, a response is likely already underway. The Corrections provided an early version of this response. It isn’t hard to detect the buried affection for Theory in Franzen’s narration of Chip’s desperate liquidation sale. Theory is still an informing presence in these novels; they are, of course, stories about reification, alienation, and particularly — a term obsessively, if gingerly, employed — late capitalism. But by 2001, Theory had become — at least for students, ex-students, and academics — part of the furniture of their lives, in no need of defense and yet scarcely revolutionary. It was no longer the key to all the world’s things, but rather just another thing-in-the-world. This very banality was what Franzen drew upon: by becoming routine, Theory had gone from object of fear, or satire, or hero worship, to something novelistic. And the novel, particularly the kind that relied on social detail and individual destinies (and in the case of Franzen, on the bourgeois nuclear family), was spoiling for a fight, trying to win back its eclipsed prestige.

No small fact, then, that so many of these novels take the shape of the bildungsroman, that most antique of realist modes. The punctured innocence of Moore’s Tassie, the callowness of Egan’s Mindy — these are paradigmatic steps on the way to an education in Theory. First comes getting used to a style (of insouciance, strange combinations, rejection of middle-class norms); next is learning to use it to make sense of your own maturation. François Cusset coined the term bildungstheorie to describe how Theory operates in the American setting, and Moore and Egan — neither of whom have written novels explicitly about Theory; these are distinctly modern bildungsromane — know that Theory is now, for an American college graduate of a certain kind, part of the sociology of late adolescence. Theory is swallowed by the ordinary developmental processes that it so often sought to disrupt.

This is one way in which contemporary realism has its revenge on Theory: narrating it as just another part of growing up a college-educated American. The revenge, though, takes interesting tonal forms. Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot is full of details rendered with such tender mockery that they seem as affectionate as satirical: the formerly New Critical professor who had “met Roland Barthes at a dinner party and been converted, over cassoulet, to the new faith”; the student in the semiotics seminar who proclaims that “I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized”; the novel’s heroine waiting anxiously to hear the correct pronunciation of the names that were as yet only opaque signs (“Bart. So that was how you pronounced it”). Here Eugenides combats Theory in a register even more effective than Franzen’s satire: nostalgia. What do you do to Theory when you treat it fondly? You make it into one of the wonderful follies of youth: so good to have had them; so good to be beyond them.

Eugenides’s novel is suffused with affection: for its time, its characters, and their ideas; and his characters are remarkably affectionate with one another, as if already imagining themselves in a roseate future anterior. This fondness is not quite echoed by other recent novels of the Theory Generation. From other perspectives it seems less possible to look back fondly, because Theory and the thinking it occasions are still present, still haunting characters, still intervening inconveniently between cognition and action. Here, perhaps, the realist novel about Theory-readers gains its best traction. If — to take three excellent recent examples — the protagonists of The Ask, Open City, and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station aren’t living out the kind of traditional courtship and bildung narrative employed so knowingly in The Marriage Plot, it is because they’ve become so suspicious of plot that they refuse forward momentum. They wander, drop in and out of neighborhoods, cities, jobs, and relationships, finding experience itself only through a scrim of irony.

These are novels about consumers. These are people who are given to consuming books, particularly books about other books. It is entirely characteristic that, in the opening pages of Open City, the narrator Julius visits his aging college mentor, a Japanese-American scholar of medieval literature, then proceeds to the closing sale of the Lincoln Center Tower Records to go through the classical CD bins. These are receptive people — their characteristic act is taking in, choosing, evaluating, rejecting. Among the things they are choosing is a framework through which to apprehend the world. Theory doesn’t feel futuristic in these novels; in a slightly different register from The Marriage Plot, but with a similar temporal dynamic, it feels late, a voice from the past that only provokes dissatisfaction.

Consumption isn’t quite the heart of the matter, however. What allies Lipsyte’s Milo, Cole’s Julius, and Lerner’s Adam — a poet spending a desultory fellowship year in Spain, before and after the 2004 Madrid train bombings — is how fundamentally diagnostic they are. Theory has taught them to treat the world as a set of deceptive signs; they doubt, reflexively, the communications of others. (They aren’t always wrong to do so.) Lerner’s Adam even ruminates on the impossibility this condition creates for the novel:

And when I read the New York Times online, where it was always the deadliest day since the invasion began, I wondered if the incommensurability of language and experience was new, if my experience of my experience issued from a damaged life of pornography and privilege, if there were happy ages when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths, or if this division of experience into what could not be named and what could not be lived just was experience, for all people for all time. Either way, I promised myself, I would never write a novel.

The references to Adorno’s Minima Moralia (“damaged life”) and Lukács’s Theory of the Novel (“happy ages”) are not just grace notes but essential aspects of the dilemma: Adam has been thoroughly educated in a school of symptomology, and the phenomena of the world have become, as a result, a series of signs, not expressions or communications. Julius in Open City sees New York as suffering the neurosis of having repressed its violent, slaving past, which his education leads him constantly to unmask; he mistakes a “dark canvas sheeting on a construction scaffold, twirling in the wind” for “the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree.” Lerner’s novel circles restlessly around artistic experiences — poetry readings, museum visits, overheard songs — that provoke only a pained self-consciousness about how impossible it is to feel absorbed by them, as if what art now provides is occasion for ruminating on absent raptness. Eugenides, in a more obviously comic register, shows his characters relentlessly tripping over their autoskepticism: “More worryingly, Mitchell had to ask himself if he wasn’t being just as knee-jerk in resisting the charge of misogyny as college feminists were in leveling it, and if his resistance didn’t mean that he was, somewhere deep down, prone to misogyny himself. Why, after all, had he bought A Moveable Feast in the first place? Why, knowing what he did about Claire, had he decided to whip it out of his backpack at this particular moment? Why, in fact, had the phrase whip it out just occurred to him?” A relentless analytical drive, oriented toward the slippery nature of signs, is the constant mark of these novels, but it is a drive described and not reproduced. Realism depends upon faith, however tenuous, in the trustworthiness of signs. It isn’t a faith these protagonists can easily share, and so they lurk uncomfortably in their own novels. In the case of Cole’s Julius, whose novel ends by springing a sinister trapdoor, they may not even be aware of the most important elements of their own stories.

“I’m finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematized”: it’s a good joke. Semiotics was an exemplary introduction to Theory because it could so starkly diagnose the conventions — some of them innocuous, some of them harmful — that governed the smallest aspects of everyday life; and other avenues of Theory did, and still do, explain how those conventions came to be. Once you learned this habit of thought it was hard to forget it. You might never be as literal about it as Eugenides’s poor collegiate semiotician, but if you gave it more than a moment’s grudging attention, it changed you.

It could also change you into a spectator, an omniskeptic, leading a diluted affective existence. This is where the realism of the Theory Generation steps in to redress the balance, or at least to illustrate the dilemma. It’s a strange office for realist fiction. But if the death of the author, which these authors learned about in their college years, has spurred a response (We’re still here!), it has also spurred a new rationale for an old mode: to explore the consequences — in lost urgency, lost feeling, or lost expressiveness — of a life lived as a series of symptoms to be read.

Cole and Lerner are younger than the first wave of Theory Generation novelists, and the difference tells. Their novels are even looser in form than Franzen’s or Lipsyte’s or Moore’s, more solitary and lyrical in their first-person voices, less given to the comedy of social friction. They echo the monologic reveries of the self-consciously failed novels of formation from a century ago: Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Musil’s Young Törless, Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (it isn’t irrelevant that Lerner is better known as a poet), Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Kafka’s Amerika, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Erudite misfits, well-schooled and skeptical, who by taking their educations so seriously have disabled themselves from the supposed rewards of education: these figures stand for a social crisis in maturation, where the lessons of school — classical studies, militarism, scholastic theology, Kultur — no longer connect to effective socialization. So with Cole’s Julius and Lerner’s Adam: bookish and diffident, they are excellent products of Theory, insofar as they have been thoroughly acculturated into the culture of anti-acculturation. They do not seem to expect their educations to have equipped them for the world they face. Whereas Eugenides’s or Lipsyte’s characters are surprised by the disjunction, they take it as a given. Lipsyte is a contemporary master of the rant; Cole and Lerner tend toward reverie.

Tonio Kröger on his situation: “I stand between two worlds. I am at home in neither, and I suffer in consequence.” This might stand as a motto for any of the novels of the Theory Generation. Theory was, whatever its many internal disagreements and comic excesses, not just diagnostic but utopian — a training in interpreting the world as a path toward changing it. If it was meant to socialize you at all, it was meant to socialize you for the different world to come: a world of genuine difference genuinely encountered, a world less in thrall to the false gods of Normality and Pathology, a world that would be more transparent and, as a result, less painful. In their variously rueful ways, these novels remind us of the utopianism of Theory by writing its epitaph.

Because what does Theory do for its former students in these novels? It hasn’t prepared them for a new world; instead, it’s given them a way to survive, just barely, in the old one. Having learned well the poststructuralist critique of positions — the necessary exclusions and erasures by which any “position” is made possible — they are eminently flexible, admirably uncommitted ironists. Their novels leave them in temporary limbos that promise only more temporary limbos to come. Lipsyte’s Milo, having long abandoned painting, loses his white-collar development job and finds himself working for a local contractor. Lerner’s Adam floats through a fellowship, after which he will return to the US to nothing certain at all. The music industry that is the subject of Egan’s book doesn’t collapse so much as quietly shrink, undergoing what Mindy might call a “structural” adjustment. Theory, it turns out, is less intellectually powerful than emotionally useful; it habituates you to the anomic, precarious existence you were destined to lead in any case. It was like a drug after all: not hallucinogenic or mind-expanding, but rather pleasantly sedating.

Why such a low-stakes portrayal of what a humanistic education gives you? Because the habit of diagnostic, symptomatic analysis these characters embody is not defeated by the fiendishly well-encoded secrets of Capital or Power so much as rendered inert by a world without secrets, or symptoms, at all. Who needs to reveal the codes through which ideology speaks when ideology speaks plainly? When power dispenses with alibis? Or when power, in the form of Purdy, Milo’s college friend turned big-shot capitalist, speaks of his college gang like this: “They’ll think they are special and that they suffer in distinct ways, but they are all hurtling down the same world-historical funnel. They will attempt to professionalize their passions, or else just get jobs. Some will do better than others. Some won’t have to do better because of their trust funds. Despite what are often radically different fashion aesthetics, not to mention politics, they are all fundamentally the same.” Forget surfaces and codes, forget symptoms and ideological ruses, forget secrets and conspiracies: the ways in which these characters are exploited, used, manipulated, and discarded are as obvious as their all-too-human needs for a little comfort, a little belonging, a little safety. In that kind of world, less secure and polite than the world they were schooled in, hermeneutics scarcely registers as a skill; it’s at best a habit of self-soothing. It allows you to think that when you’re talked to this way, something else might be going on. The dark joke — and it’s a joke realism has always been good at making — is that nothing else is: the cynicism of power is just that cynical.

It’s an inversion that might be one of the signature ironies of these novels: Theory was right all along, just in the wrong ways. “Late capitalism”: can any concept be more germane to Milo’s unraveling life? “Discourse”: as Eugenides’s Madeleine slowly learns, it’s a useful shorthand for the illusion of our uniqueness, particularly the uniqueness of our ability to anatomize social discourses. “Damaged life”: nothing else expresses so well the woundedness of Adam, who invents fictional alibis for others — such as the “fascism” of his kind, liberal Midwestern father — to produce the symptom that’s not really there. Their narratives bear out what they were taught, but in far more literal form. If they took from their exquisitely expensive schooling an elegantly deconstructive cast of mind, what it turns out they needed was to have trusted Theory’s most reductive, blunt, brutally plain lessons instead. It’s a funny, eminently realist kind of warning: Forget the hermeneutics of suspicion. Remember what you’ve suspected all along — what, looking around you, you can hardly avoid suspecting. Be one of those on whom nothing, not even Theory, is lost.

  1. In addition to the writers already mentioned, the number of recent American novels that contain Theory-wise graduate students—Norman Rush’s Mating, Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening, Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and so on—is impressive. British novelists, by contrast, often take on Theory and theorists through the question of literary biography after the “death of the author,” as in A. S. Byatt’s Possession or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. For most American writers Theory is less a matter of how to think of a writer’s life than how to think of a student’s. 

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