Friday, June 10, 2011

First (and Last) Contact For Evan Mandery

Irony is a potent weapon in the writer’s critical and artistic arsenal.  However snark, the debased and juvenile distant cousin of irony, is the enemy of art.  Snark, a portmanteau word combining snide and remark, is a spoiler; it diminishes rather than elevates, cheapens rather than adds value, and appeals to the lowest common denominator.

These thoughts crossed my mind while reading First Contact: Or, It’s Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded) by Evan Mandery.  It is, if we need such a thing, a textbook example of everything that is wrong with snark.

Ostensibly a science fiction novel, Mandery’s attempt at irony in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut (in fact, in several instances of clumsy solipsism, the novelist points out the parallels between this book and the work Vonnegut) tells the story of a young presidential aide involved in the historic First Contact between human beings and an alien race.  Then, in the true province of snark, everything is cut down to size.  Alien civilizations are tacky mirror images of our own, human emotions are reduced to stupid misunderstandings, and the life is robbed of its meaning.

In addition, the book chokes on countless “humorous” asides that are simply not funny.  Midway through the novel, for example, the action stops as we are treated to a scene of an alien mother reading First Contact to her precocious two year old son, who criticizes the book mercilessly.  (He has our sympathy!)  Whether this is a defense mechanism on Mandery’s part – “gee, I know it’s lousy, too!” – or simply one of the many jokes that misfires, is unknown to your correspondent.  Indeed, the title of the book itself is also a humorous aside, as the story points out that the famous Monty Python parrot sketch is not included.

Here is a taste of one of Mandery’s asides: “At a certain level of abstraction, it is very difficult to draw a distinction between the class of pursuits that might be deemed worthwhile and those that would not.  If someone’s pastime were, say, feeding soup to the homeless, this would certainly strike me at first blush as more important than contriving interstellar car accidents.  But if one looks at things with the kind of angst-ridden, metaphysically paralyzed what-does-any-of-it-mean sensibility that underlies this book, then nothing really matters.  I mean, we are all going to die anyway, perhaps as soon as eighteen months if Fendle-Frinkle is right, and many homeless people don’t even like soup.  From this perspective, none of these choices make one bean of a difference.”

I’m sure legions of 14 year olds would find this piffle satisfying, but it is really ramshackle stuff.  It also hits precisely the underlying problem with snark – its complete and utter contempt for sincerity, for depth of emotion and for the rigor of true irony. 

Evan Mandery (born 1967) also peppers his novel with countless pop culture references to figures as disparate as Sinclair Lewis, Einstein and Teddy Roosevelt, as well as the usual assortment of musical tropes geared toward those who would argue the rock is somehow a valid art form: Sting, the Police, Green Day and the Beatles.  Sting, in fact, is mentioned often in passing, working on Sudoku puzzles, drinking tea and worrying about the environment.  There is no point, really, to any of these references, but it does help Mandery meet his page numbers.

There are those, I suppose, with a taste for this stuff.  However, one has the feeling after reading First Contact that one hasn’t really read anything.  Perhaps that’s the intent.  Snark, indeed!

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