Hipster's Complaint

I’m probably going to conflate a bunch of different social and literary trends in this post. You’ve been warned.

Responding to Dara’s post on why we ought to care about hipsters, James asks:

The question… is whether a damn good novel — to say nothing of a great American novel — can be written about The Hipster Habitus. If the answer is no, there really is something qualitatively more ‘worried’ — and worrisome — about Hipsteria than ephemeral youth niche identities of yore.

I think Keith Gessen tried, though I don’t think his novel rose to the level of “damn good,” and it certainly wasn’t a “great American novel.” But I think we may already have a good model for what such a novel would look like: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Here’s a novel about an arrogant, self-deprecating young New York striver who ( much to his parents’ dismay) gives up on God, dates a ditzy model, has a threesome (twice!), rabidly pursues his sexual obsessions, feels guilty about his sex life, brags about his IQ, stands up for socialism, takes a job in public service, and so on and so forth.

It’s the hipster habitus, nearly in full; all that’s missing, really, is the indie rock and internet. In fact, Portnoy’s Complaint may actually already be the great American hipster novel. From a stylistic perspective, it seems to have helped capture and set the tone for indie/bloggy snark: All those exclamation points! And italics! The hysteria and snideness! The manic self-examination and self-deprecation! Take this passage, for example, in which Alexander Portnoy relays his wonder at the gentle way the family of one of his college girlfriends converses.

“Good morning,” as he uses it, refers specifically to the hours between eight a.m. and twelve noon. I’d never thought of it that way before. He wants the hours between eight and twelve to be good, which is to say, enjoyable, pleasurable, beneficial! We are all of us wishing each other four hours of pleasure and accomplishment. Why, that’s terrific! Hey, that’s very nice! Good morning! And the same applies to “Good afternoon”! And “Good evening”! And “Good night”! My God! The English language is a form of communication! Conversation isn’t just crossfire where you shoot and get shot at! Where you’ve got to duck for your life and aim to kill! Words aren’t only bombs and bullets — not, they’re little gifts, containing meanings!

Yes, the passage is intended to amusingly evoke a young New York Jew’s marvel at the politesse of a Midwestern Christian family. But it also nails the rapid-fire back and forth of hipsterish New York blogs like Gawker. So insofar as Gawker and its ilk are currently the prime cultivators of hipster rhetoric, Portnoy’s Complaint seems to be present-day hipsterdom’s predecessor and a key influence on its literary and stylistic obsessions. And if someone were to write a great novel of hipsterdom today, I suspect there’d be more than a few similarities to the complaints of Alexander Portnoy.