For foe of irony, an unexpected twist

Young author remains detached about his sudden, surprising fame.

Conversations

October 17, 1999|By Robin T. Reid | Robin T. Reid,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Perhaps nobody has been more stunned by the reaction to Jedediah Purdy's "For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today" than the author himself. The 35,000-copy first printing of the slim volume, which calls for a retreat from the irony and cynicism that pervade modern culture, sold out within weeks of its debut last month. Reviews have run the gamut, from calling the book "the kind ... one finds oneself recommending unreservedly" to "arduous" and "self-righteous."

"The sheer magnitude of the attention that it's gotten has been a surprise," Purdy says, sitting near his old dorm at Harvard University on a sunny fall day recently. "I didn't realize that it puts you in the whole spin cycle of personal notoriety ... which is suddenly now paying a very aggressive kind of attention to me."

The attention doesn't seem to have gone to his head. The 24-year-old law student still drives a used Nissan, shares a house in New Haven, Conn., with two other Yale students, and thinks about life beyond the book.

Born and raised on a farm in West Virginia, Purdy and his younger sister, Hannah, studied at home until high school. Purdy went on to the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, returned to West Virginia after graduation to work in environmental politics, then attended Harvard. Upon finishing, he began writing essays for the progressive American Prospect political magazine. It was there he got the idea for his book.

With all the buzz about your book, there's a chance you could become the poster boy for anti-irony and get called to appear on Sunday morning talk shows.

Being a poster boy for the royal and benevolent order of the humorless is a very unattractive thought. Playing the packaged pundit game is a really bad business; it's undignified for the people who do it, and it's recognized as a game by the people who watch. ... I think I've said my piece about irony. The worst thing that can happen is to get a shtick and do it year after year.

So, what are you going to do after law school?

There's a good chance that I'll clerk for a judge. ... In the long run, the abstract aim is that I'd really like to make practical work reciprocal with writing and thinking. I find that people who teach anything other than pure ideas and have been out in the world among the things that they're talking about are infinitely more impressive than people who have only read about them. My friends who are doing community organizing in their home cities and working in innovative urban policy ... seem to be doing really great work. I can imagine doing that sort of thing too with a really good governor in West Virginia or in any number of other settings.

Getting back to irony, can it be good?

Irony generally is a friend of the human spirit.

So when is it good?

When it's smart. Here at Harvard ... students who work on labor issues showed up on the stage of a university event and awarded the president of the university the "worst employer of the year" award for refusing to acknowledge a living wage campaign ... and outsourcing a lot of maintenance jobs to low-wage, no-benefit companies. That's the kind of irony that unsettles complacency and punctures pretense.

In your book, you call Jerry Seinfeld "irony incarnate," a sort of symbol for the detachment that you find so counterproductive today. Who do you think is funny?

I don't dislike Seinfeld, and I hope he knows I wasn't trying to vilify him. He's just so incredibly useful when you're trying to describe the manner. I really like the Firesign Theater [an improv group popular in the 1970s] and that wonderful free-association absurdity. I like Monty Python; "Life of Brian" is great.

If you could spend the day with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you do?

If I just wanted rich conversation, I'd spend the day walking around West Virginia with [19th-century American essayist Henry David] Thoreau and see what he'd notice. I'd also like to spend the day with Jesus. I'd ask about the Son of God thing, whether he's down with that or whether it's something they just made up about him. ... I'd like to walk around Manhattan with [16th-century French essayist Michel de] Montaigne and see what someone who took such rich sensual pleasure in variety as he did would think of the melange of faces, textures and tastes. I think he might get a kick out of it.

What do you do for fun?

Very occasionally, I go out dancing. I just kind of jump around and grin. I don't have a lot of style and grace, but I do have a lot of enthusiasm. I ride my bicycle; I like the feeling of exercise. And I like to cook, but I'm not that good. I can make a few Indian dishes, and potato soup.

Do you watch TV?

I do have a TV, and I've only seen it on once. [His housemates] were watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which I've never watched. But since my experiences with my book, I'm trying to be careful not to develop opinions about things beforehand."

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