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This review is taken from PN Review 150, Volume 29 Number 4, March - April 2003.


The irony about irony is that in contemporary society it is now so endemic that its essence, the gap between what is said and what is meant, has disappeared. Because it is now instantly detectable - Hemingway had his bullshit detector, we all have our irony sonar - irony is no longer really a literary device (most contemporary novels and stories are as sentimental as ever) but has become the preferred tool of literary advancement. For instance, David Eggers's title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is so obviously `ironic' that it actually becomes a blatant advertisement of Eggers's intentions in executing his fitfully affecting memoir. Used this way, irony becomes the last, narcissistic gasp of the artistic tradition of the cool which extends back at least to the nineteenth century flâneur. Hipsters with a difference, the modern flâneur doesn't really want to go for a walk.

So one approaches Ethan Paquin's new book warily since its title, The Makeshift, seems to be an Irony Alert. Obviously, a writer as self-consciously skilled as Paquin knows that his poems are not `makeshift'. But Paquin takes himself out of the ordinary run of post post-modernist ironists by poetically working through an exploration of the verbal and intellectual resources available to us in a world whose transitions may be greater than we think. While self-reflexive irony provides protective cover for most writers and critics, justifying their narcissism, what Paquin wants to do is to get back to the task of ...

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