Monday, November 21, 2011
Does Jonathan Franzen’s Nature Have Better Angels?
(x-posted to no effexor for franzen)
I’ll say this for Jonathan Franzen. At least his novels aren’t being invaded by five-year olds, and at least they don’t take us on an Important Odyssey through the major events of 20th Century European history. Also, they don’t play around with surreal versions of current events or probable versions of near-future events. In the past few weeks, I’ve read The Imperfectionists, The Ask, A Visit From The Goon Squad, and countless book reviews, and several things have become startlingly apparent to me.
1) Nobody cares, any longer, about the distinction between fantasy and reality, myself included. If you throw a talking panda or something into your novel, there’s no reason that you should be suddenly seized by anxiety about the fact that pandas can’t talk. In your novel, they do, and in every review of your novel, this strange occurrence will be noted. (Not that your novel can’t be about the distinction between fantasy and reality, or the feeling that “real” reality has gone missing. In fact, your novel should be about those things, because the sorts of people who spend money on novels read Lethem and Murakami.)
2) We are living in a post-Sophie’s Choice world. I read Sophie’s Choice as a senior in college, and I didn’t particularly like it, because it’s not a very good novel. The various stories and timelines don’t cohere; Stingo, the narrator, is largely peripheral to the major story. However, if one would like to write a Stunning Debut or one of this year’s Most Anticipated Follow-Ups, it is very important to split your novel between the present day, which is banal and full of cubicles, and the past, which is mysterious, dark (until everything gets illuminated), mythic, Nazi-haunted, and labyrinthine.
3) Writers have kids, and they love their kids, and their kids are precocious. All great things—but just be ready, because the little Egans and Lipsytes of the world are ready to crawl their way across many chapters, inevitably commenting with a sort of wry innocence on whatever makes the major characters most unhappy and/or pathetic.
ANYWAY, this is all a terrible digression away from my topic, which is how it feels to be about halfway through Freedom, which some people, notably Jonathan Franzen, have compared to War and Peace. It feels very strange.
Franzen is an incredibly talented writer. His prose just burns a hole right through the page. I would put him alongside writers like Marilynne Robinson and Jean Genet, who write such crystalline sentences that I always want to assign them in writing classes, were it not for the fact that Genet writes almost exclusively about explicit sex, and Marilynne Robinson writes almost exclusively about things that bore writing students.
The first thing that troubles me about Franzen is that his novels have characters, but weirdly few things or even settings. Sure, things appear for functional reasons—if a character needs to slash some tires, Franzen obliges with a nearby car—but they don’t acquire symbolic properties. The seasons rarely change. A character becomes a wine-swilling alcoholic without ever thinking about wineglasses. I know lots of people who drink enormous quantities of wine, and let me tell you, they think about their wineglasses constantly. I have feelings about my external hard drive, feelings about my iPod case, and feelings about the ancient ziploc bag that contains a dwindling amount of pipe tobacco ("Harbor Island” flavor). Patty reads War and Peace without commenting, even once, on what it feels like to hold and lug around a book of that size. Is it the new translation with the spunky, rough-cut pages? Is she reading it on a first generation Kindle, as appears to be the case? These are things we deserve to know.
This lack of symbolic places and things isn’t, I think, a random feature. It’s the sign of an imagination that, for lack of a better metaphor, isn’t fecund. Franzen’s mind has bad sex with objects.
I know. I’d apologize, but I can’t, because Freedom is a novel so overwhelmingly concerned with good and bad sex, up to and including one of the most offensive rape narratives I have ever encountered. (Poof! ...go Kugelmass’s dreams of one day assigning this novel to a class of writing students.) I think that Franzen is trying to be ironic when his character Patty reflects that her rape didn’t hurt as much as some of her daily windsprints. Because, of course, the emotional hurt is invisible, sometimes undetectable, and much worse, and she’s trying to protect herself by emphasizing what did or did not physically hurt. Patty’s emotional hurt is never addressed because of a political conspiracy between her parents and the perpetrator’s parents, both of whom, like most conspirators, ARE DEMOCRATS.
Maybe it’s a little ridiculous to live in a D. H. Lawrence world, where the whole universe is engaged in a sort of randy slow boil, and every meaning that is latent in every place and object seems to have been put there by Sigmund Freud. You don’t really need that kind of overblown vision to simply write, as Jennifer Egan does in Goon Squad, an outstanding scene about eating little flakes of gold. But maybe you do need some kind of Lawrentian/Reichian something to achieve that blessed intimacy with the world that flows through the veins of immortal literature, and to simultaneously be able to stop yourself from writing first this:
Walter tried everything he could think of to make sex better for her except the one thing that might conceivably have worked, which was to stop worrying about making it better for her and just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind.
And then this:
One thing the new plan can safely be said not to have included was leaving lunch half-eaten on the table and then finding her jeans on the floor and the crotch of her bathing suit wedged painfully to one side while he banged her into ecstasy against the innocently papered wall of Dorothy’s old living room, in full daylight and as wide awake as a human being could be. [...] This seemed to her, in any case, the first time in her life she’d properly had sex. A real eye-opener, as it were.
As it were. Or, perhaps, as it isn’t. I don’t have a huge issue with Franzen’s how-to manual for good sex, but this love triangle is of critical importance to his novel, and this particular definition of ecstasy seems to be at its core. Accompanying the ecstasy is the Man himself, Richard, who embodies a dialectical mixture of patience and hatred toward women. Franzen sprinkles bonbons like this into all of Richard’s conversations: “She could see his patience with her, his patience with a female, reach its end” or “He shut his eyes and grimaced as if trying to remain patient.”
I was already starting to worry, as I went merrily through the hilarious pages of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, that in a sense Lipsyte’s novel was going to end up being an extended love letter to the rich, unselfconscious man who sleeps with supermodels but still enjoys difficult rock albums...and I’m not entirely sure, at the time of this writing, that The Ask was ever more than 40% something else, something better. But at least it was joyful simply because it was so extravagantly, perfectly funny. From the way Franzen writes, it’s obvious that the sunlight in Minnesota doesn’t touch him very deeply, nor even the long months of merciless cold. There’s one scene where he references Goodnight Moon, and the reference just sits there, fitting and correct and witty and all that, but devoid of substance. Franzen is a writer! What does he want from Goodnight Moon that it can’t provide?! If I had to make a list of my favorite books, the list would go something like this:
1. Women in Love, by DH Lawrence
2. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
3. Goodnight Moon, by the author of Goodnight Moon
Sure, Patty is miserably depressed, and her life is empty, and in this post-millennial America it may feel quite often as though nothing remains to hope for, especially to well-educated people struggling with the horrors of affluence and job security. But the amazing thing is that, no matter how incredibly bleak existence becomes, the soft, Miles Davis-like melancholy of Goodnight Moon, with its easy rhymes and its clarinet purity, still manages to touch parents and children, and to send out, into those early nights of imposed bedtimes, an unlooked-for tenderness. Does Franzen not see that? I’ve been in cold places on very warm summer days, and let me tell you, the heat is amazing. It soaks into you. You wear it like a shirt. The lakes and ponds come out in all their jewelry.
It’s not Franzen’s obligation to be happy. Happiness doesn’t come just because a good warm day makes all kinds of promises. But at least people do stop and enjoy the possibility. It’s a real eye-opener, as it were. I understand that Franzen will accept nothing less than the total transfiguration of the world, the Richardization of everything occurring in seismic shockwaves until the Gore-Lieberman posters burst into flame, and the fire and the hedge roses are one. I just wish he didn’t confuse it with Patty’s son, Joey, becoming so much like Richard that he starts drifting toward Republicanism (which doesn’t even make sense, since Richard isn’t especially political). There’s always the alternative of Murakami, I guess. Maybe his characters are bigger fans of their iconic children’s book, Goodnight To Both Moons.