Betty Duffy

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Am I Reading This?

I’m not sure why I keep reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels. They make me feel dirty, like I need to take a bath—but read I must. I feel like my Grandma when she used to get stuck with the remote in her hand in front of an episode of Dukes of Hazzard, “This is awful!” she’d say, “Turn this off!” all the time, unwilling to make the connection that the power to look away was at her own fingertips.

Part of the problem is that in spite of Franzen’s tired complaints about the growing irrelevance of reading and novels in the face of technological progress, he still gets his face on the cover of Time Magazine, and his novels into the hands of the President of the United States. He’s literary jester to the king, and I sort of feel like it’s my duty as a concerned citizen to know what the king is reading, so I picked up Freedom at the library the other day (oddly, it was not checked out in my small town).

It’s rare that a book holds my attention for protracted periods of time over a series of days, but this book has, like his novel The Corrections before it. In The Corrections, I really was impressed with Franzen’s drawing of the older Midwestern couple—the Dad suffering from Parkinson’s disease, the Mom suffering from an empty nest. These two characters were recognizable to me, and managed to draw my affection. But the other characters in the book, the one’s more like Franzen himself, one presumes, as they share his age, geography, and class demographics, were not only rather bland, but at times impossible to like.

Freedom suffers from similarly unlikable characters, only without any likable characters to offer relief. An interview in the Telegraph UK reads, “In Freedom, (Franzen) says he moved into uncharted territory, mostly drawing his characters out of thin air. ‘There was extra work involved in making them very specifically not me.’” I’m not sure that extra work paid off.

I was trying to figure out why, with the alleged “sprawling” themes of this book, his characters still feel so narrow. Having read, now two of his novels, plus quite a bit of his non-fiction, I think it’s because each character in Freedom feels a little bit Franzen and nothing else. Hence, there’s neurotic Franzen, then earnest Franzen, cool Franzen, rebellious Franzen, etc. each a one-dimensional caricature of the author’s worst selves (as revealed in print).

The book revolves around the marriage of Patty and Walter, two forty-something liberals in St Paul Minnesota. The problems begin, obviously, with their names. Patty? And Walter? I’m not buying it. I realize that at this very moment, ironic hipsters are naming their firstborn sons Walter, and should Franzen have children of his own, he, too, might choose the names Walter and Patty. But for a grown man, in his forties in the year 2005 to be named Walter, and to go by Walter, and not Wally—it’s just too cute.

But that is, of course, the least of these characters' troubles. An even greater problem is the failure of these characters’ voices to differentiate one from another. The ironic quips of Walter’s college friend, Richard, with whom Patty has an affair, could just as easily have come from Patty herself if she were a fully drawn character capable of variant moods and modes. But she’s not. She only has two modes, in control and out of control, so she has to resort to sleeping with ironic cool.

The dialogue in the book is insipid blog speak, “like, you know?” There’s not a question asked in the book that a character doesn’t answer with another sarcastic question. I suppose we could know our characters by the sermons they give on topics like the environment, overpopulation, conservation, or the war in Iraq—except, no, they all tow a predictable party line—and the fact that characters are giving sermons, is in itself an irritation. The novel does, in fact, read at times like a really long, slightly above average, blog post. (I am, apparently, an avid reader and writer of blogs, however, which might explain a bit about why I still have my nose in this book, and why a culture that Franzen asserts is too busy with their technology to read novels has made this book a best-seller.)

The best Franzen can do to diversify his characters is to let us know how exactly each one of them likes to screw, or be screwed as the case may be. But even the sex in the book—and there’s a lot of it—is so sterile and banal it seems to take on a discovery channel flavor of mammalian sexual behavior. Needless to say, not a soul is conceived from all this sex (as of yet—there might be a contraception failure later on).

So why do I keep reading? Because it feels good to get angry? Because I want to know why this is considered “literary” fiction? Because Obama called it “terrific?” Because I’m concerned about a culture that produces characters who are so consistently dull, selfish and homogenous? Or because I’ve spent the weekend in an aerosol Franzen can and I have to keep reading until all of these pressurized, but depressed, contents explode?

I read this morning in Magnificat, “ ‘Life is not a tragedy. Tragedy is what makes everything amount to nothing. Yes, life is a drama. It is dramatic because it is the relationship between our I and the You of God, our I that must follow the steps which God indicates” (L. Giussani). It is this Presence, this You that makes circumstances change, because without this You everything would be nothing, everything would be a step toward an ever darker tragedy.”

I think that quote sums up nicely how a book like Freedom can touch on all the topics of the day over an expanse of about twenty years and say very little. No God, no guilt, no critical tension equals a literary tragedy as well as an eternal one.

The moral--because Franzen intends for this book to teach us something--is please, people of God and goodwill, start writing literary novels.


wifemotherexpletive said...

so, get to it.

Minonda said...

Why don't you stop reading it and wasting time blogging about it?

Marie said...

This is going to come off as self-serving and self-excusing, which is probably is, but I think literary long ago was lost to anything good. Not that something good can't sneak in there, or be snuck in there. Maybe an author is covertly thoughtful, maybe an author in meaning to be nihilisticly repetitive and repetitively nihilistic accidentally lets us glimpse a little real life because before she sat down to write that morning she choked a little on her bagel and a touch of thinking beyond came unbidden and then showed up later. But overall, it seems to me that literary has become pretty much just formula writing with the right jargon.

Not that I read, or anything, so I should shut up.

The person I knew in school that made it big time ish literarily did so by working for Larry Flynt and then writing novels about how awful men and republicans were, bunch of rapists the lot of them, including men like her own infant son.

So, green eyed monster here, I'm sure.

Still, until small and truly independent presses start living again, and good writers (as in writers who can do the craft) start using them, I'm wary of anything literary.

TS said...

Thanks for reading Franzen so I don't have to!

Re: They make me feel dirty, like I need to take a bath—but read I must.

I felt that way while reading Super Sad True Love Story.

Peter and Nancy said...

Your post made me think about other literary novels . . . something lacking in them is any quality of redemption. Or hope. I usually end up with an empty feeling, that doesn't seem to allign with the sense of possibility that exists in even the grimmest circumstances when God is present. I think that is one symptom of our current culture's distance from Christ.

BettyDuffy said...

Marie, I too have wondered if the literary ship has sailed. Though occasionally you come across a writer like Yiyun Li, who is both smart and true, and is working with some really good material (Steven Riddle writes more on Li at his blog A Momentary Taste of Being). But the average American story, which I think Franzen has endeavored to write, is either too dull in real life to warrant the pages, or else just too dull in Franzen's hands.

Nancy, yes. I am a sucker for redemption, and rarely does modern lit satisfy. I wanted to write more about The Edge of Sadness, because even though relatively little happened in it, it was so meditative and yet uplifting--mostly because God was a plot presence in the book.

Margie said...

I couldn't finish The Corrections. It was all too hopeless. The choices the characters made were bad, or worse. I want more struggle with morality, and people who want to do the right thing, in spite of the difficulty or conflict - internal and external - it might cause. But if Franzen writes about America, and his characters are America today, we're sunk. He writes about a world and people I don't know. If I did, if they were my friends, I'd be suicidal.

Amy Welborn said...

Hah. I looked at the floor next to bed today, saw my copy of Freedom and realized that it's been sitting there for two weeks and I had completely forgotten to finish reading it. I put it down after about 150 pages because of other reading obligations, and then...just...forgot.

Melissa said...

You are not alone...Franzen's famous broad canvas made for a very shallow read. The language was banal as well.

I'm really just dropping by to say that even though I'm coming from a very different faith perspective to yours, I'm enjoying your blog very much. You have a good handle on your tone/style. I thought you might like to know that your writing isn't just 'preaching to the choir'.

BettyDuffy said...

Margie, I agree with your assessment of the Corrections. Same goes for Freedom. There are a few characters who want to be "good people" but it's very difficult to pinpoint what "good" might be. And even if you could define it, there's no authority to justify it, except the character's own authority, which is no authority, because they undermine it with every ridiculous decision they make. Maybe this is the point Franzen wants to make? I sort of doubt it though, in light of his characters' adamant (and at times offensive) rejection of conventional authorities in other parts of the book. For instance, one character--the only supposedly nice and good character in the book--believes that the Pope is responsible for overpopulation because he keeps making people have babies--as though millions of mindless Catholics are held to their beds at gunpoint. Or worse, they have no freewill and just mosey around under the Pope's authority like Bessy the moo-cow. I suspect, actually, that Franzen's motivation for writing this "Social Novel" was to get people freaked out about overpopulation--as that's the one theme that keeps coming back throughout this book--DO NO LET YOUR SEX YIELD CHILDEN. And he's said in interviews that he refuses to have kids because that might inhibit his novel writing gift. Gift?

Amy, I was actually really looking forward to your alluded to strong feelings on the book, but as the weeks went by, I figured you had probably had the wherewithal to put the book down. I should do the same, but I'm sort of enjoying being riled up about it. And, I'm close to finishing it...

Melissa, thanks for you comment. I am glad to know that.

Otepoti said...

So, to move the conversation on (i.e., take it off-topic), what do we think about the novels of Anne Tyler?

I think they're terrific, amazing work. The moral compass in them points true, but not tiresomely so.

"Ladder of Years" - what a book.

Pity I don't have time to read now. I'd read the Tyler canon again, start to finish.

Best wishes.

Otepoti said...

Actually, it's "Patchwork Planet" that I liked so much.


JMB said...

I haven't read anything by Franzen ever. But I did feel dirty reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". I also couldn't believe that so many people recommended the book to me, and RAVED about it. I just thought it was sick, and poorly written. There are so many good novels out there, it just seems slothful to waste time reading the bad ones.

Karly said...

I haven't read any Franzen, but on the subject of redemptive and worthwhile contemporary novels, have to put my two cents in for Zadie Smith's "On Beauty." Or at least for me the book seems to end on a redemptive note.

I will check out The Edge of Sadness, though, and would love to hear your take on Gilead, another meditate and uplifting book where God pretty much is the whole plot.

Tracy @Magnolia Cul-de-Sac said...

I haven't read it, but after reading your half-review and also the review in the November First Things by Ross Douthat, I know I don't need to. Douthat has an interesting point about why modern, broad, saga-ish literary novels all seem dully the same and are rarer and rarer.

The Sojourner said...

Funny story: I'd never heard of Franzen before in my life, and then read about him twice today.

From what I've heard, I don't exactly want to jump up and read him.

Also, I'm writing a novel as fast as I can here. (And there is redemption! But hopefully with characters who do need redeeming, and are not treacly cutouts who have a token little moment of "God is speaking to me and now I am doing a complete 180 in 5 pages".) I don't know if it meets your request for literary novels, but it might be fun anyway, if I ever finish it. Senior year might eat me first.

Darwin said...

Well, November is supposed to be national novel writing month, perhaps you need to take up the duty or reviving the literary novel for us.


BettyDuffy said...

A novel in November? DONE!

Alishia said...

I have the opposite problem. I couldn't get through Corrections. The problem being that those kind of books are so available. Then I find myself reading Sarah Orne Jewett--one of Willa Cather's favorite authors. And I find that I am ravenous for her writing. But there isn't much of it around.

Gina said...

Most contemporary writers that have been published seem to have trouble writing outside of the box. I believe it's because publishers don't like to take risks. They print the same stories over and over because they sell. If they publish something against formula they are taking a risk that (because most companies these days fly by the seats of their pants) just might put them out of business. It's the same across entertainment. They just aren't budgeting for the "new voice". There is the occasional exception, but they're exactly that: exceptions.

The breakout novelist--much like the breakout musician, film maker, actor, playwright, composer--are just not given the opportunities unless they have the same look and feel as what's succeeded before.

Good literature takes risks.