Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Franzen again

I FIND MYSELF enjoying the discourse about Jonathan Franzen more than I enjoy Franzen's actual novels. The Corrections was a fine book -- an excellent book, even -- but, to me, a degree or two less compelling than the discourse around the Oprah flap, or the broadside against Gaddis and the counter-broadside from Ben Marcus, or that piece in Granta by his (then?) girlfriend, or the piece in The Believer by the slightly-younger writer who had grown up in the same suburb and feared that Franzen had exhausted or would exhaust her town's potential as subject for fiction. I was beginning to find Franzen as cultural counter just a little more interesting than Franzen as novelist.

Then. last summer and fall, the Freedom buzz. Proclaimed a masterpiece in the NYTBR, praised in Time for saving American fiction from the ponderous involutions of David Foster Wallace and the maundering preciosities of a thousand MFAs. A minority report from across the water, as the London Review of Books refuses to go along. Then a symposium in n + 1, four of the editors weighing in... and being funnier, smarter, and more interesting than Freedom itself. Again, the discourse about Freedom is a better novel than Freedom.

But this all may be premature. I haven't finished the damned thing.

Jonathan Franzen, _Freedom_ (interim report)

I HAVEN'T ACTUALLY finished this. I expect I will, perhaps in May, but I got through Patty Berglund's autobiography and decided to give the novel a rest for a bit. As I read, I was increasingly bothered that Patty, supposedly a person who writes and reads little, is a masterful stylist. Occasionally Franzen gives her a clunky, graceless passage, but more often she writes like someone who has devoted her life to shaping sentences and structuring narratives... which, in the realm of the novel, she has not. Her discourse is that of a person who could not conceivably exist. Interesting though her circumstances and conflict are, the further along I read, the more Patty seemed as fabulous as a hippogriff.

I imagine readers are not supposed to notice how well Patty writes, as we are not supposed to notice that Shakespeare's characters have mastered blank verse. A suspension-of-disbelief sort of thing. Okay, but didn't Bakhtin show us that the novel-ness of the novel lay in its self-awareness about its own discourses?