Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Problem of Jonathan Franzen

I met a demi-puppet writer at Dirty Frank's several weeks ago. After winning (to his surprise) a bet with him about Ingemar Bergman movies; after listening for two hours to his praise of contemporary establishment novelists, I bet the character five dollars that I could write a better novel than Franzen's The Corrections.

The question is whether I'll ever have nine years, as Franzen did, to do nothing else but write such novel. I'd settle for nine months-- or nine weeks. (It's unlikely I'll have nine days.)

I have to admit I've never read The Corrections in its entirety. I've made half-a-dozen tries. The first several attempts I couldn't get past the detail disease of the first pages; a word-clotted dense mass of uninteresting verbiage.

I've since gotten further, not by much. "Chip," some kind of academy-dwelling 35 year-old adult Baby, is one of the most uninteresting characters ever written. After a few pages about drooling rich people we find stooge Chip at the airport waiting for Mom and Dad, pouting over the prospect like a ten year-old. I flip a few pages ahead. Chip, teaching at a university (what else?) has a crush on one of his arrogant female students. Chip stumbles around, carrying a book by Thorsten Veblen under his arm: his sole touchstone to understanding the world. He can't use experience as a guide; he's had none. He's been in the bubble of the fake programmed "ideas" of the institutional educational system his entire life. Very boring. A slow going slog indeed.

Something is funny about the setting. Franzen, who lived for a decade off grant money, is no long-time resident of universities. Why choose this role for his character? Will it obtain the immediate recognition and sympathy of the bulk of the literary community? Aha! Maybe Franzen is not quite as stupid as he appears. He knows that a mono-class of the overeducated dominates literature now.

Anyway, it's a terrible book. I've read ENOUGH of it to know that. An unending coagulated mass of literary shit. The Corrections is an expulsion of upper-middle class excrement. If it's accurate-- if these are the spineless confused febrile people who run this society-- then this country truly is doomed and one shouldn't feel too bad about the upcoming collapse. If our great America really has morphed into just a great collection of self-absorbed silliness; of decrepit rich old man Alfred and his no less mentally decrepit son, as portrayed by a mentally decrepit novelist, then the sleeper cells of crazed Islamic fanatics we're told about who are nauseated by the vomitry of our civilization should have an easy time of it. Arrogant women; weak men; encroaching academy-caused cultural senility afflicting male and female, young and old alike; people who believe in nothing, not even themselves. This the depressing picture given by the endlessly long endlessly detailed endlessly stultifying endlessly imbecilic first section of the highly-praised novel. Robotic characters dwelling in a robotic world. Stiff, mechanical, insular, with a few simplistic ideas thrown in to satisfy self-important demi-puppets who applaud themselves continually over their expensive educations.

Writing a better novel isn't the question. I could blindfold myself at one of Jelly Boy the Clown's carnival shows with pen and paper in front of me and come up with a better one-- some scrawled inscrutabilities in the resulting text, maybe, but with way more truth, energy, and hope.


Jeff D. said...
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Jeff D. said...

Yeah, so after reading “The Corrections” and “How to Be alone” (Franzen's collection of essays published a few years back) and reading a few interviews with the author, I fully agree that he perfectly embodies the pompous, overeducated elite, worried more about HIS megalomaniacal exposition stuffed with more multi-syllabic words than necessary (sort of like megalomaniacal).

But my only beef with your argument is that you say you could write a better novel than Franzen- in fact, you say it twice- but let your lack of time be your way out ("It's unlikely [you'll] have nine days"). Avoiding such hollow claims might lend your vitriol a bit more legitimacy. Regardless, carry on