THE PROBLEM OF JONATHAN FRANZEN PART II
A Laundry List of Jonathan Franzen's Problems as a Novelist.
THE ABSENCE OF HEROES
The best novels contain strikingly memorable characters. The personalities in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, and The Octopus are real and more than real. The protagonists of The Count of Monete Cristo and The Great Gatsby vibrate with mystery. Novels give us characters who demand to be read.
This has been true of the best novels and always will be true. Jack Kerouac's novels radiate with the joy of heroes of contemporary life. Current underground novels Tales from the Texas Gang by Bill Blackolive, and Wred Fright's The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus, behind the action and comedy, are depictions of heroes. The authors see what's best in the humanity around them. In the tradition of Morte D'Arthur they collect this humanity in a gang or a rock band, then elevate it above the commonplace, giving our modern-day life meaning and purpose.
In Jonathan Franzen's famed novel we see none of this. There's no idealism, no mystery, no humor, no romance. Franzen is the purely objective writer. He objectifies his characters, and so his protagonist comes across as an android; his women as uninteresting objects, as a series of breasts.
It's a pessimistic mindset. This is how Franzen views life. There's no enthusiasm for people in his writing. (If he has none, how are his readers supposed to have any?) There's craft but no life in his sentences. His words just lay there, the resulting book a dead artifact.
We've all met charismatic persons animated far beyond the strictly material. One would hope we'd find them in the pages of literature, especially if we've paid $25 for the book!
The ULA was formed with individuals who are larger than life, including Blackolive, Fright, Jack Saunders, and Crazy Carl Robinson among them. We've added others. (Jessica Disobedience; Eric Broomfield; Frank Walsh!) Why would we settle for anything less from writing we espouse and admire?
THE ABSENCE OF MYTH
There's no depth to Jonathan Franzen's characters, no resonance to his narrative. What you see is what you get, aside from thin intellectualisms placed transparently ON TOP of the story he tells. (References to intellectual books.)
There are no superficial references in H. Rider Haggard's She, one of the most exciting novels ever written. There is an enormous amount of myth. The text presented is an essential part of the tale. Haggard, one of the first Europeans to travel through obscure parts of Africa, drew on historical legends of great African civilizations he'd heard about. He used the explorations of his adventurers as a metaphor for exploration of the subconscious. (She was a favorite novel of Freud and Jung.)
Haggard wasn't the only adventure writer to explore uncharted territory of the mind. Robert Louis Stevenson famously did so in "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," another story of unusual power. Scott Fitzgerald does it in Gatsby, the ambition of his main character expressed by Fitzgerald's description of the ambition of America itself.
The Great Gatsby is the story of a dreamer and has the atmosphere of a dream. The expression of dreams, journeys into the subconscious, are the substance of the most truthful art. This is why dreamlike children's movies like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Lili" reverberate also to adults.
Franzen's The Corrections can't be called a great work of art. His characters aren't heroic, they have no darkness, no depth, no dreams, no tragedy, no greatness-- and neither does their author, which is why I've mocked him as robotic. His people and settings are relentlessly uninteresting because they're relentlessly dead.
DESCRIPTION WITHOUT CONTEXT OR PURPOSE
This is shown in Franzen's descriptions, the perfunctory cataloging of material substance, little distinction between any of it. The cataloging isn't done in a way to bring his characters to life. The ring in a person's ear doesn't highlight the individual in our eye. The detail is added in the same way Franzen describes furniture. His characters become furniture to us. They contain no echoes, merely thin irritations or mechanistic wants.
This isn't simply because of Franzen's realism. James Gould Cozzens was a realistic writer without illusions, but his description was done with a purpose. He presented his characters within a context of a larger world. He carried greater intent as a novelist. The Corrections strives to carry large themes, yet everything is enacted and described on a tiny scale.
For all James Gould Cozzens's unflinching hardness, he created moments of myth, heroism, and surprise. (The sudden appearance of General Beal at the gun range in Guard of Honor is like the arrival of the Black Knight in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.) By elevating the system Cozzens describes, he elevates the flawed individuals stoically operating within it, giving their actions a sense of greatness.
There was a time when novelists weren't factory-produced automatons, but natural storytellers. Robert Louis Stevenson was called by South Pacific natives "Tusitala": Teller of Tales. Whether writing about detectives, pirates, or even bohemian artists in the hilarious novella "The Story of a Lie," Stevenson knew how to tell a story. There's a sense of adventure in all his works. The reader is eager to discover, "What happens next?"-- because of the enthusiasm Stevenson brought to his characters and settings. As all great novelists, he allows us to see every person, place, and plot with fresh eyes.
Enthusiasm isn't anywhere to be found in Franzen's The Corrections. The book is an expression of anti-enthusiasm. The characters move listlessly through a limbo-ed world, marooned among the mundane descriptive details of their environment; trapped in a dust-filled room with the rest of the furnishings. The people are affectless; with the pharmaceutical drug of the novel or without it. How could anyone ever tell the difference?
Which is fine if this is Franzen's goal-- but what reason does he give us to read his book? Fascinating characters? No. Great insight and knowledge? Little to be found. Compelling plot? Of course not!
The classic example of a storyteller achieving greatness as a novelist is Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers was enthusiastic and exciting; little else. When Dumas presents the same characters again many years later in The Vicomte de Braggelone the novelist has expanded in talent ten-fold. The tension of the interwoven threads of the story builds with irresistible force while at the same time Dumas presents the wide scope of society; the machinations of the political world. Amid the maneuverings, tragedies, and heart-racing excitement stands the iconic wearied soldier D'Artagnan, who represents in his person an entire code of life: an example to the other characters and to ourselves. The story is not narrowly constricted by details. It's expanded into a far-reaching experience of the world, of prisoners in dungeons and thrilling rides on horseback. It's spread further, deep into our hearts. The novel has reverberated through our souls with the enormous passion of its characters and the unrelenting power of the great story it tells.
Literature is the greatest art form because it has the greatest soul.
Film is being revolutionized through low-budget auteurs editing footage on the Internet; exemplified by Patrick King's promo ULA DVD "The Masked Professor," or by shocking works of realism and insanity like Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," which makes John Waters look like Walt Disney and every Hollywood filmmaker who lived appear to be standing in cement.
Underground writers are doing with literature what Caouette does with movies, taking words outside the refined restrictive box of academies and conglomerates into the crazed realism of the actual world. James Nowlan's Security destroys the pretenders of literature, this nation's conformist Benjamin Kunkels who think there's a rulebook for being transgressive or different; "Write Like Kafka in Five Easy Steps": endlessly imitative; who've never untethered themselves from their brainwashing long enough to be able to discover a new path, which a James Nowlan does without trying by being himself.
The difference between the pampered house pets of Approved Literature, and the wild beaten-up undomesticated article knocking over trash cans and crying on streetcorners is stark. The pets won't acknowledge our existence. How could they! Tagged and collared house cats resting on pillows on posh sofas in the mansion, well-scrubbed and brushed, they discourse among themselves with precisely modulated meows, mocking the "privileged few" who exist, somewhere, perhaps in the even larger house up the road. They know little about the harsh struggle of the outside world-- have pattered through it once or twice on bejeweled leashes in-between the constant brushing they endure in order to win ribbons at the next cat show.
Taken in their cages down the walk to the parked car to travel to the show, the pets shiver at the cold, and glance for a moment at eyes peering out from trees and bushes in the snow.
The authentic underground writer isn't fit for a cat show. Most of us are wacked-out to the max. Look at the teeth of a Frank Walsh, at his taped-up eyeglasses, at his workingman's hands representing decades of struggle, then read the unbought unregulated genius of his poems and prose and you'll see something is desperately wrong with the realm of Literature. It's a world of mansions of illusions of greatness; the ribboned pets at the show original and insightful only among themselves; staring arrogantly at one another from inside their cages as wealthy matrons gush over them, and their Masters move their cages about. The n+1 Abyssinians, who were briefly toward the back of the hall, causing frown-faced disgruntlement among them, are moved closer to the front. They notice a large Maine Coon in a fancy cage festooned with red and blue ribbons. Jonathan Franzen. They've arrived at the big-time, as designated by The New Yorker and the New York Times, who are there to cover the well-organized well-controlled event.
Do the pets know anything about being a cat? Is the Franzen animal, with correctly-spelled well-controlled sentences unlike what bedraggled James Nowlan does, really a great novelist?
Machine products like Franzen aren't natural writers. They're artificial creations, and so their creations likewise seem artificial. "I want to be a writer!" they say when they begin their training. "Turn me into one."
In a limited sense this can be done. The would-be writer works diligently on his story, in his workshop pounding the clunky object into shape, hammering out the rough spots, going through draft after draft, making it moderately readable, if not compelling, so that at the end of his labors the result resembles a story. It may even win awards, as stories of writers like Tom Beller and so many others have done, given by other well-trained lit writers able to spot the ably finished product absent snags or bumps, but lacking also emotion, opinion, force, and truth.
I'm reminded of an essay of mine about zeens published in Open City in the 1990's. Editor Beller tried to impose his unwieldy training, his stiff New Yorker standards, upon a zeen rant with its own internal rhythmns, its vastly different dynamics.
(Message to Van Gogh: "Paint inside the lines, please.")
The writing instructor: You can't write about this and you can't write about that!
ULA writers: Each has his or her own vision about what makes a story. They've developed their own art, by their lights, so what you see from each of them is unique, and when you put them together the reader is given not endless homogenization, but a kaleidoscope of standards, styles, and aesthetic ideas. We might be more likely to discover a Stephen Crane, a self-publisher whose writing was all over the place.
The instructor's voice barges in: "Stay inside the lines, sir. Please remain inside the lines!"
The epitomy of the literary writer is Jonathan Franzen. The quintessential establishment pet, diligently following direction and performing by the rules until finally being rewarded, after countless grants and advances, with large promotional backing for The Corrections. He does everything so well! The handlers are pleased with him. He writes with approved literary style and while he's at it throws in a (weak) imitation of meaning and ideas. His book justifies the entire expensive university/foundation/conglomerate process.
It looks like a novel. If you don't expect too much from the novels you buy, like great excitement and flow, it reads like one. Sort of.
Franzen is a Frankenstein monster, as is his book, put together in a laboratory with various accummulated parts. There it goes!-- out into the world, as its agents and editors look on proudly. Mechanically it travels across the landscape, up hills and down, arms swinging stiffly, eyes staring blankly ahead, the pages turning, turning, with great effort but turning all the same, a painful slog. The monster covers distance because it's inexhaustible, you can see it motoring slowly over the horizon, not sure where it's destined but continuing on, almost like a real person or a real novel.