Sunday, September 26, 2010

It’s a Hoax, Right?

IF Jonathan Franzen indeed used any of his ill-gotten 2002 NEA grant money on the writing of his novel Freedom, American taxpayers should ask for their money back.

I didn’t read the novel—it’s too expensive. I did stand in a chain bookstore for more than thirty minutes yesterday perusing a few chunks of it. I wanted to see if I was being fair to the book’s author. Maybe he’d surprise me. He did. The book is worse than I expected. The effect is like being promised a full course dinner, then when the cover to the silver platter on the dinner table is lifted you’re presented with a single pea.

I was looking for ideas. A book presented as a great novel should contain deep, sweeping, or striking ideas. The ideas in Freedom are so ridiculous that for a moment I wondered if I was being put on. I asked myself whether the work was a parody of a great novel. I considered whether the hyper-promotion accompanying the book’s publication was a giant hoax, like the hysteria of manmade global warming theory but on an only slightly smaller scale.

The problem isn’t merely that the discussions about issues are superficial and sophomoric, or that the issues are highly questionable—overpopulation, and the destruction of birds by cats!?! The issues are dramatically unexciting. They impinge only tangentially on the lives of the characters—or so it appears in my quick reading—and are hardly necessary for creating narrative drive. They’re not compelling issues, are they?

Polemics in a novel can be a good thing but only if the polemics are used properly. Ayn Rand is nothing but polemics and the polemics are on every page, necessary for the very existence of the work, the issues an intrinsic part of the characters’ lives, and so her novels burst with energy. In Frank Norris’s The Octopus, a truly great novel, the issue for the ranchers involved is one of their very survival. They also connect with the larger theme of colliding economic forces which toss human beings to the side. The speeches in the book are compelled by the story.

In contrast, the discussions in Freedom come across as a bunch of comfortable rich people talking. Cats killing birds isn’t quite a life-and-death matter. It’s more on the order of rich-guy-is-bored-with-his-life kind of thing, so again, perhaps the book is satire, and maybe I should give it a full reading, if the book for a moment appeared interesting enough for a full reading.

Where ideas in literature are concerned, we’ve come a long way from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, haven’t we? Maybe the educated class killing off God wasn’t such a good idea.

I have no doubt that some people in our society actually hold ideas as portrayed in Freedom. As I mention in the post below this one, Franzen’s novel resembles By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens with its WASPy main character filled with cranky upper-class paranoia about the changing world. In Franzen’s case the paranoia is about too many poor people having too many babies—and their accompanying population of cats!

It’s to laugh, it’s to laugh.

1 comment:

King Wenclas said...

Now, I KNOW that a few of my readers will be put off by my snarky remark about manmade global warming theory-- but the phenomenon is the same. We automatically internalize the messages of society's institutions, and are hesitant to question them.
The entire scientific establishment-- or so it appears-- affirms the reality of human-caused global warming. How can one go against this?
I've done a lot of reading on the subject the last couple years. The deeper I dig into it, the more I question myself-- that I can't possibly be right with my skeptical viewpoint. I keep waiting for the proof of the matter which never comes.
The evidence presented, as a matter of fact, is ridiculously flimsy. There are holes in it everyplace. Even accepting the importance of CO2, the actual control evidence is for a tiny period of time. Measuring of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has taken place for a very short period of time. Which is why I guess the time is expanded by such devices as estimating CO2 in the atmosphere, or by everyone's favorite, ice cores. How much seepage has taken place in those cores? We have no way of knowing.
There's no adequate "control" at all.
Temperature going up for fifty years or 200 years means nothing for a planet which has been around for a million. We're measuring happenings based on our own ridiculously short lifespans. It's not enough to tell us whether the current temperature rise-- if there even is much of a rise-- is a natural variation or not.
But, CO2?
Anyone care to guess what percentage of greenhouse gases consists of CO2?
What percentage is methane?
What % is water vapor?
Has manmade methane been going up?
What are the other sources?
Etc etc etc.
Anyone read James Hansen's most recent book?
What does one make of "The Venus Effect?"
And so on and so forth.
Bureaucracies are motivated by things other than the truth. This is and has been the case in society after society, on all ends of the spectrum, including our society.
The needs of the organizations and the careerists within them.
The mind of the Machine.
Feel free to dispute this.