This time of year, I’d usually be kicking off another round of Franzen in February, but due to my unplanned, two-month blogging hiatus, I don’t have my shit together.
But I just remembered, the most amazing Franzen-related incident of my life occurred during my hiatus, and while I regaled everyone on social media, YouTube, and even IRL, I haven’t shared it with you, dear readers.
Please welcome Meghan Hayes to #FranzeninFebruary! Meghan lives in my spiritual home of Saint John New Brunswick, and is one half of Bibliotaphs, one of my new favourite book blogs – this post in particular caught my eye. Her review of The Corrections takes a close look at each of the characters and reveals the contradictions at the heart of a funny/sad book.
The Corrections is easily Franzen’s funniest book. I think the comedy that comes out of this story works because Christmastime is often hell for all of us, and nothing makes it more unbearable than all the pressure to “be with family.” It’s something we all relate to. The Corrections is similar to Franzen’s other work (notably Freedom and Purity) in that each section deals with another character and it often spans a generation.
This was the second Franzen book I ever read. I started with his essay collection How to be Alone and bought The Corrections immediately afterwards in a Target. So I first read this book ~five years ago. I decided to pick it up again so I could take part in Laura’s #FranzenFebruary.
Something that struck me as interesting in the book is that the characters are often trying to convince the reader that they are not “clinically depressed.” They all seem to be experiencing “depressive episodes” but they are always fighting the “clinical” label (e.g. Chip saying he is unable to behave like a depressed person by ignoring a phone call, Gary openly refuses the diagnosis by his wife).
I remember loving this line from a Chuck Klosterman novel where he says “I wanted to write about people who were depressed, but not depressed for any kind of specific cataclysmic reason. I mean the high school kid is kind of abstractly depressed, which I think is what a lot of people feel like. It’s not like they have anything bad about their lives and if you were to ask them if they were depressed, they’d probably say no.”
And I think this is what Franzen is doing in The Corrections. Each character seems to be depressed but in a way that any married / newly graduated / everyday-human can often be. It’s not necessarily biological, but they feel it nonetheless.
I’m going to divide up this “review” by each of the main characters … because this is the only way I’ll be able to organize my thoughts in any coherent way. Let’s goooooo: Continue reading
Our next #FranzeninFebruary guest post is courtesy of Matt Bowes, who’s pun game is on point (see post title). Matt is the General Manager at NeWest Press, my favourite Edmonton publisher. He sent me my very first review book back when I was a just a baby book blogger. He used to dabble in book blogging himself, but these days you’ll find him podcasting about Bollywood movies at Bollywood is for Lovers.
Jonathan Franzen can be a hard writer to like sometimes, but paradoxically I find him to be easy to love. The eternal English major in me thrills to see his recurring writerly tics crop up in each new fiction work, stuff like detailed descriptions of bird species, bathroom humour, the Club of Rome, and an uncomfortable sense of détente with the modern world. It’s one of the reasons people also like Wes Anderson: when an artist sets the table with recurring themes and preoccupations, it breaks down a sort of barrier, allowing readers to see what the deeper truth on offer is this time out. It’s like Commedia del’Arte, a set of agreed-upon motifs that act as a gateway to entertainment.
I’ve only read The Corrections, Freedom and now Purity, so I’m not entirely sure if these recurring traits appear in his earlier novels The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, but I would be surprised if they weren’t in there somewhere.
So while it’s easy to see a critic latching on to Franzen’s straightforward obsessions and calling them out as being on the nose, it’s this exact heart-on-the-sleeve nature of his work that makes me really like him, and stick up for him in conversation, even as Franzen the reluctant public personality often gets himself into trouble. His jeremiads against social media and its practitioners, his bemoaning the state of book promotion and his attempts to embody The Great American Writer archetype are well-documented and rightly mocked, but unlike some other claimants to that throne, Franzen always comes correct with the literary goods in the end. Continue reading
And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!
I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years. All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading
Portraits of the Jonathans as young men
Remember when Jonathan Franzen took a minor swipe at his not-quite-contemporary, Jonathan Safran Foer, in Purity?
“And are you a big fan of Jonathan Savoir Faire? So many of my students are…So many Jonathans. A plague of literary Jonathans. If you read only the New York Times Book Review, you’d think it was the most common male name in America.”
I don’t know that I’ve noticed a plague*, but I did just finish Foer’s latest, Here I Am, so let’s do a little comparing and contrasting.
Comparing the Jonathans
- Breakout novels in the early aughts (The Corrections and Everything is Illuminated)
- American Novels with side trips across the ocean: Chip’s Lithuanian vacation in The Corrections, Berlin in Purity, the whole Israel thing in Here I Am
- Voice of their respective generations: Franzen gets that label more than Foer, maybe, but remember, Foer isn’t even forty**. Give it time.
- Insufferable public personas: Do I really need to link to something for Franzen? And in case you missed it, Foer did… whatever this is.
- Environmentalist: Franzen is all about looking at birds, Foer is all about not eating them.
- Fascination and disgust with technology: I love how both include realistic technology in their novels (email exchanges in The Corrections, text messages in Purity; sexting, constant screen time, and a Minecraft-like online environment in Here I Am) but they both really hate it, too.
Contrasting the Jonathans
- The generation they are supposedly the voice of: Franzen’s a boomer, and Foer is technically a Gen Xer. Really though, he’s on the edge of Gen X and Millennial – just like me. Some call us Generation Catalano, but I prefer baby Gen Xer or elder Millennial, depending on my mood.
- Experimental vs realism: Franzen has a lot of range, but most of his writing is pretty straight up, realistic, and chronological. Foer experiments; not so much in Here I Am, which is much more Franzeny than his previous work, but in the invented language and mythology of Everything is Iluminated, and the flipbook at the back of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
- Wunderkind vs Late Bloomer: Franzen was in his 40s with two novels behind him before he found success, while Foer was 25 and a debut novelist.
- Adaptation: Attempts have been made, but so far, Franzen’s work has not been adapted (Purity was in the works as a mini series but I haven’t heard anything in quite some time.) Both of Foer’s previous novels were made into movies; I wonder if Elijah Wood is free to play Jonathan, I mean, Jacob of Here I Am?
As for the books, I’ve only read two of Foer’s but each of them affected me more than anything of Franzen’s. I love ’em both, don’t get me wrong, but Franzen’s writing is a bit too sterile to give me that emotional devastation I crave. I have teared up for Franzen – but only for The Corrections, and only for one late, revelatory scene which I won’t spoil. Foer’s books don’t just make me cry, they have me weeping through entire chapters. Or the last 100 pages, in the case of Here I Am.
So, who’s your fav literary Jonathan? Meet me here for #FoerinFebruary in 2018?
*Jonathan was the 124th most popular name the year Franzen was born, and the 28th by the time Foer was born in 1977. It peaked in 1988 at #15, which suggests that the plague of literary Jonathans is far from over.
**He turns forty on Tuesday!
Jonathan Franzen is a Peanuts fan. Big time. It’s well documented in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (excerpt here):
Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house… He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.
I bet he set Freedom in St. Paul just so he could visit Charles Schultz’s hometown and these sweet statues:
In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen draws parallels between Peanuts and his own life, but did he draw Peanuts into his fiction? Santa brought my boys a Peanuts collection this Christmas, and I’ve been compiling the Franzeniest strips. Here’s a selection with accompanying quotes:
Unnatural relationships with inanimate objects:
The night of Alfred’s seventh-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue. (The Corrections)
Gary understood this feeling. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks. His circadian schedule was 180 degrees out of phase, he was revved all night and sandy-eyed all day, and he found it ever more arduous to believe that his problem wasn’t neurochemical but personal. (The Corrections)
Turning into the thing you hate:
His conception grew dropsical and comprehensive. What if he was the city? More than centrally located: the thing itself? (The Twenty-Seventh City)
Adult-speak (panel wasn’t in this collection, but the passage was too good to pass up)
“Noun adjective,” his mother said, “contraction possessive noun. Conjunction conjunction stressed pronoun counterfactual verb pronoun I’d just gobble that up and temporal adverb pronoun conditional auxiliary infinitive-” (The Corrections)
As an aside, we didn’t read Peanuts as kids, and I recently found out why: when my mom saw that Santa has brought the kids this Peanuts book, she told me that she hates Peanuts, and it’s the unfunniest comic strip ever. This was not an offhand comment; she was angry and rather suspicious of my (or Santa’s) motives. Henry adores it.
Sometime during the Purity publicity blitz of 2015, I added “Franzen apologist” to my Twitter bio. I was tired of defending every out-of-context interview quote and excerpt individually. The only truly snark-worthy event was the “adopting an Iraqi war orphan” thing, which I maintain was just a joke (right?).
So it’s rare for me to directly address Franzen haters, but, it is Franzen in February, and I’ve just come across an instance that’s too good to pass up. It’s not the usual “uh, I’ve never read him but he’s like, gross” hating, either. It’s a clear cut case of Franzen blaming.
Earlier this year, someone took it upon themselves to purchase the URL ciswhitemale.com and redirect it to Franzen’s Facebook page (try it, it still works as of this writing!) which is not the instance I’m here to write about today, but illustrates the phenomenon of Franzen blaming. Think about it, what’s the point of this stunt?
- That Franzen *is* a cis white male (duh)?
- That he only writes *about* cis white males (not true)?
- That he only writes *for* cis white males (…nope)?
- Or, that he is the poster boy and scapegoat for cis white male bias in the publishing industry (ah ha!)
Today, I direct your attention to “The Unsung Letter”, published by writer Helen McClory, “featuring one new(ish) under-hyped book, sung to the rafters by a different writer/poet/critic/book-pusher every time.” In its second issue, the writer is A.N. Devers and the unsung book is Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut The Last Samurai – already on my radar as an overlooked classic, and it’s recently back in print. So far, so good.
Why read The Last Samurai? For one, it is far superior to Franzen’s The Corrections, arguably as intellectually demanding as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and yet, DeWitt was never put on the cover of a magazine for The Last Samurai. She was never offered Oprah’s Book Club, and she never entered into the media’s great push to proclaim the new great American writers, Franzen and Wallace, who notably published their big books around the same time. There wasn’t room on the stage for DeWitt, somehow. She didn’t even enter get a piece of the conversation. I heard later it many times that it was partly her fault that she was difficult. Well.
Typos aside, we’ve got a classic case of Franzen blaming on our hands, with some DFW blaming for good measure! I double checked my dates when I read “notably published their big books around the same time” because… no they didn’t. The Last Samurai came out in September of 2000. Infinite Jest was published in February of 1996, so it’s a bit of a stretch to say DFW specifically was taking up all the room nearly five years later. DFW didn’t publish any books in the year 2000, and his next novel didn’t come out until after his death, in 2011. But sure, he was a well-known writer at the time, and a poster boy for a certain kind of bro-literature.
But Franzen? In September of 2000, he was the author of two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novels: The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. He didn’t start taking up cultural space until The Corrections came out in 2001, and the only thing “notable” about its publication date is that 9/11 happened nine days later. A full year after The Last Samurai.
I dug a bit deeper to see who was taking up literary cultural space in the year 2000 (I was 19 and the main cultural space I inhabited was Rum Jungle at West Edmonton Mall):
- Margaret Atwood won the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin
- Michael Ondaatje won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Anil’s Ghost
- Susan Sontag won the National Book Award
- Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer
- JK Rowling dominated the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list.
Not a cis white male* among them.
Bias towards cis white male authors in literary culture is real. They are reviewed more; they are more likely to be the reviewers. They are longlisted and shortlisted for, and winners of, literary prizes in numbers that far exceed their natural incidence in the population. Did DFW and Franzen benefit from this bias? Surely. Are they specifically to blame for one novel by a cis white woman failing to find an audience, in a year in which neither of them published a book, and in which several women and people of colour enjoyed mainstream and critical literary success? Well.
*I’m not 100% sure about Michael Ondaatje’s ethnicity, and in light of recent events I hate to speculate, but his Wikipedia page says his ancestry is Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil so I’m running with that.
The second in a series in which I convince hapless readers to take on the Fran Man, today’s First Franzen is courtesy of my sister Caitlin Higgins. Caitlin is a sometime-vegan Canadian ex-pat living in St. Paul, Minnesota and previously shared a tour of Freedom’s notable settings. Check her out on Twitter or on her blog, The Angry Vegan, now defunct, but worth reading the archives.
So many feelings happened as I read this book, but surprisingly, when I finished I didn’t know how to share my opinion. I didn’t love Freedom; I didn’t hate it. There were points where I felt both of these feelings as I read, but I walked away thinking, “Really??? That’s it??”.
I started out selfishly thinking it was going to be a great book, because it was set in St. Paul, MN and I moved to St. Paul just a few months before. I love reading books set in places I have been. I really like recognizing streets and landmarks (I found out later that Barrier Street does not really exist… was it supposed to be symbolic?). There is something about walking in the same place a book is set that gives you an instant connection.
There is so much flipping around in this book from one character’s story to the next, making it a tricky read. Most of my reading is done in 20 minute spurts at the gym with long breaks in between, and I was constantly forgetting where I was in the story. I can’t blame Franzen for that one though. Now that I have a hard copy, I can see, this is no gym read!
The story is told in a mix of Patty narrating her own life and marriage, and a variety of characters in Patty’s world narrating: husband- Walter, son- Joey, BFF/Lover- Richard, and a little bit from daughter Jessica. Franzen is great at giving these characters depth. I truly felt I understood the character under the spotlight and then as the story went on, I would change my opinion as I learned more and more. However, as I continued to read, it was clear he is only good at that for his male characters. I went through so many emotions about Walter. First, I liked him, and even compared him to my husband. Then, I hated him. He seems so spineless. (No longer comparing to the husband!). I was either shaking a fist at him or rooting for him to do the right thing.
Patty, on the other hand, seemed to be a victim, never having control, never truly making decisions, and never having her own true plot, even when she should have. Looking back, this happened with Jessica’s character as well, and Joey’s girlfriend. Really, there was not one female character in Freedom that had the depth of the male characters. It made me really dislike this book. Everything centralizes around Patty, so how could she not be more than some helpless lump!?! Shame on you, Franzen! Is that how he sees women? Maybe, maybe not, but I walk away thinking he is a sexist jerk.
Putting my thoughts on Franzen and female characters aside, I really got into the book. I was forever rooting for someone to do something (anything!!). In the end, after everything that everyone had been through, Patty goes back to Walter and Walter takes her (Of course, after some passive aggressive punishment). Why would she go back!? WHY does he take her back?! I hated the ending so much I almost threw my Kindle across the gym. The end left me wondering why I had wasted the last few weeks reading this well-written, anger-inducing, yet somehow dull story. I wanted the book to get outside boring and normal life in some way. I wanted Patty to be OK, and all I was left with is Patty right back where she started. To me, Franzen took the easy way out.
So what do I think about Freedom? I guess it is OK (I am rolling my eyes as I type). It clearly evoked emotion, which in my case can be tough to do. I would rather spend a month reading a novel that allows me to escape from the dreary reality I live in (OK, not always dreary, but not all that exciting either). This did not do that. Despite the lack of female character depth, I did think that the book was so well written, that I’d give Franzen one more chance… even though I have a feeling I will be angry again if I do. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment.
Alright, well, I’m zero for two. I need to convince someone to read The Corrections. Everyone loves The Corrections!
As part of Franzen in February, I asked some of my favourite readers to pick up their very first Franzen novel, and a few of them actually did. I guess I’m what you’d call an online influencer (come at me, brands.) Today, #CanLit poster boy Jason Purcell reviews Strong Motion. For more of Jason’s brilliance, check out his YouTube channel, his Instagram, his blog, or just stalk him on Twitter.
I wonder now if I went into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) planning to dislike it, perhaps as a way of proving my politics, whatever those may be, however they may speak to Franzen’s. I admit that I approached this, my first Franzen, with suspicion, with my eye already mid-eye roll, pencil poised to write some critique in the margin. I certainly did do these things. But then I stopped altogether. As of this moment, I’ve only made it 116 pages in, and so I don’t have a lot to report. The protagonist is a white male who is a social outcast of one kind or another. There are a number of damaged women who surround him who exist to be critiqued by our protagonist. There are earthquakes. There are several earthquakes.
I may never know why there are so many earthquakes, because as I’ve said already, I’ve given it up. This brings to mind a 2010 piece by Julia Keller called “When to give up on a book” which reads: “Like a spouse who has already made a secret appointment with a divorce attorney, … I found myself smitten with guilt. ‘It’s not you,’ I murmured to the novel. ‘It’s me. Really.’” But in this case, is it me? It appears that this novel received mostly praise, and the criticism is largely concerned with Franzen’s ambition, that he has written too much here. And, when I think of this novel, and of abandoning it, I don’t feel “smitten with guilt,” though I do feel each individually—glad not to be reading it and guilty for not having finished.
But there were too many moments in this novel that caused visceral discomfort that I feel I can’t even fight through it. Selecting the most revolting is a real Sophie’s Choice.
“You’re fucked up,” he said without looking at her. “You’re really fucked up. And you’ve got the wrong idea about me.”
“But you like me, right?” she asked him from the doorway.
“Yeah, sure. I like you. I like you.” (75)
I was warned that this novel is not Franzen’s most mature, and I’m willing to believe that his later work really does deserve the praise they have received, and I’m even willing to believe that Franzen might be worthy of his title as one of the greatest living American novelists. But the first hundred pages of Strong Motion are littered with clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments rendered in lackluster prose that I don’t feel willing to sacrifice my time trying to understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. As Keller notes at the end of her piece, “I did finally finish Wolf Hall. Part of that was a sense of professional responsibility; the novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is simply too highly regarded by too many smart people to be ignored.” Franzen, too, is highly regarded by many smart people, someone whose work I’d love to read and understand. But Strong Motion is to be shelved until someone is able to convince me it is worth the struggle, that it is a great novel that deserves my attention. There is so much to read. So much so that to spend time reading something as uninteresting as this seems the saddest thing to do.
Okay, so this didn’t work out so well. I’ve advised Jason to give himself time to recover, perhaps indulge in some self-care, and then try again with The Corrections. Stay tuned for another edition of My First Franzen in the next couple of days.
Sigal Samuel is the author of The Mystics of Mile End, a novel about Montreal, Kabbalah, and family secrets. She is working on a middle grade novel about a boy named Zeno who goes to a hotel and discovers that it has an infinite number of rooms – it’s based on a real paradox in math called Hilbert’s Paradox of the Grand Hotel. Are my kids middle grade yet? Visit her at sigalsamuel.com and follow her on Twitter.
Sigal Samuel’s debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, has so much going on that I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering who might have influenced it. In hindsight, the multiple narrators, the prominence of place, the middle-class neighbourhood, the failing patriarch, the young man coming of age, and yeah, even the queer female protagonist, should have tipped me off. This novel has Franzen written all over it.
It was Samuel’s essay, “What Women Can Learn From Reading Sexist Male Authors“, that alerted me to her FranzenFriend status. She questions the mass writing-off of Franzen’s work, particularly by those objecting to his supposed sexism:
Franzen, whose character Denise’s storyline in The Corrections is among the best depictions I’ve encountered of queer female desire? Whose first 50 pages in Freedom form one of the strongest indictments of rape culture I’ve ever read?
(Note to self: reread the first 50 pages of Freedom.)
The essay is a response to Rebecca Solnit’s essay “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” itself a response to an asinine list of “80 books all men should read” that appeared in Esquire a few years ago. (Esquire has since responded with an all-female list of 80 books all people should read, and honestly, the most offensive thing about both lists is that they are slide shows.)
Rather than presuming to prescribe specific books, à la Esquire, or satirizing those lists, à la Solnit, Samuel examines what readers gain when they read outside their ideology. She also argues that to imply women shouldn’t read certain books is actually pretty darn sexist:
It’s pretty insulting to women’s intelligence to imply that we’re incapable of separating out the good from the bad in these works.
Sigal Samuel kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Franzen, sexists, and The Mystics of Mile End. Check out this review by Buried in Print for more about Mystics; it’s a great read.
Sigal Samuel: I absolutely count Franzen as an influence. I think I’ve learned a lot from him, both on the sentence level (remember that “crepuscular”sentence near the beginning of “The Corrections”?) and on the structural level. The opening section of “Freedom” — the way it starts with a bird’s eye view of a neighborhood, then zooms into one person’s perspective, then swivels horizontally into a neighbor’s perspective — directly inspired the structure of the closing section of my novel, “The Mystics of Mile End.”
RIB: Franzen is know for alternating perspectives between multiple narrators. How important was it to tell The Mystics of Mile End from multiple perspectives? Did you ever think about telling it from a single point of view, and if so, whose?
SS: So, yes, following from the last question, multiple perspectives are very important to me! I did actually start by writing “Mystics” entirely from one perspective — that of Samara, a twentysomething university student who’s climbing the Kabbalah’s Tree of Life. But it began to feel pretty claustrophobic to spend 300 pages inside the head of one increasingly insane narrator. Plus, it seemed more interesting to be able to show how other people in Samara’s life were perceiving her obsession, and noticing clues that she was missing, and vice versa. I’m always most interested in drawing connections between people, and across time and space and ideas, and alternating perspectives allows you to do that.
RIB: You wrote about how reading sexist literature can be instructive. Have you ever read a book where the sexism was just too much? How does a book (or author) cross that line?
SS: You know, a friend of mine asked me this question recently and was surprised when I answered that, no, I’ve never encountered a book where the sexism was just too much. That might be because I was raised in the Orthodox Jewish world. If I can get through the Bible and the Talmud, with all their deep-seated sexism, and still manage to appreciate them as great works of literature — well, I can probably get through anything!
And then, in a moment of Franzen in February zen, she had a run-in with the man himself earlier this month: