Before starting Winter Journal, the first of my 20 Books of Summer, I tried really hard to clear the decks and finish off all the physical and ebooks I was reading prior to June 3. But books are meant to be in e with each other, as the saying goes, and so I found myself in the middle of listening to How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen when it was time to start Winter Journal, and did they ever have a conversation.
I vaguely knew that Paul Auster and Jonathan Frazen had a few things in common. They both live in New York (at least part time), they are both married to writers, they are both Baby Boomers. They’re both critically acclaimed, commercially successful novelists, though they are on rather different ends of the spectrum when it comes to being controversial (“name” + “controversy” brings up no relevant results for Mr. Auster, Mr. Frazen’s results reference at least five separate incidents on the first page.)
Portraits of the artists as young men
Even so, I didn’t expect these books to be drawing from such similar circumstances and emotions. Both books are driven by grief, specifically, the loss of parents. In Auster’s case, death is quick and unexpected, while Franzen’s parents get sick and linger, but I was struck but how both men end up suffering extreme physical reactions – hives, panic attacks – when they can’t or won’t express their grief any other way. And how vulnerable they get in these books, challenging the traditional masculine response to grief.Continue reading
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.
I have no time for Booktubers who apologize for not knowing how to pronounce an author’s name – look that shit up! And so I did for Imbolo Mbue (Em-boo-wey), author of Behold the Dreamers, and discovered that, in addition to having four letter names that are difficult to pronounce, we both worked in market research, and we both love Jonathan Franzen.
Today, I still work in market research, while Mbue is a famous novelist; and the closest I got to Franzen was being in the same room, while she shares an agent with him. But I’m not the jealous type. I totally think we could be friends.
I made friends with her novel and reviewed it here:
What author do you think you could be friends with?
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:
Wake up, sheeple.
You think you know what the Jennifer Weiner/Jonathan Frazen feud is all about? VIDA counts? Unchecked egos? Social media? Literary vs. commercial fiction?
You’ve been lied to. It’s time to uncover the truth.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner coined the hashtag #Franzenfreude on August 15th, 2010, just two weeks before Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom, was published. Jennifer Weiner’s eighth novel, Fly Away Home, was released just two months earlier, on July 13, 2010.
Nothing too surprising there, right? Of course both authors were spoiling for a fight; they had books to promote. Let’s go a little deeper.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner’s debut novel, Good in Bed, was published on May 8th, 2001, less than four months before Franzen’s breakthrough novel, The Corrections.
Weiner and Franzen both broke out in 2001 with semi-autobiographical novels, and both were alternately criticized and lauded for breaking down genre barriers. Weiner elevated chick-lit, while Franzen made serious literachah accessible; both were nudging their way to the middlebrow, one moving on up, one slumming. They’re more alike than they’d like to admit.
Their books are more alike than they’d like to admit, too. Or at least, more than one of them would like to admit.
THE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down version of The Corrections.
THE EVIDENCE: Yeah, both books are about family break down and middle class malaise and how parents fuck up their kids, but, what book isn’t? This goes way deeper. SPOILERS AHOY:
- The Mom Who Just Wants The Family To Be Together For The Holidays, Damn it: In Freedom, mom Enid is a neurotic mess (his moms always are.) In Fly Away Home, mom Sylvie is a Strong Woman (her heroines always are.) Both moms fixate on One Last Family Dinner with Everybody, Even My Ne’er Do Well Youngest Child and Even My Awful Husband. Hilarity ensues.
- The Stoic Dad Who Ruins Everything: Both patriarchs are men used to being taken care of by women. Both get into trouble, of the financial and health variety on one side, and of the “oops slept with an intern” variety on the other, and both proceed to do fuck all about it while heir wives and children bear the brunt. Resentment, and eventually, groove-back-getting, ensues.
- The Abused Teenage Daughter: In The Corrections, teenage Denise “dates” someone at her father’s work, though “date” is a stretch since she’s just graduated high school, and he’s a middle aged man. We don’t find out till much later how much dad Albert knew, and how it affected and still affects the Lambert family. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is sexually assaulted as a young teen. Her parents find out immediately and don’t really do anything. Both sets of parents knew their daughter was being abused, and dealt with it by not dealing with it. Trauma ensues.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl/Boy: In The Corrections, Chip is the inept man-child. He’s always running some harebrained scheme, avoiding his problems, and abusing substances. In Fly Away Home, Lizzie is an inept woman-child. All her harebrained schemes and substance abuse is in the past (no fun,) but she definitely can’t adult. Redemption and maturity via marriage and babies ensues.
- The Capable Adult Who Acts Out In Inappropriate Ways (That Means Sex): Two inappropriate work place romances and two names that start with D. Fly Away Home‘s Diana is the good sister. She’s got the house, the family, the career. She’s also banging one of her medical students. In The Corrections, good sister Denise is a rising star in the culinary world. She’s also banging her boss’s wife. Graphic sex ensues.
- Gross Guys Named Gary: In Freedom, Gary is the older brother, outwardly the most conventional of the Lambert siblings, but inwardly such a mess of neurosis, addiction, and anxiety it’s a wonder he’s still standing. He does fall off a ladder, actually, at one point. He’s depicted as dripping with sweat, bleeding, muttering, exploding in anger, and generally just “unlikeable” personified. In Fly Away Home, Gary is Diana’s hapless husband, a beta-male extraordinaire, also sweaty, and flabby, balding, pale, whiny, dependent, shiftless… he has no redeeming qualities and I somehow hated him more after Diana cheats on him. Emasculation ensues.
I was going to end the post here. But then I thought, what is it’s every more complicated? This is a conspiracy theory, after all. Maybe Weiner didn’t want to hide the fact that Fly Away Home is sloppy The Corrections fanfic. Maybe she wanted us to know it.
FACT: Fly Away Home spent eight weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010 and peaked at #2. Freedom spent 29 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list in 2010-2011 and spent three of those weeks at #1. Fly Away Home fell off the list the very week Freedom debuted at #1.
By Weiner’s standards, Fly Away Home was a flop. Her website boasts that her twelve books “have spent over five years on the New York Times bestseller [sic] list,” which, by my calculations, means most of them stick around a lot longer than eight weeks. Getting bumped off just as Franzen ascends was enough to send her over the edge.
She needed a boost. Some publicity. You know what they say about publicity, right?
THE EVEN MORE SHOCKING TRUTH: Weiner started the feud with Franzen to deflect attention from the fact that Fly Away Home is a watered-down, simplified version of The Corrections UNTIL it didn’t sell, at which point she intensified the feud in hopes that someone would uncover the horrible truth, boosting sales and recovering her best seller list honour.
There’s just one problem. There are two types of people in this world: Those who read Weiner, and those who read Franzen. Okay, clearly, there is a third type who doesn’t give a fuck, but work with me here. No one noticed, because no one read both The Corrections and Fly Away Home. Until now.
And if all this doesn’t convince you that you’ve been lied to for years?
FACT: On October 4th, 2010, Franzen was in London promoting Freedom when his glasses were stolen. As in stolen off his face. A 27 year old student attempted to ransom them for $100,000 before being caught by police, who were aided in the chase by a helicopter and dogs.
FACT: Jennifer Weiner was in London on October 4th promoting Fly Away Home. Coincidence?
This isn’t over. I will be vigilant. I’ve got my eye on you, Ms. Weiner. If your next book is a thinly-veiled retelling of Great Expectations, except with Internet and fascism, a la Purity, I will be there. If any of your post-2010 novels feature a stay-at-home mom and/or birds and/or washed-up rock stars, a la Freedom, I will be there.
And Mr. Franzen, don’t think you’re off the hook. You don’t become The Great American Novelist without some kind of shady dealings.
The truth is out there.
Welcome to Franzen in February. That’s right, in the off chance that I didn’t alienate my entire readership when I reviewed Purity thrice last year, I’ve decided to devote the whole month of February to the fabulous Mr. F. Here are just some of the goodies I have in store:
- My conspiracy theory regarding the Franzen/Weiner feud (I just watched episode #1 of the X-files reboot, so I am ready to go in on this. THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE.)
- Q&A with Franzen Fan Club President and author of The Wallcreeper and Mislaid Nell Zink (!!!!)
- Q&A with CanLit darling and Franzen fan Sigal Samuel, author of The Mystics of Mile End
- Q&A with the fanatic behind Franzenfreude
- Guests posts from a couple of Franzen newbies (your first Franzen is a very special experience)
Oh, yeah, I’m going to read stuff too. Maybe even review. Here’s the thing, though: I read three of Franzen’s books last year, and I’m not really in the mood to read another one right now. Write about them, yes. Read more of them…no. That could put a damper on the whole event.
I figured it out a way around it. Part of Franzen’s mystique is how everyone seems to have an opinion about him, and many authors have come out in support or on the attack. I’m going to read books by authors who love him, who hate him, who’ve been blurbed by him, and so on. FranzenFriends and FranzenFoes, if you will. Here’s my stack:
A couple friend & foe ideas for you:
- FranzenFriends: Nell Zink, Sigal Samuel, David Foster Wallace, Emily Gould, Jami Attenberg, Chico Buarque, Laura Miller
- FranzenFoes: Jennifer Weiner, Roxane Gay, Curtis Sittenfield, Jodi Picoult
Get involved: read a book by Franzen, or a friend/foe; pitch me a guest post; or just follow along and comment. I’m not messing around with sign-ups, prizes, or read-alongs. I want to spend my time writing up all these fun posts.
I don’t really have an agenda. I’ve read his three “big” novels plus his memoir, and rated them three or four stars. I don’t even count him in my top ten authors. And I don’t give a shit if you refuse to read him for whatever (probably misinformed) reason. He’s just so fun to talk about. He’s a force in modern literature, but he can be, to quote a heroine of classic lit, so adorably clueless.
Whether you’re a FranzenFriend or FranzenFoe, stay tuned, this’ll be fun.
Middlebrow and the Infinite Franzness
My pal Jason Purcell recently came out of hiatus with a discussion about the middlebrow:
This mini-review was going to be called “Infinite Franz” and was going to make some tenuous parallels between Purity and Infinite Jest, but once I got going, I found there weren’t as many as I thought. Then I watched Jason’s video, and got to thinking about how DFW and Franzen are often cited as examples of Great American Novelists, so they must both be highbrow, right?
Nope. Purity is way middlebrow. And that’s okay!
Purity is the most complex of Franzen’s big novels, but it’s still nowhere near as complex as Infinite Jest. Franzen’s strength is characters; DFW’s strength was, like, everything, so to see them both trotted out as “highbrow” is kind of weird! Infinite Jest is perceived as being inaccessible (my thoughts on that) and it’s certainly experimental. The only way to put the story together is to finish all 1,096 pages then go directly back to page 1, because the end is the beginning is the end. Purity is relatively linear. Like The Corrections and Freedom, there are multiple narrators, with some flashbacks and family history. There are more narrative threads in Purity, and more pieces to put together, and they don’t come together as easily, but it’s no trouble to follow the story.
Jason talks about Virginia Woolf’s assertion that the highbrow exists to reflect the lowbrow society, because those lowbrows can’t do it themselves. Franzen is known for writing about “big issues” and society and culture and all that. Like the narrative structure, I found that the “issues” in Purity were presented in more interesting ways than his previous novels. Chip’s Lithuanian adventures in The Corrections could only be satire. The child-free rants in Freedom could only be, well, rants. Purity mashes up German history and recent American scandal in a way that’s kind of outrageous but also realistic. The parallels between cold war Germany and the quasi-Wikileaks organization Purity works for aren’t shoved down our throats. All that said, Purity isn’t nearly as ambitious as Infinite Jest, which examines society in the 90s by comparing it to society in 2010, which is pretty crazy for a book published in 1996.
Franzen’s built up this highbrow persona (or, the media has,) but once you get into his work, it’s funnier, more accessible, and more comforting than you might expect. Reading DFW was more accessible than I thought it would be too, and more hilarious, but not comforting at all. I haven’t read a word of his since I read his short story Incarnations of Burned Children nearly two years ago, because I’m still reeling. SincePurity, my reading has been a veritable Franztravaganza: I read (not reread!) The Corrections and listened to The Discomfort Zone (read by the author) and am making plans to read How To Be Alone and/or Strong Motion soon.
If you really want me to prove Franzen’s middlebrow status, ask me to review The Corrections by comparing it to a Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home. They’re basically the same story, minus the Lithuanians and lesbians: parents’ fuck-ups expose how fucked up their children are, mothers fixate on one last family gathering, sexual deviance and hilarity ensue. I think if they’d read each other’s books, they could put their whole feud to rest.
I guess this isn’t really a revelation. We knew it the minute Oprah chose him for her book club: Franzen writes excellent, readable, insightful, middlebrow fiction. And most days, like most people, I’ll take the middlebrow.
Fifty Shades of Franzen
You think I’d be all over this kind of criticism, but no. It’s stupid and lazy. Not just because the quotes are taken out of context and so rendered almost meaningless, but because it assumes that the only reason for a sex scene in a novel is to arouse the reader. Which… no. Sex can be bad. Gross. Awkward. Sometimes sex is a way to say goodbye, or a way to give in, or give up. It’s not always sexy. And novels? They’re just like real life! Sex scenes shouldn’t all be sexy and steamy and politically correct because life isn’t that way.
Anyway, those articles are about The Corrections and Freedom, which featured scatological fantasies and the C-word and such. The sex in Purity is a little different:
She could feel his hands trembling on her hips, feel his own excitement, and this was something – it was a lot. He seemed honestly to want her private thing. It was really this knowledge, more than the negocitos he was expertly transacting with his mouth, that caused her to come with such violent alacrity.
I don’t know how much intersection there is between readers of E.L. James and JFranz, so let me tell you: this is very Fifty Shades-esque. The “private thing” instead using her (C) words. The weirdly clinical, or in this case, business-like tone. The gee-whiz innocence of the heroine and experience of her “expert” partner.
There’s some quasi-BSDM in Purity (the BDSM in Fifty Shades is quasi at best too,) particularly between Pip and Andreas, who most clearly correspond to Ana and Christian, what with the power imbalances and the mind fucks and the innocent young girl/bad boy with a secret thing, but also between Pip’s mom Anabel and Tom, who share a memorable, not-really-consensual sex scene (see Zink’s review for a spoiler, whenever it’s back up) and have a freaky sex ritual that involves a stuffed bull named Leonard. The bull thing has nothing to do with BDSM but I had to mention it somehow.
And the Fifty Shades of Franzen don’t end with the sex scenes! Both feature a really clunky literary allusion; Purity to Great Expectations and Fifty Shades to Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Has anyone written about Fifty Shades and Tess? Am I going to have to do it? Another day, perhaps…
The point of this mini-review was not to suggest that Purity is on the same level of Fifty Shades, but rather, to show that the way we react to sex in literature (and allusions, too?) has a lot of do with how it’s marketed and who’s writing it. I didn’t make this up to be funny. There truly are parallels between the books, only with one, we snicker and roll our eyes because readers ARE getting off on it, and with the other, we snicker and roll our eyes because they AREN’T.
As for me, demographically speaking, I’m in the target market for both mommy porn and OMG Serious Literature. After reading both Purity and Fifty, I plan to read more Franzen, but won’t continue the adventures of Ana and Christian in Darker, Freed, or cash-grab Grey, mostly because they’re boring as hell. Talk to me when Ana is throwing around the C-word or Christian adds some stuffies to his playroom.
You know me. I love a clever title. I came up with three subtitles for my review of Purity, and can’t choose a favourite, so I’m subjecting you to a mini-reviews to go with each over the next few days:
- Review #1: Franziness. My basic review.
- Review #2: Fifty Shades of Franzen. A mostly-serious discussion of sexuality in literature.
- Review #3: Middlebrow and the Infinite Franz. A discussion of middlebrow literature.
Review #1: Franziness
Publication date: September 1, 2015
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Read this if you like: Jonathan Franzen
Check out Purity on Goodreads
Thanks to: The fine people at Macmillian (FSG) for giving me and 199 other lucky Book Expo America attendees an advance reader’s copy.
Like Nell Zink, I won’t bother trying to convince you to read Purity, because you already know if you’re going to read it or not (her review is still offline, so you’ll have to take my word for it.) As my mom used to say, if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you will like. It’s got Franziness. See the end of this post for my incomplete list of Franziness indicators and add your own.
Franzen’s interviewer at Book Expo America made much of how “plotty” this book is, which is to say, things happen outside the family/personal realm. That’s true. The chapters set in Europe aren’t just a satirical sidebar, like they were in The Corrections. The affairs and sexual misconduct have larger implications for the characters than they did in Freedom. But Purity didn’t surprise me that much. It didn’t shake up my view of what a Franzen novel is.
I read The Corrections recently, and that helped me see what a step up Purity is. If you read his Big Three novels in order, you’d see them get better, smoother, less “I see what you did there.” The threads in Purity come together in a way that reminded me of The Luminaries; you almost don’t notice it till it’s done. There’s also a mystery and a murder, new territory for Franzen, but they don’t overwhelm the story. The characters are still in the forefront.
Speaking of, Purity demonstrates what Franzen’s strength has been all along: he creates characters the reader cares about. Not that we like, empathize with, or relate to (though you might do all those things,) but they keep you turning the pages and slogging through the parts that are sloggy and you miss them after you’re done. I miss Pip! She’s annoying and self-centred and predictable, but she got to me.
Purity is plotty, but it’s also pretty emotional. I don’t think I cried, but I felt real dread during the lead up to the murder, and felt impotent and icky during the seduction of, well, everyone who gets seduced. There were hilarious parts and weird parts and banal parts.
So, if you’re going to read Purity, you’re in for a treat, and if you’re not, please stand by, Reading in Bed will return to regular programming in a couple of days.
An incomplete list of things that have Franziness
- Wariness of the internet
- Mommy issues
- Daddy issues
- Unlikable narrators
- Weird/bad sex scenes
- Icky relationships between stunted man-child(ren) and younger, damaged women
I love book culture. I love book blogs (obviously?) and book festivals, and readings, and #FridayReads and #amreading. I do not love the way we book people talk about ourselves, though. The memes, infographics, think pieces, quotes and such that grind my gears fall into two categories:
- Readers are different
- Readers are better people
I’ve been thinking about these ideas lately, with help from a couple authors I’ve been lucky enough to see in person. Continue reading