So what do you all think of this new Jonathan Franzen piece in the New Yorker? I assume it's a novel excerpt from his forthcoming (fall) book.
Personally, I like it a lot. I love the way Franzen infuses ordinariness with such nervous energy...the characters feel familiar and highly specific at the same time. He is very good at hapless people, people who are weird but not weird enough to get any kind of credit for it. And lately, perhaps because my kids are getting older, perhaps because of the time I spend teaching, I have really been enjoying reading and writing stories about teenagers.
There is a point to this post, though, and it's to complain about the one thing I don't like about this story. (Spoiler coming, so stop reading if you care.) As soon as the protagonist, Patty, is raped, and her mother reacts the way she does, the end of the story becomes a foregone conclusion. Patty is going to cave into her family's wishes and not press charges. I begged Franzen, in my head, to end the story differently, but no dice.
It isn't just that I wanted to see the girl fight--though that is certainly so. It's that this is such an overly familiar plot and character device: the character who chooses inaction, and whose emotions go unexpressed, only to emerge transformed somewhere else. Maybe this is why I favor crime fiction these days, even when it isn't written so well--to read about characters who do stuff. We literary writers rely heavily, too heavily I think, on the use of thwarted desires and suppressed impulses to move our characters. We populate our stories with losers, misfits, and weirdos. We encourage our readers to get their nerd on--and maybe that place is getting a little too comfortable for my generation of writers. Maybe we've wrung a little too much sympathy out of our readers.
I'm not trying to get on Franzen's case here, in part because this character is probably much more nuanced in the novel, in part because I do love to read his take on these emotions and situations. But, as I've said many times, the failings that bother me in other writers are always the ones I myself am most guilty of. That novel I junked last year didn't work mostly because the protagonist was a squirrely, thwarted, "lovable" dipshit. Franzen is good at this kind of character, but I've gotta move on.