Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Franzen story

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.

15 comments:

rmellis said...

The obviousness of the way the thing was going to roll out depressed me. However, I enjoyed reading it. I liked it from sentence to sentence. How much does that count for? I wonder about that a lot these days.

Andrew Gelman said...

About 10 years ago I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and tried to read Moby Dick.

I found Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also to be incredibly readable, and also very suspenseful. Yes, I knew that the Dr. and the Mr. were the same person, but there was a lot of suspense about what would happen next. This was also an interesting book because I did not find its individual sentences to be well-written--they were foggy, much like the London weather that pervades the book--but on the whole the paragraphs whipped by.

In contrast, Moby Dick was just full of sparkling sentences, yet each page was a struggle to read.

I guess what I'm saying is that sentence quality is something different from story quality. Perhaps Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde actually benefited from its foggy sentences, as in an impressionist painting where you can focus on the overall effects rather than the details.

jrlennon said...

Personally, I find style to be more important than content, almost invariably. I tend to think that the sentence to sentence quality counts for a lot.

rmellis said...

I think, as a writer, I've relied too much on the sentences and not enough on the story and overall structure. If you can do sentences, you can get away with a lot. You can get away with not saying much at all.

jrlennon said...

Well, from the writer's perspective, it's more complicated. You have to get yourself to WRITE the sentences. And you will need more or less structure to be able to do it. You have to plan enough to get planning off your mind, and let inspiration take over (for what that's worth). Frazen's plots have been less eccentric in this half of his career than in 27th City and Strong Motion...he seems to really get into applying his distinctive style to more conventional situations.

John Kenyon said...

I haven't had the chance to read it yet (long weekend, so maybe), but your comment about it likely being a novel excerpt brings up something that raises my hackles. Why does the New Yorker consistently do this, offering authors who don't lack for publicity the chance to essentially run a commercial for their forthcoming novel, when there likely are thousands of good short stories sitting in slush piles in their office? Beside that, I hate reading a so-called short story only to find that it is an excerpt pulled out of the context of the novel. I would much rather read that section as it appears organically.

jrlennon said...

I sometimes find this vexing, as well, especially when they have just rejected something of mine. But in general I don't mind the occasional excerpt. We wouldn't read Franzen there otherwise, for one thing. And last year a student of mine had some debut fiction in the NYer, a novel excerpt--and I wouldn't want to deprive here of that experience!

bigscarygiraffe said...

@ Rhian: "I liked it from sentence to sentence. How much does that count for?"


I've been wondering a lot about this recently, too. I know Wardsixers have addressed these issues before, but, they're still plaguing me-- In the age of internet, where googleable means the answer better be ready in five seconds flat, where the sound byte rules the news... how does all of that need for convenience and speed effect the reading and reception of fiction? (& poetry too, for that matter). Is sentence by sentence too sound bytey? I'm not arguing for some ungodly long Dickens novel to be serialized and digested. But, maybe some attention to the larger work (especially stylistically) is in order (again). Do readers even have time for such lengthy luxuries?

I dunno, but in the meantime, I'll be writing some sound byte poems under a pen name eerily reminiscent of Lady Gaga in hopes of finding my Fame.

jrlennon said...

By the way, this was our 666th post. 8-/

christianbauman said...

@ Rhian's first comment, sentence for sentence. That's a nutshell take on my reaction to The Corrections. Every page I read was beautiful, admirable, envy-inducing. As I read, I wanted to read more, read the next sentence, and the next. What was striking, though, was that when the book was down, I never felt compelled to pick it up again. Ever. At no point douring the reading, when I put it down for a sandwich or work or sleep or whatever, did I ever feel compelled to pick it up again. I did, because I'm an anal reader like that, and must finish what I start...and when I did pick it up, I always felt rewarded with JF's sentences (as well as JF's usual bursts of insight into the very types of characters JRL described in his post; that is, characters very similar to JF himself, my guess). At a time when I was absolutely convinced that style absolutely trumped content, The Corrections made me seriously sit back and reconsider. It probably didn't help that shortly after that (relatively) I got critically slammed by a few maddeningly accurate reaviews that accused me of similar in the then-just-publihed Voodoo Lounge. (5 or 6 years later, the truth of those comments feels even truer to me, although, being who I am, I still wouldn't write Voodoo Lounge any differently than I did, given the chance.)
I believe that is why I find so much personal joy in reading, say, Michael Ondaatje or Penelope Fitzgerald or the earlier stuff Annie Proulx. I don't feel a sacrifice in there at all, in the style vs content arena. That's very satisfying.

Sung said...

My favorite sentence from the piece: "She knew that you could love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you were busy with other things."

I guess I also knew where the story was headed, but considering the characters that were laid out before us, I think going in a different direction (parents fighting for their girl) would've seemed out of whack. But then again, perhaps it could've worked: against their better judgment, Patty's parents fight and ruin themselves and learn to really resent their daughter. But that, too, has been done before, hasn't it? Though perhaps not as much.

Who knows. Thanks for bringing this story to my attention. I've only read The Corrections (listened to it, actually, about thirty hours of George Guidall's voice on tape, and loving every minute of it); I'm a fan of his and look forward to the rest of Freedom.

Abbot Prince Street said...

"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."

YES! This is the crux of contemporary American literature's problem. For too long it has been unfashionable to care in the New York artistic circles. Passion for any cause is immediately rendered uncool by the gatekeepers of the art world. When irony came in, heart went out.

Anonymous said...

Franzen's story reminded me strongly, in both content and style, of Ethan Canin's America America, which I thought was just awful: predictable, flat, and uncompelling. I think it's tricky to write a "character is destiny" kind of story. Canin flubbed it, Robert Penn Warren nailed it, and Franzen is somewhere in between, but rather closer to Canin.

My main complaint is that I cringed each time one of the parents opened their mouths--no, people don't sound like that. They don't announce their own blind spots so obviously. If you make your characters evince themselves so transparently, you've just lost all the drama of your own story.

Stephen said...

To Anonymous: Yes, the characters were exaggerated. The story was satire. Like a lot of Franzen. And also like a lot of Thackeray and Dickens. More, please.

Anonymous said...

This is a different anonymous. I disliked the story, though there's much of Franzen I think is terrific. I'm sure that all those "Pattycakes"s were satire. I don't see the point in satirizing such easy targets.