Sunday, December 19, 2010

Franzen in the Paris Review: the good and the bad

I enjoyed this new interview with Jonathan Franzen in the Paris Review, but I dunno.  I think he's got a wrong idea about himself.  Or perhaps the interviewer, Stephen Burn, does.  There's an unquestioned assumption here that Franzen has been getting steadily better throughout his career, and Freedom is his best book.  I don't think that's so.  I rank it as being about as good as his first novel (which is to say pretty good), but not as good as The Corrections and certainly not as good as Franzen's masterpiece (IMHO), the tragically under-read Strong Motion.  Nerdy, intense, eccentric, and disquieting, Strong Motion seems to have grown from a difficult phase of the writer's life:

Strong Motion was a novel written by a person to whom things were happening as he wrote it.  It was a third party in the relationship [ie., Franzen's marriage]...I honestly have a poor recollection of how I wrote that book.  It was bad time.

This makes sense to me--the book feels as though it was written by somebody who had no idea what he was doing.  And that's why it's great.  Freedom, and, to a lesser extent, The Corrections, seem to me lesser works, more controlled, more composed.  The new book in particular is a disappointment to me; it seems massively, if expertly, calculated.  Franzen's life needs order, but I think his work needs chaos.  He shouldn't believe the hype: Freedom is a smart, hugely entertaining book, but I'd like him to leave a corner of his heart and mind untended.

One thing I really dig in this interview, though, is a quote about American writing:

The people at the Swedish Academy [...] recently confessed their thoroughgoing lack of interest in American literary production.  They say we're too insular [...] we're only writing about ourselves.  Given how Americanized the world has become, I think they're probably wrong about this [...] but even if they're right, I don't think our insularity is necessarily a bad thing. [...] Maybe that very insularity, that feeling of living in a complete but not quite universal world, creates certain kinds of literary possibility.

He's right.  It does.  This is a strong case, I think, for specific detail over broad theme, and it's a lesson Franzen ought to listen to himself.  The least interesting things about Freedom are the things that are about, frankly, freedom.  It's when he forgets he's an important writer, and notices the hell out of the smallest things, that Franzen is at his best.

7 comments:

rmellis said...

First! Hahahahaha, that'll keep those firstys away.

It was a pretty good interview, but wow, I was surprised how worried Franzen seems about his public reception. It's as if he's disowned his early books just because they've been less popular -- as if he values public opinion more than his own. That ain't good. I mean, ya know, it's good to be popular and all, but.

I really enjoyed Louise Erdrich's interview in the same issue. She's an interesting person...

jrlennon said...

Yeah, the Erdrich piece is also good! I like her.

jon said...

I loved 27th City and Strong Motion. The demented typical families in those books are interesting because they are involved in massive, ramshackle plots that encompases whole cities. I haven't wanted to read The Corrections or Freedom for the very reasons you give, and I think Rhian is spot on. Franzen panders. He doesn't know who he is. He seems to both believe his own hype and feel hopeless in the face of it. There is something weak and distasteful about him, and it's detectable in the earlier works, a sort of nastiness the characters display towards each other. He may be our most representative author but he ain't Tolstoy.

James said...

I don't usually bother to psychoanalyze people I've never met, but Franzen's got a pretty long public record, so I feel comfortable agreeing with remllis and jon about his apparent insecurities. A friend of mine recently saw Franzen speak and remarked that he'd never seen someone past his teenage years seem so concerned with what other people thought of him.

Many writers seem all to concerned with the reception their books get, but more that they're not being accorded their proper place in the literary pantheon. That kind of arrogance is more tolerable than Franzen's weird worries about what his books say about him as a person.

Andrew Gelman said...

I know what you mean, but . . . it's 30 years after high school, and I'm still recovering from the party line given down to us from our English teachers: "show, don't tell," "writing is all about vivid incidents," "adjectives and adverbs are bad," "imaginary gardens with real toads," and all the rest. My impression, all these years later, is that the #1 thing in writing is to have something to say. And if you feel you have a big theme, then go for it. I haven't read Franzen's latest book so I can't comment on the specifics of your reactions, but they remind me uncomfortably of the T. S. Eliot-worshipping, Faulkner-worshipping high school English teachers who did their best to scare us all away from reading for pleasure or information.

jrlennon said...

Yowza, that sure ain't where I'm coming from. What this book feels like to me is a lot of excellent writing about the minutae of families, sexual relationships, and emotions, with a pointless varnish of artificial timeliness slathered over it. The former is more than enough to make a good book.

You don't read Proust and long for more early-20th-century French politics. You honestly don't give a fuck about that, because Proust is INVESTED in people, parties, sex, emotion.

I think Franzen tries to be an intellectual writer, when in fact he is more of an emotional writer. And one is not better than the other...but he seems to feel some pressure to be the former, even when it isn't beneficial to the work.

Anonymous said...

I have read about half of Freedom, and I've not read the Paris Review interview, but Franzen had a huge welcome by the British press for his latest book; and I felt like the only person in the world who thinks his work is too calculated, and that is its greatest weakness...

-Nancy F