Jonathan Franzen fascinates me more than any other contemporary author, though at first glance, it’s hard to figure out why. He’s not necessarily my favorite writer, nor the most talented one out there, and not even the most insightful. His dour lifestyle doesn’t really sound all that pleasant to me, and when I had the chance to attend a book reading of his at the National Cathedral, he came across as, well, weird.
I suppose that leaves us with his fame, which I’ll admit is a bit captivating to anyone with any pretension of writing fiction. This man is guilty of making me think novel-writing can still be relevant, and sure enough, there are countless glimmers of insight in The Corrections and Freedom that really speak to “the way we live now,” that vogue phrase used to describe great contemporary literary fiction. I think those sorts of work are valuable, and while I suppose my writing makes some effort to do that, I also find it limiting in some ways. What good is a novel about “the way we live now” in forty years, other than as a historical artifact? Granted, it’s not a crisp division; no story can really be removed from the time and place it’s set in, and we can learn far broader things from even the most myopic case studies. But with Franzen there’s a serious risk of drowning in the details of the present, and it’s hard to know how relevant some of his insights might be down the line. He is so relentless in his attempts to capture the moment with his ironic, self-conscious detachment that it can grow tiresome, even to people like me, who have a certain appreciation for that sort of thing.
Franzen’s power, however, emerges in his ability to bury himself in the misery modern life for ages and ages, and then come up with a brilliant ending that transcends all the previous grumbling. He’ll go on and on making you feel utterly depressed about the state of the world, and then he’ll drop something on you at the end that makes everything seem good again. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. I really liked the premise of The Corrections, and still have an autographed copy sitting on my bookshelf, but about midway through it I was distracted by something else, and it remains unfinished. If and when I ever get through it, I suspect I’ll love the ending, but I have to be willing to go through the beginning bits again, and Franzen spends so much time making his characters so profoundly flawed that one almost has to feel a personal connection to them to see them through. I found enough of that in Freedom that I sped through it, and felt rewarded afterwards. Even so, though I was moved by the ending when I read it, later reflection led to some doubt about the sincerity of the final transcendent moment. (This incisive, if overly harsh, Ruth Franklin review explains why better than I can.)
Sometimes, I think he’s actually more effective as an essayist. My favorite thing he’s written was “Farther Away,” a New Yorker essay on human solitude (which, like every other New Yorker piece I want to link to, is not online). His manifesto on literature in the digital age, “Perchance to Dream,” is also masterful, though I have my quibbles with parts of it. And now, in The Guardian, he offers an excerpt of an upcoming work of non-fiction that modestly sets out to explain “What’s Wrong with the Modern World.” It follows the classic Franzen formula to a tee. It diagnoses many Bad Things, uses examples of varying strength to make that point, and employs a caustic wit; it all makes Franzen seem rather misanthropic, and by the end he’s snuffed out most of your hope for the future of our species. (This is especially true if you like to write and are a mediocre self-promoter.) But then he turns around and points out how the apocalypse won’t be so bad after all, and gives you a chance to find some hope for humanity again.
Franzen’s escapes from his own despair make so many readers want to believe in him as a voice of redemption. We all want to think we can do that, too. He has so much potential. And yet, for me at least, he doesn’t quite get there. He is too consumed by his misery, his fleeting glimmers too brief, and too constrained by his times. Much of my inspiration for writing fiction comes not from Franzen himself, but from the critiques of him: I want to close the deal.
So, this seems like as good a time as any to make an announcement: I have a novel draft that I am, finally, more-or-less ready to share.
I’m an unpublished 23-year-old kid who’s just finished his first draft, and who hasn’t taken a formal English class since high school. I don’t pretend to be some sort of new-and-improved Jonathan Franzen. No, quite the contrary: my stumbling efforts owe a debt to him. Art, in my mind, is not a work of genius that emerges from a vacuum. It is wedded to literature that has come before it, forever in dialogue with the past. Hence my epigraph for the novel:
Man is…essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
—Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
I’ve named the thing The School of Athens, and there is a lot going on here. The basic premise—kids growing up in a small northern Minnesota town—has some things in common with my life, though I’m also pleased to say that is far less autobiographical that some of my previous attempts at fiction. None of the characters are really based on anyone from my childhood, and my fictional town of Arcadia certainly has its differences from the east side of Duluth. As the epigraph suggests, it asks what it is we’re supposed to do with our lives, and explores the tension between individual ambitions and commitments to a community. It is a coming of age story, and there is a healthy dose of teenage angst. There are clashing cultures, love stories, and of course there is some hockey. As the title suggests, there is some Greek philosophy allegory, though I hope that readers can enjoy the novel without knowing much about Plato or Aristotle.
As in many “contemporary literary fiction” novels, it confronts some problems of the modern world: the emptying of the American countryside, broken families, moral uncertainty, and an atomized society. There is plenty of skepticism about sentimental or easy solutions, and some healthy mockery of the notion that some characters have anything in common with the Greek heroes who are their namesakes or inspiration. On the other hand, though, it tries to avoid some of the pathologies that afflict Franzen and other modern novelists. While it seems to be happening sometime in the present, I never name a year. There is little to no name-dropping of brands or current events; instead, it focuses on conversation and direct contact, and the timeless traits of human interaction that haven’t changed all that much since Alexander the Great conquered the known world. All the characters are flawed, but they all have some redeeming traits as well, and contra Franzen, you won’t have to wait until the end to see glimpses of that—not that the ending will necessarily hit that note, though. You’ll have to read the thing to find out.
Still, I’m not going to measure this novel’s value by its place within some grandiose literary debate over postmodernism or literary theory or what “great” novels should talk about. (In fact, my ambivalence over that sort of theorizing is a secondary reason why I chose not to attend an MFA program that accepted me.) I’d love for this thing to succeed, but I have no illusions over making a living off of writing novels in this day in age. I just hope I’ve told an interesting story that people can relate to.
So, drop me a line if you want to read it: I need all the criticism I can get. That’s the only way it’ll get better, because I know it’s far from complete. Thanks for reading.