Tag Archives: jonathan franzen

Good Journalism, 7/9/18

9 Jul

This feature is no longer in a place where I can accurately call it “weekly,” but the content will, hopefully, make up for the prolonged absence. Here are some thought-provoking things I have read recently:

Jonathan Franzen, the Great American Novelist() whose work both inspired me to write both through its successes and its failures to talk about The Way We Live Now and other such grandiose themes, no longer cares. He’s a rebel against the court of public opinion, and instead of reacting angrily to a host of trends that in the past that he saw as sources of civilizational decline, he has found equanimity in ignoring Twitter feuds. The question is, has it come at the cost of his skills as a searing social observer? Can one write about The Way We Live Now without living it directly? Or is that very question the wrong one to ask about contemporary literature? If the new novel he’s starting mentioned in this New York Times Magazine piece takes place in the present, we may soon find out.

Why have I not been blogging much lately? One, because I have been having a social life, but also because I’ve been absorbed by the World Cup, which remains a delightful exercise is international athletics, even if Neymar flops too much. It’s been an odd one, with my ancestors the defending champs bombing out in the group stage, Argentina looking like a royal mess, the Spanish dynasty running out of gas, and the Brazilian whole once again failing to equal the sum of its parts. It’s provided some moments of joy; for me, the high water mark game was probably Uruguay, a personal favorite, using its lethal two-man strikeforce to vanquish defending European champion Portugal in the Round of 16. Now, however, we are down to a final four. The French are the mild favorites, with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe being the breakout star of the Cup, but Belgium’s dynamic attack will pose a great test in a tasty-looking semifinal. On the other side of the bracket, England has been exorcising demons and look like a team on a mission under Gareth Southgate, but first must get past maestro Luka Modric and his orchestra from Croatia. (Few things in sports are as aesthetically pleasing than a diminutive midfielder slaloming around a pitch and singlehandedly running an attack.) But yes, the four semifinalists are all European. How does that happen in what should be a globalizing sport? FiveThirtyEight crunches some numbers on the question here.

Shifting gears: Mexico has a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO has been a polarizing public figure for the better part of two decades since his rise to become the Head of Government of Mexico City and his narrow, contentious loss in the 2006 election. When I spent a semester in Mexico City as an undergrad four years after that election, there were still regular protests in the Alameda disputing the result. By 2018, however, the script has flipped: AMLO won last week’s presidential election in a landslide, and his fairly new party, MORENA, has huge pluralities in both chambers of congress.

Mexican politics has been flipped upside down. The conservative PAN, which led the way in Mexico’s democratic revolution in the first decade this century, finished a distant second. The long-ruling PRI, which was an exhausted relic even before Enrique Peña Nieto’s miserable six-year term, got shellacked. The original leftist party, the PRD, was eviscerated. The election could be a watershed moment in Mexican history. Something revolutionary is afoot in Mexico, for good or ill, and if AMLO, a fascinating figure, can deliver on his lofty expectations, it could have implications for politics in a lot of places. Here, Jon Lee Anderson, the New Yorker’s remarkable roving Latin America correspondent, profiles AMLO as he follows his campaign.

Another random World Cup season note: Cuauhtémoc Blanco, one of Mexico’s most accomplished fútbol stars, was elected governor of Morelos state under the MORENA coalition banner. I did a double-take when I saw that one.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described Democratic Socialist, has won a Democratic primary in New York. But what does that look like in practice, and how does it compare to the Democratic Socialism of the movement’s standard bearer, Bernie Sanders? Reihan Salam investigates in the Atlantic.

Finally, in the London Review of Books, John Lancaster pens a superb overview of global economy since the start of the Great Recession in plain English. It’s a thorough take that puts the macroeconomics of the past decade into sobering perspective. I particularly enjoy his note, paraphrasing Napoleon, that to understand someone’s view of the world, one must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. Expect me to riff on this more in the coming weeks, both in terms of my own outlook at that of others.

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A Patient Christmas Message

25 Dec

I’m back in Duluth this evening after my annual Christmas circuit south through Chicago and rural Wisconsin. It’s a trip that includes raucous family parties to more intimate connections to long hours alone on the road, a pattern that suits a person who needs some of everything in his life. Aunts and uncles, wine, cousins, lots of food, more wine, grandparents, beer, an old college friend, Brandy Alexanders, trains and planes and automobiles, presents, more wine…and then, later on, some time to sit back, relax, write, and read. My reading choice this time around was Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections; I’ve written some about my connection to this author before, and the theme in this book—a family coming together for one last Christmas in its hometown—seemed all too fitting. But despite its incredible potential, the book disappointed; Franzen’s characters just aren’t real enough to inspire any deep connections. It succeeds on many fronts, but it does not work as the thing it sets out to be above all others: a portrayal of family life.

Tolstoy wasn’t off the mark with his opening line in Anna Karenina: “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Families are troublesome, and remain so because they never follow the same pattern. Hence the conceit of a novel like Franzen’s: the design just can’t be universal. To quote another notable author, Flannery O’Connor: “anyone who survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.”

And so family life becomes easy pickings for novelists, especially ones like Franzen who are trying to say important things about the human condition. (He just takes a bad path in trying to get there.) There is no greater engine of supposed “irrationality,” no greater challenge to the strictures of efficient economics, than the ties that bind people to one another. For those who are always asking why things have come to be the way they are, there is a tendency to fixate on the shortcomings of family members, to blame parents or more distant relations for passing along their own foibles, for failing to explain certain things to us, and for any number of possible failings. Many who come from less-than-ideal families are quick to disown them; many who come from strong ones don’t realize how lucky they are. Wounds fester and grudges linger, long after people would have moved on in relationships not bound by blood. Maybe they constrain us and never let us be who we want to be; maybe they give us so much freedom that we have no clue what we’re supposed to do. Appearances from the outside may look nothing like perception from the inside, where oddities can be so familiar that we never notice them. There are indeed some families that are broken beyond any point of repair. Thankfully, they are less common than one might think, and with a healthy dose of humility, people from those families teetering on the edge can find, if not love, at least a snippet of wisdom. Even stable families can be draining, and have their share of differences that can be tough to bridge.

And yet, what is Christmas if not a story of family? It’s about a birth, after all. Finding meaning in Christmas can be very difficult these days, especially for those of us who run in circles where most people don’t put much stock in the transcendental side of the holiday. We’re supposed to give and be generous and take meaning from that, but it is so very easy to stress about what we’re giving: is this enough, will it surprise and delight, how does it compare to last year or the other gifts people are giving? Too often, a focus on the giving becomes overly materialist or status-obsessed. That leaves us with the inertia of tradition and the occasional spurt of serendipity, two forces that are flimsy on their own but given meaning when shared with people we know best. The real meaning is brought out in simple facts of existence, of roots that cannot be cut off: the people we come from. It all circles back to the family, no matter how far we wander from the manger in Bethlehem.

This is, of course, far easier to say than to accept in practice, and also can tip into mawkish sentimentalism. Holidays have their awkward moments, especially when shared with those with whom we are not all that close. In those cases, Franzen might offer some wisdom in characters like Alfred in The Corrections, a man who “had shown his faith in [his daughter] by taking her at face value: by declining to pry behind the front that she presented.” There are times when this is the best road to take. People need to coexist comfortably before daring to go any deeper.

But, being human, we get tired of comfortable coexistence before long. We want more. We want intimacy and meaning; we want signs that our existence has value that goes beyond our own myopic desires. For that, Alfred and the other flimsy Corrections characters aren’t of much use. Instead, we need people who cannot stand to be left in the dark, who want to learn as much as they can, even if that means finding a few skeletons in the closet. Impertinent and even dangerous at times, perhaps, but in search of underlying truth. Honesty, sincerity, and the whole backstory; a willingness to let others be stakeholders in one’s own destiny.  If we can’t give that to one another, what can we give?

Jonathan Franzen, Fiction, and a Novel of My Own

23 Sep

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.

The Reading List

3 May

I have been lax in blogging, so it’s time to get back into the game. What follows is a list of some of the works that have most profoundly affected me over the years. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things that I probably shouldn’t, but here you go: 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Some classics can be dry, certainly, but some immediately reveal why they have endured for centuries, and deserve to endure for many more. Few works are more universally applicable to most any situation, and often in ways that conflict with the popular image of the title character, thanks to Cervantes’ sharp wit. I had the added benefit of taking an entire college course on this one that was taught by a brilliant professor, which probably helped me see a few more things than I would have if I’d picked it up on my own.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. With graduation season upon us, I’ll be writing a longer post about this one in the coming weeks.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read both of these in high school and haven’t really touched them since, so I’m not sure if they’d have the same impact today. The styles are radically different–one is a lyrical and very real story of racial tension and forgiveness in South Africa, while the other is a punchy work with absurd layers of allegory, but both did a lot to expand my consciousness about the world around me.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What is it about Latin American writers and solitude? At any rate, this book is best known for its exploration of the Mexican identity, but I though it was at its more profound in the later chapters, when it opens up in an even deeper meditation on human nature. On the intellectual side of the ledger, this was my most rewarding discovery during the semester I spent in Mexico City as an undergraduate.

The Bill James 1984 Baseball Abstract. Yes, seriously. As it is, Bill James is (with apologies to Roger Angell) the most insightful baseball writer out there, and there are plenty of bits of brilliance about the game. But this is more than a baseball book; it is a book about how to think about things on different planes, and for a young sports fan, it presented its ideas in a way that was clear and easy to apply to a real-world scenario. I revisit parts of it time and time again.

Honorable mentions: Freedom and “Farther Away” (a New Yorker essay) by Jonathan Franzen; Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; the New Yorker‘s collection of reflection essays on 9/11 (most notably, Roger Angell’s); “Leaving Washington” by Patrick Deneen; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’m curious to see the new movie version); The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt; and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I’ll also throw in the “Harry Potter” series; I know it’s not great literature, but I did grow up with the books and draw certain insights out of them, so they deserve to be acknowledged.

I grew up generally indifferent as to whether books were considered classics or not, but I’ve been finding those so-called canonical works more and more relevant of late. For example, I read The Odyssey when I was fairly young, and though I enjoyed it, only in the past few years have I come to appreciate how far it reaches. I read War and Peace when I was way too young to get most of it–it was more so I could be That Kid who read War and Peace in 6th grade–and have not gone back to it yet, but from what I gather in reading about it since, I’m guessing I would really like it. Some day. It’s a similar story with The Bible. I was not raised within the Christian tradition, and I think that let me have some critical distance from it; as a result, I have only ever found it richly layered and compelling, and I think most intelligent readers should be able to appreciate its merits, even if they don’t believe it. Classics often get dismissed these days as stuffy or unrelated to contemporary life, and while many have their limits (what doesn’t?) and certain works are not for the faint of heart, tackling them with the right mindset can be very rewarding. I’d advocate for a healthy balance between past wisdom and present insight, but there’s little point in forcing oneself to read something that one does not want to read, and one never knows where one might stumble across the most relevant works.

That should do for my list, at least until I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “how could I forget Book X?!” Feel free to share your own in the comments.