Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen is an easily understood genius

freedomAt some point Jonathan Franzen decided to write easily understood works of literary genius. It was likely while writing his 1994 essay Perchance to Dream which tries to find some purpose for the novel in the technological consumer culture of the late 20th / early 21st century (alternate title “Why Bother?”) It’s a decision that has made Franzen the most successful literary novelist of recent decades. And also one that has won me as a reader.

*There may be some spoilers ahead. It’s not the kind of book that is easily spoiled. But if you worry about such things, you have been warned.*

Freedom is a big book about…freedom. It’s a family saga, although in truth while it appears to follow the Berglund family over a number of decades, it is actually all about one pivotal relationship at the heart of that family’s life and identity. The Berglund’s are a midwest American upper middle class family, which is so much Franzen’s societal stomping ground he’s now frequently called on it as a limitation by reviewers. Lots of the story unfolds during the college years of the central characters, so Franzen can also enjoy writing a campus novel. There’s a love triangle, and at heart the book is a very moving story about the relative value of love, marriage and commitment.

And, of course, freedom.

Franzen tips the reader off that this is a book about freedom by calling the book Freedom. He’s trying hard to make sure you don’t miss this, because without having it front and centre in your mind, you’re not going to enjoy the many clever ways Franzen explores the theme of freedom. This is of course an American novelist, writing an American book about American culture. Freedom is the foundational myth of America, the “home of the free.” So literally any observation of contemporary American life an also be re-tooled as an observation on what it is to be a “free people”.

The large but not sprawling cast of Freedom – Walter and Patty Berglund, their two children Joey and Jessica, their oldest friend and rock musician Richard Katz, their relatives and in-laws and – pivotally – the supporting chorus of neighbours Franzen employs for comic relief – all represent different approaches to living a free life. Or not. In response to their freedom The Berglunds choose a not very healthy but very common form of codependent relationship – marriage. Richard Katz chooses total independence, and all the loneliness and craziness that comes with it. Neither is vindicated in their choice, they are merely different responses to the existential problem posed by freedom.

We know Franzen is doing this, because whenever he is done illustrating the conundrum that is freedom in a particular character, he slips in a sentence or two about being free, or living freely, or having freedom.

“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”

OK. The instances of free and freedom aren’t actually highlighted in the book. But they may as well be. How stupid would you have to be for the word freedom not to come flying off the page at you while reading a book called Freedom? Which is precisely the point. Franzen knows how stupid we are, and he knows how much he has to compensate for the stupidity of the average reader.

Franzen occasionally confuses his argument by using the word freedom in an entirely literal and non-thematic context. And I’m confusing my argument by being a person regularly guilty of extreme snark who now sounds like he is being snarky when actually he’s being 100% sincere. We need writers like Jonathan Franzen who can say intelligent things and aren’t too proud to highlight them in neon markers for a readership who simply aren’t very good at reading. I’m a professional book reviewer, and *I* need this, so I hate to think what the average bloke on the street needs.

We are a culture of surface and sensation. The cultural activities we actually do willingly are things of immense visual spectacle – stadium sports, blockbuster movies, widescreen home video games etc etc – and they in turn are experiences of intense sensation. We like food that burns our mouth with spice, drinks saturated in sugar and acid, news that soaks us with fear sweat and dramas that make us shriek and weep at the villainy and heroism on screen. We fill our real lives with fast cars, high power careers, extreme sports and hallucinogenic drugs. All of it, all of it, every last shred, to escape from the mundane life we would have to live if these things did not distract us.

Literary fiction does none of these things. It is, arguably, the antithesis of surface and sensation. It is the stripping away of fantasy and delusion to take us back to mundane reality. And it does this to help us see that it’s in the actual lives we are living that all the most valuable things are to be found. Love. Relationships. Emotion. Meaning. Hope. But to get there we have to re-engage with all the mundane stuff we’ve been avoiding. Lost love. Relationships gone sour with lack of care. All the emotions of grief, fear, hate, anger and the rest that we try so hard to avoid feeling. But without feeling them we can’t find any meaning or hope. It’s why literary fiction so often seems gloomy and depressing. It’s taking us back to our own gloomy depressing reality, without which we can’t find any true joy or happiness.

This is the first reason why literary fiction is a hard sell. It’s so much easier to escape in to a fantasy than to face reality, and there are whole genres of fantasy for readers who would rather do that. The second reason is somewhat more prosaic. As a culture of surface and sensation, we simply aren’t conditioned to look at the subtle internal life that literary fiction directs us to. In fantasy grief is solved when the hero kills the villain and saves the princess. In reality, grief is never solved. Things and people lost generally stay lost, and every time we lose something else the grief gets worse. That’s reality. It’s hard. Literary fiction can help show us – as Freedom does beautifully – how grief can be transformed in to redemption and renewal. But for those of us conditioned to look for a comforting fantasy, following the subtleties of real emotional experience and human behaviour is hard.

Franzen understands that for the potent medicine of literature to get through to readers, it sometimes has to be blunt. It’s tempting for literary writers to make the subtleties of emotion and experience ever more subtle. Maggie goes to the kitchen and washes a mug, and from this we’re supposed to divine that Maggie has found piece with the loss of her elder brother some years before. Well, frankly, most of us aren’t going to get that. We need writers like Franzen who’ll already have told us repeatedly that this was Johnny’s favourite mug, and will then have Johnny’s pet pitbull enter the kitchen with a note tucked in its collar from Johnny that he wrote as a joke just before dying which ironically lists all the things he finds annoying about his kid sister. Now, some of the audience at least are following along.

Freedom is one long series of well placed notes strapped to pitbulls. It’s a highly engineered work of fiction about important and subtle realities of life that almost anyone will be able to read with pleasure and take at least something from. In a world that seems to have fewer meaningful stories, and ever more escapist fantasies, that makes Freedom a book of immense power and value.

Advertisements

Fantasy must be a struggle with life

The more experienced I become as a writer, the more I realise I was closer to the soul of the art when I started out than after a decade and some lose change years studying its craft. Jonathan Franzen is a writer I discovered through The Corrections some time in the last year or so. In his recent lecture reprinted in The Guardian, Franzen talks about the relationship between fiction and autobiography, by way of Kafka.

Kafka’s work, which grows out of the night-time dreamworld in Kafka’s brain, is more autobiographical than any realistic retelling of his daytime experiences at the office or with his family or with a prostitute could have been. What is fiction, after all, if not a kind of purposeful dreaming? The writer works to create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning. And work like Kafka’s, which seems to proceed directly from dream, is therefore an exceptionally pure form of autobiography. There is an important paradox here that I would like to stress: the greater the autobiographical content of a fiction writer’s work, the smaller its superficial resemblance to the writer’s actual life.

When I began writing I found myself tugged back and forth between two seemingly conflicted urges. One was to write about my life. My first half dozen published stories, all now hidden on my hard drive out of public sight, were very direct explorations of the tough bits of my own life. These stories, recounting for instance the exacting details of watching my mother die of cancer, felt uncomfortably like bludgeoning an emotional response from readers. (I have the same feeling even looking back at that last sentence) In literary terms I’d had the advantage of of a traumatic childhood. I had a lot of dramatic experience to draw upon and wasn’t afraid in my early twenties to beat the shit out of people with it. In fact I enjoyed the sensation and found some needed emotional resolution in it. But I couldn’t avoid the idea that this was an unfair way to treat the reader, and I could see that this was a limited kind of writing.

Fortunately, the other tug on my writing sensibilities was the urge to write fantasy. By which I mean everything from Tolkienesque high fantasy to Gibsonesque cyberpunkian sci-fi fantasy. It’s all fantasy to my way of thinking. These were the writers I’d grown up with, the imaginary worlds I had retreated in to as an escape from all that traumatic childhood stuff. But whenever I tried, or sometimes return to trying, to write fantasy as an escape, I found that what I wrote died on the page. I have half a dozen novels worth of failed fantasy that will remain locked away until and hopefully after the day I die. It all needed to be written, it has all contributed to the million words every writer must write for their apprenticeship. But none of it ever needs to be read. I can’t quite bring myself to burn / delete it all, but I could do so with no great loss.

The stories I have written that pass my internal quality tests, and which I have therefore left lying around for interested people to read, have all satisfied both my urges for biography and fantasy. Star, my latest short story upcoming in Universe magazine in June, is an alternative history of a fascist Britain, and also a memoir of the attempt to escape what seemed an overwhelmingly authoritarian educational system. My Lovesick Zombie Boyband is about a teenage girl with powers of necromancy, and also about having my heart crushed when I was eighteen. Circe’s Bar and Grill is a contemporary retelling of the Odysseus myth, and also my experience of serving rich people in restaurants. Momentum is an complete invention, except I do have boxes of scrawled notes from departed relatives hidden under my bed and I often wonder what they mean.

Reading Jonathan Franzen’s idea of autobiography and the fictive dream, I realised how distinctly biography and fantasy, far from being conflicting urges, have actually been aspects of the same urge for me. I can steal Franzen’s words to describe that urge as to ‘create a dream that is vivid and has meaning, so that the reader can then vividly dream it and experience meaning’. It’s in the collision of the real and the fantastic that the vividness and and meaning of the dream arise.

Earlier in the same section of the lecture Franzen says:

My conception of a novel is that it ought to be a personal struggle, a direct and total engagement with the author’s story of his or her own life.

Whilst it might seem counter-intuative to some, all the fantasy writing I consider truly great conforms to that conception of the novel. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings struggles with his own story of surviving the trenches of World War One. China Mieville’s Bas Lag novels struggle with his own story of living as an intellectual and marxist in one of the worlds great capitalist cities. William Gibson’s novels from Neuromancer to Zero History struggle with his own story of understanding a world reshaped by the emerging web of media he calls ‘the net’. It’s the thing I find missing in most of the fantasy writing I encounter. However brilliantly it builds a world, tells a story, spinds out remarkable idea…if the author isn’t engaged in the struggle with their own story, it all adds up to little more than a calcified shell, missing the fleshy pulp of life within.

Enhanced by Zemanta