Tag Archives: United States

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.

Left and Right share the fight

Occupy Wall Street has seemed genuinely hopeful and constructive to me since its first emergence. I hadn’t been able to identify why, so thanks to Lawrence Lessig for stepping up and putting his finger on it:

In brief, Lessig believes that Occupy Wall Street has the potential to become something more than a Left leaning protest movement against a Right centred political system. I agree, and hope it is possible.

We all need to openly admit to ourselves that our democratic political system has become corrupted. No political system is ever without corruption. But since the financial crash of 2008, the system many of us believed to be historically less corrupt than any other, has proved to be much more corrupt than we hoped. We’ve seen that corruption in the inability of our political institutions to reform a financial system that everyone agrees is broken, and we’ve seen it in in the open corruption of our media, in particular the Murdoch media, which has been proved as nothing more than a protection racket and propaganda machine.

At the heart of this corruption, as with all corruption, is  money. Money has always bought power. But it seems at this moment in history to have overwhelmed any and all opposing ideology. Our political system today only serves the interests of money. And that is the very essence and definition of corruption.

Corruption of this kind is not in the interest of any person of any moral standing, whether they are on the Left or Right of the political spectrum. Yes, the arguments of the Left in defence of society’s poor and disenfranchised must be addressed. Yes, the arguments of the right in favour of our innovators and wealth creators must be advanced. Public spending has to be reigned in, just as corporate profits must be effectively redistributed. All these arguments must be had.

But none of this can happen until corruption has been defeated again. The political argument has been hijacked, on both sides, by people who hold no political ideology, who have no moral standing, who believe in nothing but themselves and their own power. These people are always there. The sociopathic fringe who crowd around power like those ugly mutated deep sea fish around volcanic vents. We can’t ever get rid of them. But we do need to learn to recognise them again. We need to learn to see them on our own side, as well as on the opposition. And we need to unite with our opponents, however much we disagree with them, if we are to have a chance of tackling our real enemey, the corrupt and cowardly few who are doing so much damage to the world today.

Occupy Wall Street is, and must continue to be, not a protest of Left against Right, but the seed of a united movement of Left and Right against the corrupt and criminal elementperverting our political system. I believe it can be, if we make it so.

Osama Bin Laden : Vigilante

Lavie Tidhars novel Osama makes me wonder why we can’t all just get along. No, really, why the fuck can’t we?

One common problem for all science fiction writers is reconciling the wondrous world we could have with the one we have negligently stumbled into. At this exact moment in time, in an alternate reality governed by the Grandmasters of Sci-Fi, there is a version of you living a life of luxury in a post-scarcity paradise where your every whim is met by your own robo-butler. Of course, that may already be your daily reality if you are a hedge-fund manager or MP on expenses, while the rest of us are simply grateful to avoid stacking shelves in Tesci. There are certainly worse realities, but there are also so many better ones.

Read more at Guardian books.

Thoughts on economics

So. We’re facing the worst financial crisis ever. Don’t believe it for a second. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a collapse. The final and overdue collapse of a system that has been in a constant state of crisis, with brief periods of remission, for at least the last few decades.

The really sad, and I mean tear inducingly sad thing about the incredible pain and suffering many people are going through because of this collapse, is how utterly avoidable it all is. It requires only a shift in perception to cure the entire problem. But then, perception shifts, even tiny ones, are among the most difficult thing to achieve.

What would that shift be? Hmmm…let’s see.

Many, possibly most people, believe that you get wealth by taking something from somebody else. It’s a belief that people hold on many different levels, from people who think that its OK to invade another country and enslave their people, to those who think its OK to employ workers and drive down their pay over time to create your profit margin. In the last 30 years this belief has come to dominate our economic system. Consequentially, we now have an economy which is dominated by ever more complex ways for a few people to take stuff from everybody else.

Some people, maybe, on a good day, a slim majority of people, understand that wealth comes from trade. Which, in an idealised Sesame Street version of the world, is also called cooperation or sharing. The more humans cooperate, the more wealth we all end up with because our economy becomes more and more efficient. If I grow wheat, while you catch fish, and we trade / cooperate / share, then we both end up with wheat AND fish, for the same total amount of work. Scale that up to the modern post-industrial era and you have the one and only reason why our lives are so much nicer and comfier than they were back in the day.

Taking wealth can work in the short term. But in the long term, you destroy the actual trade and cooperation which is creating the wealth. Which is why all evil empires collapse. They grow too quickly on the wealth they take, then collapse when the source of that wealth is destroyed. Does that seem like a familiar picture to you? Even slightly?

Capitalism isn’t entirely evil. Much of a our modern wealth does come through trade and cooperation. That’s something we can all be proud and happy about. We’re argubly more cooperative than ever before. But. Over the last 30 years or so, we’ve all been party to the resurgence of the belief that it’s OK to get wealthy by taking something from somebody else. We’ve taken stuff from third world people by wearing the clothes and using the manufactured goods produced in their sweatshops. (Hardly surprising that they are now not very sympathetic about or plunging living standards…) We’ve taken stuff from poor people by driving down relative pay for people employed in ordinary jobs. We’ve taken stuff from our neighbours by selling worthless consumer products to each through forceful sales and advertising techniques. We’ve even taken stuff from our parents by forcing down spending on the elderly, sick and infirm. Oh, and now we’re taking stuff from our own children by forcing them to shoulder vast debt just to get a standard education. WELL DONE US! WOO HOO!

You can’t build a strong economy on the basis of fucking each other over. What we are watching now is the inevitable collapse of our attempt to do so. The response to this collapse has been for the richest to work ever harder at fucking over the poorest. And of course, this has set-up a positive feedback loop which has sent us spiralling ever quicker in to collapse. And thats the direction we will continue to go in, until we shift our perception, away from ever more strenuous attempts to fuck each other, and on to finding better ways to trade, share, and cooperate with the tremendous wealth we have made in the world, while we still have it.