Sunday, April 24, 2011

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The Franzen Files, Part 4

As Jonathan Franzen's success has grown over the past decade, the central tension in his voice, the battle between elitism and egalitarianism, between arch irony and empathetic comedy, has begun to swell and bulge like an overtaxed vein. In his public comments; in his latest novel, Freedom; and, increasingly, in what has heretofore been his most consistent work, his nonfiction, Franzen can't seem to decide if he wants to love other human beings or scorn them, his impressive brain often elbowing out his large heart.

As one who thinks that the right to contradict oneself ought to be added to the Bill of Rights, and as one who seems to have a lot in common with the man, I'm usually willing to forgive Franzen his bouts of boneheadedness. But I found myself extremely frustrated with an essay he published in the April 18th issue of The New Yorker. The piece recounts Franzen's recent trip to Alexander Selkirk, the island named for the Scottish adventurer purported to have inspired "Robinson Crusoe." Under normal New Yorker SOP, the writer would make clear early on why he is visiting this island: to report. And an island with a place in literary history is the type of esoterica that The New Yorker loves to flatter its readers' intelligence with: overlooked, but not obscure; quirky, but not weird.

But Franzen's trip was taken for oblique personal reasons that make the journey seem contrived. Basically, Franzen says, he was tired after his grueling book tour in support of Freedom last fall: "Substantial swaths of my personal history were going dead from within, from my talking about them too often. ... At a certain point, having read about Masafuera [the island's original name], I began to imagine running away and being alone there, like Selkirk, in the interior of the island, where nobody lives even seasonally."

Fair enough, I suppose. But then, in the tone a person might use in describing their satisfaction at having fit two errands into one, Franzen writes: "I also thought it might be good, while I was there, to reread the book generally considered to be the first English novel."

If this attempt at offhandedness isn't silly enough, things get worse a few paragraphs later: "On the eve of my departure for Santiago, I visited my friend Karen, the widow of the writer David Foster Wallace."

Let's recap: before the first break in the essay, Franzen has given us an account of how bummed and bored his book tour made him; a brief history of the novel; an ironic account of a shopping spree at R.E.I. ("a little orgy of consumerism," he calls it); and a sudden revelation of the essay's real motive: the death of David Foster Wallace. The problem is that Franzen's authorial voice is clearly dissembling. He's trying to make this all sound very natural, but he hasn't quite hidden the wires (or the footprints in the sand, if we want to nod to Robinson Crusoe). The premises would have gone down easier if Franzen hadn't tried to apologize for them through nonchalance. Infinitely more preferable and effective would have been the path of least resistance: I thought it'd be nice to check out Alexander Selkirk and take some time to think about my dead friend, and so I talked to The New Yorker, and they said fine, and hence, this piece you are now reading.

As an essayist, Franzen has a real gift for gathering windblown bits of his experience and weaving them into beautiful narratives. His essay "My Bird Problem," which makes a lovely whole out of global warming, birdwatching, and Franzen's anxieties about his childlessness, is a fine example. But in this case, Franzen's chosen elements—the history of Robinson Crusoe, a contrived trip to an island, and Wallace's death—can't be woven together (partly because they were chosen, rather than found, if that makes sense).

Instead, the best Franzen can do is weld them into a sloppy whole. After that first section break, we get Franzen's memories of growing up with Robinson Crusoe in St. Louis; some pretty boring descriptions of the island and Franzen's clumsiness in dealing with it, conditioned as he is by our plugged-in world; the obligatory Franzonian agitation on behalf of birds; a history of the novel whose necessity to the essay is tenuous at best; some comments on Facebook and the like (ironically, this essay was the first offered by The New Yorker in its entirety on Facebook for those who "liked" the magazine); and, finally, the stuff we've been waiting for: Franzen's thoughts on David Foster Wallace.

It's a gut-wrenching account, and it's an ethical nightmare. Franzen is prone to grand pronouncements about mental health that tend to be both highly insensitive and highly suspect; making such pronouncements about Wallace, who killed himself after a battle with a truly nasty depression, takes the cringe-factor to new levels. Franzen posits, compellingly, that Wallace killed himself in order to achieve the sort of reverence that escaped him in life. And indeed, despite having never won a major literary prize and being held at arm's length by most critics, Wallace has somewhat suspectly entered the canon. He has also, in death, been mourned as "a great and gentle soul," to which Franzen replies:

"But if you happened to know that his actual character was more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, and if you also knew that he was more lovable...than the benignant and morally clairvoyant artist/saint that had been made of him, it was still hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers [through suicide] over the love of the people closest to him."

Granting that by questioning Franzen's motives for writing this sort of thing about his deceased friend, I am engaging in the same type of behavior that I am criticizing—i.e. pretending to know a lot more about a situation than I actually do—and, granting that Franzen did know Wallace very well and lays out a very compelling case that Wallace killed himself for the reasons Franzen says he did, isn't it still dangerous, angry, and oddly vindictive to write this sort of thing about a friend's suicide, which, without sanctioning said suicide, was undoubtedly the product of incredibly complex pathological processes that we can only begin to fathom? Franzen acknowledges the complexity and ultimate unknowableness of his friend's disease, and then goes on to presume to know all about it. A little more humility in the face of such an awesome problem would have been welcome.

Franzen is up to two things: he is hoping to make peace with his friend's violent death, and he is hoping to restore David Foster Wallace the human being over David Foster Wallace the myth. Both of these aims are admirable and understandable. But Franzen forced the issue. The disappointing thing is that you can smell a good essay in there somewhere, somewhere beneath all the nonsense about wanting to get away from it all and being curious about the origins of Robinson Crusoe, beneath the baggy and strained use of Wallace's death to make a larger point about modern boredom, beneath trying to convince himself that he isn't still angry at Wallace by saying, "I'm not angry anymore!" in the way that the pal you're holding back from a fight yells, "I'm calm! I'm calm!": somewhere under all this flotsam is a moving, incisive, and devastating account of a writer's thoughts on his friend's horrific death that just wasn't ready to be written. Instead, we get a compelling but uneven essay that leaves us feeling sort of sick for all parties involved, living and dead.

I can only conclude by again acknowledging the limits of my own empathy; I can only imagine Franzen's grief and anger at Wallace's death. Last week, an acquaintance on Penn's soccer team told me he'd read Franzen's essay on Facebook and that Franzen's voice had reminded him of me. Given how scantly this fellow and I know each other, part of me was flattered: after all, it is because of Franzen that I want to be a writer, and I truly feel that he and I are deeply similar. For a near-stranger to sense an affinity between us is to validate my admiration for and frequent emulation of Jonathan Franzen.  But part of me laughed in frustration, because the essay was Franzen at his most maddening, the Franzen who can't make up his mind, the Franzen who has been on display an awful lot for the last year or so.

Sometimes, the people that anger us the most are the ones we just can't seem to shake.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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In Sickness and In Health

I learned the other day that Penguin Classics had stopped printing William Gaddis's 956-page opus The Recognitions, which has been on my extended reading list ever since I read Jonathan Franzen's great essay about Gaddis "Mr. Difficult." I hadn't been planning on buying that sucker anytime soon, but the Penguin edition is absolutely gorgeous, and the cruel logic of publication schedules had forced my hand. And so: over to the Penn Book Center, out with 26 bucks, and home with eight ounces of Gaddis.

When will I read the thing? Now that I've got it, I hope this summer, though this may be wishful thinking. I satisfied myself last night with William H. Gass's wonderful and funny introduction, just about every paragraph of which could generate a blog post. But for now, I'll settle on this one:

"There's no need for haste, the pages which lie ahead of you will lie ahead of you for as long as you like them to; it is perfectly all right if some things are at first unclear, and if there are references you don't recognize; just go happily on; we don't stay in bed all day, do we? just because we've mislaid our appointment calendar. No, we need to understand this book—enjoy its charm, its wit, its irony, its erudition, its sensuous embodiment—the way we understand a spouse we have lived with and listened to and loved for many years through all their nights. Persons deserving such devotion and instinctual appreciation are rare; rarer still are the works which are worth it."

The metaphor of difficult fiction being like a marriage is both beautiful and useful. This semester, as I've read Ulysses and parts of Finnegans Wake, I've been asked regularly if I get the books. In one sense, especially with Finnegan, the answer is no. There were ten and twenty pages stretches of Ulysses that found me without any sense of plot or theme or allusion. Reading Finnegans Wake is a slow process of searching for the familiar in the bewildering; its narrative, in large part, is the story of how the reader chooses to proceed through it. ("There is no agreement as to what Finnegans Wake is about, whether or not it is "about" anything, or even whether it is, in any ordinary sense of the word, 'readable,'" begins John Bishop's introduction to my copy).

But in another, more important sense, I've come to appreciate the real pleasures of difficult fiction. Explaining these pleasures to others without sounding snobbish, delusional, pretentious, or insecure is just about impossible, and so I really like Gass's metaphor of difficult fiction as being like a marriage. It's taken me a long time to let go of my need to understand every sentence of every book that I read. Not coincidentally, I think, my relaxation as a reader has accompanied a growing realization of the impossibility of really knowing another human being, no matter how close you feel to that person.

This is not something to be lamented or feared. Rather, it requires us to shift our notion of what it means to understand (or, in the case of literature, what it means to read). Simply because a book is difficult (or, in Finnegans' case, impossible, if you seek to read it the way you read Shakespeare) does not mean that we cannot know it in a very real way. I identify with Nick Carraway far more than I do Leopold Bloom, largely because Fitzgerald presents Carraway in such lucid, seductive prose, whereas Joyce hides Bloom behind all kinds of stylistic barnstorming. But Ulysses now holds a place as esteemed in my life as The Great Gatsby, because of the work I put into it, which yielded very large rewards: the pleasure of learning who Leopold Bloom is; of getting a sense of what, exactly, Joyce was up to; of reading Molly Bloom's final, dizzying monologue. I have much left to understand about the book, but as my post on James Joyce illustrates, I was very moved by Ulysses.

This doesn't mean that all "difficult" fiction is good, its pleasures simply awaiting excavation beneath a layer of topsoil; nor does it mean that "easier" fiction is simply lazy. But it does mean that we often know worthwhile work when we see it. However, in our age of instant gratification, the willingness to engage in this work, deferring substantial pleasures for immediate enjoyment, seems to be dwindling.

Teaching seventh graders for the last three summers, I've been wondering how to communicate to them that sometimes, life's real joy only follows drudgery. (Hell, forget seventh graders; I have to communicate this to myself just about every day.) There's been no shortage of rhetoric about the need to pay attention from the bespectacled likes of me, but Gass's metaphor, written in 1993, before the digital explosion, seems to be a uniquely tangible and pungent defense of this view as more than just the carping of the literati. Rather, Gass has found an incisive way of illustrating the deeply-felt link between the hard work of reading and the things that preserve our humanity. In Gass's view, knowing a difficult book is a special type of surrender: it requires trust, it requires patience, and it requires work.

Quite simply, it is love.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

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They're Baaack!

Here at Traction, we love My Morning Jacket. They're just about the only contemporary band whose entire back catalog is worth owning. That is, except for their last album, Evil Urges, which really put us off with its mix of scream-heavy freakouts, paranoid pseudo-funk, and really bad soft rock that made MMJ sound a bit like the Carpenters (yes, there is good soft rock; at their best, My Morning Jacket tips its hat to Bread). Fortunately, they have a new album coming out soon. I reviewed the first single for Penn's arts and culture magazine. You can find it here.

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Odyssey Complete

Looking back on the month and a half I spent reading Ulysses, which came to an end in Fisher Fine Arts library yesterday afternoon, the intensity of my engagement with the book seems to describe an inverted parabola, like a jump rope held at rest: high at both ends, and sagging in the middle.

There's a few reasons for my uneven attention: the pressures of reading such a difficult book on an academic schedule; the frustrations of attempting to read it in the stale mania of airports; Joyce's encyclopedic allusions, which skip from Aristotle over Shakespeare and on to Irish politics; the wildly experimental style that mandates constant rereading.

It was real work, and as a result, it was one of the best reading experiences of my life. I was most enthralled by the penultimate chapter, "Ithaca," in which Leopold Bloom (as sketched by Joyce, above) returns home after a day spent wandering the streets of Dublin. The section takes the form of a question and answer, with a disembodied voice asking and answering questions about Bloom's activities. The narrator's tone is clinical and scientific, yet Joyce miraculously transforms this sterile language into poetry. One of my favorite portions describes Bloom and his newfound companion, Stephen Dedalus, stargazing in Bloom's backyard:

"With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft..."

And so on, in similarly convoluted prose, to the final item in the answer:

"...of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity."

Homer's Odysseus had to contend with the fickle will of the gods; Joyce's Bloom must live with the indifference of the universe. This passage arrives after the reader has spent the better part of the day with Bloom, learning about his hopes and his fears; his idiosyncrasies (like his affection for buttocks); his insistent sense of right, which is by turns endearing, admirable, annoying, and ridiculous; and his shortcomings. All this occupies the middle part of the novel that is so often maddening to read. Not that there weren't luminous moments of insight or great jokes or incredible stylistic acrobatics on Joyce's part—these exist in abundance. But there is also the numbing quality of following an Everyman on his unremarkable errands, to the butcher shop, the newspaper office, a funeral, the library, the museum. The reader's growing intimacy with Bloom has an attendant fear: that his day will end like any other, that his wife's infidelity will go unchallenged, that the sun will set on Bloom like it does on all of us.

This is indeed how the novel ends. He is an Everyman, after all, not the king of Ithaca. Bloom falls asleep after balancing his account book for the day. But what makes the difference is precisely the reader's closeness with Bloom, so that by the time his head hits the pillow (positioned at his wife's feet; they are out of step in every way), the reader smiles knowingly and sadly, for he knows Bloom's prejudices, his get-rich-quick schemes that will never come to fruition, his intellectual posturings, his heroic indifference in the face of his wife's serial infidelity, and his wistfully entertained thoughts of fleeing. When he stands outside considering the stars, Bloom, for a moment, shares in the futility of it all, the hilarity of considering as important all the human foibles enclosed in "a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity."

But one of Joyce's preoccupations throughout the book is the phenomenon of parallax, roughly, the apparent difference in an object's position when viewed from two different angles. In the cosmic scheme, absent God, our lives don't add up to much; through the eyes of an Everyman, they have to. This is how we all live—how we must live—and so when Bloom goes upstairs after his meditations on scale and balances his check book, our laughter at him includes a bit of laughter at ourselves, for we act much the same on a given day; this willful solipsism is part of what makes us human. As Bloom thinks of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, it "would probably there as here remain inalterably and inalienably attached to vanities, to vanities of vanities, and to all that is vanity."

To take the frightening element of infinity admitted into modern life by Isaac Newton, the revelation of incomprehensible scale that threatens to make a sad little comedy out of all human endeavor, and to craft it into an engine for sympathy, for pathos, and for laughter: this is Joyce's special triumph.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

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Guns, Germs, and Shutdowns

I had the good fortune of seeing Jared Diamond speak at Penn this evening. Diamond, the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, spends a lot of his time studying the end of civilizations, hardly a cheery topic. So it was a surprise to see how amiable and "cautiously optimistic" (his words) Diamond was.

Diamond said that one characteristic of failed civilizations is that as their problems mount, their rich and powerful tend to find a way to isolate themselves from these ailments. Other societies, like the remarkably resilient Dutch, endure in large part because the interests of rich and common are in alignment. In the Netherlands, this unity comes from the simple fact that all of the Dutch live well below sea level and so have an interest in avoiding practices that may make floods worse, as opposed to New Orleans, where most of the city's wealthy lived beyond the reach of the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

In America, according to Diamond, this trend has gotten worse over the last two decades. Interestingly, he used the example of gated communities to illustrate this point, the same example that Tony Judt used in his final book, Ill Fares the Land. Both men offer gated communities as an example of how America's wealthy have willfully dug trenches around their resources, leaving them with little reason to support badly needed reform in health care, education, and energy. Diamond took the example a step further than Judt, arguing that America and Western Europe have a "gated community" mentality towards the third world, hoping to hide behind their redoubts of prosperity as large parts of Africa and Asia struggle to modernize. But as Diamond pointed out, this luxury is no longer a possibility, as globalization means that all of China's problems, say, become our own.

I don't offer this to suggest that America is in an inexorable slide, for this was not Diamond's point either. But it does seem to illuminate some of the real pathologies underlying our politics, especially as we hurtle towards a government shutdown. Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to paint the opposite party as failing to take "the people's" interests into account, when the reality is that the federal government as a whole has lately failed the American people. And it can get away with it, thanks to the gated community effect: a government shutdown would be nothing but an interesting New York Times article for the wealthy. But for those Americans who can't hide behind gates, it would be a deeply painful blow. And as Diamond pointed out, if enough of those blows are dealt to the masses, even the strongest gates won't deflect their anger. Both John Boehner and Barack Obama have been complaining that their opponents won't "get serious" about the nation's problems, but rarely is America's growing income gap mentioned among those problems. It's time for our leaders to show that they have the collective well-being in mind; a government shutdown would hardly inspire much confidence to that end.

Monday, April 4, 2011

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The Truth About Charley

The New York Times reports today that large sections of John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, which Traction meditated on recently, were apparently fabricated. It seems Steinbeck made up many of the book's conversations, slept in a motel more often than he let on, and was joined by his wife not just for a Chicago meet-up, as the book says, but for large portions of the trip.

Does all this matter? My answer to all this is usually no. Our obsession with the veracity of a nonfiction work often causes us to lose sight of its literary merit; thank god that Capote's In Cold Blood appeared in the 1960s and not in the age of Oprah vivisecting James Frey on-air.

But I must say I feel a bit let down in Steinbeck's case. Travels With Charley is presented as a journey taken across America at peculiar time in its existence by an author at a peculiar time in his existence. The confluence of Steinbeck's reflections on old age with his observations on the dawning of postindustrial America are what lend Travels its special power. As I wrote earlier, what I admired so much about the work was Steinbeck's openmindedness and fundamental optimism in the face of so much change. What buoyed Steinbeck's hope against a looming tide of despair were his encounters with decent Americans, surprising in their knowledge and their generosity.

Since those encounters appear to be the locus of Steinbeck's fabrications, it's hard not to feel a prick of disappointment. As the Times article reports, the conditions that made Steinbeck's journey so poignant--he knew he was on borrowed time when he set out--are the same ones that probably kept him from interviewing many people or fully submitting to the rigors of the road. He is hardly to be blamed for this.

But it's nevertheless disheartening, as Bill Barich says in the Times piece, to think that in truth Steinbeck didn't find much to be hopeful about on the road, that in order to keep hope alive, he had to spin it out of thin air.