Further Franzen

by jbloodwell

Making steady progress through Freedom, which thus far is impressive and engrossing. The novel should be, and is, of special interest to me given the navel-gazing I’ve done in the past (see here and here for starters) on the subject of the mainstream novel, meant to garner millions of readers; implied in those dispatches was the notion that the literary novel belonged elsewhere. Franzen’s novel, of course, is a “literary” book that also aspires to bestseller status; Franzen has talked about his task of making the work so compelling one turns away from television and video games.

As a preface to registering a minor complaint about Freedom, let me say as clearly as possible that I greatly dislike this guy, B. R. Myers (at whom I took an earlier swipe here). He seems not to derive any pleasure from reading, only smug satisfaction from knocking down popular and approved-of books and writers. He has an unreasonable fixation on prose, too, to the seeming exclusion of all the myriad other elements that make a work of fiction go. And that is from someone who occasionally feels he is unreasonably fixated on prose style, who has wrestled with some of the same writers Myers trashes in his A Reader’s Manifesto—Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy among others—and in some instances tossed their books across the room.

With all that said, I start to wonder if Myers isn’t onto something, regarding Franzen’s prose, when I read sentences like this:

“She was a very good and painfully earnest and strenuously mature young person whose exasperation with Patty and Joey—her feckless mom, her ruthless brother—was seldom so extreme as not to seem comical” (171).

I hate this sentence because it is really quite masterful for about 3/4ths of its duration. Franzen uses rhythm to get away with out-and-out telling; nothing concrete here, nothing to be seen, heard, or felt. He keeps a beat even as he interrupts himself: feckless mom, ruthless brother. And in terms of telling us this, it all is perfectly satisfying and appropriate within the context of the story: this is a section where the main character, Patty Berglund, is sharing her autobiography; Franzen is using the fairly sophisticated trick of having a character write about herself in the third person, and having the “character” in that text (now at an extra remove or two from Franzen’s  third-person creation of the Patty Berglund character) reflect on the character’s daughter, Jessica, and what she thinks of her mother and brother. The sentence falls, too, within an immediate context of a couple stitched-together scenes involving Patty and the novel’s most interesting character, Richard Katz, a sexy musician and an old Berglund family friend.

All of which makes it mildly infuriating to come to the far side of that second em dash and have to stop flat. Wait. Seldom so extreme . . . not to be comical. So she’s rarely extreme, and it’s not funny. Or no, she’s seldom so extreme that it’s actually funny? This clause reads like a Mobius strip, and though the following sentences and a feel for the novel and the character, Jessica, tell me the meaning—she is so extreme it is funny (see how clear things can be when you strip away double negatives?)—by the time I decided to let it go, I’d come to a dead stop.

It’s just one sentence, and I’m sure by the time I hit page 562 of Freedom it’ll be long forgotten. But these are the kinds of lapses that, accumulating over the length of a book, can make it less readable, less engrossing, less magical than a book otherwise could be.

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