Adam Reger | Freelance Writer

Pittsburgh-based fiction writer

Tag: Jonathan Franzen

Further Franzen

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.

Franzen Redux

1) I received Freedom in the mail yesterday. Quite excited to start it, though I am just getting into Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which so far is fantastic.

2) I have a subscription to MOG, an online music site that’s a pleasant and necessary diversion at work. I was a big fan of Lala, until Apple bought it so they could demolish it (as it was an iTunes competitor). One cool thing about MOG is that there is a scale one can slide during a given song, selecting a notch on a spectrum from “Artist Only” to “Similar Artists.” So when I was listening to a ton of Ween, I could have slid the scale over to “Similar Artists” to listen to what MOG thought was in the same ballpark. And if I were listening to a compilation album, and Ween came up, I could then slide the scale all the way over to “Artist Only” and thereby jump into a Ween mix. And so on—you could jump in and out, deciding you like Ween but you’d like to see similar artists, and from that decide what you really wanted to hear was the Butthole Surfers or early Flaming Lips—and so forth. Here is an interesting New Yorker piece about the larger online-music scene, with some special attention paid to MOG.

Navigating MOG, though, has put me in mind of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and a program he describes one of the characters writing that uses (what sounds to me like) similar technology, and which the character sells off for nearly $20 million. I’d always thought it was called Eigenvector, but apparently it’s actually “Eigenmelody.”

It is, of course, deeply impressive that Franzen thought this up. I suppose similar things were around in the early 2000s, but I remember reading The Corrections a few years late and being impressed by the novelty of this idea. Invention isn’t considered the strength of Franzen’s writing, but this again calls to mind his friend, David Foster Wallace, and all the technological developments described in Infinite Jest.


Jonathan Franzen interviewed by the AV Club here. Two of my favorite things, finally joined. His new novel, Freedom, is receiving glowing reviews. I’m bending in my position of resigning myself to waiting a year ’til the paperback comes out . . . and have just added my name to the surely long waiting list at the Carnegie Library. From the interview alone, though, one gets a sense of the scope of the novel and its ambition. You can also get a clear sense of Franzen as a thoughtful writer, grappling with significant issues: freedom, clearly, and what it means in the current American context, but also slightly meta concerns such as hooking and keeping readers. His take on it is, as with most things, unimpeachable: that it’s the writer’s job to produce work so compelling the reader turns away from cable, YouTube, video games, etc., etc. in order to read the book. Period.

In what limited press and review materials I’ve read from this novel’s publicity push, Franzen has come off as a more likeable person. Having read both How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, I got the clear sense that he’s a warm and funny person but that there’s a thin shell of reserve that can come off as chilly. Even reading this interview, the number of long pauses put me in mind of television appearances where his stoic face, those thick-framed glasses, that arrogant stubble(! I don’t know where that came from; I’m just going to go with it), made him come off as detached, a snob. Knowing he went to Swarthmore College, and possessing just enough knowledge of the place to form some key assumptions, probably doesn’t help. (I grew up one town over from Swarthmore.) Franzen seems, in general, the opposite side of the coin of his friend David Foster Wallace, who possessed a formidable intellect but seemed always to take pains to be self-deprecating and to connect to his audience. This is an observation, though, that suggests the folly of thinking you “really know” a public figure based on his/her writings and televised appearances.

Addendum: I forgot about this, or perhaps I never fully noticed, but I guess there was a small “feud” surrounding Franzen and Freedom when the writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner both complained about all the press. It was one of those annoying one-sided feuds that shouldn’t be called a “feud” because, well, you wouldn’t call mosquitoes buzzing around your ear a feud. But there’s a good rundown and, indeed, takedown by Lisa Solod at Open Salon (I guess a branch of Salon where people can post their own stuff? Don’t let that keep you away, though: the writing and reasoning are both Salon-quality.).