Jonathan Franzen dusts under the social and political valence

Funnily enough, this post was mostly originally written the day before John Updike died. It was what I was typing when my famous Laptop Keyboard Disaster happened last week. It’s an unfortunate serendipity, though: while my keyboard did eventually recover – following a sort of intensive diagnostic and reboot-shock-therapy treatment (thank you Francis) – John Updike died, and thrust his nearly-namesake into the uppermost reaches of the Baroque consciousness again.

So here is what I was writing.

Here in Baroque Mansions we have a longstanding love-hate thing with Jonathan Franzen. Mostly it is a love thing, though. I don’t want to go into a big spiel here, but much of the horror I felt when he was swanning around saying he was too good for Oprah melted away when I was at last persuaded to read The Corrections.

Franzen does amuse me in his singleminded pretensions – the descriptions of him writing for months in a darkened room, blindfolded, so the outside world would not impinge on him still make me smile. But then, his marriage had broken up, he was hideously depressed, we all deal with things in our own ways, and look what he has achieved, damn his eyes.

I also admire the way he has taken the good old essay and made it a newly viable form – not the Misery Memoir, but the Essay – admittedly, largely the Autobiographical Essay. But his long piece about the Peanuts is a lodestone for me and just makes me want to go and spend hundreds on that huge complete set they’ve been publishing. And there’s one about selling his mother’s house, after she died, which is remarkable in the way that it lays bare the family dynamics – but in a loving, universally specific way, and not sparing himself. Once again, no book here, but it is in The Discomfort Zone.

Franzen is a brilliant stylist, in the sense of his style being so clear that one is not often aware of it – or, at least, not as decoration. Only as a series of good decisions. Hmm, well there is a copy of The Corrections here, I should get you a quote. Later.

Anyway, Elizabeth Baines pointed me towards this extract from an interview with Franzen, published on 5th Estate, the blog of Press Books (which includes Franzen’s publisher, 4th Estate).

Franzen says:

Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out. You’re not looking at your feeling from within. An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where you’re imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another person’s life. I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because they’re what we mean when we talk about being a person, about being an individual, about having an identity. Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is. It’s not the playlist on your iPod. It’s not your personal preference in denim washes. The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and you’re left with the narrativity of your own life. All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.

Well, yes. I agree wholeheartedly, especially about being left with precisely the things that are not possible if we are the sum of our consumer choices. And the interview as a whole is largely about the demise of the large-scale, life’s-work “social novel” a la Proust, which was a product of a world with far fewer distractions. I like wht he sys

But seriously, if you substituted the word “movie” every time he says “novel” would it be untrue? Of course, many people’s skill and vision go into a film, as opposed to the novel which is the putative world of one person alone – but the result, for the viewer, is still a space cleared for the express purpose of allowing this kind of engagement with the self. Does this element of communal effort somehow invalidate the film as a useful fiction? Then, the novelist is still subject to editors, with sometimes quite sweeping changes being made or suggested. So the auteur theory doesn’t work.

Also, he writes lots of essays. And I read far more poems than novels. Is this an issue? Are they not useful in the same way? Well – they are more overtly concerned with language itself as the mediating force, I suppose. But I still think it is the engagement itself that is meaningful. The crucial thing is the room it leaves for interior reflection, and the best films, poems, biographies, science magazines and essays do this.

Enough of that. I think The Corrections takes off into Updike’s territory. He grew up in Updike-world, like me, and this is the world he carries with him in The Corrections and gives back to us mingled with our own. Elsewhere in the above-mentioned interview, Franzen discusses the demise of the large-scale social novel of the 19th century; he made no bones about his ambitions for his book, and I think he largely succeeded: more readable, fresh and interesting than De Lillo, who is quoted on the front. Less pretentious and serious than Michael Cunningham, who is quoted on the back (and compares him to De Lillo).

Er – and that’s it. No quote from the book. I looked, and started reading, and couldn’t identify a short enough one.

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