Jonathan_Franzen_Purity

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a wide-ranging conversation with Jonathan Franzen. His latest novel, Purity, is available now in trade paperback from Picador. It is the official August selection of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

This summer I sojourned to the Mt. Hood Wilderness Area in Northern Oregon. Over a span of four days I hiked nearly 40 miles and in the process endured soaking rains, too-little food and water, poisonous plants, venomous spiders, blood-sucking flies, and the possibility of an attack from bears, cougars, or perhaps even Bigfoot. At the end of the ordeal my feet were blistered and sore, my legs and back aching. In such a state was I that the meager prospects of a gas station sandwich and a Motel 6 seemed downright epicurean.

For many, this type of willful deprivation from modern comforts amounts to little more than masochism. As far as I’m concerned, such suffering is sheer joy when compared to the pain visited upon man by his fellow man. Concomitant with deprivation from society’s riches is deliverance from its ugliness.

More than a month has passed since I listened to the unabridged recording of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and read the paperback of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles.  To be frank, I’ve been avoiding writing about either of these novels, not because I didn’t like them, but because I feel inadequate even discussing them.  My words, no matter how carefully chosen or artfully rendered, cannot elevate these books any further.  They are two of the finest works of literature I’ve read in years.

When Secretary Sebelius says that Plan B could pose health risks for teens, is she really thinking straight?  After all, Dr. Megan Evans, in RH Reality Check, writes, “Tylenol is over-the-counter and far more dangerous with far more potential for adverse outcomes. Oh, and pregnancy in a ten- to 11-year-olds also has far more adverse outcomes than a small, but effective dose of Plan B.”  Wise words.  In fact, according to the Guardian, for every 100,000 American women who give birth to live babies, 16.7 of them die.  And that’s not to mention the damage that post-natal depression can cause.

Evans’s grounded, intelligent point will doubtless be ignored by many.  Witness that since news of the Plan B decision broke, parents have been stating how brokenhearted they’d be if their own daughter didn’t ask their advice before taking Plan B.  This, they argue, supports Sebelius’s decision.  But the ruling isn’t just about parents who adore their kids.  It is also about young people who come from abusive families and are afraid to turn to their guardians for support.  It’s about those who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t drive themselves to the doctor.  It’s about those who have been date-raped and can barely think straight.

And it’s also about all of us, regardless of sex, gender and age, because when you control human sexuality, you control intimacy, life and the body itself.

I’d be surprised if that wasn’t a power trip.

Given these recent events, my political fantasy world has gone wild.  I mean, what if young people felt so afraid of pregnancy that they decided to stop screwing the opposite sex, but decided, instead, to all start having same-sex relationships.  “Don’t risk pregnancy,” they’d shout, “be gay!  There are fewer risks!”  I bet parents and politicians would be hitting the roof, showing their true homophobia, and Plan B would be in the bubblegum aisle sooner than you could say FDA.

Or what about if all the heterosexual under-seventeens who live in states where sex toys are illegal each ordered a vibrating rubber duck from Good Vibes, figuring this was safer than partnered sex without Plan B?  This could prompt the Vibrating Duck Revolution of 2012.  Fifteen year-olds throughout America would be sinking into their bubble baths, pledging their virginity to their rubber ducks.  And what would the police do?  Storm into these bathrooms and arrest these young rebels?  I’m not being entirely ironic when I say they might. I’m sure families, religious leaders and politicians would go nuts.  There’d be complaints about police pocketing ducks that weren’t theirs to pocket and there’d be anti-masturbation posters everywhere.  “We do not have evidence to prove that vibrating ducks are safe for under-seventeen’s,” the politicians would announce.  “Further testing is needed.”

See the mad place this is sending me to?

If Plan B is safer for an eleven year-old than Tylenol and they can also buy condoms in the bubblegum aisle, then the decision on Plan B is definitely a political one.

So.  What’s Plan C?

 

 

A Final Note:  This is the final installment of Hot Topic.   I have so enjoyed writing at TNB and receiving all your wonderful comments.  Thank you all so much for reading!  I will still see you all on the TNB site, as part of the community.  In the meantime, please do keep up with me.  I blog, most days, at www.lanafox.com.

Be safe, be proud, be you.

-LF

 

In a distant incarnation of self, circa 1991, I was a member of the grunge scene in Portland, Maine. This did not entail much. I frequented bars, stayed razor-edge thin, and was sort-of (although I could be mistaken) dating a drummer from a band called Otis Coyote. One evening, we attended a party. Instantly, the crowd sorted itself into the musicians (males) and the people who had shown up with the musicians (females). I could only wonder what the musicians were talking about. I imagined they were discussing the things that the drummer talked about—music, books, wild stories from the not too distant past—while I pretended interest in the canned food drive that socially-conscious metal band Tesla had organized in coordination with their upcoming concert: whoever brought the most cans got to meet the band. My forays to join the musicians were met with a silent curiosity or the statement, “there’s more beer in the fridge.” This was a fight waiting to happen—which I promptly initiated at first opportunity—and I anticipated every word leveled at me in the car on the way home: snob, elitist, snob. I knew to steer clear of talking gender because I didn’t need “harpy” added to the others.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days of what it means to be a gay writer, probably because June is gay pride month. I suppose I tend to see the idea of a gay writer in two ways as it relates to me, sort of like a chameleon with two independently floating eyeballs connected to one brain—to one instinctual purpose. I can see (I hope to see) myself in one thousand years being pored over by a group of eager young scholars at the University of Olympus Mons on Mars. Each would be an immigrant, a muscular mix of Japanese, Ukranian and Nigerian origins. Each would be between the ages of 23 and 35.

I was watching the Mets play the Phillies on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball when the broadcaster announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Immediately, I flipped to CNN for more details and watched Wolf Blitzer juggle numerous correspondents as details of the event poured in. I stayed tuned for about 20 minutes, and during that time the crowd gathering on the White House lawn grew from dozens to hundreds to thousands. They waved American flags and climbed atop each others’ shoulders, chanting “USA! USA!” Their celebratory uproar reached a volume that made it difficult for one reporter on the scene to be heard. The surreal spectacle looked like the tail end of a debauched 4th of July barbecue.

INTRODUCTION:

 

David Shields has talked extensively about Reality Hunger over the past year. This February the paperback will be released. Also forthcoming this month, The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow, with essays from Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Safran Zoer, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. But what else, besides death and reality, does David Shields think about?  David confided over dinner at Seattle icon, Restaurant Zoe, that Tracy Morgan’s recent comment about Sarah Palin being great “masturbation material” provided the chuckle of the week. He was obviously distracted and transfixed by the culinary displays…the small plates, the olive tapenade amuse-bouche, and the root of celery crème fraîche, and who wouldn’t be? But I wanted to probe deeper. Using questions often directed at jocks, specifically Charles Barkley, we did a quick Q&A. I substituted “work of art” for “basketball team”, “Jonathan Franzen” for “Lebron James”, and “literary game” for “the NBA game”.    

 

10.)  When opened, provides ample cover from falling birds.

This past week, I got a Kindle. I have not been so changed by a reading experience since Stephen King’s Needful Things, which was the book that made me realize I wanted to tell stories. It’s the sort of genius-level device that demonstrates the fact that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Truly wonderful.

“We’re moving,” I tell my dental hygienist when she tries to set up my next visit, six months from today.

“Oh! Wow! Where to?” The inevitable next question.

Honestly, I really don’t care much for dental friendliness. I like clean teeth and gingivitis tops my pet peeve list, right along with things that involve a seething crowd of fans, but I am not here to make friends. Perhaps it’s the vacuuming of my spittle that makes me feel so vulnerable and mean, or the lead vest, I don’t know. I shut my eyes behind my colossal sunglasses and run my tongue across the polished surface of my incisors for strength.

I do not explain how we are planning to pack our family into our Honda CRV, drive ourselves to Lincoln Mortgage, sit for our property closing, hand over keys to our house and then drive out of town. It’s a long story.

I also don’t tell her that I wish she were a robot.

“West,” I say, not so helpfully, and only because she’s blocking my exit with her Care Bear scrubs and confusion I add, “Seattle maybe.”

We really don’t know, I don’t say.

We are among the millions that have been directly affected by the recession. I hate that word, that euphemism. It’s an insult to eupha-mizing. It’s a euphemism that needs euthanizing. We have been unemployed for a year, our house is under contract and we simply have no reason to stay, so we decided that we might as well be in a place we love and we love what’s west of here, so we’re going there.

When we tell people this, the responses vary from interest, excitement to sadness and heartbreak for the missing that comes with leaving. The dental hygienist is easy. The good friends are definitely harder. It’s one of those all-inclusive-full-spectrum kind of experiences.

“Fear not!” I say to the friends, but not to the hygienist. Actually, I probably don’t really say, fear not to my friends either. But I certainly do imply it when I assure them that although we may not have a firm destination, we do have a plan, we do have faith, and we do have job prospects, talent and are unabated survivors. We will land.

In the interim, relieved of the weight of our things (having traded them for garage sale cash) we will be light and expansive! With a loose itinerary and a sense of adventure we will zig zag! We will take the long cut! We will have spitting contests with our son over canyon lips and notice the difference in the shape of the sky, the varied species of clouds over Wyoming, Montana. We will get cricks in our necks from gazing up the to the peaks of the Rockies, the tips of the Redwoods. But most importantly, we plan to laugh in the face of our homelessness and bestow onto it, with an avowed sacristy, ineffable calm, hearty and appropriate euphemisms. We will not undermine it like that “recession” crap. Instead, we will enhance! Transform!

We will not be Homeless. No way.

We will be Nomadic. We will be Gypsies. Vagabonds. James Bonds. Free Willys. Rolling Stones. Pigs in Zen. We will be Superbad and coming to a town near you. We will be cruising with the windows down, making terrific wave formations with our arms and we will be shaking our heads at the naysayers and the game players because we will know we are indestructible.

We will pretend we are flying, we will know we are free.


It is dangerous to summarize an Emily St. John Mandel novel.Spoilers would abound in any description, but also a synopsis of Mandel’s thriller/mystery plots would risk trivializing or reducing this immensely talented writer’s work.I’ll limit myself, therefore, to saying that The Singer’s Gun, Mandel’s sophomore novel, is about a man named Anton who grew up with parents who sold stolen goods.Anton himself has worked with his beautiful and cold cousin selling fake passports, but has hankered after the “straight” life and tried to attain it.Of course he finds—as all characters find in fiction, and indeed most people find in life—that it is entirely difficult to outrun your past, and if you are serious about doing so you will probably need to make some pretty unpalatable sacrifices along the road to freedom.

99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.