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.

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Cover_LifeisShortArtisShorterIntroduction

Short Stuff

Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight to video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, timeouts, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, –ribs, –stops, –hands, –changed, … but sweet.

9780374182212The cover of Jonathan Franzen’s strange, wonderful, and occasionally frustrating latest work, The Kraus Project, is immediately striking. Its peach smoke and antiquated type make for a different and mysterious feel. The typical Franzen cover is big, abrasive, traditionally American and in some cases, tactile or reflective. Into the world came The Kraus Project and it was greeted with a small well-mannered hooray and scarcely a glimmer of anticipation, like someone whom nobody was excited to see arriving late to a dinner party. The usual Franzenian hallmarks were strangely absent—there was no cannonade of tweets, motions for canonization or general controversy.

Earlier this week, the NW Book Lovers website published an essay by bestselling novelist Jonathan Evison arguing in favor of old-fashioned, paper-and-ink books. It’s the first in a series of six essays by this year’s PNBA Award winners, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from a writer of Evison’s calibre. It makes a case clearly and succinctly for “actual books”, praising their feel, their smell, and even their use as an aphrodisiac. It has been greeted with a chorus of approval from book lovers.

Unfortunately, it is also misguided and wrong.

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.

I love stars, the kind you find in the sky, but I’m not as enamored with those on the ground.

We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

 

Spackler’s Hackles by E. Whittington Ashley ($22.95, Scribner)

Undeniably one of the blockbuster hits of the year, full of disparate yet wonderfully rendered characters like Cambodian refugees and the Hungarian Mafia, evangelicals and gay rehab counselors, not to mention evangelicals in gay rehab, cheesy boyfriends and drunk bookworms. Dmitri Spackler is a protagonist for the new millennium: a savvy mix of Leopold Bloom and Jay Gatsby, with a touch of Hank Chinaski thrown in for good measure. The prose is incisive, contemporary, and full of wisdom, while simultaneously confronting the near-future with an ironic and heuristic eye. Simply put, this wonderful book stretches the boundaries of the imagination way past boundaries I had previously imagined.

 

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.

They tell me I’m better on the Internet. Funnier on Facebook, more oomph than “IRL.” I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose my avatar is something of an improvement, a jovially connected version of myself, my greatest hits, quickest comebacks, and most “likeable” observations. Version 2.0 as Zadie Smith says in her controversial essay, “Generation Why?”

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.

Hi Christian, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I have to say that you’re shorter than I expected.

Um, thanks.

 

So what do you think makes you qualified to write about white people?

Well I like to say that I have 32 years of experience. (CRICKETS). Well, I don’t really think anything qualifies me as the expert. I’m really just the guy who started writing about it. I think I have been especially blessed with a talent for observation due to my being Canadian.

 

Why does being Canadian imbibe you with an observational acumen?

One of the things you learn very early on as a Canadian is that literally no one outside of Canada cares what’s happening in your country. We have spent our entire national existence trying to get some sort of credit or recognition from the UK and more recently the United States. I don’t mean recognition like an award, just recognition that something is happening in Canada besides hockey. We are literally a self deprecating country. So when you come to this realization, you spend most of your life looking outward and observation what the English and the Americans are doing. Mostly so we can dress better.

 

Alright, enough with the niceties, are you a racist?

Not really. I have two black friends, which legally qualifies me as not racist. However, you could say that I’m a bit racist against white people. I stereotype them, I get easily annoyed by them, and very very frustrated when they do something predictably “white.” But all of that anger comes from self-loathing. I am often angry at myself when I gush over a fancy restaurant’s modern take on Poutine or Macaroni and Cheese. I’m frustrated when I find myself lusting over sweaters, and mid century furniture, and raw milk. So am I racist? Not really. Am I self loathing? Yes, most definitely.

 

I was recently informed that you attended your second reggaeton music festival. Did you find that you were embraced by Latino culture?

Not really. But I did impress a number of people by being able to mouth all the words to a Chino y Nacho song.

 

Chino y Nacho?

Yes, they are a very popular duo from Venezuela.

 

Okay, do you think that you’re into this reggaeton music merely because such a small amount of white people are drawn to it? I mean, are you trying so hard to be different from other white people that you’ll fork out money for concert tickets and CDs just to remind them how different you are?

No Comment.

 

Fine, we’ll move on to your next question. How would you define a “White city.”?

Any place where the local economy cannot support real estate prices.

 

Touche. So have you read any books lately that you’ve enjoyed?

I read Jonathan’s Franzen’s Freedom and I am forced, by law to love all things produced by writers named Jonathan from Brooklyn. I also read the book Our Bodies, Our Junk which is hilarious and the new book from the guys who run Free Darko. All are brilliant and highly recommended.

 

So tell me about the new book?

It’s really a continuation and a progression of the first one. It still has the same numbered entries like the first one, but this is broken up by regional drawings and descriptions of all the kinds of white people you’ll find across America.

 

You know, I thought you’d be a lot funnier in this interview.

Sorry about that.

 

No no, it’s fine, it’s just that for all the success you’ve had, you’d think that you’d be more, you know talented.

Well, luck has a huge part to play in all of this.

 

Yeah, I’m starting to realize that. Thanks for your time.



Freedom Is Slavery

By Greg Olear

Rants

As I was buying a copy of Moneyball at an airport bookstore in Dallas a few years back, the cashier asked, “Are you Jonathan Franzen?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m a better writer than he is.”

Okay, I didn’t really say that. But I sure felt that way.  I’d just read his infuriating best-seller The Corrections, so my indignation can be excused.

Fast-forward almost a full decade to last month, when my airport doppelganger became the first writer to appear on the cover of TIME magazine since…I don’t know, Mark Twain or something. There he is, gazing Obamalike (if not Olearlike) into the wild blue yonder, above the enviable headline great american novelist.

I felt the same rush of vexation that came over me that day in Dallas. Here is a guy who looks like me and who does what I do and who lives where I once lived, and he has again managed to not only make the mainstream media take notice of him—that TIME cover is in the freakin’  iPad commercial!but shower him with near-universal acclaim.

Do people genuinely admire his work, I wonder, or is the coronation of Franzen merely the result of lit-crit groupthink? Does no one else see what I see? Is no one else put off by this?

Even its champions concede that The Corrections is an uneven novel. Its opening is notoriously dull (apologists excuse this “post-modern” introduction, preposterously, on the grounds that it is a “challenge” to readers). Its central plot device is something from a forgotten sit-com’s Thanksgiving episode (or a John Hughes movie). And the prose reads like a high school English assignment in which a list of fifty-cent words must be strung together to make a story.

(Ironically, the same problems Franzen exposes in the William Gaddis opus The Recognitions, the supposed inspiration for The Corrections, he replicates in his own book).

All of which is neither here nor there. As Orwell said, every novel is a failure. And there is plenty to like about The Corrections, if you can ignore those fundamental problems.

My beef with Franzen—and it’s unforgivable—is that he condescends to his audience. If you’re going to name your fictional Midwestern city St. Jude—and you really shouldn’t, because the symbolism is so glaringly obviousyou cannot, you cannot, have a Danish tourist on a cruise ship ask, late in the book, “Isn’t St. Jude the patron saint of lost causes?”

It’s an insult to our intelligence, a violation of the one inviolable writer’s commandment, namely, Thou Shalt Respect Thine Readers.  It’s the literary equivalent of Pete Rose gambling on his own team, and warrants a lifetime ban, a metaphorical death by stoningnot a prominent magazine cover.

If Jonathan Franzen is the king of American letters, as TIME suggests, the emperor is naked.

 

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.