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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Dani Shapiro credit Kate UhryReally? Three memoirs?

I know.

 

So what is it? A narcissistic disorder? Or do we need a new category for this in the DSM-IV?  Memoirmania, maybe? 

You don’t pull any punches, do you? Okay. So I wrote three novels. Then a memoir. Then another two novels. Then another memoir, which was a total surprise. That one—my memoir Devotion, nearly knocked me over. I literally almost fell down when I realized what I was doing. A spiritual memoir? Really? After that book, I thought I was done with the form. But now I’ve gone and written yet another memoir, sort of. I say sort of, because Still Writing, my new book, is about writing.  But stories of what formed me as a writer found their way in there. So, yeah.

My brushes with celebrity have been airy to say the least. I waited on tables in Sydney for years, served various ex-politicos and wannabe TV sleazes—their names barely resonate with the locals, much less with US readers. In LA, Pat Benatar’s people bought some earrings from us for a comeback tour, except that I wasn’t in the store at the time, but was nursing my daughter in the rest room, so my sister had to tell me all about it. Steven Seagal pulled up beside us on the freeway. Billy Connelly’s wife Pamela came into a Sydney fashion store I was working in (Billy waited in the car). I shook hands with cardboard cut-out of Sonny Bono in Palm Springs without realizing it was a cardboard cut out. Elizabeth Taylor came up to me on Rodeo Drive and admired my baby daughter. Sandwiched between two minders, Ms Taylor reached out and touched my daughter’s hand. ‘Beautiful child,’ she said. Tremulous, lovely. Her minders, grim young men, waited politely for me to step aside.

For a time, we lived next door to Nicole Kidman’s parents in suburban Sydney. Our Nik. Her father, Anthony, is a psychologist who runs seminars at the local hospital and has a practice nearby where he specializes in family issues. Nik comes to visit occasionally. They go for walks at dusk around the beautiful peninsula. Tall, slender as a whippet, she leans on dad’s arm—we strain to catch a few words, a bit of fairy dust. We try not to make any sudden moves.

Did I feel anything in their presence? Disappointingly, not much. Except with the cardboard Sonny Bono. But with the rest, I wanted to. I really did. I have a friend who talks about celebrities as if they’re her friends. Meg this and Meryl that. ‘The goddess,’ Virgil wrote, ‘can be recognized by her step.’ Nik walks in beauty, granted, and so (eternally) does Elizabeth Taylor, but I felt neither fear not trembling in their presence. I waited for the rush, for the encounter to change everything, or even just one thing, about my life, but all I was left with was my life, an after no different than before (on another note, I remember once on a modeling job the make-up artist was told to make me ugly for the ‘before’ shot. ‘Right, she said. I’ll just leave her as she is then.’ That still smarts.) I think it was the realization that there really is no mysterious divide between my $100 ASICS and Nik’s $1000 Blahniks or Liz’s $10,000 glass slippers. Just a couple of zeros.

Speaking of which I hate the z00. I have managed to avoid many of the world’s most famous animal parks. I just don’t get off on animals in captivity. I get really hungry at zoos. All those lines. All those tables littered with ketchup-soaked napkins. I feel guilty walking past all those cages, all those eyes on me. Wanting to rip my free throat out.

But watching the dolphins play off the southern coast of NSW, or the right wales making their way across the beaches to the North, spinning around, their wing-like flippers reflecting the sun, well for me, it’s kind of rapture. My skin burns, my heart cracks, tears sting my eyeballs, and it is all I can do not to jump in after them. To be in the presence of something at once so alien and yet so familiar. Unlike waiting in the supermarket line behind Hugo Weaving—yeah, I forgot that one—there is a strange pull to the wild. At least for me. Much more so than the time I shook Ian McShane’s hand at work. In contrast, there is that aha moment in which we recognize an almost human quality to the whale, or an almost animal quality in us, but it is a frontier, as philosophy tells us, that can be grasped only in flight. Still it tugs— the Melvillian lure of an alien world, and yet one to which we ‘feel the tie.’ Two species of mammals on either side of an uncrossable divide which we cannot help but imagine crossing. Imagine. Yearn. Return. Same thing, because what we feel during these encounters is a kind of separation anxiety. Homesickness, yeah, or what Freud called, Unheimlich—the uncanny.

Believe me there was nothing uncanny about my close encounter with Oprah in the ladies room at the Sydney Opera House. And nothing true either. But it could have been—Oprah-sightings abounded for a couple of weeks here—and I wondered what all the fuss was about. I wonder if the celebs do too. There can be a great deal of hard work and talent that goes into all those zeros but once you’ve seen, or been, one trapped mammal you’ve seen them all. Not so with the dolphins or the whales. They know, and seem to revel in the fuss. Look at us, they seem to say, we’re the ones that got away.

P.S. BUT. Put me a room with either Mick or Keith and all bets are off.

There is a Medieval story in which King Arthur is given one of his stickiest challenges.  He will die unless, in just one year, he can discover what women most desire.  And you know what he finds?  Women want sovereignty over themselves.

Oh, eureka.

Yet look at how long it’s taken for society to accept that gazillions of women freely enjoy porn.  Thank heaven the myth that women aren’t aroused by visual images has now been exploded many times, notably by Sex and Tech expert Violet Blue whose Our Porn Ourselves campaign has taken the internet by storm. Blue incited many women – myself included – to declare that we were turned on by porn and that any generalizations to the contrary were attempts to control our sexuality. Many men also champion Our Porn Ourselves, relieved that we are shattering erroneous notions of porn as “so warped that only guys will watch it” – a belief that contains so much prejudice it’s hard to know where to start. But the sexist lies still run deep. I myself was devastated when a beloved sexpert hero of mine declared porn as “basically male entertainment.” In fact, my very first reaction to her statement was, “What if I love lesbian porn? Where’s the ‘male’ in that?”

But perhaps part of the problem with the term “pornography” is that its meaning shifts with time and usage. What is porn, exactly? Explicit visuals? Well, yeah, if you video-record sex with your lover, hoping to turn yourselves on with the images, that’s surely porn…but what if you record the sex aurally rather than visually, and listen to the noises at another time? Or what if you don’t record the sex, but just carry the memories around in your head, reliving the moment when he licked your breast or pulled your hair just right? That’s a visual used to arouse, right? So doesn’t that count? While we’re at it, can a oil-painted nude in the Musee D’Orsay be porn if it turns you on? And what of BDSM porn, in which, for legal and/or aesthetic reasons, genital contact doesn’t tend to take place?  Is such a dom/sub spanking vid only porn when it actually arouses the viewer? Is porn defined by the creator’s intention or the way the consumer uses it?

Whatever the answers, our attitudes are still shifting. This year, Oprah interviewed Violet Blue about women in porn (woohoo! A win for sex-positivity in the media!), plus mags such as the Atlantic Monthly have featured the topic. Porn itself is changing too, especially in terms of its availability. In fact, consumers of free internet porn are also becoming its performers and directors, especially now that sites like YouPorn are popular. Indeed, as internet porn becomes increasingly “real life” we may well see a rise in self-confidence among its viewers – what a great way of proving that you don’t have to be a big-boobed, California blonde to get your partners and viewers off.

As society changes so do its art forms and stereotypes. Take what women want from porn, for instance. Coyote Days, Purchasing Manager at Good Vibrations says “Women often want to see very raw sexuality and more hardcore content than would be assumed by some.” That said, her female customers also buy porn for educational reasons, seeking answers to questions such as “How would I go down on another woman?” or “Would I really be aroused by a threesome?” But however we choose to use it, we need to keep defining porn for ourselves rather than letting the haters do the job. Lady Porn Day (the creation of Rachel Rabbit White) opened up this discussion by asking women “What’s porn for you?” Answers included erotic movies, pieces of classical art, feature films, and photos. For my part, I think of porn as a sensual trigger that I choose in order to turn myself on. And I want that route to pleasure, be it solo or partnered.

There you are, King Arthur.  Suck on that.

***

For experimental research into women being aroused by explicit sexual visuals, take a look at Professor Ellen Laan’s study, which is discussed here.

As a literary form and commercial endeavor, the modern memoir is overwhelmingly popular. A quick perusal of the non-fiction stacks confirms this. From Donald Rumsfeld to Annie Dillard, the memoir is ubiquitous. Too, as a confirming note, there is the backlash, as there is always a backlash against things trending popular. I site Neil Genzlinger’s recent anti-memoir diatribe in the New York Time’s Book Review of a few weeks ago. It begins: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” In his essay Genzlinger reviewed four memoirs, giving just one the nod. He took the others to task for various reasons. One author, for instance, had not earned “the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy.” Ouch. He argued that if you did not have an extremely unique experience or were deemed to be less than “a brilliant writer,” you were “obliged to keep quiet.” The current plethora of memoirs is, he reasons, a result of “our current age of oversharing.” His essay trespassed to the edge of being mean-spirited and the dust-up caused a flurry of activity in literary circles. (A backlash to the backlash confirming the maturation of a trend, indeed.)

 

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

I used to be friendly with a movie star (though her career was in a slump at the time I knew her), and once, when we were talking about road rage, she said, “I always feel funny about flipping people off. I think it might be someone who can give me a job.”

For similar reasons, actors tend to be unnaturally upbeat in interviews. What did you think of the director? Oh, he’s great; he’s a genius. And the cast? They were wonderful, all of them; I was in heaven every day on the set.

But actors in private are a different story. I think such-and-such is awful, they’ll tell you; it’s bullshit that he got such great reviews. Of course, it also works the opposite way: actors love as much as they hate, though they might not want their enthusiasms broadcast, knowing how easily they can be misconstrued.