Saturday, September 01, 2012

His effortless brilliance

Ever since his meteoric third novel Corrections, published in 2001, Jonathan Franzen carved an enviable niche for himself in modern Western literature. His brilliance reached its apotheosis when his fourth novel Freedom got him endorsement from Barack Obama and a cover story in Time magazine. It’s hard to think of anyone else who mined his white middle-class irascibility into modern-day Dickensian sagas the way Franzen did.

In real life, however, Franzen comes across as the cantankerous man you would prefer to never run into at a party. He is Thor-like, with a hammer that is quick to nail absolutely anything, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, Blackberry, e-book readers, Edith Wharton or literary critics. Farther Away, a collection of essays that Franzen wrote for various publications over the last few years, throws some light on what goes inside that effervescent head.

Fittingly, the book opens with Franzen’s commencement address at Kenyon College where he laments over a horde of issues: smartphone obsession, Facebook mania, the marketing holocaust that capitalists shove down our throats, mankind’s increasing habit of overlooking what nature has to offer. His one-line dismissal of Facebook is bound to rankle in your head for days together: “We like the mirror and the mirror likes us.”

This technophobic side of Franzen can, however, get a tad overbearing. In a long fulmination about a person’s choice to say “I Love You” over the phone, Franzen did get on my nerves. “The sudden overwhelming sensation of ‘loving’ somebody, which to me is such an important and signal sensation that I’m at pains not to wear out the phrase that best expresses it, is for other people so common and routing and easily achieved that it can be reexperienced and reexpressed many times in a single day without significant loss of power.”

I agree that Franzen should cut us some slack for our cellphone talk but perhaps we should cut him some slack too. The reason being that when he’s good he’s really good. Franzen reinforces the old chestnut that only great writers can be great critics. Farther Away is peppered with his dazzling literary criticism of writers as disparate as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alice Munro. My personal favourite is his championing of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. He praises this ridiculously neglected book in a way that convinced me that all dark fiction emerged from Stead’s gut-wrenching novel, not The Wizard of Oz. Stead’s utterly detestable protagonist Sam Pollit is probably the only misogynist and narcissist in the history of literature to have attracted readers’ sympathy. Franzen’s passionate, fair-minded thorough exegesis of Munro’s collection of short stories evokes the gilded age of literary criticism that Frank Kermode and Harold Bloom ushered in.

Farther Away provides a detailed image of Franzen’s near-obsession with bird-watching, which took him to far flung places like the Mediterranean region and China. In an essay titled The Chinese Puffin, published in 2008, Franzen talks about the fledgling but ever-increasing tribe of avian aficionados in the world’s emerging superpower. If there’s an overarching theme to this scorching set of essays, it has to be Franzen’s cuter-than-hell friendship with David Foster Wallace. In an essay, first published in the New Yorker in 2011, Franzen talks about his deceased friend while readingRobinson Crusoe in an idyllic island in central Chile. This is the highest form of literary criticism: reading a book at its actual location and going through the same motions as the protagonist. The epiphany he derives from the book is, “With Robinson Crusoe, the self had become an island; and now it seemed, the island was becoming the world.” That island is a self-contained universe, a bit like the Chicago slaughterhouse that Upton Sinclair describes as “hog-squeal of the universe”.

This might describe Franzen’s easy-to-be-mistaken-as-rebarbative worldview and it sort of explains why Wallace hanged himself in 2008. Franzen gives some fleeting glimpses into the little-known Wallace — he expatiates on Wallace’s manic-depressiveness and his constant struggle with it, which some alleged was Franzen’s way of showing jealousy. In an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, he even said Wallace didn’t mind fabricating his essays a little bit. If you can ignore that, you will find that equally heartrending are the memorial service remarks that Franzen made at Wallace’s funeral. Tributes rarely get more beatific than this: “Way out at word 70 or 100 or 140 in a sentence deep into a three-page paragraph of macabre humour or fabulously reticulated self-consciousness, you could smell the ozone from the crackling precision of his sentence structure, his effortless and pitch-perfect shifting among levels of high, low, middle, technical, hipster, nerdy, philosophical, vernacular, vaudevillian, hortatory, tough-guy, brokenhearted, lyrical diction.”

Not everything’s hunky-dory about the book, though. Some of the essays are long-winded and stand out as mere fillers in this elegantly designed book. For example, Franzen’s faux-memoirs about his childhood trip stand out like a sore thumb. Franzen’s previous foray into creative non-fiction (The Discomfort Zone, a memoir of his first marriage) was a disaster. That nitpicking aside, Farther Away is right up there with the collection of essays by Jonathan Lethem and J J Sullivan with which we have been blessed this year.

Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
321 pages; Rs 1,222


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