Two Mistakes Jonathan Franzen’s Haters and Fans Both Make

Introduction for Jonathan Franzen, Swarthmore College, Feb. 14, 2013.

Good evening. Speaking for our community of readers, I’d like to welcome you, Jonathan, back to Swarthmore. As for you, the audience, I will do you credit and not list Jonathan’s books and prizes, nor will I discuss a certain TV talk-show host, nor even cite what national magazine featured him on its cover. (Though I must admit that I’m grateful to them for printing an article on Jonathan’s most recent novel, Freedom, for their piece gave me some different reading when I came across it among piles of magazines like Guns & Ammo and GQ while enjoying waiting for an hour in the fluorescent customer lounge of a local auto repair shop.) Instead, by way of introduction I’d like to speak briefly on two common misperceptions about Jonathan’s fiction held by many of his detractors and his fans.

The first misperception is that many assume Jonathan’s fiction is disguised autobiography. This is a common problem many fiction writers face, particularly in the U.S. Jonathan himself in interviews and essays has been very open about the ways in which, say, Enid and Alfred Lambert in The Corrections are somewhat inspired by certain traits in his parents. He’s also spoken eloquently about how he sees himself basically as a comic novelist, and that a significant breakthrough in his development happened when he learned to treat ironically his own obsessions and self-delusions. “Self-deception is funny,” Jonathan’s said. As Henri Bergson argued about comedy long ago, we laugh at what is mechanical and unconscious in others, and comedy’s hope is that such laughter may liberate us from our own unconsciously imprisoning behaviors. But many readers either miss or downplay the critical self-engagement in Jonathan’s work and assume that his narratives are primarily self-regarding, a mirror held up to himself, even if that reflective surface is sometimes admitted to be a rather well-made fun-house mirror. Let me offer a somewhat different point of view. I think when we call his work autobiographical it is often a defense mechanism—it’s because his writing makes us uneasy. It touches a nerve; it holds a mirror up to us and shows us all too clearly delusions and difficulties we share with his characters. The Corrections, for instance, gives us not just richly drawn protagonists, one of the most profound portraits in all of American literature of the loving and demonic dynamic of family life. It also parodies all kinds of master narratives that hold sway over our psyches. To name just two, he imitates concepts from market economics that influence how we treat each other, and also what Jonathan has called the new materialism of the brain, in which character and memory themselves are seen as mere functions of chemistry adjustable by drugs. Jonathan is also adept at mixing competing master discourses in unusual ways, so that we become conscious of them as full of questionable assumptions and results. They seem suddenly rather laughable; their authority detumesces. A classic example would be a comic paragraph in The Corrections that describes Gary Lambert’s pornography using the diction of industrial mass production. “There was something of the assembly line in these images. The beautiful nude blonde was like fresh raw material…. [T]he worker clamped the material into a series of horizontal and vertical positions, crimping and bending the material as necessary, and very vigorously processed it with his tool” (169). (By the way, if you want an example of how this kind of discourse functions when it takes itself with utmost seriousness, as high-tech sublime rather than as parody, consider the recent Calvin Klein male underwear ad featuring abs, pecs, and oiled engine parts that got such a buzz during the Super Bowl. This new underwear design is dubbed Calvin’s “Concept” line.)

As Austen and Dickens and Thackeray well understood, fiction’s ventriloquism can expose such master languages as seductive fictions, I might even say frauds, and it does this not just by pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes, but also by showing us why we so intensely need to outfit such master narratives with robes and authority in the first place. “Concept” lines, indeed. As I said, the Franzen fun-house mirror is primarily directed at us, and this both delights and disturbs.

The second common delusion about Jonathan’s writing follows from the first, and it too is symptomatic of larger issues in American and contemporary global culture on which Jonathan helps us focus. Instead of being too autobiographical, this way of reading him overemphasizes the satiric. True, irony and satire are present on just about every page of his fiction, and they are delicious. Those who enjoy his work’s satire, though, often identify with the author as a kind of cruel god far above his characters—Olympian, aloof, ironic, and unforgiving as he skewers their self-delusions with sentences as sharply honed as Zeus’ thunderbolts. Yes, it’s heady fun; we can smile at a character’s misunderstanding of his or her own life from an apparent position of superiority somewhat approaching that of the author himself. But lots of contemporary popular culture is driven by safe mockery, even a kind of smiling sadism. To last, art has to counter this kind of arrogance, not just feed off it. Franzen is primarily a tragicomic author, as my colleague Phil Weinstein demonstrated in his faculty lecture here a few weeks ago. I agree. Franzen rightly understands that satire must be a means, not an end. The materialistic master-languages that he mocked in The Corrections have only become more powerful in contemporary life since 2001. That materialism, he believes, is “antithetical” to the ancient project of literature, which “is to connect with that which is unchanging and unchangeable, the tragic dimension of life” (Franzen, Paris Review interview). Empathy and catharsis, not just satiric distance, are crucial to understanding the full resonance of his art. That his sentences simultaneously inspire in us so many different responses is a miracle only the best writing can achieve.

For instance, consider the prose near the beginning of The Corrections portraying Alfred Lambert trying to pack a suitcase (p. 11). An expert builder of railroads and communications systems, Alfred has the work ethic and world-view of the mid-twentieth century generation that created modern industrial America. But now his own systems are beginning to fail due to Parkinson’s disease—his body won’t often do what his mind wants and his mind keeps losing its train of thought. Asked by his wife Enid what he is up to, he tries to speak a simple sentence— “I am packing my suitcase,” subject, verb, object, job done—but he gets lost in the middle of that sentence by runaway thoughts and fears. These are rendered for us by a magnificent periodic sentence of Jonathan’s that takes place between dashes in the time-space gap that opens up when Alfred pauses speaking. I’ve had to trim this long sentence for this introduction, but my excerpt will still give you a taste of its headlong momentum and haunting imagery:

“I am—” but when [Alfred] was taken by surprise, every sentence became an adventure in the woods; as soon as he could no longer see the light of the clearing from which he’d entered, he would realize that the crumbs he’d dropped for bearings had been eaten by birds…. In the instant of realizing he was lost, time became marvelously slow and he … became trapped in that space between words and could only stand and watch as time sped on without him, the thoughtless boyish part of him crashing on out of sight blindly through the woods while he, trapped, the grownup Al, watched in oddly impersonal suspense to see if the panic-stricken little boy might, despite no longer knowing where he was or at what point he’d entered the woods of this sentence, still manage to blunder into the clearing when Enid was waiting for him, unaware of any woods— “packing my suitcase,” he heard himself say. (11)

This sentence plunges us into Alfred’s vertigo, his desperate attempts to keep order and purpose even as forces he calls the “darkness” undo his efforts. We follow and feel his very self split into desperate child and dying man, a Hansel in the Hansel-and-Gretel tale losing his map of the world. The syntax here, which endlessly revises itself while also swerving in new directions, makes us as we read experience the chaos of Alfred’s thoughts. And yet the sentence itself, when seen as a whole, is not chaotic at all; it is superbly balanced and calibrated. As readers we experience Alfred’s panic from inside yet also are outside of it, guided by a master sentence-maker who shows us both the comedy and the tragedy, the outside and inside, of Alfred’s fate. This is great art indeed, and something far more rich and complex than just satire.

One good term for it might be borrowed from the critic James Wood, who has argued that much of the best modern fiction creates “comedies of forgiveness” very different from either mockery from a distance or tragedy experienced solely from within. Certainly the plots of both The Corrections and Freedom move toward profound moments of forgiveness, given and received, for some of their characters—Denise and Chip in The Corrections allowed to understand their parents in a new, more adult way, or Patty, my favorite character in Freedom, saying “it’s me, just me” near that novel’s end (559). (Whether Walter or Richard in Freedom, or Gary in The Corrections, eventually seek or earn forgiveness would be an interesting matter to debate.)

Introducing a fine novelist in under five minutes, as you can see, is an impossible task. So I’ll end with my own simple sentence. Please give Jonathan Franzen some Swarthmore Valentine’s Day love.

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