Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Thoughts on Jonathan Franzen

I'm more than halfway done with Jonathan Franzen's newest novel, Freedom. The release of this novel is a bit of a big deal for me, considering that his previous novel, The Corrections, remains the only book I've re-read since 2002. Freedom, published only last week, seems to be another monster sized "literary" novel, drawn on a huge canvas. This specific post relates to my relationship to Franzen as an author and as a critic (certainly not as a person, cause I have no idea what he's like).

The Corrections won the National Book Award, of course. It's one of the most famous novels of the past decade, and generates heated debate among the literati. Even though it was nominated for a bazillion awards, and won two of the biggest, people often deride the novel as being simple soap opera. Reading over some of the amazon.co.uk User Reviews, the major complaint leveled at the book is its propensity for sheer cleverness and wordplay. That it was cleverness for its own sake.

What some people didn't get out of the novel, that I certainly did, is Franzen's ability to draw his characters out so well. I can still remember the salient details of the main characters, and it's been about three years since I read the book.

The Corrections also fits into Franzen's narrow definitions of what makes a good novel. I've written scores of message board posts, blog posts, and even an academic essay on Franzen's belief that novels should absolutely not punish the reader. It was Franzen's experience and difficulty with The Recognitions and JR that introduced me to William Gaddis. My position in relation to perceived difficulty is that if I wanted novels to be easy, I would have stuck with John Grisham and never explored uncharted territory.

There's a new-ish movement in the American book scene to mine genre tropes for high-minded literature, like with Michael Chabon's oeuvre of the past decade, or Dave Egger's publishing empire. My stance is that genre-mining isn't a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. It's something that has captured the imagination of the writers, and the paying audiences as well. It's not specifically my cup of tea, but I won't turn my nose up at these books.

Franzen, on the other hand, seems to be looking further past these authors, going back to large social novels like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or to a lesser extent, D H Lawrence. Franzen's interested in his characters as being pawns in a larger social canvas, how they react and live within this world. Franzen wants to explore what the state of the world is, using his cast.

This can be said of The Corrections, and especially of Freedom, but I'll get to that once I finish the novel. Suffice it to say that one of the characters in Freedom even comments that they're living in a D H Lawrence novel.

I approach a Franzen work, whether it be fiction or not, with a grain of salt. Since I don't see eye-to-eye with him on critical matters, I have to keep that in mind when appraising his intentions or motives within a work.

So why then do I continue to read Franzen, if I don't like his (book) politics? Whether or not he acted a bit of a fool vis-à-vis Gaddis, his books are still excellent, important, and culturally relevant. Franzen is an amazing author, a gifted prose stylist, and has lofty ambitions. He is a great role model for aspiring authors (present company included).

Something I plan to correct in the next couple months is that I have yet to finish Franzen's first two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion. I started them back in my first year of university, and I'm not sure why I gave up. I think I was disappointed that Franzen hadn't repeated with The Corrections. Certainly these first two novels are their own beasts.

I'm really enjoying Freedom so far, with some small niggling issues, and I can't wait to share my thoughts on it. Keep checking back here for the review!

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