Archive for the ‘Jonathan Franzen’ Tag

Review: The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

I have to admit that The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen’s debut novel, was a book that I found difficult to get through. I picked it up the first time, read about a hundred and fifty pages, then put it down again. A year later, I picked it up again with greater determination, started over, and managed to finish it, in spurts, over the course of five months.

Perhaps that admission will not surprise those who have read my scathing review of his latest novel, Freedom, but the two works, in terms of both difficulty and reward for effort, constitute a night and day difference. Where Freedom is pointless, angry, and worst of all, self-pitying, The Twenty-Seventh City is a complex and insightful look at the state of modern politics.

What is it, then, about The Twenty-Seventh City that makes it such a tough read? For many readers, it will be the difficulty of the prose. Despite the fact that Franzen is supposedly stepping away from the postmodern games of someone like Thomas Pynchon (who is briefly, gratuitously, mentioned in passing in the novel) toward a greater sense of realism, the fact is that his debut novel reads in many ways, like a throwback to modernism – one could easily imagine, for instance, that Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1913) was a model for this text.

I’d like to think, though, that I have enough literary muscle to handle difficult prose, so I don’t think that was the only culprit. No, the thing that made the novel such a hard read for me was the way that Franzen continues to introduce new characters, even up until the very last pages. The sheer amount of names becomes impossible to keep track of, and this problem is compounded by the fact that Franzen doesn’t provide enough signals from the outset as to which characters are important and which are not. Everyone is named and described in with seemingly equal importance, giving no indication about whether they will continue to be important to the plot or not.

In the end, there are two characters are elevated above the rest: Martin Probst, a local developer and community leader, and S. Jammu, an Indian woman who was unexpectedly hired as St Louis’s new police chief. Once the reader realizes that these are the two figures that stand above the cacophony created by such a dizzyingly large array of characters, the novel starts to click. I am sure that rereading the novel with that knowledge would be a different, more rewarding experience.

That’s not to say that other characters aren’t important, including: Barbara Prost, Martin’s wife, and their daughter Luisa; Luisa’s older boyfriend Duane Thompson, whose relationship with Luisa begins the process of fragmenting the Prost family; Rolf Ripley, who is obsessed with Barbara despite the fact that he is married to her sister, Audrey; Jack DuChamp, an old buddy of Martin’s who acts as a barometer of the “man in the street;” RC, a black cop who plays an important role in the novel’s denouement; General Norris, a right-wing conspiracy theorist who smells something fishy in Jammu’s dealings; Asha Hammaker, an Indian princess who marries one of St Louis’s richest men and conspires with Jammu; Shanti Jammu, the police chief’s controlling mother; and Jammu’s various goons and pawns, most notably the handsome and ruthless Balwan Singh and the drug-addicted Barbara Prost lookalike, Devi Madan. There are more characters, many more, illustrating just how difficult it can be to keep track of which character is which in the novel.

While the pitfalls of such an approach are obvious, this vast canvas on which Franzen lays out his story also has its strengths. His deep knowledge of St Louis and its culture comes from the fact that he grew up there, but the skill with which he portrays the city in all its complexity is quite extraordinary, with the diverse array of characters on display a reflection of the city’s multifaceted nature. In spite of its particular context, however, The Twenty-Seventh City has a much broader scope that transcends both its time and location. Franzen states early on that “all cities are ideas, ultimately” (p.24), and thus St Louis, itself defined by the symbol of the Arch and its connection to Manifest Destiny, is also transformed into an idea.

So it is that The Twenty-Seventh City unfolds as a political novel of ideas, a “textbook dialectic” that pits “absolute freedom” against “absolute terror, the French Revolution à la Hegel” (p.198). Probst and Jammu are the opposing terms in this dialectic, which contrasts his rigid sense of ethical “decency” with her utter ruthlessness. Probst and Jammu thus find themselves on opposite sides of the fence in the political fight to unite the city and county of St Louis, only to find in their opposition a hidden attraction that perversely brings them together.

It is when Franzen engages with these grand political ideas that The Twenty-Seventh City rises above its limitations and truly soars. Franzen does not allow himself to get carried away, in contrast to so many other American writers during the 1980s, with railing simplistically against the conservative Reagan years. There is no easy dichotomy between freedom and tyranny, for it is the sheer apathy of the St Louis public that saves the day. There is a beautiful but sad irony in the fact that this lack of interest in their own political future is what eventually saves them from the traps that Jammu lays.

The Twenty-Seventh City was published, coincidentally, in the same year as Gayatri Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, and in many ways the appointment of Jammu in the novel addresses a parallel dilemma to what Spivak is describing. The faults that Franzen delineates in Jammu’s character, however, seem to me more incisive, more penetrating than Spivak’s analysis, suggesting as he does, through comparisons of Jammu’s character to Napoleon and Lenin, that the advent of revolutionary discourses of freedom is always endangered by the practical necessities of seizing power. Franzen’s key insight is that these apparently counter-revolutionary forces are not anomalies, but an integral part of the revolution itself, an inherent problem that easily inverts the original relationship between “theory and praxis” in such a way that “praxis dictate[s] that theory, in the short run, be its apologist” – that is, the ends come to justify the means in the most vulgarly Machiavellian sense (p.394). It’s a complex, clear-eyed view of politics that Franzen delivers in his debut novel that, sadly, he has been unable to sustain in his most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted March 15, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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The Authoritarian Character   Leave a comment

Sometimes there are moments when, as you are reading a book, you stop, sit up straight in your chair, and look around you in a sort of silent, physical form of exclamation. That’s what happened to me at the end of last year while reading Erich Fromm’s The Fear of Freedom (1941), a penetrating analysis of what it is that draws human beings to submit themselves to authoritarianism. What caught my attention only partly concerned what Fromm was describing – instead, it was the way in which his brief sketch of what he calls “the authoritarian character” had the effect of recalling, with startling clarity, someone that I knew.

The person in question was strikingly tall, around six and a half feet, a  physical superiority that he used to menace the space around him. Although he had gone gray, he wore a trendy spiked haircut, worked out regularly, and looked rather well preserved for a man who had just clicked past fifty. He had a loud, booming voice that he employed to great effect; walk within a hundred feet of his classroom, and you could hear him ranting and raving, putting on an energy-filled performance for a classroom full of misguided young students who viewed this weekly fountain of rhetorical fireworks as “challenging” and “entertaining” without ever stopping to think whether they were actually learning something of value.

It was more than just his dynamic but empty teaching style, however, that identified this person as the incarnation of the Authoritarian Character (AC). The central contradiction that Fromm identifies in this need to dominate others is that it stems from a profound paradox, for the authoritarian character is “torn by a constant ambivalence towards authority; he hated it and rebelled against it, while at the same time he admired it and tended to submit to it” (p.57). There is nothing wrong with authority and power, Fromm contends, when it extends from a healthy sense of oneself, but when it stems from emotional inadequacy the end product is the authoritarian character.

AC covered over his lust for power by employing a strident rhetoric of social justice. “I’m a thousand miles to the left of Karl Marx,” he claimed at one department meeting. The door of his office was adorned with a large poster of William Blake, his favorite poet, with the inscription “The Arts and Sciences are the Destruction of Tyrannies.” Inside, the office itself was decorated with posters of The Clash. He wore Sex Pistols t-shirts and hosted a radio show on the local college station dedicated to punk music. Although he hadn’t published an academic paper for more than a decade, he claimed to have expertise in African-American literature and women’s literature. He bought an apartment in East Harlem. He labeled himself a feminist, a gay rights campaigner, a vegetarian, an advocate against racism, a bulwark against all forms of injustice.

It wasn’t necessary to look far to see the inherent contradictions in this charade of left-wing piety. AC was at his rampant worst when it came to the topic of racism. A former Southerner from Georgia, AC had grown up in an era of desegregation during the 1970s and claimed that it had left a profound mark on his character. The reality was that his experiences had allowed him to identify racism as an emotional hot button, a switch he could cynically flip to stir up controversy and righteous anger at any moment. His histrionics in the classroom were focused primarily on this issue, and he would whip himself into a frenzy of rage and anger in every class, regardless of the topic, repeatedly screaming out the n-word at his students under the guise of having them “confront” the collective sins and prejudices that constitute the collective guilt at the heart of American culture. This approach created a mob mentality that appealed to the basest, most anti-intellectual instincts of his students, a contradiction that could be justified thanks to the smokescreen provided by AC’s anti-racist angle. Surely only a racist, went his perverse logic, could fail to be visibly outraged by the injustices of the past.

AC was, then, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but all the more dangerous because he had convinced himself of his own righteousness, unable as he was to identify the glaring contradictions between his rhetoric and his actual behavior. The great feminist, for example, ignored the women in the department, and it was an open secret that he conducted improper dealings with numerous young female students. When his colleagues voted for a representative to sit on the newly formed Faculty Senate, he stormed out of the meeting after narrowly losing to the department’s elder statesman, furious that the democratic process had not produced the result he wanted. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that the administration chose one of his drinking buddies as the new Vice President, and used this access to power to persecute faculty members he didn’t like, eventually driving two of his departmental colleagues from the college. Speaking up loudly in faculty meetings against the supposed corruption of the system, he nonetheless happily accepted tenure in an institution where that privilege extended only to a select few of the full-time faculty.

It wasn’t until my final few weeks as AC’s colleague that I learned some of the nastiest truths about his past. Ten years previously, it turned out, he had been fired from a tenured position after being charged with assaulting a student at a party. That incident, in turn, brought to light AC’s behavior at a position several years before that at a college where his contract had not been renewed, also due to problems with physical violence. I could well believe it – when I saw him shortly after the Faculty Senate vote, AC, clearly in a state of rage, had himself threatened me.

Now that I have moved on from that position and entered Korean academia, where the politics are more difficult to penetrate but in which I am happy to serve with few questions, I am grateful that I no longer have to think about AC . He was in my thoughts today, though, for two reasons. The first was the deep disappointment that I felt after finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel that unsettled me in its resemblance to AC’s teaching, filled as it is with rage and self-recrimination, emotions that hide behind a smokescreen of noble causes but that scream of dishonesty and a suppressed lust for power. The other reason is the email that landed in my inbox today. It was from a former colleague whom AC had forcibly driven out, letting me know that she was doing well, and that AC had just been fired for misconduct with a student.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 9, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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Review: Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

“Humanity,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in Being and Nothingness, “is condemned to be free.” So too it might be said that readers of contemporary fiction are condemned to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom, a work that arrived, after a hiatus of nine years, in a flurry of triumph and acclaim. Certainly “condemned” is a good word to describe how I felt about it by the time I got to the end.

Franzen is one of those writers that people know about by word of mouth. His breakthrough novel, The Corrections, is a book that you are likely to discover in the process of unwrapping a birthday present from your uncle and aunt in Connecticut, the kind of work that an overexcited friend from your graduate school days presses into your hand and says: “You have to read this. It blew my mind.”

I don’t mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of last year, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen’s style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author’s apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen’s part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough but did not reach the same heights as The Corrections.

It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.

So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?

Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty’s stilted “autobiography” (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen’s depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen’s writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.

Apart from the Berglund’s disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen’s critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty’s guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter’s life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say “corrective”?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey’s reaction to his parents to Patty’s desire for Richard.

The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters – a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life “meaning.” Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator’s eyes, because he is a “nice man.” Even Walter’s loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a kind of Thoreauvian hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It’s a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.

My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen’s style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. I teach my students to read literary texts closely on the grounds that authors choose their references and metaphors carefully, but Franzen’s frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel’s epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:

“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (p.546)

To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna’s manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty’s split from Richard to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey’s grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that “there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of shit” (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.

When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen’s work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.

Rating: 1/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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