Posts filed under ‘Books’
So, that review was kind of snide and snarky. And I did like the book in one way, and that is that I thought that it was entertaining, even if it was only half-way original. I think Jonathan Franzen is definitely talented. So, I have some second thoughts.
Even if the date rape was clichéd, I still recognize that the reason that it may feel clichéd is that is so true to life. After all, I wrote my own post that was somewhat similar to a Lifetime movie, only it wasn’t fiction, it was from my very own damn life.
It’s not just a cliché, it’s also my life.
In addition to that cliché there was also the love triangle between the “nice” guy and the “sexy” guy, as if nice can’t also be sexy. It struck me, after reading the book and then also reading interviews and biographies of Jonathan Franzen, that perhaps this book was somewhat personal. Richard and Walter are stand-ins for someone else, and that someone else is Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
Even though Franzen is the bigger environmentalist and the bird watcher and probably the less flashy of the two, and even though Wallace superficially resembles Richard, with his greater charisma and physical beauty and tobacco chew, I think that Walter and Richard are actually just dual aspects of Franzen’s personality. It’s Franzen against Franzen.
Also, if anyone is Walter, the more spiritual one, the kinder one, the more worthy one, it’s Wallace, who couldn’t possibly hurt a fly other than himself, if it weren’t for the one fact of his suicide. Wallace was the “churchgoer,” the one with the reputation as the “nice” guy, and yet it was Wallace, and not Franzen, who hanged himself on his own porch for his wife to find his body. Maybe not so selfless a death as David Foster Wallace would have wished for himself, if he had been in his right mind at the time.
It strikes me that Walter’s eventual forgiveness of Patty, and, by implication, Richard, is Franzen’s final tribute to his friend David Foster Wallace. And with this act, his overvalued novel is somewhat redeemed and maybe even worthy of half of the superfluous over-the-top “critical” literary views, if the idea was to transcend the selfish and self involved characters of his Seinfeldian universe, with this one final act of grace.
It occurs to me that the repitition of the word and the ideology of “freedom” in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and the fact that Jonathan Franzen’s novel is titled, Freedom are no coincidence.
After writing a blog post about Franzenfreude nearly a year ago now [https://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/ill-weep-into-my-royalty-statement/], I thought I’d get around to finally reading the book that caused the controversy. I ordered a copy of Freedom from half.com and got a hardcover version that had been withdrawn from a library in Schaumburg, Illinois. I read it over the weekend. I have some thoughts about the book, and I’d like to share them.
First of all, even though much of the book is an “autobiography” written in the third person, by the novel’s female protagonist, Franzen doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of women. The only woman who’s really fully fleshed out in the book and still remains likeable, is the daughter, Jessica, one of the few people in the novel who doesn’t have her own vantage point recounted in the book. She is a character who is only discussed upon by her mother, her father, her brother, and her father’s college roommate. She is the only one of the four Berglunds who doesn’t get her own story told.
Freedom is a family drama that’s over 500 pages long. I couldn’t help feeling that the same story could have been told more eloquently and economically, by someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who would have most certainly given Jessica a voice. But I don’t know what I expected from an author who actually snubbed Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club Selection the first time he was chosen, because he feared that it would cause male readers to reject his book. Bear in mind that Winfrey’s book club has included the likes of such gynocentric authors as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Real pussies, those guys!
Franzen is indisputably a good writer. I’m not arguing that he has no talent. What I am arguing is that he’s not our generation’s Messiah of the Great American Novel. Franzen has been so overly and overtly hyped that, even though he himself comes across as a smug, pretentious and self-satisfied bastard, even he probably doesn’t believe his own press.
The novel starts off with what could have been a short story on its own, the story of the disintegration of a once happy Midwestern American family, told mostly through the eyes and ears of the family’s busybody neighbors. The son starts up with a neighbor girl, and the wife alienates her son to the degree that he chooses to move out of his family home and in with his teenage girlfriend and her mother and stepfather. This causes the wife to come unhinged. We’re told the neighbors suspect her of slashing the tires on the truck of her son’s girlfriend’s stepfather. They also suspect that she has a drinking problem.
After this preface, we’re treated to several chapters of the autobiography of Patty Berglund, the wife and mother with the drinking problem. The writing assignment was for therapy. She starts with a cursory description of the dynamics of her family of origin and then goes into the story of a date rape that she survived as a teenager, an assault that was swept under the rug by her parents.
The chapter is called Agreeable, and it was originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, a periodical that I subscribe to, which might explain why the story seemed so familiar to me. But nah. On top of having probably read the story already, it reads like a 1980’s afterschool special or a Lifetime movie that I remember seeing once. The story of the dutiful daughter raped by the son of a politically powerful family and then encouraged to accept the boy’s insincere apology as penance for his crime – there’s nothing new here. Franzen serves up Mom’s meatloaf and expects us to praise it as if it were filet mignon.
The biggest example of predictability is the love triangle between Patty, her husband Walter, and Walter’s narcissistic musician friend, Richard Katz. Katz is described as promiscuous, unreliable, irresponsible, and prone to addictive behavior. On top of his finer traits, he also happens to be a fundamentally decent fellow with a glossy sort of asshole charisma.
It’s easy to see why Patty might find him attractive in a superficial way. He’s the sort of guy who believes in gender equality and likes women in theory but in practice has nothing but contempt for virtually any female, or at least, for the ones he wants to fuck. I might have found the character of Richard Katz somewhat attractive myself, but Franzen ruined it for me by describing him as looking like Muammar Gadaffi. Maybe this is an example of the “funny” that the book jacket reviewers credit Franzen with.
After Patty and Richard inevitably scratch their itch at Walter’s mother’s vacation home, Richard records an album of sad love songs with his alternative country band Walnut Surprise and becomes a hit with the middle-aged and pretentious set. The album is reviewed and featured on NPR. Richard Katz experiences his first taste of fame, tours the world with a girl in every harbor, and then eventually bottoms out after a DWI conviction and a stint in rehab. Richard Katz isn’t a character. He’s a conglomeration of hackneyed musician clichés.
Walter is a humanistic do-gooder type, passionate about the ecology and the sustainable living movement. He’s so earnest as to come across as self-righteous, a difficult feat for an atheist to pull off. Walter is so good, and Franzen underscores his very goodness so repeatedly, that Walter’s only fault is in his self-righteousness, and perhaps, in his naivete. He comes across as a caricature of a good man rather than a fully realized character. Still, when he finds love with his young and gorgeous Indian assistant, you root for him. But alas, Lalitha is not long for this world.
Franzen foreshadows the novel’s conclusion, setting you up for Patty and Walter’s reconciliation hundreds of pages before, with a speech from Walter’s mother Dorothy on the virtues of loyalty. I suppose Franzen thought his readers would find this a satisfactory conclusion, but I just wondered how long it would take before Patty decided to shit on Walter again. If Freedom is supposed to be Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre I think he needs to make like Wile E. Coyote and go back to the drawing board. As far as works of art named Freedom go, George Michael has Jonathan Franzen beat.
Dear David Eagleman,
I was 3 minutes late to work this morning because I was busy reading the profile on you and your brain research in The New Yorker. Fascinating stuff. I needed to think about something to write on my blog today, and it was between you and the documentary Inside Job, so I thought I’d lighten up and write about you because our economy is serious stuff. Nothing funny about it. Also, I want to finish the director’s commentary before I write about Inside Job.
I have decided, after reading about half of the article in The New Yorker, that you will receive the honor of being my new “celebrity” crush. I think you are awesome. Studying the brain’s perception of time! And before that you studied literature and tried your hand at stand up comedy and screenwriting! James Franco is so jealous.
*SIGH* What is up with that Chippendale dancer pose with the tight t-shirt and jeans in front of the whiteboard? Where’s your smoking jacket, pipe, and cravat? What kind of an academic are you? Not a very dignified one. I like it.
Dude, I checked out your picture on the Baylor College of Medicine website, too. You got it going on with that smoldering profile against the amber background. Was that photo taken at Geek Glamour Shots? You look like you have a very sexy intellectual secret that you will not be sharing. Seriously, it’s a great photo. I don’t even care if the author of The New Yorker profile said you walk like Pinocchio. Can I be your Jiminy Cricket?
Now, before you answer that question, think about the distinguished company that you will be joining. My past celebrity crushes for the last 3 years or so have been smokin’ hot, and at least one of them is smart. (I limit my celebrity crushes to the last 3 years’ worth because we really don’t have the time to get into the full history, and I used to be in love with both John Denver and Kermit the Frog simultaneously. I don’t want you to think that my tastes haven’t evolved into more sophisticated selections lately.) I have excellent taste in celebrity crushes, really I do.
Take Robbie Williams, for instance. Hot and talented. I really don’t know if he’s smart or not. I’ve never met him or seen him interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show. But, you know, he could be. And he’s an international superstar, so presumably, even though he’s never really caught on in America, he must have something going for him.
More recently, there’s been The Soup Peddler. He’s a local entrepreneur. He is cute, and he writes this funny blog. Really smart. See? If you replaced him in my affections, then this would really give you some bragging rights. I mean, The Soup Peddler is a dream. Nice Jewish boy. He cooks delicious soup. He delivers it on his bicycle. Well, not anymore. But you get the picture. Grassroots business success story: what’s not to love?
Don’t answer yet. I know that you will want to know what’s involved in agreeing to be my new celebrity crush. Well, technically, I don’t have to ask your permission. I’m just being polite. What do you have to do? Precisely nothing.
That’s right. Nothing. Just continue to breathe. It would be nice if every once in a while you might drop a crumb for me like another interview in a magazine or on a website or The Charlie Rose Show or what’s the PBS talk show with Evan Smith — that one, but that’s not required. I will keep scouring the internet for new information daily until my infatuation wears out. If you have any videos on TED, I’ll watch those, too.
I will also read at least one of your books after I purchase it on half.com. I’ll be honest. I’m unlikely to read an academic textbook about neuroscience. I’m pretty fickle. I give this thing about six months. And the great thing is that at the end of that six months, if you are ever the subject of a Trivial Pursuit question or a category on Jeopardy I can guarantee you that I will kick some useless information ass!!
I know that this crush might cause you to be fearful for your life or think about the need to hire bodyguards, but I assure you that even though Houston is less than 3 hours away on Highway 290, I will not be stalking you. I just like the idea of you, and if I met you I am sure that in some way the idea of your perfection would burst like a bubble, and it would kind of ruin the fun for me. Like, I bet in real life that you fart or scratch yourself or something like that. I just really don’t want to be confronted with that, so like I said, you are completely safe. And if you don’t believe me you can just ask The Soup Peddler and Robbie Williams and the Austin Police Department and the FBI. Really. Completely safe.
In the meantime, while you contemplate my heartfelt proposal, I will leave you with this: our song. Think about it. And then don’t call me. Really. I mean it. Don’t call me. You’ll ruin the magic.
Previously I’ve written about Greg Mortenson, his non-profit, the Central Asia Institute, and his book about his journey to build schools for the children of rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The book is called Three Cups of Tea, and its accuracy has been called into question by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes and journalist Jon Krakauer. In addition to alleging that Mortenson’s autobiography is less than truthful (remind anyone of James Frey?), there are even more serious allegations of money mismanagement.
In addition to the tall tales that Mortenson supposedly told in his books, Krakauer and 60 Minutes are saying that Mortenson has not built as many schools as he claims he has. Many of the schools Mortenson claims that CAI has built or is funding are not currently functioning. Central Asia Institute has only furnished one audited financial statement in its 14 years. Several board members have quit over misgivings about financial accountability. And Mortenson’s travel costs are paid for by CAI while Mortenson himself retains speaking fees for speaking engagements and promotional tours for his books. The proceeds from the books go to Mortenson and not to the institute.
Some of the allegations here shouldn’t be terribly shocking to anyone who read Mortenson’s book. Mortenson himself admits that he is a poor planner, ineffective with time management, money management, and people management. But for some reason he has a knack with the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And no one is alleging that he isn’t an effective advocate for girls’ education in developing countries. No one is stating that he hasn’t vastly improved the lives of literally thousands of children. What they are claiming is that Mortenson has not been a good steward of CAI resources and that perhaps he’s indulged in some tall tales or some creative license with his story.
In one portion of the scandalous expose, 60 Minutes interviews a man that Mortenson identifies in a photo from his book as a member of the Taliban who kidnapped him for several days. Kroft interviews the man, and the man says he’s not Taliban and that he didn’t kidnap Mortenson. But honestly, if you were a member of the Taliban or if you had kidnapped someone, would it be in your best interest to admit to it on American national television? Why would we take this guy’s word at face value any more than we would Mortenson’s? And what due diligence did 60 Minutes undertake to ensure that this guy really was who and what he claims to be? We’re not told.
Three Cups of Tea was co-written by a seasoned journalist named David Oliver Relin. I have a hard time believing that he didn’t do any research on Greg Mortenson and his claims. After all, his professional reputation was on the line. I’d be interested in getting his take on things. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has asked that the public reserve judgment about Mortenson. Kristof is unimpeachable.
As for 60 Minutes and Krakauer, I’d like to say that, to be fair, the piece isn’t a complete hatchet job. Kroft indulges in some sensationalism in following Mortenson to a public book signing. Shame on you for grandstanding, Steve Kroft! It’s beneath you. And Krakauer may feel duped for having given $75,000 to a man who’s perhaps been less than truthful. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s envious of Mortenson’s greater success with his books. Krakauer wrote two bestsellers, one of which was made into a movie that was directed by Sean Penn. But his books haven’t sold as many copies as Greg’s, and Jon Krakauer probably can’t command the same speaking fees. Maybe his motivations are not entirely pure.
Even if Greg Mortenson has done a lot of good in the world, as I’m sure he has, he should still be held accountable. At the very least, Mortenson should start freely sharing audited financial statements on an annual basis. I cannot in good conscience recommend that anyone contribute one penny to CAI until this happens. Mortenson himself has admitted that he’s a lousy businessman. Why shouldn’t he continue to be the front man for his charity and hire someone else who’s experienced and knowledgeable to handle the day to day nitty gritty of being CAI’s executive director? I am sure that there are plenty of qualified individuals who would love the challenge of reforming such a worthy charity.
60 Minutes has tried to turn a hero into a charlatan. The truth is most likely somewhere between those two extremes. The jury’s still out on this matter, as far as I’m concerned. However, there are many questions that need to be answered. If Greg Mortenson is really concerned with helping the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, then he’ll do his best to answer those questions honestly and to behave honorably with regards to the money that has been entrusted to him for those children’s welfare. Mr. Mortenson, the excuse of naivete will only get you so far. It’s time to grow up and do the right thing.