Posts tagged ‘New Yorker’
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.
So, this weekend I took my granny squares and met up with a group of people who meet every other week at the Central Market to knit and crochet. I now have 97 out of 100 granny squares completed. When I get done with the 100 squares I have to crochet a black border around each one and then sew them together. I anticipate that I may be done sometime between now and the year 3000.
I wasn’t sure what I expected out of the group exactly, maybe a bunch of old biddies or a group of soccer moms. Neither was true. It was a pretty large group. There must have been at lease eight or nine people there. There were even two men.
We looked at pattern books and ate cookies and worked on our projects and talked. The lady who sat on my right was a technical writer who lived within walking distance of my house. The one on my left was a crochet guru who worked for a library. The woman directly across from me was from Oklahoma, and she teaches composition and rhetoric at a local university. The woman to her left was a former high school English teacher and a former Christian educator. And the two men were mos. Could the group have been more tailored made for moi? I don’t see how.
We talked about the news, its quality or lack thereof. The tech writer and I talked about the zoning plans for our respective neighborhoods and how sad it was that the area was destined to be Downtown: The Sequel. This means that it’ll be all vertical multi-use with outrageously high rents. In twenty years, they’ll have stripped this neighborhood of its poor and its minorities as well as its character. It will be homogenized, pasteurized, pristine, pretty, progressive, and predominantly white. It’ll also be pricey. I was glad that someone else besides me found that sad.
The tech writer was an African American woman, and when the subject of marriage and children came up, and I said that I thought marriage and children were both wonderful things but that I was tired of being made to feel less of a woman if I didn’t experience them, she said something profound. She said, “I have two grown children and a grandbaby. I’ve been married and divorced twice. All I ever wanted to be was That Girl. You know, like Marlo Thomas. Just a cute little career girl with a steady boyfriend.” Funny how you never think about the grass being greener.
We talked about writing and reading. We talked about grammar and novels. The meeting started at 2 and didn’t break up until nearly 5. Afterward, I went to the Mr. Brewsters for enchiladas and to see baby Punky.
I had intended to try a new church this weekend, but I didn’t get my nerve up and procrastinated instead, staying in bed under the covers and reading issues of The New Yorker. However, I did go to the church building on Sunday afternoon and drive by the outside so I would know how to get there for next week. I consider that progress.
I think I found a church that might fit with my particular brand of theology. I think I found some place where they might not think of homosexuality as a sin and where gays might be welcome to worship without being given the cold shoulder or the love the sinner speech. It’s small, and it’s close. The website talks about their commitment to service.
I like the Presbyterian church my landlords go to except that it’s all money. They pour most of their resources into buildings and programs designed to fill the needs of the church members and very little money comparatively into service and missions. Austin Stone is committed to missions, and they’re close now. I like the people who worship there, but that church is a member of the Southern Baptist Conference. I’m going to be pretty diametrically opposed to some of their theology. Plus, I’m pretty certain you’ll never see any gay or lesbian couples filling the pews at either of those churches.
Recently, I was reading an article in The New Yorker about the ecology and the green movement in the United States. This article mentioned an economic principle that apparently has been around since long before my time. I’d never heard of it, probably because I didn’t study economics in school. It’s called the Jevons Paradox.
William Stanley Jevons was a British subject. In 1865 he wrote a book called, The Coal Question. In his book, Jevons was proposing a theory for the usage of coal, then the primary source of energy in the developing industrial world. He observed the effect that fuel efficiency had on coal usage.
Instead of improved efficiency limiting coal usage, it actually had the opposite effect. Because technology allowed less coal to be used to produce the same or better results, that lowered the cost of the coal, and then the coal, as more and more people became able to afford the latest technology, became cheaper. A cheaper product created greater demand. Thus, more coal was used.
The increase in demand, which fuels the increase in usage, is called the rebound effect. When the rebound effect is an increase of more than 100%, then it’s called a backfire. And the backfire is the crux of the Jevons Paradox, when the rebound effect exceeds the gains made from conservation.
We don’t use coal as our primary fuel source anymore. It’s interesting to note that at the time that Jevons wrote his book people were worried about eventually running out of coal. Coal was eventually replaced with petroleum and natural gas. And people currently worry that we are running out of all fossil fuels at the rate we’re depleting them.
Frequently, this scientific theory is quoted by conservatives as a reason not to bother with energy conservation efforts. After all, they don’t work anyway. In fact, they produce the opposite result. We should all just go out and buy Hummers. The only problem with that is that eventually we will run out of fossil fuels, and it will become impossible to use them as our primary energy resource any longer. And if we don’t have an alternative in place by then, then we’re kind of screwed.
The oil won’t just keep perpetually replenishing itself. And with more and more developing nations, particularly in Asia, requiring their own increasingly larger slices of the pie, it’s likely to run out sooner rather than later if we don’t take the lead in looking for a replacement.
This is not to mention that our dependence on fossil fuels puts us at the mercy of volatile middle-eastern governments. In some cases, one could even go so far as to say that every time you fill your gas tank you’re funding some terrorist organization.
Where do you think Osama bin Laden’s money came from? Much was made of the Hummer and then the Hummer II during both Iraq Wars. It was like a symbol of patriotism to drive a military tank as your personal vehicle. The truth is just the opposite. The symbol of true patriotism is a Smart car, or, better yet, a bicycle.
Our government should encourage conservation by taxing fossil fuels at a rate that makes up for any savings created with the Jevons Paradox. Then we should take that savings and invest it in research and development toward clean energy resources. We could do the same thing with cigarettes and junk food and the health crisis. Our government gives a lot of breaks to tobacco farmers and to growers of corn and soy beans. And where have you heard the words corn and soy bean come up most in the news lately? Oh, yeah.
No doubt, some of the actual economists or business enthusiasts who read this article will fault me for wanting to interfere with a “free market” economy. But this isn’t a free market economy and never has been. Our government picks and chooses which industries that it sanctions in the form of tax breaks, incentives, trade embargoes, etc. It always has; that is nothing new. Why not sanction our future instead of continuing to pour money into dinosaurs, both literally and figuratively?
The world is changing, whether we like it or not. We can do nothing and perish, or we can evolve and survive.