Watching Jonathan Franzen Dance on HBO

photo by cirne

Below is from an essay by Denis Donoghue in the New York Review of Books, “Coming in from the Cold,” (2006) discussing the work of Jonathan Franzen.  This, from the excerpt below, seems incisive and most psychologically astute:  “This passage, in which the young Franzen finds satisfaction in being looked at, is more characteristic of his sensibility than the moods of introspection he also engaged in.”

As Donoghue quotes from Franzen at length and offsets the text by indentation, I will leave it as formatted in the review and simply “bookend” it with asterisks to indicate its beginning and ending.  Highlights are mine.  Further discussion follows.


In The Discomfort Zone Franzen is preoccupied, according to the notebook he kept in college, with the way he appeared to other people, as in this remarkable passage about dancing with the French major he had been chasing:

Ekström and I had cleared the furniture from my bedroom and made it the dance floor. Well past midnight, after the Averys and our less good friends had gone home, I found myself alone on the floor, dancing to Elvis Costello’s “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” in my tightly wound way, while a group of people watched. They were watching my expressivity, I wrote in my notebook the next day, on a plane to St. Louis. I knew this, and about a minute into the song I cast an “Oh so much attention showered upon modest me” smile at the whole line of them. But I think my real expressivity was in that smile. Why is he embarrassed? He’s not embarrassed, he loves attention. Well, he’s embarrassed to get it, because he can’t believe that other people can so quietly be party to his exhibition. He’s smiling with goodhearted disdain. Then “Chelsea” gave way to “Miss You,” the Stones’ moment in disco, and the French major joined me on the floor. She said, “Now we’re going to dance like we’re freaked out!” The two of us brought our faces close together, reached for each other, dodged each other, and danced nose to nose in a freaked-out parody of attraction, while people watched.

This passage, in which the young Franzen finds satisfaction in being looked at, is more characteristic of his sensibility than the moods of introspection he also engaged in. The social novel, with its particles of story, characters, and contexts, suits his talent well. Despite the cultural exacerbations, he finds such a novel still possible, and writing it a decent, serious activity. The only formal problem with it is that his characters, to be socially credible, are often too limited to serve his ambition. He comes to the end of them before they have done the work he had in mind. So he has to intervene on their behalf, thinking, feeling, and expressing beyond their range. In The Twenty-seventh City Martin is perceptive enough to reflect on “the bitter superiority of the less advantaged” but we are given no reason to think he could rise to other phrases that Franzen gives him:

She kissed his hand, but he pulled it away. He was beginning to feel betrayed. Barbara had defected to the world at large, to its optimisms, its smooth mechanisms of love and remorse, and like everyone else now she wanted to have Probst in her camp.

The mechanisms of love and remorse are Franzen’s idea, not Martin’s as he has been shown. It is an example of narrative ventriloquism. As again in The Corrections:

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. It was an ancient disappointment with the refusal of the world in general and her children in particular to participate in her preferred enchantments.

“Preferred enchantments” is beautiful, but it is not credible as a mark of Enid’s mind. In Chapter 8 of Strong Motion Franzen writes a little essay on the social differences between men and women and he attaches it to Renée’s musings, but it doesn’t stay attached; we can believe in it only as a sociological notion expounded by Franzen. 


Everyone who follows the entertainment press knows that Franzen snubbed Oprah and then offered a strained mea culpa.  Oprah was right to choose Franzen’s The Corrections as it fits within a very clearly defined Oprah criterion–social exposure.  And the choice of the book and Franzen’s reaction to being chosen seem consistent with what Donoghue says above (via Franzen’s own work, out of his mouth, so to speak).  Oprah is “common”; Franzen wants only to comment on the common and so not be allied with the common.  But he wants the common to admire him for his observations on their commonality; or perhaps for the common to like his book while not realizing he is offending them within it?

Donoghue quotes from Franzen’s essay “Mr. Difficult“:

I grew up in a friendly egalitarian suburb reading books for pleasure. I consider myself a slattern of a reader. I have started (in many cases, more than once) Moby-Dick, The Man without Qualities, Mason & Dixon, Don Quixote, Remembrance of Things Past, Doctor Faustus, Naked Lunch, The Golden Bowl, and The Golden Notebook without coming anywhere near finishing them. Indeed, by a comfortable margin, the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read in its entirety was Gaddis’s 956-page first novel, The Recognitions.

Here, Franzen, who has cultivated a kind of “eggheadedness” as a (no-longer) young Turk of fiction writing, in attempts to stand next to David Foster Wallace, frankly admits to the clear mask or persona this is.  This is him dancing and you watching.

It is notable I suppose that the Gaddis title, The Recognitions, is echoed in Franzen’s title, The Corrections.

What is recognized (forgeries, in the plot of  the Gaddis), and what is corrected?  Fiction of the Gaddis brand (DeLillo, Pynchon, Gass, Barth, Coover, Barthelme?) is a forgery of the real and novelistic representation of the human, while Franzen recognizes that the more psychologically and socially apparent fulfillment of the observing author as he excoriates the mistakes of society is his fictional correction.

Beats me, honestly, as I haven’t read any of these books.

I guess we’re just back to the central question: What’s the use of this mode of representation?  Does it need to have one?  Franzen seems to make it plain above as he decries the loss of public reach for the novel as a mode of social instruction as compared with electronic media.

Philip Roth, in a speech given in 1960 titled “Writing American Fiction,” made the point (45 years before Franzen begins to bemoan cultural inattention…to his proscriptions of it?) that reality had entirely one-upped fiction and that modern life was so outlandish that an author could not dream up such stuff.

He did not claim that there was a loss to public instruction (which must imply a “right perspective” if you are making a point of wanting to instruct), however, rather a cost to imagination, to art, and, one must assert an expected effect the novelist must feel and respond against as a novelist.

It was not a charge against how we come to be aware of the mismanaged insanity in the world around us, and that it is managed out of our hands (in Franzen’s view, how novels compete with the other forms of instruction)–it’s that this American world IS crazy, depressing, soul-draining.  Roth opens with three pages devoted to news story in Chicago about two young girls who had gone missing.  The story “industry” begins to find more ways to keep the story “in the news” throughout the discovery of the murdered girls and the trial of the suspected abductor.  In between, Roth says, one realizes that the accumulation of fabulous detail is simply PR.  You will discover, should you read it, that it contains bits of “extreme home makeover” in the media and public response to the dead girls’ mother.  And on the heels of this he goes on to marvel at the satirical nature, presented as reality, of the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy:

all of it was so beside the point, so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented it.  But then, of course, one need not have been a fiction writer to wish that someone had invented it, and that it was not real and with us.

He does not either proclaim to worry over a resulting inattention to the work of the writer (this seems Franzen’s real worry).  He offers, rather, his own kind of instruction via the example of Norman Mailer, an author seeemingly subsumed by and in the public to the detriment (in Roth’s view) of his work.  He gives Advertisements for Myself as Mailer’s angry attempt to be and do everything in the public sphere–to take on the reality of the world on its home court, to compete with it.  Mailer

is an interesting example of a writer in whom our era has provoked such a magnificent disgust that dealing with it in fiction has almost come to seem, for him, beside the point.  He has become an actor in the cultural drama, the difficulty of which is that it leaves one with less time to be a writer….[Advertisements for Myself is] a chronicle for hte most part of why I did it and what it was like–and who I have it in for: his life as a substitute for his fiction.

Roth goes on to say that it seems the era (again, marvel that this was mid-20th Century) seems to be defined by the writers of the time by a “loss of subject.”  He decries the kind of social detachment one finds in Salinger (via mystical children, heroes both institutionalized and self-annihilated), and at the other extreme, Bernard Malamud, whose protagonists live in an apparently real world but only one kind of real world and one frozen time period where things like baseball happen, but not the way real baseball would happen.

But he finds the bulk of modern novelists writing in the service of display:

literary regression in the service of the ego…The writer thrusts before our eyes–it is in the very ordering of his sentences–personality, in all its separateness and specialness.  Of course, the mystery of personality may be nothing less than a writer’s ultimate concern: and certainly when the muscular prose is revealing of character and evocative of an environment–as is “Augie March“–it can be wonderfully effective; at its worst, however, as a form of literary onanism, it seriously curtails the fictional possibilities, and may perhaps be thought of as a symptom of the writer’s loss of community–of what is outside himself–as subject.

I do not know to what extent these words might apply to Franzen.  He seems the kind that protests too much.  His writing seems to be in service of the self as turned against the life as lived.  As he notes in one essay, “The Foreign Language,” regarding his self-conscious turn to “recording the self”:

For the first time in my life, I was starting to see the people in my family as actual people [this might be read as “characters” ed.], not merely as relations, because I’d been reading German literature and was becoming a person myself. Aber diesmal wird es geschrieben werden [But this time, it will be written], I wrote in my notebook on my first evening in St. Louis. I meant that this holiday with my family, unlike all the holidays in the past, would be recorded and analyzed in writing. I thought I was quoting from Malte. But Rilke’s actual line is much crazier: Aber diesmal werde ich geschrieben werden [But this time, I will be written]. Malte is envisioning a moment when, instead of being the maker of the writing (“I write”), he will be its product (“I am written”): instead of a performance, a transmission; instead of a focus on the self, a shining through the world.

It is hard to be a novelist in an age where only actors are considered “serious” artists and given the appropriate podium from which to decry genocide (Clooney), starvation (Jolie), hurricanes (Penn), or Arne Duncan (Damon).

But Franzen, it seems, has discovered that his nemesis and competition for the public’s gaze, television, is truly an ally.  The Corrections has been optioned, as those electronic property control people say, and is being adapted by HBO (“TV and the novel: a match made in heaven“).

The dance goes on!  And lucky, this time, that Franzen’s partner is the more culturally discerning and critical purveyor of public instruction HBO rather than Oprah.  As Malte has it:  Aber diesmal werde ich geschrieben werden…

I am written…a transmission…a shining through the world.

Until we discover the series outshines the novel…


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