Monday, October 16, 2006

Franzen redux

Jonathan Franzen is really taking a beating for his new memoir-ish thing, The Discomfort Zone. First Michiko Kakutani (not surprising) and now Daniel Mendelsohn in the Times Book Review. Mind you I haven't read the new book, except for the piece on birdwatching in the New Yorker, which I thought was pretty good, if not *so* interesting about his personal life. But these critics are just piling on about his self-centeredness and overall "loathesomeness." And it is clear that the essays have led them to believe that Franzen himself is loathesome, not the author persona he's created. Moreover, Kakutani and Mendelsohn both say that pretty much all the characters in The Corrections are loathesome. But here's the thing I really don't get. Mendelsohn says:

This project is, however, fatally marred in Franzen’s nonfiction by a flaw that readers of Franzen’s fiction are already likely to be familiar with, which is the author’s total lack of humor — a quality without which, as every stand-up comedian knows, obsessive self-exposure is tedious rather than entertaining or edifying. It’s hard, indeed, not to be struck by the almost willful refusal to consider the humorous — and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful — in Franzen’s work: a body of writing in which every landscape is a landfill (all three of Franzen’s novels are, in fact, filled with surreally detailed descriptions of blighted cityscapes), every season is rainy. “There was something dreadful about springtime itself,” the author recalls here, somewhat astonishingly, of a season in his childhood. But then, what else do you expect from the son of a man (now clearly revealed as the model for Al Lambert, the dyspeptic paterfamilias of “The Corrections”) whose reaction to the sight of his child enjoying himself — reading a book or playing with a friend — was the disdainful exclamation, “One continuous round of pleasure!” If anything, Franzen’s new book, whose title refers to the heavily symbolic setting on a thermostat that the author’s parents continually argued over, sheds light on the extent to which the author seems to have internalized rather than rejected his father’s awful severity and lifelong resistance to pleasure, and to have responded to this psychic squashing by embracing a clever, superior, smarty-pants persona.
OK, I get the smarty-pants, and maybe the ultimate resistance to pleasure; I'll have to think about that. But humorless? The Corrections is hilarious--not all the way through, but there are plenty of scenes that are so funny I can't quite believe it. Does Mendelsohn mean something different by humor here? He seems to be eliding a sense of humor with senses of pleasure and beauty, which I don't think are the same thing. Isn't our world full of dyspeptic humorists, and aren't they funnier than, say, the Dalai Lama?

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