Friday, December 16, 2011

The author as enforcer

How about another Franzen Friday? Well, why not? I mean, the poor guy hardly gets any attention anymore. Having finished Freedom, and mostly* enjoyed it immensely, I moseyed over to the Paris Review to read the interview with Franzen from last winter.

What I find comforting about this interview is that Franzen's concerns about fiction seem closely aligned to my own, which means that I, too, will someday reach the same pinnacle of fame and success on which he is now ambivalently ensconced! OK, probably not. But I can learn from his trajectory. For instance, like my own, a lot of Franzen's early works grew out of his engagement with science fiction. And this fondness for big ideas, or "systems," to use his term, meant that his characters were created to serve the system. Now, he says, it's the other way around: any "system" that's apparent in the novel is there to serve the characters. However, he still has to remind himself every time to start with character; his tendency, even now, is to start with the system, and he has to learn "the hard way" not to do that.

Yet. I myself am not ready entirely to jettison "systems," and one reason is this nagging suspicion I have of realism as a genre. Helpfully, Franzen addresses that in a way I hadn't thought of before:

You know, enchantment has a positive connotation, but even in fairy tales it’s not a good thing, usually. When you’re under enchantment, you’re lost to the world. And the realist writer can play a useful and entertaining role in violently breaking the spell. But something about the position this puts the writer in, as a possessor of truth, as an epistemological enforcer, has come to make me uncomfortable. I’ve become more interested in joining the characters in their dream, and experiencing it with them, and less interested in the mere fact that it’s a dream.

This "enforcer" role--the author as stripper-away-of-enchantment--is, I think, part of my problem with realism. I like a sense of enchantment in novels, even if there's no actual magic or flying cars or mind-reading; that is, even as I'm absorbed in the story, I like dimly realizing the whole time that I am elsewhere--emphatically not in the real world. Authors who are obviously striving to make that sense impossible (*ahem* Carver) tend to irritate me. You don't have to be some po-mo riff artist, gleefully calling attention to the constructedness of all texts, and to the fact that all is text, to create a pleasant sense of artifice within your work. I don't like the concept of art as spell-breaking; I prefer spell-creating, which is not the same thing as bewitching or misleading. In this view, the author can be a guide to this slightly different reality, not an enforcer.

*I still think it's a little too sadistic to certain characters, and--like The Corrections--features a lengthy, detailed investigation of human feces. I dunno, is that supposed to be a sign of fearless confrontation with life's realities? I guess it's meant as that stark blend of comedy and horror that can work sublimely in fiction...but to me it just seems juvenile.

Friday, December 09, 2011

On finally finding Franzen's Freedom

So there's this book out? It's called Freedom? Jonathan Franzen wrote it and it's all the rage! Oh, wait, this isn't 2010. Heck, it's hardly even 2011 anymore. However, never let it be said that I don't follow literary trends. I just don't follow them at the same time as everyone else.

All this is to say that I am finally reading Freedom, an activity I'd actually been dreading. Having read the excerpt in the New Yorker, and then the zillions of sugar-and-or-bile-coated reviews, I had formed certain expectations, the most notable being that Franzen would be condescending to his characters, especially his female characters. As much as I loved The Corrections, I sensed this condescension, even contempt, and the New Yorker excerpt of Freedom seemed to have the same whiff about it, only in spades.

Well, this does turn out to be true in Freedom. With the caveat that I have not finished the book, I would say that the portrayal of Patty does seem to come from an on-high, nose-wrinkled perch. Her "autobiography" in particular is puzzling in its language. It's supposedly her own work, and seems to show an intentional lack of familiarity with the finer cultural attainments , but it also contains numerous Franzenian displays of wit and acuity that a character like this would, by the author's own definition, not be capable of.

And yet the damn thing is riveting. I cannot wait to sit down with the book at the end of the day, and as soon as I open it, I am absorbed. Why? How? First off, although the author seems unable to directly overcome his condescension, it also seems he has found a way to work with it, so that it becomes an integral part of the story rather than working against it. The novel so far is starting to look like the author's battle with his own schadenfreude toward bourgeois mediocrity. And I think that's a battle more of us are fighting than we might like to admit. Everyone, truly, knows about jealousy and the joy of discovering that one's seemingly perfect neighbors or coworkers or whomever don't have it all, after all.

But what are we to do with this embarrassing recognition of our own failings to be sympathetic and good and decent? A lesser author might revel in it, but Franzen does not. He seems to use this discomfort with his authorial stance to drive himself to find deeper compassion for his characters. Whatever schadenfreude he and we are experiencing does not reduce the characters to cartoons: quite the opposite. Patty and the other characters are portrayed with such careful detail, such nuance, such understandable ambivalence and contradiction, that I, at least, have ended up rooting for them more than I might have in a less overdetermined portrait.

Also, let's face it, the book is something of a soap opera. Neighborhood spats, filial dynamics gone terribly wrong, guilt-ridden yet passionate love affairs...Plus it's quite funny.

So, hey, check out this new book by this budding young talent. Remember, you heard it here last.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Burying the verb in a noun

I've been coming across a certain stylistic problem, both in the nonfiction I've been editing, and also in, ahem, some fiction. Here's an example:

A flood of relief came over me.

Let us not dwell on where this sentence came from; that is not important. Nor, for our purposes, is the fact that it's a cliche. The problem is that there are actually two verbs in the sentence: a strong, vivid one, which is disguised as a noun ("flood"), and the weak, bland, actual verb ("came"). The overall effect is a wordy and mushy sentence. The fix:

Relief flooded over me.

OK, there is still the problem of the cliche. But now that we have one specific verb, "flooded," we can start tweaking it: Relief poured over me. Relief trickled through my veins. Relief poured over my shoulders like a hot shower. Or maybe we should just leave well enough alone for now...

The point is, I've suddenly become very aware of this problem, so it seems to be everywhere. There may even be a fancy rhetorical name for it. What's nice is that it's easy to fix: just look for weak, flabby verbs like "came" and then search the rest of the sentence for the real verb, which is likely present, but disguised as a noun.