Literature, Trust, and the Return to the Real (Jonathan Franzen or Why Can’t I?)

(photo taken from the SU Daily Orange)

 Jonathan Franzen spoke at Syracuse University last week, so I figured this might be interesting. Great excitement at Hendrick’s Chapel. Incredibly tall, the author stepped up to the podium.  I’ve never seen a sort of famous person so pleased with himself for being “not nice.” And then I fell asleep. Woke up and left before Q & A. From what I read the next day in our student newspaper, the Daily Orange, I’m not sure what I missed.

The serious point is this. On what basis does one decide to immerse oneself into an “oeuvre”? Franzen’s a big deal, right? But I can’t marshal up the intellectual energy (desire).  It’s no small thing to be asked by a writer to plunge into 500+ page novels. I didn’t have this problem with Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy or with Deleuze.  (I am having this problem with Safran Foer, Englander, and Chabon). It’s a big commitment, this decision to explore a literary landscape. Some authors you trust and/or find interesting, and others you don’t.

Could someone please persuade me to at least read The Connections? I get the return to the real after the postmodernism of Pynchon. And I think I’m missing something, hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff. Or is it just too joyless? I appreciate the notion that corrections can be made. Even if it’s not a cop-out, I remain unsure about the price which comes with this gnosis.

Whether he knows it or not, Franzen belongs to that recent crop of writers writing after 9/11 about the return to the real under the aegis of Lacan such as Zizek and Badiou, and “the speculative realists.” I’d also add Lars van Trier (the director of the movie Melancholia) to the mix. When writers and artists after postmodernism want to re-commit you to the real, you better watch what kind of image of it they’re proffering. It tends to get nasty.

Does it have to be a choice between Franzen or Oprah? From the little I caught of the talk at SU, Franzen doesn’t think much about his readers and what he claims are the 4 idiotic questions they ask him (re: influences, autobiography; I forget the other two).

My sense is that author’s cynicism is no “correction” at all. It’s rather an integral part of the very idiocy condemned by him. I don’t think there’s any way to elude this coil.

I’m not prepared to subscribe to the view that dementia constitutes the symbol of our cultural moment.  Nor am I ready to agree quite yet that “The main difference between America and Lithuania, as far as Chip could see, was that in America the wealthy few subdued the unwealthy many by means of mind-numbing and soul-killing entertainments and gadgetry and pharmaceuticals, whereas in Lithuania the powerful few subdued the unpowerful many by threatening violence” (I got this from Wikipedia).

I don’t have this trust problem with Roth, who is never mirthless, even when he’s nasty. For some reason, I trust Roth. I can chalk it up to male privilege. As for dementia, I my own views are tender views. Based on personal affections, they are closer to the memory of his father’s physical decline explored by Roth in Patrimony. About Franzen, I obviously need to develop my own independent look at the oeuvre. I’ll wait for the next novel and see what the reviews have to say. I’m not in any hurry here. It’s a big world out there, and time is precious.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply