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September 23, 2010


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Matthias Galvin

We want some names!

That Fuzzy Bastard

Kate Rophie has specialized in dimwitted provocations since she was an undergrad; what's depressing is that she keeps getting rewarded for it. Her brainless inability to actually read the words in DFW's writing---as well as her incredibly blithe dismissal of Toni Morrison's BELOVED, mostly on the grounds that slavery is boring and stuff---is one of the many reasons to never, ever read the criticism in Slate.

Unfortunately, INFINITE JEST has become to go-to masterpiece for middlebrow critics to dismiss. I still can't get over the writer (maybe during that same roundtable?) who whined about the detailed description of the door during PGOAT's suicide attempt, spinning theories about DFW's "anal-retentive descriptiveness', and seeming never noticing that the passage was written from the point-of-view of a very observant person who was committing suicide by coke, which tends to speed up perception.

I'll stop. I'll stop. I could gas on for years about the sniffy dismissal of DFW that seems to be a requirement for admittance to mass-market critical circles.

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy: I could probably listen to you rant about this topic for all those years, AND chime in with some of my own examples. We'd grow old together. Hell, this is possibly one of the few subjects that will find us in 1000% total agreement.

@ Matthias—It's not like there's a compendium of folks that I could post about in the style of my "Literary references in 'Pierrot le fou'" piece. Mainly, I'm seeing a few pronounced DFW traits in Katz, although—I can't emphasize this enough—Katz's attitude toward women, and so much more, is NOTHING like Dave's. Like I said, it's complicated. But there's some stuff there, and it sometimes makes me gasp in a kind of recognition...

Kiss Me, Son of God

Unrelated to Franzen but related to literary interludes: are you aware of this guy Matthew Sharpe? I just read his new (slim) novel "You Were Wrong," and it's completely fantastic in ways that often put me in mind of DFW. The gloriously circuitous syntax, the sensitive moral engagement with the world, the brainy sense of humor...I think you, and the readers of this blog, would dig it a lot.

John M

I literally just finished FREEDOM 10 minutes ago.

If you're anything like me, you're in for some mighty moist eyes.

And yes, Katz's labor certainly reminded me of some recent posts by you, Glenn!


I've never read Franzen, and have thus far deliberately avoided him. For no reason other than a general vibe, and because some people whose taste I respect have warned me against him. But I'm intrigued now, and so will put off reading THE CORRECTIONS only a few more months, as opposed to several months, or forever.


So far, I think the book's somewhere between undistinguished and middling, at its best moments, and really horrible at its much more frequent worst. It seems to be a book about four very uninteresting people, at least one of whom is less a character than just a grab-bag of signifiers slopped together, and the brands of car/wine/clothes they purchase, punctuated by a series of lazy, unamusing potshots at various stereotypical sorts - the zany cokehead, the handsome male cokehead, the detached liberal mom, the entitled preppy rapist, the Reagan Democrat, the New York Times music critic, the white trash neighbor, the conservative connected academic - none of which have any thematic significance, but are simply thrown in in some pathetic attempt to make a Great American Novel simply by larding the proceedings with a variety of representative American types. The whole thing's a series of dreary, inevitable marches towards a series of extramarital couplings between people we're never given any reason to care about, and nothing could be more miserable than the passages describing the couplings themselves. In the course of the proceedings, one gets a dim sense that Franzen is trying to say Something Meaningful and critical about America and the Bush years, but said criticism seems to depend entirely on the fact that he chose to write about a bunch of sadsack idiots - in particular, the one environmentalist in the world who's stupid enough to assist in the development of a sham bird preserve so some coal miner can strip mine a huge chunk of West Virginia to pieces. Such tomfoolery isn't emblematic of anything that took place the last decade, but rather of the author's dim and not very interesting view of the world. Not to even get into how annoying it is to read a novel where every other page seems intended to impress us with the depth of the author's research into the consumer buying patterns of 1980s Minnesotans, like any of that shit matters.

Pete Segall

@John M. - That's a lousy ten minutes, isn't it? Wait until you try picking up another novel.

I actually found the whole thing to be extremely flawed on several levels (technically, languageistically, at points characterologically). But as a dramatic chronicle, as a record of a moment, it's staggering.

@Tray - I'm not sure why you'd call it "an attempt to make a Great American Novel" unless the book was retroactively written by Time/Michiko Kakutani/Oprah Winfrey et al. It's long. So what? It's breezy, it's melodrama, it's an entertainment. Those are not intended to slight the book at all. But if you're going to attach a publicity dept's worth of hype to the book, you probably will end up with interpretations as uncharitable as those.


Bill, I avoided The Corrections for the same reason but couldn't resist reading Freedom, the "it" zeitgeisty book. And I found it very strong and recommend it.
Tray, not sure how far into it you are or if you've already given up on it (the latter of which would seem the sensible choice given your animosity toward the book). But I think your criticism of those "lazy, unamusing potshots" is pretty cursory: I guess the "zany cokehead" would be Patty's deeply deranged friend Eliza; the "handsome cokehead" would I guess be Katz - but even the brief passage Glenn quotes tells you that description of him doesn't even make sense (though he does occasionally do coke); Patty, "the detached liberal mom," may secretly hold liberal beliefs but if anything she's more defined by her discomfort with, even disdain of politics of any sort; it goes on and on.
I don't think anyone would argue that these characters are likeable in a traditional sense - but that's not what art is about, for me anyway. We see the characters' faults - indeed they themselves more often than not recognize them, too - but throughout all the backbiting and bitterness runs a thread of real longing to take control of one's life, to make more of it than your background and circumstances, above all your own very real limitations, would lead you to expect it could be.
I quickly read that slag-of-a-review in The Atlantic recently, infuriated at what passes for literary criticism sometimes. The tone of the novel, the texture of voice in each of the different threads, is so fine. I want to say like a symphony - but perhaps more like a string quartet...
I just finished Freedom recently so I'm still working out my thoughts on it. Is Franzen "our Tolstoy" as I saw in some gushing review (I think in Salon)? I'd say no. But still, Freedom definitely delivered the goods... I'm looking forward to reading The Corrections now, too.


I've always really liked Strong Motion, enough to buy copies for several people as gifts during the late 90s. The last two novels are formally more ambitious, and move at a pace that few novelists, genre or otherwise, can maintain, but there's something too stern and judgmental about this new Franzen voice that gets me down--kind of like an unfunny Alexander Payne. I'm happy with unlikable characters in fiction, but each of the POV characters in Freedom is as equally and mercilessly judgmental as the last one, and I have a hard time accepting such a joyless world view. An otherwise terrific book, but I wish that Franzen, as long as he was going outside the Berglund family for Katz's POV, had at least given us a glimpse of the world seen through Connie's eyes, or someone else with a little more forgiveness in his or her heart.


Joel: Katz is a de facto Berglund, I think. As to the joylessness of Franzen's world view or his judgmental tone (it's the only book of his I've read thus far so I don't have any basis of comparison with earlier work), I found it surprisingly generous. And [SORTA SPOILER AHEAD] indeed, Freedom's ending would seem to belie the notion that its characters are unable to forgive.
I think that where I find Franzen most strong and moving is his ability to skate on the superficial level that we spend so much (too much) of our lives on, but then delve deeper in a way that's not ponderous, and is often quite breathtaking. An example is the simple truth of the relatively minor character of Dorothy, Walter's much-suffering mother, who, Walter remembers (if I'm remembering correctly), is fond of saying that it's a good thing to have friends, however imperfect they may be... OK, baldly paraphrased like that it doesn't sound like the deepest thing. But in the context of a larger meditation on friendship, coming where it does in the book, it packs quite a wallop.

John M

If Tray is past page 50, I'd be surprised. Otherwise, my lord is that a wrongheaded (and absurdly cranky) reading.

Sounds like a budding depressed novelist!

Matt Dutto

Judging from some of the things Tray wrote that refer specifically to the book, I'd say he is well past page 50 or has simply gleaned enough about the book from various reviews to form an opinion. An opinion without much in the way of insight, mind you. Take away all those adjectives and not much of depth has been said.

John M

I still don't buy it. Tray's comment seems like a hit-job written by someone who's just angrily skimmed the book, then cycled through the book's reviews and synopses. (buying habits of 1980's Minnesotans?) I will admit that his description of the novel as "undistinguished" really got me thinking. That's what I'm always looking for in a book. "Is this distinguished enough?"


Haven't read much Franzen (yet) but my interest has been piqued since learning of his friendship with Wallace, plus all the brouhaha over The Corrections, and now Freedom. Glenn's (and others here) imprimatur means I'll likely get around to a novel sooner rather than later. I did read his Harper's essay on the contemporary social novel, and I did read the two excerpts of Freedom that were published in the New Yorker, but found that while I liked the first one a lot, the second was pretty weak. I'm hoping this doesn't mean the book will be the egregiously mixed bag certain critics have deemed it, but I will say that most of the negative critiques seem to be pretty glibly dismissive - my lack of experience w/ his work aside, Franzen has always struck me as pretty damn serious and ambitious, and charges that he's some kind of arch hipster making fun of American mediocrity seem patently myopic. I recently read B.R. Myers's tortured screed against the book in The Atlantic, and man, what a joke. If ever there were a "get off my lawn" caricature in book reviewing, it's this turkey. It's so full of irrelevance and clumsy argumentation that you don't have to read FREEDOM to know it's way, way better than Myers says it is.

Adam R.

Glenn, was Katz's reading of Bernhard (from what I've read, he was was apparently important to Wallace in his final few years) and the "pink noise" headphones something else that reminded you of DFW?

Pete Segall

What's so sad/irritating about Myers is that the guy is actually a terrific scholar... of North Korean culture. His recent book about their racialism is fascinating. If he'd just stick to juche...

Frank McDevitt


Out of curiosity, can you recall what the excerpts were about? I'm a little over halfway through the novel (and really loving it so far), and I'd be interested to hear which one you liked and which you didn't. There's only one part so far that I think fell a bit flat, but even then I wouldn't go so far as to call the novel a mixed bag, since it's largely excellent. Granted, it could take a nose dive in the last half, but that doesn't seem likely.


Pete: The odd thing about Myers' review is that it's really a complaint about the vulgarity of contemporary American language, which the guy obviously avoids by living in Seoul (I think). Although I'm mixed on the book, I can't fault Franzen for writing colloquially. A more distant third-person voice may have a avoided some of the ugliness, but that's not how Franzen writes. For a better, nuanced negative review, see Charles Baxter in the NY Review of Books.

John M

Beating a dead horse, because I'm sure he's long gone, but after reading Charles Baxter's review, I'm fairly certain it's the source of Tray's cursory bellyaching. Point by point.


Frank -

The first excerpt was, I believe, from the adult Patty's(?) POV (although as I recall, narrated in the third person), and concerned her one son's rebellious ways. I remember it being well observed, funny, wonderfully written, dealing with a parent's mystification on how her offspring could turn out a certain way - in this case, quite different than both her and her husband (although reference was made to her being rebellious and an all-around malcontent as a youngster). How the son played off his parent's resentment of the neighbors, etc. Not too clear beyond that. The second dealt with Patty's rape at the hands of the local preppy dude (should I include a SPOILER ALERT here?) and her father's utterly craven betrayal of his daughter by doing everything he could to discourage her from pressing charges. It seemed to me that the father was portrayed thinly; his duplicity seemed contrived - the progressive lawyer who actually is quite cynical and mocks his clients, and then goes so far as to sell out his daughter merely so he doesn't make waves within the community...something about the way it was presented, the dialogue of the father telling the daughter that it was basically her fault, or at least partly so...I'm willing to blame most of this on the whole excerpting practice, which is pretty goddamn lame in the first place, like Franzen really needs a boost from the New Yorker for his new novel, as if there aren't enough short stories out there...but this is an entirely different story. Anyway, that's the long answer to your question. I'm still interested in reading the book.

Pete Segall

@Joel - My wife and I were just having this discussion with regard to the colloquial voice and Myers disdain for it. I have no problem at all with the voice - what seems to get in Myers' craw is that he reads it as symptomatic of a decrepit culture. Or that none of us are writing Madame Bovary. I'll have to get back to you on that. I think he's well aware that this is how people talk and he hates that. My wife's reaction to the review: "I bet he wears funny hats and reads lots of Pound. He's a virgin, isn't he."

What the novel would have looked like in a distant tone? I'm guessing it would be a lot closer to (Franzen's love) Alice Munro... and that doesn't suit this book. I liked the Baxter review; as for Myers, I don't even know why he was asked to do the review unless The Atlantic is trying to position itself as a kind of right-leaning Slate with lots of balls out, pointless contrarianism. His hatred for all contemporary American literature is as self-evident as it is baffling. (I agree regarding Baxter. A calm, measured dismissal.)


I just finished reading "Freedom", and, unfortunately, didn't think all that much of it. I hadn't considered the David Foster Wallace comparisons, but they're certainly there (at least, on a superficial level), from Patty's sports angle (athletics played a significant role in Wallace's writing) to Katz's tobacco use. But I don't think "Freedom" comes close to approaching the conceptual and intellectual rigor of DFW. If anything, with this novel, I feel that Franzen has moved further away from what could be broadly described as the postmodern formal gambits of his earlier fiction to realism with a capital "R". Aside from a few half-hearted footnotes here and there, I don't see very many structural similarities. Perhaps I've missed them?

I also had some problems with the colloquial third-person voice. I actually think Alice Munro (the absolute master of the personal third person perspective) would have been a good model to follow, with its perfect marriage of detachment and personality, without the unsightliness that Franzen invariably generates sometimes. (And in fact, I sensed Munro's influence much more strongly than Wallace's throughout the book.) In particular, I found the idea of having Patty's autobiography narrated in the third person a dodgy choice, because too much of Franzen is imposed on the narrative. Also, since Patty is, to me, the most interesting character in the book, having direct access to her voice might have been beneficial.

I mention this because it leads me to one of my bigger quibbles with "Freedom", which is its female characters. Franzen gets a lot of credit for being one of the few major male writers to write about women credibly. And, despite the fact that I think her transition from hopeful, wide-eyed gentrifier to lushy depressive is handled a little bluntly, Patty is a pretty vivid creation. Which, in contrast, made the characters of Connie and Lalitha stand out so disagreeably. Lalitha, in particular, struck me as someone Philip Roth would have conceived of on a bad day; the young, nubile, exotic woman who, for some reason, finds the schlubby hero sexually irresistible.

Ultimately, I found "Freedom" marred by its superficiality, calculation and condescension. Often, it seemed that Franzen would describe people's clothes and their music tastes as legitimate signifiers of their characters, in lieu of any real depth or analysis. There's nothing wrong with an author finding a character absurd, but I kinda feel the author isn't doing his job if the character itself is a cliche. (Examples of this would be Lucy, from Glenn's above cited passage. Or Abigail, Patty's artsy, spinster sister. Or Jenna, Joey's roommate's icily beautiful, seemingly unattainable sister.)

Anyway, I apologize for these rambling, unstructured arguments. I've only just finished the book, and am still trying to process my thoughts. I read that Franzen's favorite novels include "The Brothers Karamazov" and "War and Peace" (and he recently wrote a beautiful appreciation of Christina Stead's neglected masterpiece "The Man Who Loved Children" for the NY Times), and I think he's attempted something along those lines in "Freedom"; in other words, a grand domestic epic. But I feel it's missing the sharp authenticity of those great family stories and the political and philosophical incisiveness of the great 19th century realists.

Glenn Kenny

@ Scott: I don't know if I didn't make myself clear or if you just misread me, but I wasn't talking about structural similarities between the Franzen work and anything by Wallace, because there aren't any, as you point out. ALL I was talking about were correspondences involving certain character traits and states of mind. Obviously the work of Wallace and the work of Franzen share some thematic affinities, and it really isn't as if Franzen's completely aping the 19th century realists, as his putting almost 1/5th of the book in the form of an "autobiography" of one of his characters ought to attest (it's not exactly a new device, to be damn sure, but also not one that the 19th century realists were all that crazy about that I know of)...but no, I wasn't talking about direct formal correspondences within the work, period. Sorry you didn't much care for the book. I'm not having all that much of a problem with it; I'm a bit over halfway through as I write this note. Next, Mann's Doctor Faustus, which I'm sure will inspire an even more impassioned thread.


I could write a very long, boring comment about what a straw man "the 19th century realists" became, post-Robbe-Grillet, but it's easier to just respond with BLEAK HOUSE, which is partially the autobiography of one of its lead characters and partially the larger third-person narrative of the rest of London. My favorite thing about FREEDOM was the structure--his last two novels both do some very clever and strange things with narrative while remaining so compelling to read. Then again, I also thought that Zadie Smith's last novel was quietly innovative, on a formal level, while most the reviews seemed to think it was an EM Forester throwback. Scott: I agree about the superficiality and condescension, but tried to keep in mind that the entire book is from the POVs of some fairly shallow and judgmental people. That's why I thought a section from Connie's POV might have helped. Franzen's speciality, though, seems not to be just women, but female rage--all his novels have young women who have grown angry because of some sexual trauma, and Connie probably wouldn't have fit this pattern.


Glenn: Thanks for clarifying. You're quite right, you never suggested the two writers are formally linked, I just inferred that, LOL. Also, I should add that, while Franzen doesn't need me to like him (Oprah likes him, again, American loves him and he's gonna win the Pulitzer, etc), I do feel genuine gratitude and amazement that a book like this can penetrate the public's consciousness. In a time when literary culture seems degraded and marginalized, it's something of a miracle to hop on the subway and see half a dozen people reading the same book (that isn't "Harry Potter"); an honest-to-goodness literary novel that is seriously grappling with interesting contemporary questions.

Joel: That's a good point, re: the shallow and condescending POV of the characters. But, I feel there should be some kind of authorial auto-critique to counteract that impression (especially since Franzen himself has said that this novel contains NO satire), but I never detected any. This kind of reminds me of a review that Todd McCarthy wrote for Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere" at indieWIRE. (Speaking of which, NYFF turned down "Somewhere" for their program? Whaaa? I mean, I haven't seen the movie, but talk about a golden omission!) McCarthy complained that it's difficult to tell whether the film is about vacuous people or just vacuous itself. I'd say the same about "Freedom", regarding its superior tone.

And I'm probably guilty of speaking too broadly about "realism" and "postmodernism", categorical distinctions I don't feel very passionate about one way or another. But you're absolutely right that a novel like "Bleak House" breaks down any notion of what a conventional realist novel is. It's a very dense, strange, experimental work, and a real masterpiece! (Apparently, it was Kafka's favorite novel?)

I'm not sure that Franzen is doing anything all that radical or unusual, structurally, but I have also occasionally noticed that what seem like traditional realist books can actually contain all kinds of minor formal innovations, and that, conversely, so-called experimental writing can be pretty derivative. (Again, I probably wouldn't use Zadie Smith as an example; like Franzen, I generally find Smith to be a sensitive, eloquent critic and essayist, but a rather methodical, overly-fastidious writer of fiction.) I'd go back to someone like Alice Munro (on this point, I heartily agree with Franzen: Munro is the greatest living writer of fiction in North America), someone who blurs the line between short and long fiction, who employs radical temporal shifts, etc. And I don't know if you've read the new English novel by Tom McCarthy, "C", which was recently published to much buzz and is being heralded as a major new work of the avant-garde. I actually quite liked "C", but anyone who thinks McCarthy is breaking new ground obviously hasn't read anything by J.G. Ballard.

Anyway, sorry to clog up Glenn's space. Happy reading, all!

Glenn Kenny

@ Scott: Please, don't think you're clogging up space. A lot of the time a comment section on a blog can be a good location to try out thoughts and ideas about all kinds of material, and gather feedback, get correction, all that. I was glad to read Joel's response and invocation of "Bleak House" because it reminded me of why, his incredible social conscience and consciousness and sense of responsibility notwithstanding, I never considered Dickens a "19th century realist:" not just on account of his baroque plotting but his formal innovations. But of course he IS, in a sense, very much a realist, although all these exceptions one can allow for reminds me of Nabokov's insistence that true artists are very resistant to the kinds of classifications academics and others put them under. On the other hand, one does need to categorize in order to theorize and/or write a history. Or does one? It's this potential dialectic that keeps critical thought going, in a sense.

Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying please don't apologize and your thoughts are always welcome here.


Scott: I love McCarthy, started C. last night, and would agree that the hype oversells his self-professed avant-gardism. Literary partisanship is kind of weird. I've read bloggers who take very firm stances on
"realism" vs. "postmodernism," as if these categories were not just failures of critical imagination, but actual communities that needed to be defended from invaders. This is why I like coming to film blogs, where movie nerds can enjoy Leone, Tarkovsky, and Bugs Bunny with equal enthusiasm. Check out McCarthy's Men In Space, if you can order a copy. I think it's due for an American publication.

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