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April 12, 2011

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Pete Segall

I haven't read the NYer piece yet but Franzen's recent Art of Fiction in the Paris Review is quite incisive and well worth a look. There are some rather touching and sad observations about his friend Wallace.

@Frank: Read Chapter 5 this morning. Crushing (in the same good way). I have to say I'm a little nervous about 6 now.

Zach

What little I've read of Franzen's fiction I've mostly liked, and the couple of essays I read in his book How to Be Alone were excellent. I do get a very "decent guy" vibe from his writing, but there is also, occasionally, a trace of something else - I'm not sure I'd call it smugness or glibness, but something - that comes across, as Scott says. I think it's great that Franzen reveals his anger and is unsparingly honest, but there is also an element of irony that Franzen seems unaware of, or else doesn't care about; by writing what he did he has added to the swirl of celebrity surrounding Wallace and his demise. He does an admirable job of puncturing the aura of saintliness lately attributed to Wallace, but then again, anyone who was a serious fan (or a halfway intelligent person) knows of that complexity anyway (or could at least assume it; he was human, after all, and clearly as mixed up - if not more so - as the rest of us.) I guess what bugged me most were some of Franzen's more speculative notions, such as the idea that Wallace died "of boredom and in despair about his future writing." I don't know if Franzen is right or wrong in that interpretation, but my own view is that it smacks too closely of the same kind of romantic "he was too good for this world" idea that Franzen denounces elsewhere in the piece. One of the things that fascinates and disturbs me about DFW - his work and his personal story - is how tends to revive, in a particularly sad and vicious way, the age old "question" of Life v. Art. The concept that one would take precedence, or be diametrically opposed to the other, has always chafed me raw. It might be the truth that Wallace actually believed that if he couldn't write he couldn't live; if so, it was his worst and final addiction, and that makes me feel really ill about reading The Pale King...which is one reason why I choose to believe differently, that on some level he knew there was more to life than finishing a silly book about taxes and boredom - he was just too sick, finally, to realize that fully.

After re-reading the piece today I found that much of the sting had faded, and overall it's a tender and admirably honest essay, and not at all a bad thing to wrestle with.

Edward Champion

Well, if you don't plan to beat Lev to a pulp, I guess I'll spend my Friday night bowling among real men. Have fun!

Scott

Great comment, Zach. Really illuminating.

Frank: My main problem with Franzen is that his fiction, to my mind, tries to be a combination of postmodernism, satire and social realism (though the postmodern aspect is a lot more evident in "The Corrections" than "Freedom"). Those things don't have to be mutually exclusive, but, for me, it leaves his work in a kind of emotional no-man's-land. I agree with Zach, in that anger seems to be a big motivating factor in his writing, and that's fine. But, in a novel like "Freedom", which I would argue aspires to a kind of Tolstoyan humanism, it feels like he has such contempt for his characters (none of whom are all that realistically drawn) and so little empathy for their follies. A little Flaubertian detachment would have gone a long way, IMO. I feel that Franzen often can't resist inserting his authorial superiority. Even his satire strikes me as rather blunt and not as vigorous as it could be. Again, he's got the anger and disdain down, but, as Zach suggests, seems to lack the deftness and irony to carry it off. (Though, granted, satire is TOUGH. I can't think of a single living author who truly excels at it. Maybe Pynchon?) Of course, as you say, it's all so subjective and personal. This is just my impression.

And LOL at the addendum to Glenn's original post. Good luck!

bill

Hey, I plan on going to The Strand when I'm in NYC later this month! And it better have a good horror section, or else!

Zach

@Scott - thanks for saying so. I've been meaning for a while to give one of Franzen's novels a try, but some of what I've heard has dampened my enthusiasm. I liked one of the excerpts of FREEDOM that was published in TNYer a lot; the other left me cold. It's interesting how Wallace - well known now as a serious, chronic depressive, had such a lively and engaging and marvelously un-bored writing voice, whereas Franzen, who admits his problems are teensy tiny potatoes compared to Wallace's, can come across much more as the sad-sack, writer-voice wise.

Lev Grossman

@bill yeah, I regret that sentence.

Joel

Reading the days-old comments on the Gladwell style of patronizing journalism, I am waiting for The New Republic headline that will accompany its inevitable review, one that both deflates the DFW fans and then informs us of how the TNR reviewer some how got Wallace better than even his greatest fans. My two guesses: "Our David Foster Wallace Problem" or "How Not To Read David Foster Wallace." Ball's in your court, TNR...

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