It’s been a packed couple of weeks; my fiancee and I moved across town, and I’ve been trying to play catch-up on a mountain of papers. The move was not part of my schedule for this term, so I had allotted the past weekend for grading three classes worth of composition papers. Instead, I moved…’nuff said. I’ll have them all back by the end of the week, but it means I’ve had to put off the next post in my sequence on Atwood and Oryx and Crake, partially because the Kindle’s gone dead and I need to find the charger (oh, e-books…how far you have still to go…)!
I did, however, want to take a moment to draw attention to Laura Miller’s great piece on Jonathan Franzen, published last week over at Salon.com. At some point, I fully intend to address Franzen in greater detail; I’m fascinated by the now decade-long tendency for many writers and critics to simply label him as a “misogynist” and then run, as if pointing out that a writer is 1) arrogant, 2) male, and 3) white eliminates the need for ethical engagement with his work. I’m a moderate fan of Franzen’s work — The Corrections was a pivotal book for me as an undergraduate English major, in the sense that it had the guts to present a cast of thoroughly unsympathetic characters, reveal the worm-infested subcultures they inhabited, and then simply walk away without providing some sort of comforting resolution. I actually threw the book at the wall when I finished reading it. Freedom was interesting to me in part because, as a self-exiled Minnesotan, I was able to re-engage with my home state through the geography of the novel. The ecocritic in me was intrigued by Franzen’s ability to peel back the facade of altruism representing the shiny exterior of so many seemingly “enviro-friendly” philanthropists and self-styled protectors of wild spaces, here revealing the hard crust of capitalism lurking beneath.
What I like about Miller’s piece is that she has the courage (no doubt some will call it temerity) to defend Franzen as a writer, setting aside attempts at character assassination to do so. Again, I’m looking forward to engaging with Franzen’s trials and tribulations in the public eye at a future point; his critics have more than enough to complain about when they critique his public persona, and their contempt for his unsympathetic characterizations of various characters is certainly understandable. Patty Berglund, the female protagonist of Freedom, offers a great case study in literary misogynism. However, I read Franzen as wanting us to ask why Patty is the way she is. It’s too easy, in my mind, to assume that Patty is simply a hollow construct representing the way Franzen views and understands women — as inefficient desiring machines, never satisfied with what they have, always searching for the right man to attach their affection to, and so forth. With Patty in particular, I think, Franzen tries to demonstrate that there are no easy answers.
I also tend to believe that even if Franzen depicts his female characters harshly, he actually despises his male characters, in no small part for what they do to the female characters. I’m never quite able to suppress the sense that Franzen really wants to reach out and smack American males in the face, grab them by the lapels, and force them to confront their bad behavior as he neatly describes it on the page. Take Walter Berglund’s relationship with Lalitha in Freedom, for example. It’s tempting to suggest that Walter, the hard-working, earnest liberal that he is, deserves a second chance at happiness with Lalitha, who all but literally throws herself at him. Spoiler Alert!. But Lalitha’s tragic end is ultimately the responsibility of two men, the anonymous hit-and-run driver, and Walter himself, who bears the brunt of the blame here. As an older, more experienced (ergo, wiser) adult, Walter should have recognized that he was simply using Lalitha for his own ends, both sexual and professional. His poor decision-making puts her in unhealthy and threatening situations time-and-time again.
Ultimately, I’m really most interested in having an actual conversation about Franzen’s work without being chastised for suggesting his work has merit. I know I’m not alone in this — I’ve had conversations with female colleagues who are equally frustrated about this issue. Maybe it’s time I went back to The Corrections and presented a full-form dissection…? But then again, I’m not sure I want to read that book again, and that may actually be the best summary assessment of my conflicted feelings about Franzen as a writer.
Even so, that’s not likely to stop me from further commentary!