America’s new literary generation

Jonathan Franzen came of age at the same time as the internet. But he and his peers are more 19th century than 21st, says Richard Beck
April 24, 2012
Jonathan Franzen is the most famous and influential writer of his generation—so why can’t he stop complaining?

Farther Away By Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, £16.99)

Lightning Rods By Helen DeWitt (And Other Stories, published 1st October 2012)

Only five years ago, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides were seen as simply a group of middle-aged American novelists. In 2008, however, David Foster Wallace committed suicide. In the flood of eulogies, remembrances, and appreciations that followed, a new consensus rapidly emerged: Wallace and his peers, it was agreed, constituted an American literary generation. What Bellow, Updike, and Roth had been to America in the decades following the second world war, these writers were to America in the internet age.

It’s hard, though, to constitute a literary generation nowadays. YouTube, Twitter, blogs about cats—new entertainments come streaming over our wireless connections every day, and for the modern novelist these entertainments often have ominous undertones. “These cat photos are a little too funny,” he thinks. “How will anyone find the time to read my long book?” Wallace made entertainment itself the antagonist in his near-future dystopia, Infinite Jest. Eugenides, in his recent novel The Marriage Plot, takes postmodern literary theory as an object of suspicion: why can’t we just enjoy a good old novel with an intricate plot?

Yet it is Jonathan Franzen who has done the most to sound the alarm about the apparently idiotic times we live in. No American writer is more celebrated (Time magazine put him on the cover with the headline, “Great American Novelist”). No American writer is more powerful, either. Who else could be invited to Oprah’s “Book Club,” turn down the invitation, and then be re-invited after publishing another book? Franzen’s opinions on technology, which are no more nuanced than my grandfather’s, are reported as cultural news. His books, which appear once every five years or so, are “events” in an industry that sorely needs them.

The essays collected in Franzen’s new book, Farther Away, include appreciations of obscure novels, narrative pieces on bird-watching and environmental decline, short meditations on family, eulogies for dead friends, and even a fake, satirical interview with the State of New York. It is a diverse—or maybe the word is haphazard—set of writings. Look closely, though, and you will notice a common thread, one shared by the other members of Franzen’s generation: Jonathan Franzen never stops complaining.

Franzen complains about technology. “I’m not opposed to technological developments,” Franzen writes at the beginning of an essay on mobile phones, before going on to contradict himself for 20 pages. “Modern consumer technology,” he argues, fosters narcissism, and the mobile phone specifically, which “enables and encourages the inflicting of the personal and individual on the public and communal,” has done “lasting harm of real social significance.” Franzen’s feelings about technology, like Hemingway’s feelings about women, are a mix of hatred, scorn, and incomprehension. In each case, the subject brings out the worst in the writer.

Franzen also complains about the decline of literary culture (for which, naturally, technology is in large measure to blame). America, he writes, doesn’t take writers as seriously as it used to “back in the day” (he really uses those words), and even those few who still do take writers seriously aren’t doing it right. “Many buyers of serious fiction,” he writes, “seem rather ardently to prefer lyrical, tremblingly earnest, faux-literary stuff.” It’s difficult to know what he is talking about here. What many buyers of serious fiction actually seem to prefer are the novels of Jonathan Franzen. Freedom (2010) and The Corrections (2001) both sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Finally, Franzen complains about environmental collapse, and here, at last, he is persuasive. The three longest essays in the book—one set in China, one in Cyprus, and one on a tiny, uninhabited island in the South Pacific—all use bird-watching as a means of addressing ecological catastrophe, the ways this catastrophe can or cannot be experienced by individual people, and what that means for the future of the planet. These essays are a relief. For one thing, it’s just a fact that the environment is in trouble, whereas the social dangers of smartphones are less obvious. It is also the case, though, that Franzen thinks and writes more honestly in these pieces, both about the world and himself, than he does in the anti-internet polemics.

This is especially true in the book’s title essay. One third of it is about looking for a rare bird 500 miles off the coast of Chile. Another third is about reading Robinson Crusoe. The last third is about his friend, David Foster Wallace, and what the loss of that friendship has meant to him. The history of their relationship, and the kinds of writing it helped to produce, may offer some hints into Franzen’s current bad mood.

“David and I had a friendship,” Franzen writes, “of compare and contrast and (in a brotherly way) compete.” In other words, they related to each other as heterosexual men all across America relate to one another, with a combination of distance, rivalry, and sentiment. The two met in 1983, when Wallace, then 26, sent Franzen, 28, a fan letter. He had read Franzen’s first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, and felt he had encountered a kindred spirit. Little by little, the two writers cultivated an epistolary friendship. The things they wrote and said to one another had a major impact on their ideas about the possibilities and uses of fiction. In the eulogy he delivered at Wallace’s funeral, Franzen said they had agreed that the purpose of fiction was to provide a “middle ground on which to make a deep connection with another human being.” In other words, fiction was for making you feel less alone.

This shared ideal of fiction—personal, psychological, and intimate in the manner of exchanged letters—posed a problem for Franzen and his peers, because it contradicted everything they had recently been taught about literature in college. These writers all attended elite American universities in the early 1980s, and all of them witnessed the great academic arrival of postmodern literary theory. (This experience is caricatured in Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot.) These theories, developed by writers like Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and others, did everything they could to undermine what Franzen and his peers would come to love most about novels. They proclaimed meaning unstable, gender a myth, coherent psychological development a figment of the imagination. They even famously proclaimed the “death of the author” as a means of mocking the idea that a writer’s “intentions” could ever be clearly understood. They left a permanent mark on the novelists who were exposed to them in the 1980s.

Among Franzen & Co., reactions to theory were varied but almost always strong. In the opening essay of Farther Away, Franzen writes about encountering a new girlfriend and literary theory at the same time, and remembers the experience with a mix of exhilaration and shame: “Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel… and we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close-textual readings.”

You can tell from the phrase “we flattered ourselves” where Franzen is going. The description he provides of his own break with theory is stark, even a little melodramatic. For one thing, he writes, it’s un-erotic: “You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time,” he remembers his soon-to-be wife telling him. “But what really killed theory for me,” he writes, “was my love of fiction.” Theory and fiction, experimentation and tradition—Franzen imagines these as enemies.

His contemporaries have followed suit. American novelists have largely abandoned the formal experimentation of DeLillo, Pynchon, and other postmodern greats. Franzen, especially, could be described as America’s greatest 19th century realist, at pains throughout Freedom to draw comparisons between his own work and War and Peace. His narration is straightforward and descriptive. When a character feels something, he tells you about it. When there is a certain kind of tree on the lawn, he tells you what kind of tree it is. Figurative language is kept to a minimum (even The Corrections reads as rhetorically elaborate in comparison). He writes the kind of realist novel, in other words, that people have enjoyed reading for at least the last 150 years.

In a 2001 interview, Franzen admitted that he stopped trying to imitate the postmodern greats when he realised that “the world refuses to be changed by what you’re writing.” Franzen’s art, in other words, was born out of pessimism and defeat. Anxious about the novel’s future, Franzen made the prose in Freedom as unobtrusive as possible, so that people might have a chance of enjoying it as easily and smoothly as Mad Men. Frustrated that literary postmodernism hadn’t done anything to keep neoconservatives out of Washington, he decided the whole effort, all of the collected theories and experiments, had been a failure.

This goes some way toward explaining why Franzen is always complaining in Farther Away. The complainer is someone who hates the world’s arrangements but believes them to be permanent; the best you can do is register your unhappiness and get on with your life. The saddest thing about Freedom is that the title is ironic. “The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom,” Franzen writes in that novel, “is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.”

On guard against dreams that might backfire, Franzen and his peers have often seemed frightened of their own insights. Franzen will often come right up to the brink of a radical thought—for example, that population control might be necessary to save the planet—but in the end, he always backs off (as when the separated couple at the centre of Freedom reunite, implausibly, in the book’s final pages). One might object by pointing to David Foster Wallace, who made much wider use of technical experimentation than any of his contemporaries. Yet despite all his digressions, fractured narratives, and footnotes, even Wallace can sometimes display a surprising kind of intellectual timidity when it comes to making moral arguments about the world he lives in. Although his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, is always described as a satire of late 20th century American life, it is also always praised for its nearly limitless generosity of spirit. Real satire, though, by definition, is ungenerous. Infinite Jest pokes fun at the world, but in the end it loves everyone too much to say “No!” to anything at all. While there are admirable qualities to Franzen and Wallace’s work, it would be a shame if all young writers aspired to write like them.

Fortunately, there are other possibilities. One of the best of them has been hiding in plain sight for years. Helen DeWitt published her first novel in 1998, but it wasn’t until late last year that her second book, Lightning Rods, finally saw the light of day. Realising that there’s no good way out of an obsession with the realism-vs-postmodernism dilemma, DeWitt took a different road, and became what the critic Marco Roth has called America’s greatest 18th-century satirist. Lightning Rods is an angry, mean book. It has the courage to follow its arguments all the way out to their conclusions, even if those conclusions are extreme. Most importantly, it opens up possibilities, both literary and political, that you hadn’t realised were there before.

The book is a rigorous satire of American masculinity and office life. Its protagonist, Joe, is struggling as an unsuccessful vacuum salesman. Although Joe does his best to succeed, he finds himself burdened by too many idle hours, which he spends working out the logistics of an elaborate sexual fantasy involving a woman leaning through a window. Joe, in other words, is going nowhere. But “what he didn’t realize,” DeWitt writes, “was that all that time he spent twiddling and worrying about the roll-down blind [this is an element of his fantasy] would one day lead directly to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.”

Joe’s moment of genius, simply put, is the realisation that the problem of workplace sexual harassment might be solved by providing free, anonymous sexual encounters to male workers. His plan is to install a special contraption in the handicapped bathroom. At randomly selected moments throughout the day, individual male workers receive invitations to the bathroom. When they enter, a panel in the wall rolls back, and out comes what Joe would probably describe as “the business end” of one of the office’s female employees, who is given a raise in exchange for her anonymous sexual services. These female employees are called “lightning rods.”

The plan succeeds beyond Joe’s wildest dreams. As the book’s own insane logic unfolds, step by step, DeWitt takes hold of a pragmatic, male, vaguely Midwestern-American voice, and turns that voice’s supposed benevolence upside down. Here, for example, is Ed, who manages to stop harassing his female coworkers by making use of a lightning rod five or six times a day:

“It was kind of like going to a gym and working out on a punchbag. Instead of taking whatever it might be out on whoever happened to be standing by, you took it out on someone who was paid to have stuff taken out on them.”

It’s easy to miss the fury in a passage like that, if you’re not paying close attention. DeWitt has said that she took inspiration from Mel Brooks, especially the famous song from The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler.” “There was this rage,” she told an interviewer, “but not overt.” DeWitt conceals her own rage by providing her characters with a combination of weird prudery and blundering optimism, especially in an viciously funny section where Joe first starts receiving complaints from some of the lightning rods. “He’d pick up [the phone],” DeWitt writes, “and it would be some gal in floods of tears because some guy slapped her on the fanny.” Joe does his best to manage these crises, mostly by asking the lightning rods to be more understanding of the male perspective. “That’s all very well, Joe,” one replies, “but just how much background in the social graces do you need to know that you don’t go around peeing on people?”

Empathy, understanding, generosity of spirit—these things have their limits. What you need, sometimes, is uncompromising anger, and in Lightning Rods DeWitt’s anger throws off all kinds of bright light. Best of all, though, is the way DeWitt has completely side-stepped the dilemma that has Franzen and his peers so frustrated. Franzen believes that freedom is something to be scared of, that it is dangerous, and that the best way to manage this danger is to protect yourself from “too much” freedom. He is partly right: freedom is dangerous. But he should remember Henry James’ great 1888 defence of the novel, “The Art of Fiction.” In that essay, James wrote, “It appears to me that no one can ever have made a seriously artistic attempt without becoming conscious of an immense increase—a kind of revelation—of freedom.” In an interview, DeWitt has said that “the great thing about being a writer” is that “God is just beaming stuff into your head. Once upon a time ‘Springtime for Hitler’ didn’t exist, and then all of a sudden God beamed it into Mel Brooks’s head. I had that feeling, that God was sending me these jokes about this guy.” It is exactly this kind of “revelation” that James was talking about.

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