Jonathan Franzen: A Good Writer Except When He’s Not

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I love family dramas. On the surface they’re the most boring things ever, because it’s literally just following what you/your family just literally does every day. You’re supposed to read books and watch movies because it’s a supposed piece of escapism from your current situation and why would you want to watch what you boringly live every day. Now, of course it’s not that simple, these dramas usually always intend to reveal something about relationships, manners of thinking and approaching various themes in everyday life that you would never think to look at in a certain way. I myself gravitate toward realism and seeing things that I can relate to in popular media, whether you’re trying to get through something similar or can relate to how a character is feeling that reflects your current life situation. Those can be some of the most important things that art in any aspect can do for you.

Jonathan Franzen wouldn’t find his bread and butter in direct family drama until The Corrections, but his first two novels are definitely interesting case studies. His first novel The Twenty-Seventh City is a weird mix of family drama with the exploration of governing/policing, race and so on of St. Louis as a living breath city. There’s also a tinge of creepy mysticism that keeps things off kilter and makes you feel like you’re viewing this novel as an alternate dimension that is just 0.1% off of what ours is. I do like Franzen’s writing quite a bit, but often he’s too showy and wordy with his descriptions of simple things that thus seem so forced. It reeks of him trying to show off his writing skills by overcomplicating things to a fault, where his writing gets too much in the way of the story.

His second novel Strong Motion takes awhile to get where it wants to go and achieve what it wants to say, but ends up being marginally worth itself in the end. There’s a lot of good stuff in here, the narrative is fine, but the drawing of his characters is the key element to the novel (something that is the prime key in all of his novels). This novel continues the theme of Franzen being so stuck in trying to SHOW you how good a writer he is by describing simple things in vast over-exaggerated metaphors that it comes off so painfully try-hard. I love the irony that what he thinks makes him such a great writer does the exact opposite and makes him dreadfully trite.

I might as well get into it now, because it’s basically the prime reason I’m writing this thing, Jonathan Franzen’s gotta be one of the creepiest writers of all time. I can’t tell you how many screenshots I took on my phone when reading his first two novels (and then eventually the rest of his bibliography) of some of the weirdest most unnecessary depictions of sex and human body parts/functions. I always gotta shake my head every few pages just because he feels the need to muse about a character “putting semen in the hollow of a pelvis” or comparing breasts to scones or some other weird thing. It’s cringe-inducing for him to be so graphic about describing sexual experiences and activities by insisting they be spelled out with the creepiest metaphors and by either describing things wholly scientific or by the most gross out way possible. I’m the furthest thing from a prude, but literally every novel he writes has to include the most frank descriptions of sex that it’s like it’s in his contract or something. It’s not even like he’s trying to make a point by writing like this, it just comes off as this weird, out of touch (probably literally with these types of descriptions) dude who writes about sex as if he’s never done it before and is relaying this information second-hand from someone he overheard once.

The Corrections is a very bare bones family drama, concerning the mother of the family wanting to get her three kids back to their family household for one last Christmas with their father who is ailing from Parkinson’s and other underlying health conditions. Franzen is largely a very good writer, but it often gets clouded in his incessant need to bang us over the head with his political and economic themes. The Corrections is the first after his first two novels to do well in being able to siphon his ideas through these specific characters where it doesn’t feel like he’s just halting the novel to lecture you about things like he did previously. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece or anything like that, but it’s the first of his novels to actually click on every level in detailing family, sociology and industrialism and so forth and actually ends up saying something meaningful.

Freedom is basically Franzen realizing that The Corrections did so good, so let’s go full out with this family drama thing. Again, for the most part, it works because Franzen’s ever longing need to stuff his books with his thoughts on politics, industrialism, Americana, sociology etc. into these characters makes it seem less forced (not that it isn’t still forced, just less so, but still largely feels like Franzen lecturing you on ideas that even if you agree with just makes everything seem so overbearing) by driving them more through the characters and how they progress and change, or don’t.

Purity on the other hand is an aimless mess that never amounts to what it sets out to be. The attempt is to draw some sort of social commentary (as Franzen ALWAYS has to do) by drawing from modern technology and Edward Snowden and Julian Assange character archetypes that falls flat on its face. This is one where Franzen’s obsession with his own writing swallows what small nuggets of a good story are somewhere in here. It was reasoned to happen that he wouldn’t be able to keep a lid on his social commentary by just having it bubble underneath like he previously did, nope this thing is full out and in your face and thus gives you his worst novel because of this. In a way it’s interesting to explore the new technological edge and how that affects these sorts of societal norms that Franzen has been writing about for twenty years, but that gimmick has been played out for so long already that Franzen just seems even more out of touch than usual.

Harry Potter: Wherein I Finally Read The Entire Series After A 14 Year Break

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Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone kicks off with a bang and it really doesn’t let up until the end. I forgot how much they packed into this short book and how well it moves along, never coming up for air, and just marches to the end full of confidence. It’s funny reading this book now where it’s so short, whereas when I first read it when it first came out I thought it was the longest book ever.

“The Chamber Of Secrets” takes a while to get going, which is unfortunate because one of the biggest positives of the first novel was its quick pace. It ends up being fine and unspectacular and my least favourite of the series along with “Order Of The Phoenix.”

“The Prisoner Of Azkaban” takes a nice step-up from the lacklustre “Chamber Of Secrets,” where this one actually delivers a storyline that makes sense within the Harry Potter world and doesn’t just seem like a one-off story that isn’t informed by the overall arc of the books, as the second novel kind of did. It pushes forth the mythos and the mystery surrounding Potter, his upbringing and parents, as well as setting up interesting things story-wise for the future, things that the second book didn’t seem too concerned with doing.

“The Goblet Of Fire” was my favourite of the series as a kid (and the last one I stopped reading until I decided I should probably finish out the series almost 15 years later). It’s not quite as flawless and perfect as I remembered as a child, but it’s still very good and definitely one of my favourites in the series. I love the Triwizard tournament as a framing device for all the Voldemort stuff and it’s a fun way to continue the overarching story and insert some action and new dimensions to the Hogwarts world. Also, as a weird aside, since I hadn’t read or watched any of the Harry Potter books or movies since this book in 2002 or whatever, I would hear random Harry Potter tidbits and stuff, but largely remained unspoiled. One of the things that I heard, and thought was 100% true, was that Harry ended up with Cho Chang at the end of the series. Now, in this book you could totally see it coming and everything made sense to how they could end up there in a few books. But, the next few books painted a different picture and I kept thinking, “man, how are they gonna get Harry and Cho together, it just doesn’t make sense within the story anymore and it would totally make sense for him to get with Ginny.” So, of course, he ends up with Ginny and Cho is nowhere to be found, which makes all the sense in the world, but it was bizarre for me reading these next couple books and just waiting for the Harry/Cho reconciliation that just would never happen…

“The Order Of The Phoenix” was my first big disappointment because I was expecting big things with these last stretch of books as it drives towards a conclusion. The story momentum from the fourth book was pretty much squandered here. This is the longest book of the series and basically nothing happens for the first 90% of it and then the last 10% they throw everything at you with some tiny revelations, but nothing amazing that makes any of this long trudge worth it. Harry comes out on top over Voldemort once again, learns some more about his past, rinse and repeat.

“The Half-Blood Prince” is a nice step up from the previous book. They finally get Malfoy actually involved in things (i.e. the main plot of the books) but, unfortunately, it kind of fizzles out. This one definitely had a ton towards finally opening up everything about Harry’s past and connections to Voldemort, so even in the less busy first half of the book there was a lot going on that set up for the end, something that “The Order Of The Phoenix” never quite felt like doing. It does a nice job getting its ducks in a row and pushing everything into plain sight for the conclusion.

“The Deathly Hallows” does really well in wrapping up the story by introducing new elements, but most importantly stays true to its world from the first book and gives you all the answers to the questions you were hoping would be answered. It hits some nice emotional beats that the series has always been really good at, especially when everything has been building for so long with these characters.

“The Cursed Child” was a fun enough little story that gives fans what they want by checking in with Harry Potter and co. and also delves into that world a little more through the eyes of his kid to add a new dimension. It works well in going back to the “Goblet Of Fire” plot, since in my eyes that is the best/most fun one. Where this book/play suffers majorly is the cringe-inducing overarching theme of how Harry finds it so tough to be a father and the trials and tribulations of raising a kid. It’s a bit much where they beat over the head this obvious theme of how he’s this great wizard and celebrated person, but even those people have trouble raising kids!!! Also, I have no clue why J.K. Rowling didn’t just write this as a novella or full out novel or something like that instead of making it a play, as it never really seems all that suited for this format.

A quick closing note on the movies, they were all fine! I mean, I was kind of disappointed because I was expecting a lot more and kind of feel weird speaking down on them because in and of themselves they are really good movies, but none of them ever really felt “great.” The las two “Deathly Hallows” movies are definitely the best ones, even though I heard that “Prisoner Of Azkaban” was great, but again that just seemed fine to me, good but not amazing. The special effects were obviously a highlight and it is super cool to track Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint throughout the movies and see how they age and grow, which exponentially increases your connection with the movies and characters as you do the same. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the series, and although the books and movies didn’t quite reach the heights I thought it might, it was a lot of fun and I’m glad I can cross off this pop culture blind spot I’ve had for so many years.

Bret Easton Ellis And The One Idea 30 Year Career

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Less Than Zero, and frankly all of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, are about how awful self-obsessives are in their privileged lives, whether ironically or not. It’s basically all luxury porn, reading about these people without a care in the world except having sex with whoever, doing drugs, enjoying the perceived “finer” things in life and all the way ignoring any consequences that come along with it. I find the novels of Ellis are most enjoyed as a slice of life type story. The stunted writing and formatting of Less Than Zero helped well in conveying these short blurb-esque thoughts of the main character Clay.

The Rules Of Attraction is basically a spiritual sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero but I didn’t quite connect with it like I did the previous novel. There’s only so much you can read of people doing drugs and cheating on people and them wondering why everyone hates them when they continue to do horrible things to each other. “Why, oh, why, does this person hate me, all I did was sleep with their BF/GF!?!?!?” It does kind of lead into the negative immediately where Ellis tries to recapture the fervor of his first novel by copying the same generic ploy, with less than stellar results compared to the first. Throughout his career, and one of his big drawbacks I’d imagine, is the idea that he really only had one idea that he tried to milk for multiple books over all these years, to varying ends.

American Psycho definitely lives up to its name. Pre-eminently extreme luxury porn mixed with extreme gore porn. Might be a weird thing to say, but I loved just living in this world where everything’s done to excess without fear of the consequences of what comes next. I think this is Ellis’s most coveted and praised novel because it maintains a lot of the same themes and exploration of wealth, relationships, substance abuse, one’s own self and focuses it all through a better narrative than his previous efforts. It actually pins these ideas to a more constructed story and avenue of focused expression rather than just being like his two previous novels and just relatively haphazardly documenting a bunch of young people’s partying and philandering ways with little to hold it together. I think it’s far from being any sort of masterpiece, but Ellis’s writing is so fun (such a weird thing to say about a book about a serial killer who does some insane acts with his victims) and feels so lived in and of this time period. I rarely laugh out loud when reading books, comedy or not, but I did multiple times with this and it was solely because of how great Ellis is at capturing characters and making them all feel so unique and fleshed out even if we were just introduced to them. Here’s a fun drinking game for you if you’re reading American Psycho for the first time or entering the world yet again: Take a drink every time you see the word “hardbody” and be guaranteed to be belligerently drunk by the fifth chapter. If you want to take it to the extreme you can take a drink every time you read something misogynistic, but that’s just an unruly suggestion on my part because I don’t think you’d make it past the first page. And please don’t attempt that misogny thing on his whole bibliography, unless you’re a cat with some extra lives to spare.

I was really looking forward to Glamorama because Ellis seems like the perfect person to satirize celebrities and the idea of celebrity and the life and culture it entails. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as his previous novels, but there was still a lot to like. What I’ve briefly mentioned before with the work of Ellis is that I like that he always has a defined voice, whether you like it or not, and I happen to enjoy how he strings words together. I wish it hit the celebrity satire a little harder, because that stuff is my kryptonite, but it does enough well in its exploration of the idea. The book kinda goes a bit off the rails in the latter part, but it’s all in service of depicting this wild delusion that is celebrity, so it works for the most part.

Lunar Park works a lot because Bret Easton Ellis seems to be the perfect guy to write a pseudo-memoir about himself. He takes it a bit further and makes it into a twisted type of ghost story that does well in its means and gives off a creepy vibe throughout. Like I mentioned earlier I have a small feeling of dread about how Ellis’s later novels are just retreads or capitalizing off Less Than Zero and American Psycho, his two most famous and successful novels, and how he can’t write anything “new” and has to resort to his past. Although, in this aspect it kind of works well in helping him with the stringing of the idea of him writing American Psycho and it coming back to put him into this serial killer story was really clever and well-done, especially within the memoir part and as a response to the criticism of the novel. Father issues are a prevalent theme in all of his novels and this one provides a good vessel that doesn’t feel too cheap and works organically within the story that doesn’t seem like he’s just using loose strands of a book to just cry about his daddy issues. Ellis seemingly intended to cover a lot of ground within this small concept and I was impressed that he largely pulled it off without seeming too cheap and using his previous novel ideas and criticism to work towards creating something new, rather than just retreading.

Imperial Bedrooms has enough of what made Less Than Zero good, but spins it into a deeper and darker place that doesn’t entirely work in the end. This is the most clear sense of “I have only one idea, so fuck it, let’s just make a sequel to my most celebrated novel.” It seemed like a lot of the novel was going to be about the how a Less Than Zero-esque story would take after this 25 years of difference since he wrote that first novel, but that seemed to fall by the wayside early.

I came off reading Bret Easton Ellis of two minds. I had a lot of fun reading his novels, living in these worlds as an outsider and experiencing excess to its fullest extent. Every criticism rang exceedingly true, though, whether it was him largely writing the same book seven times and his constant misogny. A defence of him would be, yes he’s a satirist, but that excuse only works a few times until every novel features the same things and just feels like an easy conduit for him to say what he feels behind the guise of awful characters. Kind of like how Quentin Tarantino’s last few films have largely fielded characters using the n-word (granted this is his whole career, but most specifically with the last few movies), where he claims it’s intrinsic to the time, but when it’s used so exceedingly in multiple movies it has you questioning the intent behind its machinations. Bret Easton Ellis seems like the exact type of writer whose had one masterpiece and his whole career has been trying to replicate that success or prove he’s up to that standard. I mean, it’s kinda like that, except for the whole “having a masterpiece” thing. Less Than Zero and American Psycho are good and definitely have something to say, but largely they just remain as a cultural piece of zeitgeist, us looking back and seeing how far we’ve come and how so much has changed.