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.

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