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Jonathan Franzen, paperback writer

by Michael Weiss

Posted: Aug 26, 2010 06:37 AM

So over-hyped is Jonathan Franzen's new novel that the British press, which devours its own enfants terribles and indulges an unseemly envy for their American counterparts, has repeatedly remarked on the over-hype. One editorial enticement peeping above the fold of yesterday's Guardian instructs that Freedom is bad for Barack Obama, whose advanced copy arrived just in time for the First Family's Martha's Vineyard holiday. So now it seems that Franzen has gone from being a mere literary liability to a political one.

Not having read Freedom, I’ve had to rely on the pornographically positive stateside reviews such as Sam Tanenhaus’ in the New York Times which labels it “a masterpiece of American fiction.” I’ll have to take Sam's word for it, but I must confess to a slight twinge of skepticism because he also thinks that Franzen’s previous attempt to explain the Way We Live Now, The Corrections, a book I have read, was “a masterpiece of American fiction.” Among the first-order merits bestowed on the present volume is the author’s hawk-eyed observatory powers despite his touted disdain for being a SIM card’s throw away from an Internet connection when he writes. Franzen knows, for instance, that college freshman are these days called “first years” and that suburban hausfraus’ all-purpose put-down is “weird.” Very nice, but what does he think of Snooki's new gorilla juicehead?

Now comes Marc Tracy at Tablet magazine (my old Hebraic haunt) with applause all around save for one minor quibble. It seems that the Great American Novelist doesn’t have much of an ear for Beltway rhetoric, at least the realistic sort that strives to exceed a Huffington Post comments thread. Featured in Freedom (the title is ironic, or “ironic,” depending on your point of view) is a resentful and brooding neoconservative intellectual who happens not to be a Gentile. The patriarch of a Virginian family coping with the aftermath of a very recent terrorist attack on U.S. soil, this dour Causabon of interventionism has got friends in high places and a comely daughter named Jenna (just like Bush!) and although the whole the whole lot of them are joined at a Thanksgiving repast, the bill of fare seems to be a mezze platter of platitudes:

 

Jonathan and Jenna’s father, at the far end of the table, was holding forth on foreign affairs at such commanding length that, little by little, the other conversations petered out. The turkey-like cords in his neck were more noticeable in the flesh than on TV, and it turned out to be the almost shrunken smallness of his skull that made his white, white smile so prominent. The fact that such a wizened person had sired the amazing Jenna seemed to Joey of a piece with his eminence. He spoke of the “new blood libel” that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and of the need, in times of national emergency, to counter evil lies with benevolent half-truths. He spoke of Plato as if he’d personally received enlightenment at his Athenian feet. He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how ‘we’ had been ‘leaning on’ the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom. In normal times, he said, the great mass of American public opinion was isolationist and know-nothing, but the terrorist attacks had given “us” a golden opportunity, the first since the end of the Cold War, for ‘the philosopher’ (which philosopher, exactly, Joey wasn’t clear on or had missed an earlier reference to) to step in and unite the country behind the mission that his philosophy had revealed as right and necessary. “We have to learn to be comfortable with stretching some facts,” he said, with his smile, to an uncle who had mildly challenged him about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. “Our modern media are very blurry shadows on the wall, and the philosopher has to be prepared to manipulate these shadows in the service of a greater truth.”

"White, white" teeth and a Turkey neck -- at Thanksgiving, no less. Well, this man must be wickedness defined if he’s explaining Straussian methods of crowd-control to a tableful of horny eighteen year-olds who’d like nothing better than to return to “normalcy,” perhaps by figuring out why they’ve all been given first names that begin with the letter “J.”

Now, I’ve spent a fair bit of time with many sinister neocons who fancy themselves disciples of a scholar known for his esoteric allusions and in-between-the-lines manner of exegesis. One thing they do not do, even in low company such as mine, is cite Plato’s Cave, a philosophical allegory that any “first year” would grasp. How shall I put this to a masterful American fictionist? It’s considered the “The Second Coming” of political cliches.

However, I do think Franzen has got a noble intention with the cardboard prose and plasticene characterization offered above. If this set-piece is indicative of the entire novel, he is clearly trying to atone for past sins of horn-rimmed hauteur. Gone are the taut little essays about an American middlebrow grown encephalitic with celebrity culture and a superficial knowledge of everything. Not for him anymore the smug litterateur who offers left-handed compliments to Oprah. Franzen’s gone mainstream now, deigning even to appear -- as the successor novelist to Stephen King -- on the cover of Time, a magazine that, as The Onion deliciously satirized it, has Gerberized its content sufficiently to be able to launch a new version of “aimed at adults.”

I think I like this new Jonathan Franzen.

Meanwhile, Bellow’s letters are due out in November.

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