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Category Archives: jonathan franzen

Three Books I Didn’t Finish (and One I Did): Reamde, Dragon Tattoo, Bag of Bones & State of Wonder

Book #1 for 2012: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

This is going to be a long post. That’s not because I have a lot to say about the book in question but because I first want to talk about why it’s the first book I’ve read (or at least the first book I’ve finished) since I wrote about Stephen King’s 11/22/63 last November.

2011 was my year of reading long books. In the spring I plowed through the first five volumes of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, something I’d grown convinced I would never do in the remainder of my lifetime, and I found time to read Robopocalypse between books four and five. (It wasn’t worth it. Robopocalypse was a snooze, a brief precis for an upcoming Stephen Spielberg film that has no other excuse for existing in book form.) After the approximately 1,100 Nook pages of Martin’s A Dance with Dragons I felt pretty much prepared for anything and polished off the 1,000-plus  pages of King’s Under the Dome in nine or ten days. I galloped through Jonathan Franzen’s compulsively readable Freedom in about a week, but that was only 500 pages, which by that time seemed trivial.

And then I got cocky. When I blithely attempted to read the 900 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde I hit a brick wall. Stephenson is a writer that I admire and enjoy, roughly in that order. His books are bursting at the seams with inventive, slightly twisted, yet oddly believable ideas and when he chooses to he can write high velocity action that never leaves the reader feeling that his/her time would have been better spent curling up with something more intellectually edifying. Even when Stephenson writes an action scene he is intellectually edifying. I’ve carried on about this before, but the opening two chapters of Stephenson’s Snow Crash are the most amazing balancing act of characterization, sociopolitical speculation and sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense that I’ve ever read. I had heard that Reamde was more of a conventional terrorism thriller than Stephenson usually deals in, but I hardly found that off-putting. I love thrillers and I love Stephenson. What combination could be more appealing?

My mistake. Reamde may be crammed with action — almost too much for its own good, if truth be told — but it has all the excitement of watching a chess game played by mail. The premise is clever. A computer virus called Reamde — a corruption of the familiar computer filename Readme, so named because the virus creates a file of that name on your hard drive that holds all your vital information prisoner in an encrypted format with an unbreakable key — is propagating across the Internet. If Reamde snares your valuable data you must pay a ransom in the form of virtual merchandise within a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft, where the virtual value of the virtual merchandise can be converted to real-world coin by Chinese hackers who will then pass you the key to your data. (This isn’t that farfetched given the bizarre crossover economies that actually exist within such games.) But Stephenson fills the novel with too many characters and they feel boringly interchangeable. Despite the author giving them distinct if perfunctory characteristics that can be used to distinguish them, I kept having to remind myself who every character was each time they returned to the novel’s viewpoint stage (and I never came up with a convincing reason to care about any of them). I managed to read more than 400 pages of the novel’s 900 pages and that’s 400 pages of reading that it looks like I’ll never get back.

Then I decided to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t tell you whether it was a good book or a bad book because I never got far enough to decide. I came up against the same problem I always run into when attempting to read a book in translation, the disheartening sensation that I wasn’t really hearing the author’s voice. One of the joys of reading for me is the sense of having a direct mind-to-mind connection with another person, which consists not only of sharing their thoughts in as direct a manner as our physically separated brains allow but of hearing in my mind the very words with which they choose to express those thoughts. Word choice tells you a lot about another person (and I say this with some trepidation, knowing that you will immediately start paying much closer attention to my own word choice than you might have otherwise). Reading the words chosen by a competent or more than competent author can be as electrifying as watching a beautiful sunset (or, to stick more precisely with the analogy, it’s like looking at a beautifully composed photograph of a beautiful sunset).

With works in translation, though, the connection is lost, or at least it takes place only indirectly, with words being relayed through an intermediary much like in that old game where one person whispers a message to another person who whispers it to another person until, at the other end of the line, it comes out thoroughly garbled. I’m sure that Stieg Larsson’s translators are the best Swedish-to-English translators available and yet on page 37 of the Nook edition I came across this sentence:

“Instead of giving Salander the boot, he summoned her for a meeting in which he tried to figure out what made the difficult girl tick.”

Give her “the boot”?  Figure out what made her “tick”? Those are cliches from a bad 1940s movie. When’s the last time somebody under the age of 80 used the phrase “give her the boot”? This isn’t just bad writing; it’s lazy writing and I blame the translator for it. Of course, I don’t know Swedish so maybe the original phrase as written by Larsson actually involved placing a piece of footwear on Salander’s posterior, in which case it was Larsson who was the bad writer. (Somehow that doesn’t make it any better.) Someday maybe I’ll go back and read the book again to see if it manages to be a powerful piece of suspense fiction despite the encumberment of its trite narrative style, but by then I’ll have seen the movie and probably won’t care. Fortunately I only wasted about 50 pages on this one.

Finally I picked up Stephen King’s Bag of Bones because there was an upcoming miniseries version. I love King and am continually impressed by the amount of intelligent writing, vivid characterization and richly imagined detail that he is willing to invest in what are, after all, fairly disposable thrillers. And I liked Bag of Bones, at least as far as I got into it. (This was between 200 and 300 Nook pages, I believe.) But I’m beginning to realize that the last couple of months of the year (it was late November or early December by the time I started it) are not a good time for reading. I was exhausted by my marathon sprint through earlier King novels and the Martin quintology (pentology?) and there are far too many distractions at holiday time. I also found myself caught up in playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a game I had waited all year for. (I’ve played every game in this series since it began in 1994 and Bethesda Softworks never fails to deliver a richly immersive, immensely time-consuming experience.) So eventually I lost all momentum on the King book and by now I’m sure I’ve forgotten the character names and most of what the book was about.

But a new year always renews my excitement in reading, if only because dozens of publications and Web sites post their Best Books of the Year list and in them I see one book after another that I’m instantly convinced will be the best thing I’ve ever read. I picked the book at hand, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, entirely at random, having no idea what it was about or what Patchett had written before.

Cover of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

And, indeed, it’s an excellent piece of writing, with an ingenious story, believable characters and a graceful style so filled with rich observations that a reader could linger over a paragraph for hours extracting its wealth of precisely and wittily described detail. (Given how tired I was of spending weeks and months over books, this wasn’t entirely a good thing.)

I have two negative observations about the book. The first — and it’s the weaker of the two — is that though the plot was intricate and ingenious I never found it compelling, though I suspect the fact that I’m looking for “compelling” here at all is merely a sign of my increasing jadedness as a reader and a human being, a symptom of advancing age and a faltering attention span. I want a book in which the stakes for the main character are so emotionally heightened that turning a page becomes almost an act of desperate need (though I dislike it when such books degenerate into overripe melodrama). The second problem is that I found the main character, Dr. Marina Singh, something of a boring cipher, which made it difficult for me to become involved in her story. This may well have been a deliberate choice on the author’s part, but it wasn’t one that sat well with me as a reader. The story is about Dr. Singh’s journey to the jungles of Brazil to find a research scientist working on a miracle drug being financed by the pharmaceutical firm for which Singh works, and it isn’t until that scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who had been Singh’s teacher at Johns Hopkins, enters the story that the book comes to life. Swenson is a dynamic, excitingly imagined character, and she develops unexpected depths as the story proceeds, evolving from the ogre that she has always been in Singh’s mind into a fully rounded, fascinating human being.

But, alas, she is only a tiny part of what the book is about. The story is really about Singh finding herself and finding something even more important that I’m not going into here because I really didn’t find it as interesting as the author seemed to think it was. Looking back at it now I think there was symbolic value in the discovery, but I can’t work up the energy to suss out exactly what it was.

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Freedom Is a Pain in the Ass: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Book #19 for 2011: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Several months ago, a friend of mine wondered out loud what the difference is between a popular novel and a literary novel. I had some sort of response at the time that I don’t completely recall, but I think it had to do with the relative importance of plot and character. Although it’s hard to imagine a novel that could exist without both of those things, popular novels tend to emphasize the former and literary novels tend to emphasize the latter. I think now, having thought about it a bit, I’d go further and say that, in literary fiction, plot exists to illuminate character while, in popular fiction, character exists to motivate plot. It’s an imperfect distinction — What if a novel does both things simultaneously? What if instead of plot it emphasizes theme? — but I think it’s a valid one.

So, by that measure, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a popular novel or a literary novel? It certainly has plot. In fact, it has so much of it that I’d despair of trying to summarize it in fewer words than Franzen used to write the novel itself (which, having gotten fairly good over the years at estimating these things, I’d put in the vicinity of 200,000).  But it also has characters and they’re as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about during my last year and a half of frantic reading, maybe as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about ever. On that count, I think I can safely say that Freedom is a literary novel, a very entertaining, incisive, witty and ultimately rather moving one.

The four major characters, the ones who are given viewpoint chapters throughout the book, are Patty and Walter Berglund, a pair of yuppy-ish late baby boomers who were probably born around the same time as Franzen himself (which would be in 1959); their mutual friend Richard Katz, a rock musician who feels passionately about both of them, albeit in rather different ways; and their son Joey, who feels obligated to rebel against his parents in his mid-teens by moving in with the girl next door who adores him and by rejecting their liberal politics shortly after he gets to college.

While the plot of the book is too sprawling and complex to describe, I think I can rather neatly sum up what I’m pretty sure is Franzen’s theme, the one that’s inherent in the title. Freedom is something that Franzen clearly feels ambivalent about, or at least his characters do, and one suspects that were you to engage him on the subject at a party he might warn against an excess of it. As young Joey puts it about halfway through the book, “Freedom is a pain in the ass.” Freedom, or free will, is an important gift that life bestows on human beings, but those people who are the happiest seem to be those who dispose of as much of it as possible as quickly as they can. This includes the larger freedoms, like the freedom of corporations to grow without limits and destroy the environment and the freedom of people to breed until the planet is denuded by their consumption of resources; and the smaller freedoms, like the freedom of domestic cats to attack and kill birds who are evolutionarily unprepared for their predation and the freedom of human beings to live their lives unencumbered by a committed relationship to someone they love and who loves them back. It’s Walter, the driven, neurotic, environmentally conscious liberal, who inveighs against most of those freedoms, but pretty much everybody in the book has problems with that last one.

Surprisingly it’s Joey, the initially self obsessed and overly entitled son, who has an epiphany about that last freedom during a darkly comic and rather disgusting scene where he retrieves, through obvious methods, a wedding ring that he accidentally swallowed a couple of days earlier. He realizes that if he was willing to take such desperate and dire measures to retrieve the symbol of his youthful and rather impulsive marriage, which he was prepared to throw away on a meaningless sexual fling with the beautiful but shallow sister of his college roommate, that the only choice open to him is to throw away his freedom to have meaningless sexual flings altogether and make an absolute commitment to his marriage — and it’s at that moment, when he removes his own freedom, that he finally becomes happy.

It takes his parents, Walter and Patty, a lot longer to come to terms on this particular issue and I won’t tell you how their troubled marriage turns out, but there was a bit of a tear in my eye at the end. Franzen’s writing is so sharp and witty that what could be a rather dreary novel about people reaching out for happiness and not infrequently screwing up their chances of finding it is never for a moment depressing. Actually, it’s quite delightful. I had trouble warming to the characters in the beginning — self-obsessed yuppies have never been of great interest to me, maybe because they remind me too much of myself — but Franzen’s characters eventually won me over. I wish Franzen had spent more time on Richard the rock musician, a character I think was full of unrealized possibilities (and whose difficulty in finding a compromise between his need for committed love, his loyalty to a friend, and his profound sexual urges could be the subject of an entire novel in itself), but Richard ends up mostly being a device for setting up conflict between Patty and Walter and within Patty herself. Which, once I finally warmed to Patty’s somewhat-difficult-to-like character, was fine with me.

This novel received a remarkable amount of press last year and that’s fine with me too. It’s an extraordinary achievement and there were many times, perhaps several per page, when Franzen’s insights into his characters (and his ability to express those insights in highly readable prose that often borders on being laugh-out-loud funny) impressed the hell out of me. Even my literary idol Philip Roth, back in his heyday (which some people would say is still going on but which I would place in the late 60s through mid-80s) was never quite this good at looking at human beings with so sharp and satirical an eye, though he came close. And I can think of no higher praise than to say that, if forced to choose whether Franzen or Roth were the better writer, I might just go with Franzen.