Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Let Franzen ring

“Let Franzen Ring,” my sour review of Freedom, appears in the December issue of Commentary. In it, I try to assign Franzen a place in the ranks to which he belongs, among maestros of “midcult” like John Steinbeck, John Hersey, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, MacKinlay Kantor, Allen Drury, Harper Lee, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Irving, Elizabeth Kostova, and David Wroblewski.

Yesterday I happened to be reading Alfred Chester’s bloodcurdling critique of J. D. Salinger (also published in Commentary), and I stumbled upon a passage that makes the point that I was trying to make against Franzen, and does so far more sharply:

[T]he intense charm of [Salinger’s first two] books came from the fact that his characters were responding to our world which also happened to be theirs. Their world will go as soon as our world goes . . . because it was never trasmuted; it were merely depicted. What once was the most moving scene in The Catcher—when Holden tries to explain his anguish over American civilization to the absurd girl he’s with at Rockefeller Center—has now become flat and insufficient. The time for disgust over Cadillacs has passed and Holden’s suffering does not seem interesting or real enough itself, to make us separate it from its object, thereby turning the object into symbol and the suffering into our own. All his lament makes us want to do is to prod him gently, wake him up, and say: nobody cares about Cadillacs any more.[1]Nobody cares about the Bushes any more, Franzen; or not enough, at least, to blame them for his suffering. Wake up! It takes something more than encouraging readers to share your disgusts to make great literature.

[1] Alfred Chester, “J. D. Salinger,” in Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews, ed. Edward Field (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow, 1992), p. 79. Originally published as “Salinger: How to Love without Love” in Commentary (June 1963).


A.J. said...

It seems to me that the Cadillac functions as a symbol. Also, I don't see how suffering can ever be more than its object so that it would be interesting in itself. How can suffering or joy exist without its object?

Pete said...

Writing topical fiction might sell a lot of copies over the short-term and generate momentary critical buzz, but also shortens a book's longevity. I really wonder if anybody will still be reading Franzen fifty years from now.

Phillip Routh said...

As for that "bloodcurdling critique" . . .
I don't, from the perspective of maturity, reappraise books that once meant a lot to me - as Catcher in the Rye did. It seems disloyal to do so.
Even at age 13 I knew the novel sagged in the last third. But the exhilaration I felt through the first half! - 50 years later that feeling still endures.
For what he gave me, I have only thanks and gratitude to offer J. D. Salinger.