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Location: Brooklyn, New York, United States

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dolphins sleep in one-half of their brain while the other half remains awake...

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

on Freedom

Finally finished the Franzen book. I will miss it. Thinking back to the Newsweek article, which I found on a coffee table in a house on a palm tree farm in Israel, where the pompous photograph looked benign in its familiarity, its silly American flighty notions of greatness, its friendliness...something like home. I can't remember if he was called a "great writer" or one who had the potential to be great. I'm more comfortable with the later assertion, though not sure I buy into the whole idea to begin with.

It wasn't until I was back here and the book was literally everywhere, his voice even toned next to Terry Gross' overly-excited, beckoning one on my drive home from work, the term "franzenfreude" a repeated subject line on the listserve of mother/poets that the article took on a new meaning and I shut my ears to read the book. I gather people were pissed off by the amount and caliber of the attention he was given. Certainly, the notion of "greatness" the Newsweek article touched on is a dated, sexist one to say the least. Certainly, there are female writers who, while revered in the literary community, do not get the flash they deserve, (Alice Munro, Paula Fox, Moore, Gaitskill to name a few) but there seemed to be some conflation of this issue and the content of his book, which was also called sexist.

I actually think the content is sexist; the world it portrays is a sexist one, and Franzen's own imagination limits his ability to empathize with his female characters. The male characters are driven by base impulses, and the women change their lives or define themselves by sleeping with the male characters. This was true in the Corrections and it is true again here, even as our heroine is younger, allowed to be both a sexual being and a mother, even hints at becoming something of a "storyteller." There was something oddly distant and understated about the protagonist' rape, although the way it seemed small but had a lifelong ripple effect felt in the same room with truth.

But I still hope we don't expect all writers to do everything. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, was amused, moved and accompanied by his mind. Franzen is enormously gifted at painting the multi-layered American world as he sees it, from his white, male, privilidged, depressed, ambivalent and slightly self-loathing perspective. He is still growing up, just as we all are. I remember something in the Newsweek article about him considering collecting a few kids (which makes me think of Walters' birds) so that he could tell the American family story better, but the truth is he's still telling it from the son's perspective. Women are both mother and lover and sister now, but they are still other, opaque, something to manage. They are still towering. He decided against parenthood, and I don't doubt he is limiting his gaze by doing so. I don't know what his relationship with his own mother is like, but he writes like a man who hasn't finished figuring it out. The fact remains he is still telling a great American story, about a kind of freedom only a small group of Americans will ever know.