great work, jerkface

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has been sitting on my bookshelf since it was first published.  I bought it when it was a bestseller and enthusiastically shelved it when I began to understand how pretentious Franzen is.  And I’m not just referring to the Oprah’s Book Club fiasco.  I mean — check out his dust jacket photo:

This man’s inner monologue is considering his artful stubble and, perhaps, the effect of his ironic eyeglasses.

But I decided to give The Corrections a chance last week, so I’ve begun reading.  I’m only about 50 pages in, but I’m begrudgingly enjoying it.  Franzen has a talent for picking just the right detail in a careless sort of way, as if it isn’t so difficult to sum up a character’s worldview by offhand descriptions of the appetizers she throws together for her parents.

However…  It might be my biased preconceptions, but even Franzen’s narrative voice is pretentious.  I add him to a list of authors who are obviously talented but whose self-awareness is just too palpable in their books.  I include Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie in this category.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading these authors or recommend their books.  But they never completely disappear into the margins, and it results in this weird attitude toward their characters — a little heartless.  In the opening for Midnight’s Children, for example, Saleem, the protagonist, seems like a sort of marrionette.  Rushdie has written a beautiful novel, but I don’t detect much empathy in the book.

But the way I feel about Franzen — my suspicion that I cannot dissociate his manner as a private individual from the way I read his books — is a milder case of a bigger problem.  There are plenty of novelists, artists, musicians, who are not very “good” people.  And I’m talking about vices much more culpable than Franzen’s possible snobbery.  The arts are full of characters who cheat on their wives, abuse themselves and others, develop and practice questionable political theories.

Danny and I were talking about this problem last week:  how to consider the novel, the song, the painting apart from the circumstances of the artist’s life.  How do we do that, and should we?

This discussion was, predictably, brought on by the death of Michael Jackson.  Most of the buzz I’ve heard about MJ, both from friends and the media, is a well-deserved celebration of the ways he changed the landscape of pop music and dance, along with a call to forget the tabloid mess that marred the end of his life.  But once in a while someone I know, or some talk show host, will say “pedophile,” and the conversation changes.  Should we forget that element of Jackson’s life and remember, instead, “ABC” and “Thriller”?  Or would that be irresponsible?  I certainly don’t equate my irritation at Franzen with the much more complicated questions that surround Jackson, but it is, in a way, all the same issue, at varying degrees of intensity.

Of course, during all of this mess, I’ve downloaded “Man in the Mirror” and watched a few tributes on morning television.  There’s nothing like the smooth lock-and-pop of the moonwalk.

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8 thoughts on “great work, jerkface

  1. I find that in most cases it’s perfectly appropriate to separate the artist from the art. Art is almost a creation unto itself, something that takes on a life and identity of its own.
    What artist or author (or person, for that matter) does not lead some kind of troubled life? Actually, it’s that kind of drama in life that inspires such creativity in art. I find myself that I am most inspired to write when I am in my most desperate moments in life. We almost owe a debt of gratitude to these artists’ troubled lives for the legacy of art that they leave behind.
    (P.S. Don’t mistake my comment as a defense of pedophilia. However, I don’t think MJ is guilty of anything except extreme naivete and stupidity.)

  2. oooh jonathan franzen is so smug in that picture! you know he is thinking, “you cannot resist me OR my book. you will buy my book, read it, and then spend many hours staring at my stubble. you are powerless to resist.” also, i tried to read a zadie smith novel a few months ago and i wanted to scratch my eyes out.

    also, i decided to sit down and watch some MJ videos on mtv not once but twice this weekend, and both times mtv was playing the space jam video featuring michael jordan.

    • I am proud to say that in high school I was part of a dance team routine to “Space Jam.” It is, obviously, a giant in pop music history.

  3. Tommy and I were trying to think of someone who would get the coverage MJ would get. He seems to think Paul McCartney. I highly doubt it. Maybe Madonna, IF she died strangely. But he seems like the last massive superstar who really spanned generations.

    • I can’t imagine anyone else getting this sort of reaction, but then again I didn’t expect MJ to cause SUCH a huge display of mourning (or, in some cases, indignation).

      Good to see you’re blogging! Hoorah!

  4. I read The Corrections, largely because it was a gift from my sister, who often has amazing literary taste. I didn’t care for it, and though I never quite put it into words, I think “pretentious” is it. It was so overwhelmingly obvious that Franzen thinks he’s very much superior to anyone from the Midwest. And I don’t like being beaten over the head like that.

    • I can see how you would feel that way. And I share your resentment. I spent much of my childhood in the Midwest.

      By the end of the novel, I was just exhausted by how sad each character’s life was. Is that supposed to be the point?

      Anyway. I feel better that I read it. I own so many books that I haven’t read.

  5. Pingback: squirrels at chess, part 3 | running with carrots

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