August 29, 2006

Poison and fiction.

Michiko Kakutani reviews Jonathan Franzen's new memoir -- "The Discomfort Zone" -- and seems rather horrified to gaze upon the character that is the novelist. Me, I'm extremely fascinated, especially by what most upsets Kakutani, his "doomed marriage":
[H]e describes the judgmental outlook that he and his wife shared for many years: “Deploring other people — their lack of perfection — had always been our sport.”

... Mr. Franzen writes that he and his wife “lived on our own little planet,” spending “superhuman amounts of time by ourselves.” He fills his journals with transcripts of fights they’ve had, and writes that they both “reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain.” “I wrote poisonous jeremiads to family members who I felt had slighted my wife,” he adds, while “she presented me with handwritten fifteen-and twenty page analyses of our condition; I was putting away a bottle of Maalox every week.”
Kakutani can't figure out why anyone would want to consume what the author himself acknowledges to be poison. Maybe you prefer the nature of the novelist to be processed into a work of fiction. You prefer poison cooked up into something more delectable, like "The Corrections." I prefer to see that the poison is poison.


Dave said...

Nothing is more loathsome to me than to hear pseudo-intellectual New Yorkers prattle on about the latest Kakutani exegesis.

Dave said...

I should clarify: I'm not accusing Althouse, or any commenter here, of being a pseuod-intellectual New Yorker.

I'm reflecting on a conversation I was stuck in this past weekend, at a party full of said pseudo-intellectual New Yorkers who were, indeed, prattling on about Kakutani.

tiggeril said...

The Corrections, along with Joyce's Ulysses, are the two only books I've flung across the room and found it more enjoyable than reading them.

mark said...

tiggeril: does your comment say more about the books, or about you?

Joan said...

What an odd coincidence. I just read The Corrections two days ago -- it was a long day. I was struck by its adolescent obsession with sex and its elementary school obsession with bodily fluids. It was a skilfully written book, and everything hung together really well, but it got on my nerves. It's simply not true that the most important things in our lives are sex and elimination. I had a friend in college whose conversations invariably went the way of Franzen's novel: everyone was deeply flawed, and life had no greater potential to offer than the next orgasm. Looking back now, I wonder why I put up with it. Like The Corrections, she was dreary and obnoxious, but fascinating just because she was so upfront about it.

Now, reading just this snippet that Ann quoted, I can tell that Franzen and my old college chum are cut from the same cloth. Good luck to them, I say. I doubt they'll find it, though, because they refuse to look.

tiggeril said...

Pace, that's up to you. :)

knoxgirl said...

Oh, dear lordy, do NOT get me started on The Corrections. I would read a bit, put it down in disgust... feel guilty about not giving it a chance, read a bit, put it down---repeat---until about page 200. I have rarely disliked EVERY ASPECT of a book so intensely. If it had been my copy I surely would have tossed it. The only book I've done that to was Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, which is weird because I like several of her other books. I wanted to torch every Updike book I had to suffer through in college, but they were never my own copy. (Talk about bad sex in books!)

Then I got sucked into the whole "Oprah Book Club" fiasco. What a turd Franzen is, dithering about her logo on the cover and worrying that men wouldn't read the book. And his George Michael author photo is just flat out sad.

Kent said...

This is not a book to be discarded lightly. Rather, it should hurled aside with great force.

--Dorothy Parker

LarryK said...

Few novels seem to be as actively hated as The Corrections. I haven't read it, but I did read The 27th City and Strong Motion by Franzen and liked them both. The plots are convulted and implausible, and the left wing morals at the end are not exactly delivered with a light touch (especially in Strong Motion), but there are a lot of surprising twists and characters along the way.

Elizabeth said...

His Oprah hysteria was high entertainment. If I need a laugh, I rewind his piqued exclamation that he is a writer in the high art tradition! Well, who gets to decide that?

One of my problems with modern fiction, excuse me, modern high art fiction, is the obsession of the writers with themselves. I can't read another Raymond Carver whiskey-soaked meditation on infidelity and being unsatisfied. At least speculative fiction takes on ideas, and sometimes even a plot. Give me Neal Stephenson over Franzen any day.

Henry said...

The one book I've thrown across the room in disgust: The Fountainhead.

When Ann writes I prefer to see that the poison is poison is she expressing a preference for non-fiction? That's my preference, anyway.

ignacio said...

Franzen is an idiot.

knoxgirl said...

his piqued exclamation that he is a writer in the high art tradition

what a douchebag

Bob said...

One could be forgiven if they avoided contemporary fiction based on the sad examples their authors set. I know it isn't fashionable to be uplifting, but what are we to do with these neurotic howls? Is this the way men now act?

jult52 said...

I thought the three novellas set inside of "The Corrections" -- each one describing the emotional breakdown of the family's three children -- were viscerally exciting and memorable. The outer portions of the book were less strong although they had their moments. The novel isn't perfect but is exciting and I found very rewarding. And I don't remotely think the novel is obsessed with "sex and elimination." I apparently wasn't even reading the same book.

mark said...

tig: good answer!

P. Froward said...

"Deploring other people", eh? Radical cynicism seems very clever until you grow up.

Tiggeril — Hey, Ulysses wasn't that bad. Finnegan's Wake, though... What a waste of trees.

Simon Kenton said...

tiggeril -

I pitched Jaspers across the room, but I tore the "anthology of socialist humanism" in half. In both acts, I felt at one with the Kantian Imperative, and am comfortable with the idea that anyone else could do the same, to their own and society's betterment. (A more difficult question is whether we would have been better off if someone had strangled Hindemuth in his crib.)

Daily pedantry - Milton was no stranger to the impulse to defenestrate a book; he talked of 'dinging a book a quoit's distance away.' And while not in the league with Corrections, there is a Victorian 'poem' by Meredith called Modern Love that is pre-Franzenesque in its dreary destructiveness.

wzhnn - the noise made by a flying book

JorgXMcKie said...

While I suffered thru some very dreary books back in my undergrad days, I also got an appreciation of some that I would not otherwise have read, but I am pretty much incapaple of finishing most fiction of this sort today.

I also refuse adamantly to read anything by Joyce Carol Oates any more. Beautiful writing, no there there. Sad.

The only book I ever truly threw across the room after finishing it was 'Dhalgren' by Samuel R. Delaney. It was science fiction, extremely well-written by one of the first best selling black SF authors, and it was pointless crap, but wasn't revealed as such until the ending. Delaney was, so he said later, proving that he could write SF as 'literature' (this was in the later 60s or mid-70s, I think).

I resolved firmly that he would never again get one thin dime of my money or one second of my reading time, and so it remains today.

I have absolutely zero intention of fattening the bottom line of anyone even remotely connected with Oprah Winfrey's book club or list or whatever. I don't need the intellectual prop that much.

Maxine Weiss said...

"One of my problems with modern fiction, excuse me, modern high art fiction, is the obsession of the writers with themselves."---Elizabeth

But this isn't fiction, it another....MEMOIR...ugggh.

Is Franzen under 50? I won't read anyone under 50 because I don't like their worldview.

That Jonathan Soer sp? 'Everything's Illuminated'....nonsense.

Why do these children get a place at the table?

I don't want to be lectured to, or have to listen to the ruminations of kids.

Norman Mailer is about 90 ?? That's just about right for me.

A life well-lived.

Peace, Maxine

Elizabeth said...


I mostly second the pre-verbal response to memoir, with the exception of David Sedaris who at least makes me laugh, and Alyson Bechdel because I like to look at the pictures. All these memoirs of people famed only for having written a memoir!

Ruth Anne Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JDM said...

This is one of those occasions where I can simply state, with only a little regret, that I have nothing useful to add.

My tastes in fiction tend to avoid "high art", and even literature - Patrick O'Brien is as close as I get to that.

Fiction I read for sheer pleasure. Life is too short to read books I dont enjoy!

knoxgirl said...

I thought for sure Maxine would bust my balls for not liking Updike!


nunzio said...

This memoir is not too good for Oprah.

tiggeril said...

Wow. I never get to talk to so many people who prefer nonfiction to fiction!

I love you guys.

Al Maviva said...

If the memoir is as Kakutani reports it, then Franzen's dismal life explains a lot about the dismal lives of the people in his novels and the whacking he lays on conventional middle class life and mores... he probably thinks everybody is as unhappy, angry and infantile as he is.

And he apparently makes a good living at it. Good for him, the turd.

Johnny Nucleo said...

I've never read Franzen, but I have to stick up for my man Raymond Carver. Everything Elizabeth said is true, but his writing is so clean, so pristine, so unwasteful. And so heartbreaking. "A Small, Good Thing," and "Cathedral," and "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," are gorgeous works of art.

But, to be fair, I have read very little serious fiction since college, and even then I was getting sick of Minimalism.

Remember Tom Wolfe's big article slamming Minimalism? That was funny. My creative writing teachers, all practitioners of Minimalism, were really pissed.

This preference of many Althousian's for non-fiction over fiction is interesting. Currently, I share this preference. For me, the reason is this: A few years after graduating from college, I was shocked to discover that I had in fact learned next to nothing and actually knew very little about the world.

Elizabeth said...

Johnny, I do agree with you on Carver's economy and clarity. I think more than anything I got tired of what seems like an endless cranking out of MFAs from writing workshops all imitating Carver. That wave's probably passed, but I think too much of the so-called high art fiction today is produced by these MFA factory products, and then they all get on committees and whatnot and start awarding and praising each other's work. Remember Spy Magazine's column "Logrolling in Our Time," where they'd compare book blurbs of writers fluffing each other?

Johnny Nucleo said...

Elizabeth, you are absolutely right. I want you to say more but there's nothing more to say. What you said about the Fiction Machine was perfect.

Maxine Weiss said...

You are what you read.

Non-fiction readers have a problem with authority.

They love to challenge authority, and non-fiction allows you to do that. You are thoroughly able to read non-fiction with a healthy skepticism. You're supposed to question it.

You can't question fiction,'s fiction...there's no already no it's made up. In reading fiction, you have no choice but to submit to the novelists whims.

And non-fiction readers who like to challenge authority can't stand that.

Peace, Maxine

JDM said...

Maxine - rubbish!

Fiction is generally written from a particular point of view, which one is able to disagree with. I often despair at reading novels in which a protagonist suddenly changes due to flagrant deus ex machina.

Of course, you might respond that I read poor fiction - and often you would be right - but I think that some of the books are quite good, and I just dont like them. I think my disagreement with the central tenet of the novel makes me unable to enjoy it, save in a few rare cases, and as I have said, life is too short to read books I dont enjoy.

jult52 said...

The amount of criticism literary fiction regularly receives on this site is puzzling. There's a lot --emphasize A LOT -- of fiction being published these days which is both very interesting (as in, not boring) and of obvious literary merit. But, hey, if you want to be close-minded and ignore it, be my guest. Turn on some reality show and become a drone.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, Johnny. Just to show I'm fair and balanced, though, I'll recommend a book from one of those many workshop people, but it's no MFA sausage factory product: Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden, a novel about two Cree returning from service in the Canadian military, one as a sniper, in WWI. I think he's a good storyteller and creates characters you can care about.

Maxine, you don't have to accept fiction's premise at all. If a story can't take you into Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief," feel free to thumb your nose at its authority!

Craig Ranapia said...


Come on, the pharmaceutical company that manages to distil Michiko Kakutani's coma-inducing prose and intellectual banality into an easy to swallow pill is going to be bigger than Jesus.