Problematizing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Having read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom twice already, a novel which I obsessed about even before I have read it, it is easy to know why, despite the critical acclaim, it has been shunned by most of the award-giving bodies, like the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards.  Freedom, to heretically paraphrase the whole narrative, is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a middle-class suburban family trying to come to grips with mediocrity, infidelity, politics, economic decline and the threat of climate change in post 9/11 America.  Patty (who I am slightly attracted to) is a bipolar overachiever who, in a twist of fate, settled for the geeky and population-obsessed boy, after her knee injury which forced her out of a bright basketball career. Walter, on the other hand, is a responsible man and an awkward father, eager to change the world for the better by preserving the natural world and saving what’s left of the Cerulean Warbler. Their kids, Jessica and Joey, are emotional train wrecks, immensely traumatized by their mother’s need to be overtly-maternal and their father’s sternness and self-righteous outlook in life. With an amusing and riveting cast of characters, including the crass and sex-craved Richard Katz, the eager-to-please Connie and the lovely and intelligent Lalitha, Freedom is a precise and beautiful rendering of contemporary American life.

So why didn’t it win any awards?  Certainly, Franzen has the knack for language. His narration is evocative, beautiful, oddly poignant most of the time, but intelligent. He’s does not have the incredible vitality and the poetic bravado that Updike has, but his prose can give David Foster Wallace a run for his money (ironically, he did, as they both admit to being rivals, as well as good friends). The novel also  tackled all the great themes of present American life: marital strain, the condition of the middle-class, the economic regression,  the great republican and democrat debate, the war on terrorism, the post generation-X funk of today’s youth and, of course, the Jewish-American experience. He explored issues of striking relevance, lingered on the issues, and attempted to cover the most important aspects of these social concerns, and he did it eloquently, with interest, so as not to bore any reader. Finally, as with any Franzen novel, his characters spring out the page. I for one, cannot help but fall in love with Patty and all her complexities and faults. I am unable to do nothing but be seduced by Connie’s charm, her alluring personality and unwavering, sometimes foolish, loyalty towards Joey. And I wholeheartedly understand Joey for the hatred he harbored for his family. Freedom is a great novel, worthy of being read over and over again. But the things is, it’s simply too traditional. Besides telling one hell of a story, it is a traditional narrative. It’s incredibly linear, the manner of narration simple, consistent and rooted in the traditional  American novel. There are no playful exercises in form and language here. To be quite honest, it actually reminds me of the modern novel, the works of Mark Twain, Gustav Flaubert, and most of the novels before James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.  It resembles the “grand narrative,” the narrative which earnestly tries to encompass the entirety of the human condition. The only new thing which Franzen offers is its willingness to address the eschatological subject of climate change, via Walter’s attempts to save the Cerulean Warbler and his other concerns regarding the environment, echoing Frank Kermode’s sentiments in The Sense of An Ending.

With that, is it possible to conclude that Freedom is actually a devolved form of the novel? Maybe it is. Comparing it to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, one gets the sense that Freedom is a bit too safe, a bit too straightedge. With Egan’s chapter made up of PowerPoint slides, its disjointed narrative, its odd sequencing, its erratic point of views and its ever-shifting tone, not to mention its speculative look on music twenty years from now, Freedom looks a bit boring, too comfortable and too unoriginal.

In terms of profundity though, I think Freedom still has it in the bag, but that is my problem. Is fiction at that state now that it’s giving up content for form? Is it giving up the depth and grandeur for the gimmick of form?   Are we now wired to think that a good story is simply not enough?

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On Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho

I’ve been putting off reviewing this novel, but now I’m done with all my deadlines and the extended period of procrastination that I experienced, I really can’t offset it any further. What else can one say with a novel that makes the readers feel the immensity of nothingness? And take note, this is not the nothingness that reminds one of the existentialist and nihilistic pseudo-philosophical perceptions of reality that gained popularity in the 20th century. The nothingness one acquires from this novel is simply a void, a a hollowness, a black hole in one’s mind and soul, and nothing else but that.

The novel begins with a statement scrawled on a wall saying, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which not only sets the mood of the highly-disturbing novel American Psycho, but also acts as a suggestion, before anyone pursues reading this piece. The intelligent reader would do well if he/she does “abandon all hope,” because here is a narrative where that abstract, highly-idealistic concept is not found. It is ultimately irrelevant once we enter Patrick Bateman’s head. There is no hope for Bateman, for the people he surrounds himself with, and finally, there is no hope for the fictive world brilliantly and accurately rendered by the author.

Most of us are already familiar with the plot of this narrative due to its film adaptation starring Christian Bale (I doubt anyone can forget that scene where he whacks Jared Leto with an axe while discussing the fine points of the newest Huey Lewis and The News album, while the band’s single, “Hip to be Square,” blares in the background). Patrick Bateman, the protagonist, is an executive at Pierce and Pierce, a very important business firm in New York City. Publicly, he spends his days obsessing over the latest trends in men’s fashion and trying out the newest and most promising restaurants in New York City. On nights, he hangs out with his friends drinking scotch, snorting cocaine in bathroom stalls, in luxurious nightclubs all over the Upper East Side. He works out frequently, makes certain his tan is just right for his skin, and ensures that he preserves his good looks and masculine appeal. Finally, he holds a great fascination for The Patty Winters show and its brand of cheap gossip masking itself as relevant news. His private life is a different story altogether. Bateman possesses a contempt that could rival that of Adolf Hitler’s. He hates the sight of beggars and bums; he treats women as if they’re objects, and thinks that all homosexuals should meet the sharp end of his knife. In addition, he’s not simply those angry, prejudiced pricks that repress all their rage and hatred. He is the one who finds utter pleasure in letting it all out. He goes into killing sprees and revels in the whole process. Worst of all, he is imaginative, devising new ways to torture men, women, children and dogs.

A good half of it is a discussion on men’s fashion and subjects regarding lifestyle, including the beauty of a well-made business card, the functionalities of suits and pants, what to wear to match the article of clothing one is sporting on, and the many benefits one gets from using a particular type of moisturizer or facial mask.  It reads like an issue of a men’s magazine like GQ, Esquire or Men’s Health. But then, we see something that would make a French Transgressive Film look like an episode of Dora the Explorer. All of Bateman’s unconscious intensities, the nonchalant manner he has when threatens people, his fascination for serial killers and psychotics, and the anger he hides in daylight, all comes  out whenever he has chosen for himself a prey. An old girlfriend lies naked on the floor, her hands nailed to the apartment floor, her jaw torn apart, holding on to the last breaths she still has as Patrick continuously curses her and takes advantage of her. A prostitute and another girlfriend is drugged into making love with each other, and after, a horrible series of torture occur, including one which involves a rodent entering someone’s anus. A gay man and his puppy are shot in broad daylight. A child in a zoo is horribly slashed to death, leaving his pitiful mother to wail as he loses blood. Everything he does is, for a lack of a better term, fucked up. It’s disgusting, commanding the hair of the readers to stand on end. One finds no pleasure in reading these scenes, but at the same time, one doesn’t have the strength to actually put the novel down. Nobody can truly ever know the extent of Patrick Bateman’s psychosis. Nobody can ever really tell if everything he’s saying actually happened or is a product of his delusions, his dependency on drugs, or the vapid nature of his existence, which makes the novel more troubling as it already is. The sole fact that we don’t know, the idea that we can never be certain of his motivations, is disturbingly unsettling. Certainty is always one’s connection to reason and rationality, and if that is missing, one is left grappling with an unknown enemy in the dark, is more terrifying than facing a monster we can see.

Going Ape Shit Over A Book: On Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

There comes a time when it’s just so damn difficult to write a proper review just because you are too in love with the subject of the piece. That’s the situation I face with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. When I first heard of this novel in 2010, back when Random House initially released the hardcover edition, it immediately got my attention.  Critics praised its publication, despite the uproar and celebration brought by Franzen’s Freedom. When everything else published suffered the ignoring eye of critics and reviewers, Egan’s work gained notice. Some even hailed it as “a new classic of American fiction.” However, that is not the reason why I possessed the incessant need to read the novel. I think I’ve heard and seen the phrase “new American classic” too many times to believe that a book could actually embody such a heavy-handed comment. My desire to read it stemmed from the fact that the work oddly enough sounded like a Cameron Crowe film, or a book penned by Lester Bangs. And by god, I was sold to that idea.

The narrative primarily focuses on Benny Salazar, an aging music producer and the former bassist of “The Pink Dildos,” and her assistant Sasha Taylor, a young woman with a serious kleptomania problem and a terrible past which includes a brief prostitution stint in Naples and a long addiction to heroin, marijuana, among other things. In the course of telling their stories, we are also told the stories of the other characters connected to the two protagonists: Lou, Benny’s mentor, one of the great music executives of the 70’s who lived the “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” lifestyle that became rampant in the during that era, Dolly, A PR specialist trying to regain her popularity and dignity after her tragic downfall, Lulu, Dolly’s daughter, who will eventually work for Benny in 2020, and Rob, Sasha’s suicidal best friend, who plays a pivotal role on how Sasha will pursue her life. In addition to that large cast, there’s also Ted, Sasha’s uncle who will search for his niece aimlessly in Naples while reflecting on his love for art and his family, Scotty, Jocelyn and Rhea, Benny’s band mates in The Pink Dildos,  and Kitty Jones, a popular actress who fell off the spotlight after she was almost raped by a journalist.  The multiple narratives of the story are set against the backdrop of the ever-changing American music scene, from the heydays of the punk movement of the seventies, to a speculative take on what the music will be like in 2020.

I began the novel expecting to read something like High Fidelity or Love is A Mixed Tape or even Almost Famous.  I opened the novel feeling relaxed, feeling laid back, anticipating that this will be a light reading, which was a foolish stance at that time. As the pages went on, I delved into a narrative far different from what I initially thought.  This may sound like a cop out, but the thing is, I love every damn section of the narrative. I like its Proustian vibe, on how it tries to tackle the subject of time, memory, its intertwined relationship and the effect brought on by its passing. I like it even more that the basic idea of an exploration was inspired by, of all things, an Elvis Costello song. I love how rock music plays a dominant role in the piece, how the power of this art form actually becomes an essential element in the assembly of one’s life and the structural integrity of a whole community, how one song can transcend its form of being a mere vehicle for entertainment and enjoyment and become a drive force that connects human beings to one another. I love the gimmicks, the so –called literary devices employed in the writing of the novel, how it resists labels and the concept of a genre, as the readers are never  made aware if the text is a novel, a collection of short stories, or a collection of interlocking short stories (From a bookselling and publishing point-of-view, Amazon lists the hardcover edition of this book as a short story collection, while the trade paperback edition is listed under novels, while in the Random House catalog, it’s under short story collections, even is the front cover of the book says it’s a novel). I like the sheer Bakhtinian feel of the novel, the multiplicity of voices (literally and literarily), the abundance of forms used, the constant shift from one decade to the other, to this place and that, to this character and another, and I love how there is no real structure to this seemingly endless shifting, embodying the chaos of their lives, and the pandemonium of the reader’s life. And damn, there’s a short story made entirely of PowerPoint slides, a short narrative focusing on the pauses of several great rock songs, told by Sasha’s daughter. What is the most gimmicky of the entire collection, also turns out the best, as it not only gives us a staggering amount of freshness, it’s also fun, enjoyable and slightly poignant as it tries to delves into the relationship of the family by using pie-charts, bar graphs and statistics.  The characters are instantly relatable and sympathetic. The structuring of the narrative is amazing. The points of view chosen, appropriate. Each detail is exact and precise. For me, the novel can do no wrong. It is perfect, so perfect that I’m starting wonder if what I’m saying is right, or I’m just saying this for the sole reason that this is the kind of novel I have always wanted to write.

Obviously, my biases have yet again taken over me. And I’ve only had my way with the novel once, so, following Nabokov’s paradigm for reading, I have barely touched what the novel really is. Months from now, I will go back to Egan’s work, and I might have a different opinion on the text, on those that I am in completely in adoration of. I might have my qualms about its structure, about how little time was given to a particular character, or about how the balance of the narrative(s) is just off. I may say shit about the whole PowerPoint narrative. Things could go awry and that much is true. But right now, at this very moment, I am completely in love with the book, something which I have not experienced for quite a while in my reading life.

*The book was sent to me by the generous people over at Random House, and will be available in Powerbooks after Holy Week.

The Unmemorable Histories in Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters

 

“The history of the world? Just voices echoing in the dark; images that burn for a few centuries and then fade, stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections” (240).

 

Inventive and utterly clever, Julian Barne’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters functions of the premise that every single important ideology that currently exists in the world stems from what transpired in Noah’s ark during the great flood.  Divided into ten chapters/ stories (until now, I still am unable to decide whether Barne’s work qualifies as a novel, a short story collection or a story-arc), it begins with a new, revised account of Noah’s voyage into the oceanic world that came after God wreaked his wrath into the world he found unworthy. Told from the point-of-view of a stowaway woodworm, an animal previously deemed unworthy, it exposes the malice of Noah’s family and the dozens of tragedies which struck the five ships (yes, according to the wormy narrator, there were five arcs, one commanded by Noah, three managed by his sons, and one that served as a medical and storage unit), which includes the death of the unicorns and the behemoths, largely because of the human’s need for sustenance. The next nine pieces largely deal with the aftermath, without continuing Noah’s story. This includes “The Wars of Religion,” a documented court proceedings regarding the indictment and eventual excommunication of several woodworms who was said to have caused a piece of wood to weaken and fall on a priest, “Shipwreck,” a ekphrastic piece which uses Gericault’s famous painting of the Medusa in an attempt to recreate what had happened on the infamous ship and pursue a discussion on the importance of tragedy and art in culture, “ “Three Simple Stories,” three vignettes which question God’s behavior after the great flood, including a think piece that dwells on the prophet Jonah’s mission and the contradictory nature of his divine quest (as well as the sheer impossibility of surviving inside the belly of a whale), “Project Ararat,” which tells of one woman’s quest to reach Noah’s vineyard and the mountain where Noah docked his arc, the infamous, didactic and ironic half-chapter, “parentheses”, which consists of Barne’s discursive attempt to share his views  on the semantics of love and desire, and “The Dream,” which offers the readers a new and different picture of paradise.  Each tale has a different voice, a different manner in which it is told, and each distances itself from being formal, from being objective, from being devoid of irony. And although each of them attempts to be self-sustaining, to be a work that can stand on its own, there are connective devices, recurring themes, thoughts and fragments that exist, reflecting the odd nature of human history.

Interestingly enough, the ten stories found in Barne’s book strays away from the events that become central to the world, and instead deals with more or less common events which one would not imagine to have much significance on how the world turns, positing that history, the essential aspects of it, is not influenced by the gravity of the change it produces, but by how an individual sees it. Common events that do not simply matter to the grand scheme of things bear in them the repercussions of the smallest action, reaffirming the universality of human emotions and experience, urging us to question our notions on the so-called “objective history” that we have been come to know. At the end of the novel, the readers eventually realize that each experience becomes a historical archive that can be traced back to one source, echoing with it a dozen theoretical ramifications that the critic in me nods in agreement.

 

*Much thanks for Random House for graciously providing me a copy of this wonderful book. And yes, Im back to my usual blogging.

Notes on Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (or Goodbye, Blue Monday)

1.)    Any art form can be used to poke fun at reality and the human condition. In poking fun, we are given a new perspective on certain matters about life, society, faith, and politics. Slowly, we see the absurdity that surrounds the ideas ridiculed. Mockery and the techniques used to elicit laughter is a time-honored tradition in the novel. We see it in Cervantes’ narrative about the washbasin wearing knight-errant of La Mancha in Don Quixote, which gave birth to the modern novel, where society, chivalry and the beliefs of the fifteenth century was held and scrutinized from the crazed-eyes of Alonso Quijano. We also see it in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The book does not only ridicule the life of one fictional character in a world that largely resembles reality, it also ridicules the prevalent writing techniques of that era. The end of the Second World War also gave birth to the Theater of the Absurd, where a number of works, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, utilized humor to expose the inanities of dogma and life.

2.)    Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions revolves around two characters. The first one is Kilgore Trout, the cynical and alienating science-fiction writer who figures prominently in Vonnegut’s early works, Invited to the first Midland City Arts Festival by Mr. Eliot Rosewater to talk about his personal views on writing and about his works, he sets out on a journey towards the festival, terrified that the world has finally become aware of his writings. The other is Dwayne Hoover, a widow and a successful Pontiac dealer in Midland City, who suddenly finds his sanity going down the drain. In the attempt to find a balance between his emotional outbursts and his life, he seeks solace in the Midland City Arts Festival, where he expects to find an insight to the meaning of life. At the festival, they eventually meet, and their most auspicious meeting brings forth a violent spree and a confrontation with Mr. Vonnegut himself, the man who created them and the situations they just experienced.

3.)    Reading Breakfast of Champions, one gets the feeling that the narrative was written for the sole purpose of ridicule and mockery. The novel’s narrator, who through a revelation and illustration at the very last page of the novel, is revealed to be Kurt Vonnegut himself, pokes fun at everything, from the characters, to the situations they find themselves in, to politics, race, gender and sexuality, religion, to assholes, beavers and ladies’ underpants.

4.)    Vonnegut has the ability, and makes the conscious choice, of stripping down ideas to their basic and most naked state. This violent and aggressive unclothing is one of the sources of the satire and humor overflowing from the narrative. These ideas are at first look, funny. One can’t help but laugh, smirk, or simply close the book to get a breather. After a while, one eventually realizes the truth behind what is written. Pretty soon, the reader will say, “Damn, so fucking true.” Take for example the eleventh page, in the middle of a short anecdote where the narrator talks about the founding of the nation of America and how the pirates contributed to it, he makes mention that:

“The sea pirates were white. The people who were already in the continent when the  pirates arrived were copper-colored. When slavery was introduced onto the continent, the slaves were black. Color was everything.” (11)

In this short statement which is composed of four simple sentences, he touches on the semantics of color in society, which, actually, reeks of absurdity. Another humorous passage which elicits the same response is found in the beginning of the novel where he comments on America’s law about flag dipping, and the law which prohibits the flag from being dipped in any person or thing. Again he exposes the absurdity of a law which has long been accepted.

5.)    During the course of the reading, one cannot help but say, “Damn, so fucking true,” a couple of times. I made an attempt to track and estimate how many times I repeated this crass acknowledgement of Vonnegut’s ‘truths.’ On the average, I said it every seven to nine pages.

6.)    Humor is simply another way of seeing things, which makes Vonnegut’s truths, unreliable. During the reading, I could not help but be the empirical reader, the reader who forgot to look at the structure of the novel and how it was crafted by the author. I related to the incredible amount of cynicism hence my proposal to regard Vonnegut’s insights as ‘truths.’

7.)    The novel is also an exhibition of Kurt Vonnegut’s infinite imagination as the narration goes through Kilogore Trout’s pantheon of work. Here are some of the stories which really stuck out for me:

a.       The story concerning a dialogue between two pieces of yeast, as they discussed “the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” (214)

b.      The story concerning the civilization who acknowledged the simple pleasures and convenience of mankind as pornography. Told from the point-of-view of a human astronaut, the story follows the protagonist as he observes the culture of the strange civilization and watches with them one of the films conveyed to be pornographic (58-9).

c.       “The Barring-Gaffner of Bagnialto or This Year’s Masterpiece,” which revolves around a planet wherein works of art attain masterpiece status through a wheel spun around by the Barring-Gaffner. All the pieces that were not chosen, on the other hand, were burned in a huge bonfire. The story concludes when the Barring-Gaffner found out that the wheel was actually rigged. This led him to commit suicide (132).

d.      The Smart Bunny, about a female bunny who was as intelligent as William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein, an animal who was discarded and thrown away by the hunter who had shot her after finding out that she has an abnormally large brain (236).

e.       Finally, “Plague on Wheels,” which is about God’s great design that every single organism on Earth is a robot (26).

8.)    Vonnegut may lack Updike’s language, Roth’s grit and clarity, Pynchon’s playfulness and utterly complex linguistic puzzles or de Lillo’s terrifying social-realistic stance on the 20th century and all its advancements, but he has his humor, his memorable stories, his uncanny way of looking at the world and his pantheon of unforgettable, likeable and sympathetic characters. This is enough to make him one of the greatest American novelists of the last fifty years.

9.)     To end this post, here is a picture of an asshole, illustrated by Kurt Vonnegut: