categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence
My brief relationship with Jonathan Franzen began, like his own rise to fame, with a triumph and a blunder. In March he flew down here to our southern University to give a talk, and as our creative writing department’s token nature writer, I was drafted to fulfill his one unusual demand. His request was not to be picked up at the airport by a limo, or to have six down pillows on his feathered bed, though what he asked for would be considered by many equally if not more eccentric: He wanted to see a brown-headed nuthatch. Really. He had done his homework and knew that the pine forests near our school were the perfect habitat for Sitta pusilla, the tiny good-natured bird that has the odd habit of working its way down trees upside down while pecking at bark. And so I did my homework, too, calling the local Audubon guy and finding the perfect place to bring my guest so that he could check the nuthatch off his birding life list. As fate would have it, Bill Roorbach, my fellow cocktail hour host, was also doing a talk at our university that week. Bill knows his warblers and titmice better than I do, and sure enough, together we got the man his bird: within an hour of deplaning, Franzen, wearing the too-tight suit coat he would read in later that night, was staring up through his Swarovski binoculars at the little white-bellied creature with the chestnut yarmulke and the call that my field guide refers to as a “spunky, slightly nasal KEWde.” Franzen was deeply pleased and I had instantly proven myself as a guide, and I should have basked in my triumph, parlaying it into, at the very least, a future blurb for my novel. But instead, flush with triumph, I suggested that we set off in pursuit of other avian prey. He asked what we could see nearby and I looked down at the notes I’d scribbled during my talk with Andy, the Audubon guy , when I’d asked the same question. In retrospect, I realize that what Andy had told me was that we might be able to see some “great swamp warblers,” but that was not what I said to Franzen.
“We should go look for The Great Swamp Warbler,” I said confidently.
Which was like saying we should search for Sasquatch. Once the words were out of my mouth I knew instantly that no such bird existed. And that, with one stroke, one birding faus paux, I had revealed myself as the very amateur birder I actually was. Of course Franzen knew right away that the bird I’d named was an invented one, but he paid me the small kindness of beginning to diligently search his field guide. I had gotten him his nuthatch, after all. So he would spare me some discomfort.
Not long after he visited us, Franzen’s book, The Discomfort Zone, came out. I found myself thinking a lot about him during that time, and about discomfort, and embarrassment. I suspect that I wasn’t the only writer thinking about him during those days, each of us reacting to the scathing reviews he received with varying degrees of sympathy or schadenfreude depending on our temperaments. There were many positive reviews of The Discomfort Zone, but oh the negative ones. Of course it isn’t unusual for people to take some pleasure in seeing the mighty fall, nor is it unusual for the author of a large book, like The Corrections, to be hit hard when they follow it up with a smaller book.
Still I, like many people, was struck by the thoroughly personal nature of some of the reviews, personal even for a review of a very personal book, as if it were a human being under review, consigned by the reviewer to heaven or hell, rather than a book.
I found myself wondering: Why the fury? Why the loathing? Why the scorn? After all, “I don’t like the book very much,” is one thing. “The man is despicable,” is quite another. Critics often write about the inability of authors, particularly memoirists, to pare apart the personal from the artistic, but, as a memoirist and essayist myself, I can’t help but wonder about some critics’ inability to do the same. Many seem to have forgotten that the art and the person are two different things, even when the art is the art of the personal.
Why did taking potshots at Franzen, in both reviews and essays, become such a popular sport (and will it resume soon when the novel hits the stands)? Maybe, like so much in our world, it begins with Oprah. Franzen will forever be damned for saying out loud what about 90% of literary writers secretly once thought: sure they’d love the bucks, but they don’t want to be Oprah-ized because it would mark their work as something less, as pop art. The Oprah incident branded Franzen as a snob who lacked the common touch. And that was the strange point that reviewers kept bringing up to damn him and his book of essays: as if every artist should be a man of the people, shaking hands and kissing babies.
Franzen is not just a self-absorbed snob, the reviewers seemed to say, but a self-absorbed snob without a sense of humor. Apparently I was wrong to laugh at the self-deprecating self-portraits in The Discomfort Zone of Franzen as nerd, as self-admitted snob, as sometimes bumbling birder. Little did I realize that what I had taken as jokes were actually clues to the man’s deeply flawed character. In what sounds a whole lot like name calling, Michiko Kakutani, writing in the daily New York Times, called Franzen’s book “an odious portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed,” as well as “an incredibly annoying portrait” and a “hellish exercise in self-absorption.” Then she flatly described the boyhood Franzen dropping a live frog into a campfire, the reviewer framing the incident as if this were an average day for the young sadist and not a terrible moment–and one incidentally not that uncommon to American boyhood–that plagued the sensitive young boy for years to come. For another reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn writing in the New York Times Book Review, it isn’t just that the book was unfunny, but that Franzen’s work as a whole demonstrates a “total lack of humor.” Admittedly humor is in the ear of the beholder, but the charge of general humorlessness seems to me nothing short of preposterous when we are talking about the author of The Corrections. For instance, even if you try it’s tough not to hear something a little funny in Franzen’s writing about the drug–addled Chip: “His problem consisted of a burning wish not to have done the things he’d done. And his body, its chemistry, had a clear instinctive understanding of what he had to do to make this burning wish go away. He had to swallow another Mexican A.”
The humor in The Discomfort Zone is, aptly for the genre, the self-deprecatory sort, the sort used by many of us who wield the “I,” a variant of the humor used by all personal essayists from Montaigne to the present. This is humor as preemptive strike—I’ll tell you my faults before you can attack me for them. It is in this manner that Franzen creates a self-portrait of himself as a man distinctly uncomfortable in his own skin–awkward, smart, nervous, and yes, snobby. When this technique works, which I believe it does often enough in these essays, the reader will recognize his or her own flaws in the bared soul of the reader and, perhaps, breathe a sigh of relief. Of course one of the reasons this technique works for Montaigne it that, for all his admitted flaws, he is at root likable. Franzen, the critics argue, is not. But who said art was a popularity contest? Haven’t we had enough charmingly flawed essayists? How about someone who takes one for the geek squad, who reveals what it’s really like to be perpetually awkward? Should he gussy himself up in his essays, so that he is more likable, or should he, like Montaigne, reveal himself, even if he lacks Montaigne’s innate charm? Strangely enough, by writing about what it feels like to be so distinctly uncool, Franzen unconsciously recreated the dynamic of his childhood: once again he is the nerd scorned by the cool kids.
Reviewers, including Kakutani and Mendelsohn, were quick to point out Franzen’s admissions of having selfish takes on such national events as hurricane Katrina or September 11, as if most of us walk around in perpetual states of high-minded do-gooder-ness, and as if we don’t all sometimes wish the traffic jam we’re in is being caused by an accident so that the jam will soon clear, and not mere road work. Do these reviewers, alone among humanity, actually spend most of their time thinking about great and national issues, and not small and personal ones? As it happens, Franzen does think about politics quite a lot, the way it impacts our daily lives, and he weaves the political, sometimes less than artfully, into these pieces. Like many of us, he has different selves that are ascendant at different times, and, like the essayist he is, he takes turns making a puppet show of these various selves, examining them at arm’s length, with the hope that, taken together, they will build up a complex portrait of a larger and complicated self.
Do I think The Discomfort Zone is perfect? Far from it. But my main complaint is formal, not personal. One of the real pleasures of a great essay is when it weaves unlike things together. Or, to change metaphors, a good essayist should be like a juggler, tossing up disparate things–a grapefruit, a chainsaw, bowling pin. Franzen is game for this, tossing up in one essay, for instance, his love of birding, his failed marriage, and global warming. The trouble is that he doesn’t quite pull it off: the balls drop, the threads don’t quite connect the way they might in the work of our best contemporary essayists, Richard Rodriguez for example. But he gives it a good shot, has a subtle mind, and, though most of the critics never mention it, he can still write like hell. If it isn’t the greatest book of essays of all time, it certainly doesn’t bring dishonor on the form.
Which again makes me wonder about the venom in these reviews. Against Franzen, sure, but also against writing that is deemed too personal, and against, predictably, so-called memoir, that much-despised genre and great straw man of recent years. As to the complaint that the personal is solipsistic, the point isn’t whether the writer is singing “Me Me Me,” the point is whether he can sing that tune entertainingly and whether those of us who hear the tune can then apply it to our own lives. The notion that a book is “too personal” grows tiresome, and The Discomfort Zone isn’t nearly as personal, it seems to me, as some of the reviews of it. In fact I would argue that Franzen’s book is both about himself and about many things that are not himself. And that the drama, the plot of the book is that of a complicated, somewhat selfish, and inward-turned person slowly being nudged out of self into the world.
The book, whatever its flaws, is a book, not a Rorschach test. Some even used the occasion of essay book to go back and tear down The Corrections, as if to say, when the memoir and novel overlap, “See, it’s all autobiography anyway.” But to confuse Jonathen Franzen, or our image of him, with the books he writes is a deadly mistake. Franzen, like any artist, is severely limited. But like any artist, he strives to make his books better than he is. Art is bigger than the man.
As Franzen and Bill and I searched for our nuthatch, I was not without my own Oprah-based prejudice: would he turn out to be a terrible snob? A fancy lad? And I carried another, different stereotype: I am a nature guy who knows some birds, but Franzen is a different species, a true birder, a life-lister, a twitcher, and I worried he would be more intent on checking the nuthatch off of his birding things-to-do list than actually enjoying the afternoon below the longleaf pines. But gradually, as the day wore on, he opened up, and his reading that night was vulnerable and generous, and, despite the accusations that he lacks a sense of humor, quite funny. He did exhibit a few spasms of his famous snobbery, like when he commented bluntly on the poor gas mileage of my car, but by night’s end we had decided to get up at five the next day and seek out more birds at a local state park. The next morning we stopped at a gas station for coffee (he dropped an ice cube into his to cool it) and, armed with our coffee and donuts, we headed to the park and spent a good three hours absorbed in watching songbirds flit through shafts of light in a little patch of woods along the Cape Fear River. Theoretically I was still the guide but by then it was obvious that I wasn’t half the birder Franzen was, and over the course of the morning he pointed out Carolina chickadees, and white-throated sparrows, birds that looked to be wearing tiny yellow and black bike helmets and that dug at the dirt in the manner of dogs, kicking up the leaf litter. We didn’t see the Great Swamp Warbler, true, but the highlight of that morning was another warbler, a great one, the yellow-throated, with a zebra-striped face and a chest that shone yellow like a tiny concentrated sun. I’ve always thought that the best thing about birding is the way it pulls you outward and as the morning wore on in the woods, I noticed that Franzen laughed easily, growing more and more relaxed. I like to think that the birds and the process of birding were acting on him as it they often do on me: easing him out of his limited and uncomfortable self.
*photo copyright Barbara Brannon