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Jonathan Franzen—Scat Lover as Literary Lion

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Reading Jonathan Franzen's latest best selling novel, Freedom, brought to mind Chesterton's introduction to The Everlasting Man: Like all the stories I never wrote, it was by far the best one I'd ever written.

Freedom might have been a good book if Franzen had never written it. I read it wondering when the writing was going to go deeper than the desires of average people with too much freedom. It never did and it is not worth reading.

The initial reviews gave the book as much praise as any I have ever read. But I doubt it will be remembered as the timeless period piece Franzen aimed to write. I doubt it will outlast Sam Tanenhaus’s enthusiasms (see his NYT review, 8/29/2010).

The upshot of Deconstructionism has perhaps been to mislead too many writers that particular realities of the real world do not matter. If a text cannot convey a single perspective, but rather a complicated bundle of perspectives outside even the author’s purview, as Deconstructionism holds, then an author who thinks too much about theory can wind up saying nothing because he knows he might be saying anything. Interpretations can be gleaned even from a false picture, which is a reason for writers to be less diligent in depicting real things as they are.

Moreover, the particulars of a story come from the author’s intentions, and nothing matters less to Deconstructionists than the author’s intentions. To tell an author that his intentions do not matter to the meaning of the text is close to saying that understanding the particulars of the story does not matter. It is a short step from there into a realm of unreality, where the reality that is depicted in the text is not held accountable to the reality we live in when it comes to important particulars.

Deconstructionism appears to hinder Franzen especially because he does not really live in the real world to begin with. He had a privileged upbringing, which is apparently all it takes these days to be a great writer, because he’s never had another job and he obviously does not like people. A literary theory prone to overlook minor unrealities in search of many-sided interpretations can easily lead an author to depict fantastic portrayals, particularly if he already lives with a below-average connection to major realities, such as human nature.

Franzen certainly does not get human nature when it comes to the particular natures of men and women. Some of his characters are embarrassing inversions. A housewife has a midlife crisis and writes an extremely sarcastic account of her life. She eventually elopes with her husband’s best friend—realistic enough—but the best friend is ridiculous, a sometimes musician and a serial monogamist who sulks in self pity and never stops dressing like a narcisstic teenager.

Franzen tried to write a book about the way we are now, and in broad outline the book does accurately depict how far we are from bourgeoisie domestic tranquility. Everyone in the book is excruciatingly selfish until the husband and wife are almost dead, and that seems to be the point of Freedom; and Franzen’s only point about freedom: It is mostly miserable.

Parts of the book must come unreconstructed out of Franzen’s own psyche, which is that of a smart, socially awkward loner. To make that connection is the cardinal sin of Deconstructionism, which again is its downside: It is of no use to think about a text if the author has no real experience with the sort of context he creates through his writing. A book about people is likely to be no good from a non-genius who avoids their presence in real life.

In the sick society we live in today, individuals who don’t like people think about ordinary things people do in strange ways, or think too much about strange things strange people do with ordinary things. Freedom and Franzen's last novel, The Corrections, contain scat scenes that well describe poop. Writing is about making choices, and Franzen thinks about poop enough to choose writing about it profusely. If the point is that poop is a very real part of ours lives every day, perhaps that should militate against describing it in every book.

In interviews, Franzen has talked about interpretations of his book like a Deconstructionist, as if he's not responsible for what it means, which is tactful for someone who writes a lot about poop.

Regardless of what Franzen intends by describing poop, his point the story does not impact on the larger point I would make. That a novel with scenes special because of their dilating on poop has become so popular is itself a striking symptom of decay. We apparently like it when authors paint bright pictures of shit. What kind of people look for bright pictures of shit?

Children, and sick adults.