Friday, September 24, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

For the life of me, I can't formulate a coherent reading of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. There are plenty of reviews out there, so I was hoping to offer some kind of different perspective on the book, but find myself unable to corral them into anything. So, to the devil with corralling and let commence a parade of critical non-sequitors! These observations are probably best suited for those who have already read the book, since I don’t go into anything like context or summary, so I apologize for those who have yet to read it. (Past here, there be spoilers.)

1. I can't help associating Patty Berglund, the female lead in Freedom, with Mad Men's Betty Draper. And you know what? Betty Draper is more interesting and I'll tell you why. In Freedom, we get a couple hundred pages of Patty's diary, explaining the ins and outs of her personality, her childhood, her fantasies, and her disappointments. Betty, on the other hand, is still a mystery. Her future therefore seems more open and unpredictable, whereas Patty's psychology is so over-determined that there's really nothing left to be interested in.

2. Much of the coverage of Freedom seems to figure the book as somehow standing apart from most contemporary literary fiction (the Time cover would seem the most striking embodiment of this exceptionalist view). But I couldn't help but see the long line of Freedom's literary forebears: Henry James' The Golden Bowl, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Updike's Couples, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, James Salter's Light Years and on and on; the long trail of American novels about married couples of the ruling class (and the just under the ruling class) feels quite present here.

3. This reminds me of something one of my undergraduate professors, the great James Carothers, once told me: "I have never yet read an accurate portrayal of the silent life of a couple that has lived together for many years." My own reading experience has born this out as well, but the absence of any sustained effort on Franzen's part to show us how Patty and Walter were together during their good years empties their later struggles of much interest. (For the record, Prof. Carothers also said that he thought repetitive manual labor and excruciating physical pain were unrepresentable in prose. Always found this fascinating. And true.)

4. Even though Patty's "autobiography" takes up a significant part of the novel, I am reminded that we should not be fooled into thinking we know her any better than any of the other characters. In fact, I might argue that we know her less well. In literature, a character's direct composition (diary, letters, etc.) are actually further removed from their interiority than direct narration for one simple reason: they have control over their self-representation in these moments. A great example is Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. For most of the novel, we get Stephen Daedalus' story in the form of third-person omniscience. However, the last part of the novel is Stephen's diary, and we end up knowing less about what he's feeling and thinking for it.

5. With this in mind, you can see the trouble Franzen has with writing women. Patty's text (with a prose style that is remarkably similar to the rest of the novel) is really an end-around of having to write her as Franzen writes Richard, Walter, and Joey. And none of the other important female characters (Lalitha, Jessica, Connie, Carol) have passages in which Franzen explores their interiority. Even the history of Walter's family is strikingly patrilinear. It's somewhat difficult not to see Franzen's depiction of women here as somewhat akin to Richard's womanizing; they find women interesting and important, but distant and unknowable--with Patty, for both of them, the exception that demonstrates the rule.

6. Franzen's success as an essay writer in the years since The Corrections has, to my mind, had a deleterious effect on his fiction. There are simply too many essayistic moments in Freedom (close-reading the persona of Conor Oberst being perhaps the most glaring example) for my taste. His impulse seems to be to diagnose, rather than to portray, the world around him. The Berglunds are so overtly emblematic of a particular swath of American life that they, conversely, represent no one. Compare them to a literary couple like, say, Nicole and Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, and I think Franzen’s deductive portrayal which culls character from the zeitgeist is less effective than Fitzgerald’s inductive one, which achieves transcendence through specificity.

7. I am no longer really interested in this story. The domestic struggles of the well-off seem sufficiently well-trodden in popular culture. Frazen's strain to connect the Berglund discord to larger social issues seems to me to exemplify the barrenness of this particular milieu. Maybe there's something new and interesting to be said about it, but it has to be, you know, new and interesting.

8. To add my ballot to the voting on the meaning of the title: I think it's a canard. Like the fate of the Cerulean Warbler, freedom here is seen as an end in itself whose propagation and maintenance justifies a great deal of wrong-doing. In Walter's professional life, the warbler provides cover for huge crimes against the environment by corporate America. This situation is doubled in his son Joey's foray into defense-contracting, in which he profits mightily from the war in Iraq where "freedom" is the nominal casus belli. This association between the warbler and "freedom" is codified, perhaps even too overtly, on the cover of the American edition itself: the warbler and freedom stand nearly face to face.

9. Speaking of mirrors, what an amazing selection for Oprah. I've only read a dozen or so of the books she has selected, but I can't imagine there has been one that represents her viewership so directly. How many Patty Berglunds will read Freedom? And what will they see in it?

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Interview Swap

One of the really fine ideas coming out of Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an interview swap. We were randomly assigned a fellow book blogger to interview and asked to post the interview on our own site. 

My interviewer/interviewee is Adele from Persnickety Snark. She reads, reviews, writes about and realy immerses herself in the world of young adult literature. She's comprehensive, smart, funny, and honest---all things I think you'll see in the interview which begins now:

1. I'm going to start of selfishly here: give me three YA recommendations for someone who mostly reads literary fiction. What are the most interesting titles out there?

Some Girls Are (Courtney Summers - 2010) - reading this is like being hit in the gut with a baseball bat and then being dragged behind a speeding train.  Told from the perspective of a mean girl hench(wo)man on the outs from her hellish tribe it is a visceral tale of escalating cruelty.  Instead of being the victim, the protagonist keeps the fight going strong while grappling with the notion that redemption is not possible.

Jellicoe Road (Melina Marchetta - 2008) - complex structure meets exquisite characterisation in a deep and connective storyline. Also, there's a really hot guy in fatigues that you will come to love dearly.  This is my favourite YA title in the world and I am even more proud that it was written by a fellow Aussie.  It also won the biggest YA literary prize, the Michael L. Prinz Medal, last year

Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side (Beth Fantaskey - 2009) - a great alternative to Twilight.  Imagine if a teen vampire showed up and declared you were'd tell him he was full of crap and stab him with a pitchfork, right?  Hilarious antidote to the sparkly vampire nonsense.

2. I saw you were in New York for book-related happenings recently. What were your impressions of my fair city? Surprises? Likes or dislikes?

I am a country mouse.  I grew up in small towns in country Australia and have only started traveling the world this year.  New York was completely overwhelming in the best and worst sense.  So many people, so much noise, so much light and yet I could not stop grinning like a loon the entire time.   It was a surprise how lovely everyone was.  I was expecting Soup Nazis a-plenty but people were friendly and helpful.  I fell in love with the ceiling in Grand Central Station, the MET and wanted to sit overlooking the Bethesda Fountain forever.  I was rather enamoured with the bookstores (especially Books of Wonder - a children and YA literature store) after spending most of the year in Japan.  It's a wonderful place and I can't wait to return.

3. What do you think your blogging strengths are? What would you like to improve (or what do you actively avoid)?

I am unfailingly honest and give reasons for my opinions - not always done in the YA blogosphere.  I think my biggest strength is my discussion posts on various aspects of the young adult lit biz.  I receive the most feedback from them and I think they tow the line between snark, humour and an authentic, justified position on matters.

My biggest blog-fail is that I lurk.  I don't comment nearly enough and I do need to engage in the community more.  But in terms of my blog content...probably being more varied in the genres I review within YA.

4. How about a funny/interesting/sad story from your reading life?

A sad (as in pathetic) aspect of my reading history is that for a year or two in my teen years all I read were class assigned texts and Harlequin romance novels....judge away!

5. One question I've been thinking about on my blog of late is the difference between the way and amount men and women read. Some think this difference begins during childhood. You are a teacher and YA blogger: what do you make of this?

I am from a family divided by gender in terms of our reading.  The women read.  The men don't.  My mother modelled reading as part of our goodnight ritual and on a personal basis all throughout my childhood.  My sister reads frequently but I leave both of them for dead.  My dad hasn't read a book since 1967....which I find beyond comprehension.  I am not even taking creative licence on that -  he hasn't read a book since high school.  Frightening huh?  My brother reads sporadically - titles on cricket and war, mainly non-fiction.

So what I am trying to say is that all three of us were brought up the same way with the same influences and we ended up having similar reading habits depending on gender.  Women reading fiction with a bent towards more commercial titles and my brother preferring non-fiction, "blokey" reads like my grandfather (who does read).  I don't subscribe to that as a teacher though, I think there is a right book for just need to look.  But if you look at my family, you see some gender divides that I do witness in my wider sphere of friends, colleagues and students.

6. What do you think is the single most egregious misconception about YA literature?

That it is poorly written. 

There's badly written work in all areas of the literary world (coughNicholasSparkscough) so to discount teen directed titles as bad purely based on its intended audience is ignorant.  YA is no longer equatable with Sweet Valley High.  The rise in adults reading YA is evidence of great stories and great writing available for all. Teen titles are more tightly edited with a clipping pace and are far less likely to be self-indulgent and readers respond to that.

7. Toni Morrison once said that she is writing the books she wants to read but don't yet exist. If you could tell your favorite author what kind of book to write next, what would it be?
I wouldn't.  It would ruin that amazing moment when you read their upcoming title's blurb for the first time.  I like the surprise element.  One of my favourite authors Elizabeth Scott surprised me this year by writing a superb book about a teen suicide bomber (when she's primarily known for chick-lit).  I couldn't in my wildest dreams have imagined that for her.

8. Last one: what is the difference between being merely persnickety and being merely snarky?
What's the difference between the Queen and Perez Hilton?  :)

Many thanks to Adele for her answers (and questions). If you'd like to see the excellent questions she asked me (and my modest answers), she's got them up at her blog.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Giveaway

So, the Ape will be posting a few things in conjunction with Book Blogger Appreciation Week. First up, a two-volume Jeanette Winterson giveaway.

Winterson won the Whitbread Award for first fiction for Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a funny, sad, thinly-disguised account of her childhood and coming of age in a evangelical family in Northern England. So that's the first title.

The second is Winterson's The Stone Gods, a satrical novel about three people chosen to colonize a second earth but, due to a technical malfunction, end up returning to the past. The New York Times called the novel "Scary, beautiful, witty, and wistful by turn, dipping into the known past as it explores potential futures.

So if you'd like to be entered in the giveaway, please send us an email (readingape AT gmail DOT com) with your mailing address by Friday, September 17 (Sadly, we can only offer this to people in the US and Canada). We'll put the names in the hat to decide the winner.

You can check out a complete list of Book Blogger Appreciation Week giveaways here.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The the Desert

Amanda over at Desert Book Chick invited us to offer our further thoughts on reading and the gender gap over at her blog, and we were quite happy to oblige. So if you're interested in our current thinking on the matter/issue/brewhaha, go visit her blog and see what we wrote.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody

Reading Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death is somewhat like getting a ticket to DisneyWorld, then being told you must go on every ride, eat every kind of food, and see every show. On a Saturday. In August.

On such a visit, you will spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting while hot, tired, and subject to screaming children, and frazzled parents. You will remark on how crowded it is, how it is both an amazing and revolting place, how it can be strange, terrible, and sublime. How you're not sure if you'd go back, but you're oddly glad that you experienced it.

For The Four Fingers of Death, like DisneyWorld, is over-stuffed, indulgent, boring, dizzying, entertaining, and exaperating by turn. If only it just wasn't so long. Or maybe if the last 250 pages were different. Or if you had any sort of reasonable belief that it all adds up to anything. Or maybe if there was slightly less mechanized sex or perhaps fewer sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes. Like maybe zero sentient chimpanzees with Napoleon complexes.

But then there are moments where you forget the stench and noise and simply marvel at what's possible.

Also like at Disneyworld, the artificiality is part of the fun here. Most of The Four Fingers of Death is the 2025 novelization of a fictional 1960s B-movie, The Crawling Hand. The author of this novelization, Montrese Crandall, took the ob after winning a bet over a chess match with a mysterious baseball card fanatic; trust me, this was the most coherent part of the story.

This frame, of Crandall's artistic frustration, romantic loneliness, and unfulfilled ambition, provides Moody with the opportunity, in the main part of the work, to experiment, to indulge, and to create some of the more amazing set pieces you are likely to read, along with passages that are repetitive, inscrutable, and virtually unreadable.

The "plot" of the novel-within-the-novel is at once irrelevant and crucial. The actual story of a disastrous Mars mission that culminates in the introduction of a rampaging, diseased appendage (the titular "four fingers" are the remaining digits on the hand of one of the Mars astronauts) is not terribly engaging, but it gives Moody such a range of locations, cirumstances, characters, and ideas that it's hard to imagine any other story containing his perambulations.

The central experience of reading The Four Fingers of Death is to be amazed and aggravated in extreme proximity. For example, Moody gives entertaining, psychedelic passages like this:
Silence is a thing onto which meanings can be projected. In silence you might believe, with the proper balance of chemical reagents, that a radical depopulating of the desert landscape is called for, in which the white man and all of his ways, his preposterous medical clinics with their radiological devices, and his steroid-enhanced, lacrosse-playing ubermen, should be deforested, by whatever means there was for deforesting the whiteman.
Elsewhere, his inventions fail, and they fail in extended, spectacular fashion:
He couldn't feel one fucking thing in his leg, not one fucking thing; his leg felt like it wasn't even his own fucking leg, and when he looked down at the leg, or at the other leg, at the pair of legs, it was like they were not legs at all, like they were fucking lengths of PVC pipes or something. (This continues for another six pages.)
There are substantial chunks of gold here, but it requires a sturdy back to sift through all the slag. It is likely that only the intrepid will find the odyssey worthwhile, as The Four Fingers of Death brings Longfellow's "girl with the curl" to mind:
There was a little girl, who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead,
And when she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Is This What Gender Bias in Reading Looks Like?

Our last post about the Weiner/Picoult/New York Times fracas got us thinking about our own reading choices, as we are the breed of primate to read the kinds of books reviewed in The New York Times. If it's possible that the Grey Lady expresses some selection bias in its reviews, might it be possible that your humble, opposable-thumb sporting Ape has some bias in his reading selections?

Unfortunately, the short answer seems to be yes.

After we finish reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom sometime this weekend, The Ape will have read forty-five novels/short story collections this year, most of them new titles. Of these, only eight are by women. Even more startlingly, none of the women writers were of color.

We are not happy about this. It seems that if we reading according only to our taste, we overwhelming choose writers like us: white, male, and American (though we go out of our way to cover contemporary American writing, so that last one is not a surprise).

Some gravitation towards sameness is neither shocking nor undesirable, but the imbalance here is dismaying and is cause for some self-reflection. How did this happen and what is to be done about it?

Some of this is contingent: burning through all three of Stieg Larsson's books and and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy perhaps skewed the numbers. Still even last year, of the sixty-one novels/story collections we read, only fifteen were by women, somewhat better than this year, but still not a ratio we're comfortable with.

Perhaps as Picoult and Weiner charge, there is a bias in mainstream book-reviewing and that bias, paired with whatever our own biases are, materially affects the authors we read. Perhaps we've overlooked some serious, talented women for reasons that are not fully realized.

Perhaps the genre itself is skewed; perhaps it is dominated, for reasons either related or not to our own biases, by white men. Here are the female writers of American literary fiction with new books (either paperback or hardback) we've read this year: Julie Orringer, Lorrie Moore, Hilary Thayer Hamann, Amy Greene, Jennifer Egan, Aimee Bender, and Michelle Hoover. Who have we missed? Jane Smiley has a new book, but we've always been lukewarm on her. Is that the smoking gun, our relative lack of excitement for Jane Smiley?

For comparison's sake, here's a gender breakdown of The Millions' most anticipated books of 2010: forty-two total, eight by women--a ratio that seems oddly familiar. And yet not at all comforting.

We're going to thinking about this further, but are also interested to hear what others make of this. We're particularly interested in titles we might pick up to fill in whatever gaps we've missed from women writers over the past year.