Archive for September, 2015

Franzen, Again (+ Two Movies Worth Seeing)

Monday, September 14th, 2015

I thought about not writing about the new Jonathan Franzen novel. I also thought about writing about it at length. I had the idea to pitch a piece called “I am a Feminist, and I Love Jonathan Franzen—Although Not Unequivocally.” But when I began the (inside-my-head) outlining process, I determined that the piece would run to book-length, since my response to Franzen is multiply layered and since he’s always writing and saying (very) problematic things that beg for a response. (Google “Jonathan Franzen Iraqi war orphan” and weep.) Even a recent phone chat re: Franzen with a friend (Hi, Sarah!) ran into the many tens of minutes.

So, here’s what I’ll say about Purity: It’s a fascinating read, but it doesn’t feel like more than the sum of its parts. Its parts are impressive and riveting and beautifully sentenced as per Franzen, but in the end, the emotional connection just isn’t there for me. It’s a convergent novel that doesn’t quite converge.

In The Corrections (solidly maintaining its status as my all-time favorite novel), the characters are so gorgeously and completely drawn that even when nearly everything they do feels problematic (Enid, Albert, Gary), I’m with them. The narration is bathed in compassion (while also finding plenty of space for irony), with insight after insight about family psychology raining down like a shower of illuminating diamonds. (And Franzen spends these diamonds so freely! So generously!) Plus, the structure is impeccably composed. Everything knits together deliciously at the end.

In Freedom, which I also think is a gargantuan accomplishment, Franzen is equally compassionate to his central characters; he dives equally deeply into their unique dilemmas. (He also manages to write about topics—obsessive college friendships between women that have the power to direct the course of a life!—that I had never seen written about before, at least in that way.) And while in some senses I feel that Freedom is the Vilette to The CorrectionsJane Erye (in other words, it’s the messier, more disheveled, less perfect—but perhaps more raw and alive—novel), when I recently read Freedom for the third or fourth time, I appreciated just how carefully constructed it is.

Purity . . . well. The parts are there, as I said. The flame of aliveness . . . isn’t. At least not to me and not on my first read. I find myself wishing that Franzen would choose another structure to work with, another way of writing a novel, that isn’t a convergent multinarrative. Stick with one character throughout? Tell it chronologically? Maybe don’t worry so much about sociopoliticocultural relevance? Because he has written this type of novel twice before (and maybe more than twice? I read Strong Motion, but too many years ago now), it’s starting to feel formulaic.

Two movies worth seeing:

1) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Beautiful, funny, warm, sad movie about teenagers and death and friendship and art. I wish we lived in a world where this movie, and not The Fault in Our Stars (rendered unwatchable past 20 minutes via painfully awkward script—and I liked the book fine!) was the teen movie about cancer that everyone saw. It’s so much more sensitive and delicate and aware. It’s also funny! Highly recommended.

2) Diary of a Teenage Girl: Darker and more disturbing than the preview (fwiw), and/but really, really good. Committed to realness in a way I love. Integrates art and animation in ways that feel just right. Portrays a teenager from her own point of view, without condescending. Looks at sexuality without the lens of moral judgment but instead the frame of personal experience—i.e., what does and does not feel okay to the person experiencing the sex. Plus, fantastic performances all around, but especially by Bel Powley.