10 January 2017

Author Spotlight: Jonathan Franzen

Hmmmmm so this author spotlight won't be as gushy as the Joan Didion one, but I should say right now that Jonathan Franzen is my second favourite author and once Didion dies he will be my favourite living author.

The first book I ever read of his was a collection of essays titled How to be Alone (2002). I know I saw something on the Internet that made me take a mental note of this book ..  But I cannot remember what got me to take note of it in the first place and it is one of the saddest gaps in my memory that I have ...

Either way, thank God because finally I have a reason to live my life five years at a time until the new Franzen book is out. I love Jonathan Franzen HALF as much as he loves birds, which is saying I love him to an unhealthy extent:

"To see a king penguin in the wild seemed to me, in itself, sufficient reason not only to have made the journey; it seemed reason enough to have been born on this planet. Admittedly, I love birds." - The End of the End of the World 

I feel this way about books in general but a little more so for his.

The order of each "review" will be from oldest book published to newest.

1. The Twenty-Seventh City (1988)

This was the last book of Franzen's I read before Purity (2015) and The Kraus Project (2013) came out. I remember how completely different it seemed from all his other books. Whenever I try to describe it to someone I just say it's "plot heavy" and reads sort of like a crime thriller? I mean there is an adult kidnapping, so... and the police are corrupt.

The problem with doing this particular author spotlight is that Franzen's books are all soooo big (always like ~500 pages +) whereas Didion writes these tiny, digestible ~200 page books that I can easily ready over and over again. So it's harder for me to remember what I liked / disliked about a book I read five years ago, but then it's been nice because I've been able to skim through each book and check out the quotations I really liked / marked off. LIKE THIS GEM:

“There had been nights, in every year of their marriage, when Barbara had waked him up and told him she was scared and couldn’t sleep. Her voice would be low and thick. ‘I’ve got to know when it’s coming. I’ve got to. I can’t stand it.’ Then he’d held her, his fearless wife, in his arms. He’d loved her, because through the skin and bone of her back he could feel her heart beating, and he felt sorry. ‘I respect you, Martin.’ That was the point. He respected her, thought they agreed. That they were modern only to the extent of not being vitalists, of facing the future and hoping that if love was organic then it could be synthesized out of respect, out of the memory of being in love, out of pity, out of familiarity and physical attraction and the bond of the daughter they both loved as parents.” 

Man, such a great line. As someone whose life seems to be dictated by fucking torturous memories this really crushes my heart to read. Didion's husband John Gregory Dunne used to always say, "here comes another shard of memory." How fitting. I don't know ... this just seems like exactly what it is to be in a long-term relationship.

*... also really trying not to make this just another post about Joan Didion, the love of my life.

My friend Stefan always said that he had such a hard time reading Franzen, particularly Freedom, because the sentiments are so painfully "real." For me, the best thing about Franzen has always been that what happens to his characters always seems VERY real. I don't know how to explain it other than it's like the opposite of reading Ernest Hemingway where you think it somehow makes you more interesting to cheat on your girlfriend/boyfriend ... You read Franzen and see the affairs actually just make you more miserable and a shitty person.

ANYWAYS, The Twenty-Seventh City is unreal in that most of the people reading this (i.e. Meg and my mom) are not likely to get kidnapped. Here's another quotation I think about all the time:

"She pocketed the slip of paper. With her index finger she touched the warm blood streaming from the woman’s nose. ‘Stand aside,’ she told the reporters. Fresh officers were arriving from every direction. They pushed back the crowd, and no one noticed when Jammu, turning to confer with them, put her bleeding finger in her mouth and drew it out clean"

This would look great in film. This book is far from a favourite but it definitely has one of the best endings.

2. Strong Motion (1992)

Man so, while Freedom is my favourite Franzen book (and second all-time favourite fiction book ever), this is my second favourite Franzen book. The only reason Freedom beats it is because I have a disturbed emotional connection to the book that maybe Stefan can explain to you.

This book made me want to quit linguistics and become a seismologist. There is a lot of detail about earthquakes in the book because they play a very prominent part in the plot. Franzen knows a lot about earthquakes because he worked in a seismology lab. I learned this fun fact in his memoir The Discomfort Zone. Meg and I love any book where the main character is pursuing a PhD or is a researcher .. we love to become "experts" on random topics that we've read 200 to 500 pages on.

I don't want to get ahead of my self, but in Farther Away there is a great essay called "On Autobiographical Fiction" where he talks about how the ending of Strong Motion is so clearly an attempt at trying to fix his shitty first marriage. I remember reading the ending and thinking "wow what a change of events for this couple" before I read the essay. He wrote this of the characters in Strong Motion: "Looking back, although I'm still proud of that novel, I can now see the ways in which its ending was deformed by my wishful thinking about my marriage: by my loyalty." I don't know, this somehow makes me like the book even more. I'll deform anything if it gets me through another day.

I also want to finish off that quotation even though I think it sort of cheapens the sentiment because it's so funny: "And it only made me feel guiltier that my wife didn't see it this way herself. She once claimed, memorably, that I had stolen from her soul to write it. She also asked me, fairly enough, why my main female characters kept getting killed or severely wounded by gunfire."

Laugh out loud, eh?

I read this book when I was at least five years younger than I am now. Below is a quotation I still always think about when I think about this book, but I used to love this line in a way that now makes me uncomfortable. Anyways, here it is first before I go into more detail:

“’She knows I’m not one of those women who think there’s nothing better in the world than having a child like her, and so of course she doesn’t like me why should she. And there’s this little scene where she won’t come near me, and I hate her and she hates me, and the reason is that I’m more like her than I’m like any of the four parents, and she knows it.’ She nodded positively. ‘I’m almost thirty years old, and I’m more like her than I am like them. And it’s one thing to be three years old and be a child, but to be me and still be so selfconscious …” 

I used to think it made me more interesting that I don't really want to have kids but it doesn't. Choosing to have children or not to have children are equally interesting and I was just a bratty loser. This is a line in a book that would never stand out to me if I read it today, but I think there is some value in including what I once thought was important enough to scribble a star next too.

Here is my last favourite quotation from this book:

“It’s much wiser to live rationally, as a machine does. To maintain that what is real about the flavour of cinnamon is its informational content: it tells your brain – and this by sheer chemical accident, since cinnamon is non-nutritive – ‘eat me, I am good for you.’ It’s absolutely wiser to laugh at the person who tells you that without your subjective experience of cinnamon you would have hanged yourself at the age of thirteen, and that without your subjective experience of the smell of melting snow your attitude towards your mother or your wife or your daughter would be no more than ‘How can I make her give me what I want?’ And as some people cannot taste, and as the leader of a nation of the color-blind lives in his black Berlin or gray Tokyo or White House and sneers at those who say they have feelings about the color blue, you must learn to sneer at those who have been in the mountains and say they’ve felt the presence of an eternal God, and to reject any conclusions they draw from this experience.” 

I like it because it makes me think that maybe guys don't have subjective experience ... it would explain a lot ... like why they are so horrible and why I can't get one to ever go to Cinnabon with me.

3. The Corrections (2001)

This was the second Franzen book I ever read and the first of his fiction. If you followed me on twitter three years ago you may remember my live tweeting both my ecstatic discovery that they were making an HBO miniseries on The Corrections and then my level-five meltdown at discovering it was cancelled in pre-production.

The reason I was so pissed is because I SWEAR TO GOD I practically handpicked the director and actors they used... After watching Greenberg and listening to Noah Baumbach talk about how he wanted to make a movie that closely resembled a novel I thought this man should adapt a Franzen book. AND HE WAS CHOSEN.

I also thought Maggie Gyllenhaal would be perfectly cast as Denise because of her role in Stranger Than Fiction and Ewan McGregor as Chip because he is hot the way I imagined Chip to be.

This is also the book that made him pretty famous for refusing to go on Oprah's show because he was pissed she picked his book for her bookclub ... Meg and I can only dream of that kind of fame and honestly any author would probably be pissed we "reviewed" them.

"He'd lost track of what he wanted, and since who a person was was what a person wanted, you could say that he'd lost track of himself.” 

I really, really want to re-read this book ... specifically because there is a small subplot about revenge that I am FASCINATED by. Essentially two main characters meet this other couple while on a cruise and learn that their daughter was tortured / murdered by one of her patients (she was a psychiatrist). And the mother describes how she needed to satisfy her revenge but nothing worked. Even after he was found guilty and sentenced to death (I can't remember what state this happened in) she wasn't satisfied. She said she used to draw these violent pictures of him and still it couldn't help her.

Yeah, super interested in revenge.

Noah Baumbach on set with Ben Stiller for Greenberg

This is my other favourite quotation. It has been so so long since I've read this book and I haven't made any notes on my computer or in the book itself for passages I really loved. But I always think of this one and was able to track it down on GoodReads.com

“Earlier in the day, while killing some hours by circling in blue ballpoint ink every uppercase M in the front section of a month-old New York Times, Chip had concluded that he was behaving like a depressed person. Now, as his telephone began to ring, it occurred to him that a depressed person ought to continue staring at the TV and ignore the ringing — ought to light another cigarette and, with no trace of emotional affect, watch another cartoon while his machine took whoever’s message. That his impulse, instead, was to jump to his feet and answer the phone — that he could so casually betray the arduous wasting of a day — cast doubt on the authenticity of his suffering. He felt as if he lacked the ability to lose all volition and connection with reality the way depressed people did in books and movies. It seemed to him, as he silenced the TV and hurried into his kitchen, that he was failing even at the miserable task of falling properly apart.” 

My problems are like Chip's.

4. How to Be Alone (2002)

God, my first Franzen book ever. I remember my mom saying "nice" in a disgusted tone when she saw this title.

The first essay is one of his all-time bests. You also just see how autobiographical fiction is for Franzen as some of these exact events happen in The Corrections. The essay is called "My Father's Brain" and is about his dad's Alzheimer's diagnosis. Here is my favourite passage:

“All memories, the neuroscientists say, are actually memories of memory, but usually they don't feel that way. Here’s one that does. I remember remembering: my father in bed, my mother sitting beside it, me standing near the door. We’ve been having an anguished family conversation, possibly about where to move my father after his discharge from the hospital. It’s a conversation that my father, to the slight extent that he can follow it, is hating. Finally he cries out with passionate emphasis, as if he’s had enough of all the nonsense, ‘I have ALWAYS loved your mother. ALWAYS.’ And my mother buries her face in her hands and sobs.” 

This book also had a great essay on Paula Fox's 1970 novel Desperate Characters about a women who gets bit on the hand by a feral cat and it ends up destroying her marriage. Amazing essay, amazing book. What else is there to say?

This book of essays is essentially a love letter to the novel - Franzen's favourite thing. He is so scared people will abandon fiction and honestly I think Franzen is one of the hardest working bastards to keep the novel alive and well. Just my idiotic, moron opinion.

Other enjoyable essays include: "Lost in the Mail" about a postal office strike, and "Sifting the Ashes," an essay for anyone who smokes or used to smoke.

5. The Discomfort Zone (2006)

Can hardly remember reading this book but I remember him talking A LOT about Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz. I always thought my dad might be interested in this book because Franzen and him were born in the exact same year.

We get a little bit of detail about "the Californian," or the woman he has been with since he divorced his wife.

He studied German literature and studied abroad so the man is fluent in German.

I wouldn't read this unless you feel you need to read every published work of Franzen's like I do.

6. Freedom (2010)

Oh God, Freedom ... 

It's weird because this is my favourite of all Franzen's work but I find I want to talk about it the least .. I can't talk about this book without getting into some very personal details about my own life. Anyways, here is a favourite passage that could actually make me cry right now if I read it out loud:

“He wasn’t nice to me”, she said through tears. “And you’re the opposite of that. And I so, so, so need the opposite of that right now. Can you please be nice?”
“I can be nice,” he said, stroking her head.
“I swear you won’t be sorry.”
 These were exactly her words, in the autobiographer’s sorry recollection. 

7. Father Away (2012)

This is such a beautiful collection of essays because a lot of them deal with the death of David Foster Wallace who was a close friend to Franzen. There isn't a single person in my life that I haven't told this story to: Wallace once took a copy of one of his book's of Franzen's shelf and drew a picture of a penis on it that took up the entire page. He then signed his name and wrote "100% scaled to size." Franzen shares this story in one of the essays and I honestly think it is the best way to summarize Wallace and their friendship. It is so so so so sooooooo beautiful.

Obviously I already mentioned how much I am obsessed with the essay "On Autobiographical Fiction." It reminds me of John Gregory Dunne's friend who always said he starts working on his memoirs and once he starts lying he knows he has found his idea for a novel.

There is also an incredible essay about how Franzen hates to say I love you ... or more how he has difficulty saying it, especially on the phone. It's called "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

8. The Kraus Project (2013)

The only thing I took away from this book was that Franzen LOVES the Talking Heads.

There was also this little passage I liked but it wasn't Franzen's words: “God will pardon me, that’s his job’ according to one witness, this was Heine’s deathbed response to the question: How do things stand with you and God?”

9. Purity (2015)

I am not going to go into too much detail about Purity because I have already reviewed it for this blog. I am also exhausted from writing so much garbage about his other eight books which I love so so dearly.

I will at least list two favourite passages:

“I have often wondered what the prey is feeling when it is captured. Often it seems to become completely still in the predator’s jaws, as if it feels no pain. As if nature, at the very end, shows mercy for it.” 

“Tom’s theory of why human beings had yet to receive any message from extraterrestrial intelligences was that all civilizations, without exception, blew themselves up almost as soon as they were able to get a message out, never lasting more than a few decades in a galaxy whose age was billions (…)” 


OK, this is incredibly long and incredibly shitty. I know at least that Meg has read through this entire thing and that's more than enough for me.


  1. Not shitty, this is wonderful! I'm about to embark on my second annual "Franzen in February project over on my blog and I'll link to this... I have only read his big novels + The Discomfort Zone, but I'm going to start a chronological read thru of everything.

    1. Thanks for your comment Laura! And for wanting to link us in on your Franzen in February post :) I've been wanting to reread The Corrections so badly. I'd love to write a guest post for it, let me know if you're interested. Thanks again for reading!