Thursday, September 30, 2010

Drably lyrical realism

James Lever on Franzen (LRB):
the book is, among other things, possibly the most lachrymose novel of modern times. There are, in its 560 pages, 26 separate instances of weeping, not counting the many blinked-back tears or suppressed sobs or ‘Tiny pearls of tear … clinging to her eyelashes’ (a formulation so heartfelt it is recycled from page 421 of The Corrections). Meanwhile the final results for our ensemble have come in: Republican go-getter Joey has seen the error of his ways and become an importer of ethically grown coffee. Jessica is a junior editor at a literary publishing house in Manhattan, excited to be publishing ‘an earnest young novelist’. Patty’s rotten sister Abigail has become a successful art-clown in Italy. Patty’s less rotten sister Veronica is an unappreciated but possibly genius-level painter. Patty works with kids; Walter, one supposes, with birds. Richard, ‘busy and successful’, has just completed ‘one of those avant-garde orchestral thingies for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’ and is currently working on scores for art-house movies. And pretty much everyone lives in New York. Now, that’s how life oughta be! At last the question ‘How to live?’, posed throughout the novel, has been answered: we should live like they do in Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s around now that it may dawn on the reader that Freedom has more in common with Richard’s country-tinged, Grammy-nominated middlebrow hit record than Franzen might have intended. This book is ‘Nameless Lake’.

Freedom, like Netherland, is a book I would presumably finish but that I cannot get excited about. Zadie Smith, writing about Netherland and Remainder a year or two ago, got at part of the drabness of "lyrical realism" of the McEwanesque sort, but, if the passages she quoted (or that Lever quotes from Franzen) really are the purplest at hand, what is surprising is how unlyrical, how lacking in "sharp tender shocks," the writing is, despite its elegance. Perhaps the problem with all these books is their quest for "relevance"; I wish there were more of "the sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea" or at least far less of "I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers." Or perhaps the reviewers are doing the book an injustice by picking out those bits.


Grobstein said...

The sluggish cream wound is a passable crash blossom as well.

Zed said...

Yeah one can have fun with the ambiguity in "wound." In this case it's one of Empson's ambiguities of the second kind -- the half-suppressed notion of the cream as making a gash in the tea acts at not-particularly-cross purposes with the main reading.

Zed said...

I suppose I don't really mean that. The two senses of "wound" are far enough from each other that you can't legitimately have the second reading "at the back of your mind" -- it's either at the front of your mind or not there at all.