Monday, October 9, 2006

Jonathan Franzen: Why Am I So Angry?


Jonathan Franzen might admit that he sometimes comes across as a man at odds with the world. The titles of his last two books, How To Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, are a clue. The first contained essays on the banality of mass culture, as well as the author’s reflections on his own accidental entry into this conflict, when his reservations about his novel, The Corrections, being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club ignited a row about elitism. Usually, in reports of this spat, Franzen is cast as the snob, which is not accurate: the snobs are those who question the merit of The Corrections on the basis that it is “soapy”, as if accessibility had no place in a literary novel.
On paper, Franzen is supremely confident, to an extent that sometimes overwhelms his sense of irony. In a grandstandingly vicious review, the New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani suggested that The Discomfort Zone offered an “odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed”. Franzen, not quite disguising his irritation, responds by calling Kakutani a “national embarrassment”.
If his writing is assured, he does seem to treat interviews as occasions on which he is a witness at his own trial. In the hour I spend with him, we move between three rooms. He is happiest squatting on the floor of an alcove in an eyrie of his Kensington hotel. “This is the kind of area that as a kid I just loved,” he says, blocking the door. “This little secret room.”
Kakutani’s criticisms are odd in the sense that they seem to misunderstand Franzen’s self-mocking tone. He is self-absorbed – this being the condition of the memoirist – but he is also his own toughest critic. Oddly, he balks when I suggest he has been hard on himself.
“Is that the impression you have?” he asks.
Yes, I say, or were you really that geeky?
“Um,” he says, now crestfallen. “I don’t know how to answer that question. When did you stop beating your wife? I didn’t make anything up.”
Fortunately, we get over this, and he explains that he is fond of writing – memoirs and fiction – in which there is moral scrutiny of the central character. “One of the great mysteries of my life is why I’m so angry. I know I had essentially good loving parents, great brothers; nobody was ever mean to me. There were no spectacular dysfunctions in the family. My health was good. Even in the worst periods of Seventh Grade I was not without friends. There were even more geeky and disdained 13-year-olds than I was. So why have I spent so much of my adult life so enraged?”
Much of Franzen’s anger was directed toward his parents. His father (who, like the father in The Corrections, developed Alzheimer’s) had a dismissive phrase, borne of Lutheranism, with which to undermine his children’s fun. He would shake his head and say, “One continuous round of pleasure”. The Protestant work ethic was deeply ingrained, as was the concept of delayed gratification, both of which were likely to cause friction in a family with three boys maturing around the time of flower power.
“It’s strange to be approaching the age my father was when I laid down my first memories of him. I can’t remember anything before he was nearly 50. I think in my own angry perfectionism, I’m recapitulating a lot of what made him such a harsh judge of other people; the feeling of ‘I’m working really hard to do a good job here, why can’t they just be competent?’ You feel dumb and innocent for caring so much about something that other people evidently don’t care very much about.”
At this point, a man pushes at the door. Franzen wedges himself in: “Is he going away?” He is not. We are soon involved in a negotiation with the man, who wants to use the computer. He is persuaded to leave, and we sit back on the floor like guilty teenagers.
This switching between adulthood and childhood is something Franzen mentions in his book, but it usually occurs the other way round, with the young Jonathan behaving like a 50 year-old for his parents. He has come to a different understanding of them. “It wasn’t their fault that I had to get away for 25 years. I now feel it was a misfortune that I came late in their life because I probably would have been ready to come home around the same age.
“I always felt that they were exceptionally strict, surveillant parents, yet when I went back to write these scenes, I kept asking myself, where were they? You walk in at six in the morning and there were no questions? My summers were utterly unstructured. My mom was a hospital volunteer and she would leave at 7.30 in the morning and be back at four, and I had day after day to myself. So now they seem like incredibly relaxed, confident, hands-off parents, even though at the time I thought they were … Gestapo.”
The impression Franzen gives of his childhood is that there was always another person he would rather have been, if only someone would give him permission.
“I still have that feeling! I feel morally and temperamentally and aesthetically constrained in innumerable ways.” He says he wishes he could churn out a half-baked book in six months and move on. But, “I couldn’t feel OK about something whose flaws I could see. I always used to think that if I could just care less about other people, life would be easier in so many ways. More casual sex. It’s never casual. It’s terrible! It’s a burden.
“So, what was the question?”
The question, really, is why someone who is so obviously discomfited by public exposure should devote his life to exposing himself? Franzen circles round this in a chapter which centres on an uncharacteristic incident of exhibitionism.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that the most shameful thing I ever did, was a seemingly innocuous moment where I pulled my pants down for the neighbourhood girls. That just haunted me for years. It was so deeply antithetical to my character, that I was 35, and I still felt shame about it, and it had never occurred to me to scrutinise that. It never occurred to me even to find it remarkable that that moment had such status in my imagination. That was how conflicted I was.
“The book is an implicit conversation about that problem. One is drawn to reading and writing out of a native furtiveness and a native need for privacy and yet the fundamental fact is you are blowing your cover every time – you’re broadcasting the most intimate things. That’s a little bit less of an issue in fiction: there, all you’re doing is unscrewing the cap off the top of your head and showing what your dreamlife is like. But in a memoir you’re showing what your constructed memories are like, and that’s even more exposing. And yet this was a more fond and satisfying book to write than anything I’ve ever done.
“People ask me: was it painful to write this book, did you have to overcome enormous resistance? I wish I could answer yes.”
There are limits to his exhibitionism. When I ask whether the woman he meets in the book is the same woman who wrote an essay in Granta about her relationship with an author like him (Envy, by Kathryn Chetkovich) he rolls his eyes and stares at me with the whites, eventually conceding that it is, and that he felt that having someone write about him “helped the karmic account”.
But, really, Franzen’s memoir-writing is not about exhibitionism. At their best, his essays trade information about himself in pursuit of a larger truth. His most recent piece, My Bird Problem, is ostensibly about twitching, but is really about the wrecking of the planet, with human dysfunction symbolised by the author’s failing marriage. We may never know what the former-Mrs Franzen makes of this. Franzen, though, finds himself on a scrubby wasteland in Florida, identifying with the peeps and plovers, “the brownish gray misfits on the beach.”
I tell him he seems to like birds more than humans. There is a five second pause. Then he says: “Smile when you say that, pardner.”