November 18, 2010
Franzen vs Kakutani
I enjoy intellectual fights. Not thos simple debates but the real fights between intellectuals. I can think of VS Naipul and Salman Rushdie slamming other with open letters. I recall the late Edward Said's anger toward Fouad Ajami's political stance with whom he had ferocious public debates. The open letters and OpEds and rare ensuing public excuses entertain me. I think debates like these are healthy and conducive to cultural development.
I then heard about the strong animosity between a leading New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The rumor of their discord encouraged me to read Franzen's book "Freedom" first and then read her preview, and his response finally.
The most comical aspect of the whole debate is that she was praising him for Freedom and he was rejecting her praise because she had criticized him so harshly in the past for his memoirs entitled "The Discomfort Zone". "The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times” is what he said of Kakutani.
Jonathan Franzen masters English like few writers do. Granted the Indian school does. Salman Rushdie does. But Franzen's English isn't elegant and doesn't sound as outdated as Rushdie's does. Franzen's English is American, contemporary, and casual, yet it is rich and poetic.
I wish I carried a Webster dictionary in order to discover the meaning of some the words he uses. There is no necessity for this however, because his words are so accurately chosen that I can safely extrapolate their meaning: they stand for the exact idea he is expressing and describe the atmosphere to a delicate precision.
His sentences are games. Grammatical games with shows of dexterity and supleness. They make me smile throughout my reading. His storytelling is dense. Each scene, or plot unwinding is a short story in itself, replete with decorum, personality development and very often tense narrative construction. I can imagine Hopper's interiors and his lonely characters when I read. In this book, characters are constantly battling themselves, their addictions and their desires.
He paints American society as we think we know it and yet as we cannot express it: "all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was [to be] more miserable" (p.181). Americans have earned the privilege and the freedom to choose and they battle with these luxurious decisions on a daily basis. "L'embarras du choix" would say a Frenchman. Perhaps that freedom is what the title refers to.
Franzen writes with the same technique used to paint oil on canvas. He layers the narrative, one brushstroke at a time, and it gains depth as he adds one more complex color and creates a variant shade. I turn pages, slowly, with curiosity and enjoy the build up. I still cannot tell how he will construct the larger framework. He travels in time with such fluidity that regressing or advancing feel natural.
Now that I have immersed myself into Freedom with such pleasure, I have decided that I will soon read his earlier book, "The Corrections". Another book by Franzen for which Kakutani had little praise.