Take a look, it’s in a bookPosted: September 4, 2012
Thanks to the Internet and the diminished attention span it has given me, I don’t read books with as much urgency and frequency as I used to. I read, but it’s mostly ephemeral articles about ephemeral things or memorable articles about memorable things, but either way they are not Books and part of me feels guilty about abandoning one of our most ancient forms of entertainment. Invisible Man is forever linked to hot summer mornings in our stuffy North Kingstown townhouse, my feet planted on some spot on the bedroom wall as I lay upside down reading the ‘Battle Royal’ scene and feeling my entire worldview shifting irreparably.
So this summer has been interesting.
I’ve bought more books than I ever have before in my entire life*, partly on the principle that I should start owning books that I profess to love and mostly because it’s too late to get a library card here. So I bought Invisible Man and A Visit from the Goon Squad at Busboys and Poets and I bought Freedom this past spring and I bought The Marriage Plot. And I bought Sag Harbor and I bought House of Mirth and I bought Uwem Akpa’s book of short stories when I walked into a used bookstore one Saturday.
As you can see, my literary tastes skew towards ‘The Big Literary Books of Two or Three Years ago.” That’s how I like it though. You read the book and then you read the fuss surrounding them all in one sitting and you can take it in coolly, rationally and see how it all turned out. Each of the books I bought I had wanted to read and I expected them to be good. I managed to get exactly 12/13 through each book before something else, namely the Internet, made me put the books down prematurely.
Then a curious thing happened yesterday.
My laptop charger, long on the fritz, finally gave up on me. For the past few months, I had to wave the cable around like a satellite antenna, searching for the right angle that would enable me to watch “A Different World” on Youtube without danger of my battery dying. It was a tricky, imprecise, game of chance but I made it work. I developed a strange intimacy with my laptop and its charger, the intimacy you get when you are forced to make do with a defective possession.
Last night I was watching “A Different World” and reading Ryan Lizza’s article on Obama and Clinton’s frenemyship when the laptop just up and died. I had moved it ever so slightly, and since the laptop had not been charged in weeks it just shut down. The orange light of the battery sign blinked ominously everytime I pressed the ‘Power’ button. I tried in vain to find the right angle for the charger to rumble to life but no dice. Faced with a whole evening of no Internet access, I decided to finally finish the books I had bought.
I started with The Marriage Plot. I had gone through an alarming amount of the book at O’Hare last weekend, where I had been stranded after attending my cousin’s wedding in in England (another blog post for another time). But I was still in the ‘Mitchell Grammaticus in India’ chapter so as soon as I got home I tossed the book aside. But yesterday night I powered through (by skipping a little) and finally finished the thing.
To quote Jenna Wortham , I didn’t love it. The last third lost its luster. There were some compelling parts no doubt, Eugenides’s depiction of manic depression was chilling and I finally get why everybody said Leonard Blankhead seemed very David Foster Wallacean even though Eugenides explicitly denied the connection. ( Really tho?) I was glad to have read it, though a little ashamed that I bought it and that it will contribute significantly to the weight of my suitcase when I travel this weekend.
Digging the literary realism kick The Marriage Plot got me on and also eager to read another 21st century rendition of a classic 19th century novel archetype, I decided to finish Freedom next. Again, this book was a casualty of Internet-access-after-long-day-of-travel and so it sat in my backpack, me never knowing if (spoiler) Patty and Walter were going to get back together.
I rolled my eyes at certain parts–Franzen has a predilection for using ‘Evangelical’ as an adjective for a certain kind of stupid person as if you can just tell that someone is ‘Evangelical’ by looking at them–note: you can’t. These very minor characters are always the weakest link in Franzen’s treasure trove of vivid, fully-realized personages. They are caricatures and not even funny ones.
And did I roll my eyes at “the assortment of unprivileged people filling the rear pews, more than a hundred in all, most of them black or Hispanic or otherwise ethnic, in every shape and size, wearing suits and dresses that seemed pretty clearly the best thing they owned and sitting with the patient dignity of people who had more regular experience with funeral than she did.”?
Why yes, Reader, I did.
I finished Freedom with the same vague, messy conclusion that Franzen is very good at certain parts of novel-writing and not so great, encroaching on bad, in others. Like I said before, he has an extraordinary gift for characters. You get the sense that he probably conceives of all his novel ideas, characters first, plot second. The Berglunds and their associates are even more defined and more nuanced than the Lamberts and the question of Pattty is a fascinating question indeed.
But Freedom is tied down in the same way that The Corrections was, by the need to connect the characters to the ‘issues of the day’ and be a Big Social Novel in the vein of Tolstoy or Dickens and all those other 19th century authors whose names I would know if I had listened to my intuition and majored in English. But in the same way that those novels occasionally suffered from lack of subtlety, didaticism and showboating, so to does Freedom. The moments where Walter starts going on about environmentalism and Joey takes an interest in the Iraq War are the moments where the wires and the cranes and the cranks start to show. Everybody talks about James Woods’s famous essay on hysterical realism when they talk about Franzen and I’m afraid that it still applies here.
Franzen is not nearly as bad as others (sadly White Teeth and even On Beauty are much worse) but he still does it and it is very irritating.
Let the characters breathe, man.
Still a Franzen novel is always worth reading and always an uncommon pleasure.
It would be remiss of me not to praise a book I thoroughly enjoyed this summer in the most pure, unadulterated way possible.
Sag Harbor could be considered somewhat of a minor book for its acclaimed author. But if I were to sit down and write a novel, Sag Harbor is exactly the kind of book I would like to write. It is essentially a coming of age tale about a boy named Benji and his summer escapades out in Sag Harbor (a real place, I’ve been told), where he chills with his other middle-class black homies in ’80s America, free from the New York City life, white people and the need to be doubly conscious. Very funny and fresh in both its subject matter and the way the author goes about writing about it, Sag Harbor is just a pleasure. Peep this line:
“A roller disco party was surely an artifact of the post-pinata, pre-intercourse era.”
“Driving with my father, it was potholes of double consciousness the whole way. There were only two things he would listen to on the radio: Easy Listening and Afrocentric Talk Radio. When a song came on that he didn’t like or stirred a feeling he didn’t want to have, he switched over to the turbulent rhetoric of the call-in show and when some knucklehead came on advocating some idea he found too cowardly or too much of a sellout, he switched back to the music.”
Or this, the art of the compound swear word:
“You could also preface things with a throat clearing, ‘You fuckin” as in ‘You fuckin” Cha-Ka from Land of the Lost lookin’ motherfucker’ … ‘You fuckin’ acted as a rhetorical pause, allowing the speaker a few seconds to place some splendid modifier out of the invective ether and giving the listener a chance to gird himself for the top notch put down/splendid imagery to follow.”
Whitehead captures boyhood adolescence perfectly or at least he seems to capture it perfectly, seeing as I am neither a boy nor an adolescence.
I’m not sure I have the stomach for Whitehead’s weightier stuff, certainly not for his zombie novel, but if this is Whitehead taking a breather, writing a ‘light’ novel, I’ll take it.
I also bough,t for the fantastic price of $5, a beautiful new paperback copy of The House of Mirth. I’ve been meaning to reread some Edith Wharton after those years, many years ago now, of finding her equally fascinating and flummoxing. Why are all of her heroines so beautiful? I kept wondering. I’m enjoying it now, appreciating all the 19th century colloquialisms I haven’t read in a while like ‘cutting a novel’ and ‘making love’ (flirting).
Also I originally wrote this post on a notepad in one sitting. Haven’t done that in years. Lack of Internet access can do wonders.
*After the first quarter of college, I pretty much stopped buying books for class. It was both a blessing and a curse.