Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Franzenstein Monster?

I walked past a bookshop today, filled with Freedom, the new novel by Jonathan Franzen.  On top of the book, with the pride of the Iwo Jima flag, flared a sign quoting Blake Morrison: For now, the only show in town is Jonathan Franzen....

I am sure London is big enough for two shows, but last night, Franzen's infamous spectacles were stolen from off his face, and briefly ransomed for £100,000 before being recovered after helicopters and frogmen searched near the Serpentine.  Someone has suggested this was the work of an over-imaginative PR.

Like a eunuch in a harem, I find myself utterly disinterested in this most marvellous, extraordinary book.  The idea of Freedom leaves me cold.  No, that is too mild.  It leaves me -273 degrees Celsius.  I think I may have literary exhaustion - I can no longer get it on with such things.

I know 100 brilliant gifted poets scattered around the world, each with a few books out, or one, that I enjoy reading.  I love poetry, and I appreciate it, too.  I thought I understand prose, the beauty of a great novel.  However, while I could see why The Sea was a work of near genius, I balk at Freedom.

Is it because it appears to be relentlessly materialist, in the Woolfian sense?  Is it because it appears to be a book that sets out to describe "what America is really like, now"?  I have two problems with that offer - one, I don't believe fiction actually is the best mechanism for depicting socio-political truth (if ever it was) and two, I don't care to be told what America is or was like, according to one middle-aged man.  Ho Hum.  I find Brazil, or North Korea, or Latvia, more fascinating, and Oman, and, indeed, New Zealand.  The world is a big place, and yet another tale about Americans grappling with their ideals and largesse and pop culture is so, well, 80s.

Perhaps this last grasp at a Great American Novel has come at a time when America is about to discover it is no longer great.  In Britain, that time was the 50s, and a poet, Larkin, caught the failing of the empire better than any novelist of the period.  I suspect there are American poets and singer-songwriters doing that now, better too - just as The Wire did.  Now, if someone persuades me that the verbal inventiveness and imaginative invention of Freedom is remarkable and transporting, I will make a beeline for it.  Otherwise, I have a 1,000 pages plus of Irish poetry to read, in the meantime.  And no, Eyewear didn't steal his glasses.
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