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« Cancer in a Can (Sujatha) | Main | Michael Sandel on markets and corruption (prasad) »

March 12, 2012

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I guess Mom didn't want to say "Narcissist."

Why is it unsettling? Seems like a reasonable substitute for 'You were always a strange one.'
I have never read any of his books before, but if he writes like this, he can be as eccentric or narcissistic as he wants, if you ask me.

Well, it's hard to understand wanting to tell your dying mother you'll do fine without her, or having that be part of a therapeutic conversation you'd write about. But apparently she took it okay...hard for me to get into the psyche of these beings. Or maybe she just had the empathy of a saint.

Narcissist probably, but I was struck especially by the lack of impulse control. People do think these things at inappropriate times (and to be sure, unless he's Norman Bates, probably he won't be a wreck in the medium term) but most would desist from blurting them out.

I know almost nothing about Franzen, except that he has lately been famous for saying provocative things. I am tempted to read the story Sujatha recommends. Franzen seems to me to be much like Richard Posner in a couple respects: bright, but blinkered in significant ways that render unsatisfying his accounts of life and the world, and also a poseur, more interested in perpetuating an edgy image of himself than of producing any ideas of value. Maybe the story will force me to adjust that gut feeling. Recall the Posner interview in New Yorker, reproduced here. On his mother:

When Posner grew more conservative (he thought of himself as a liberal until he was thirty or so), his mother was horrified. "We had terrible fights," he says. "I became really furious at her. See, she was one of these bright fools, my mother-quite a bright person, but very limited. The other thing that annoyed me about her was that I worried about her politics interfering with my career. Every time I got a government job, I always felt obligated to tell the authorities that I had this mother who had probably been a Communist. It was an annoying piece of baggage. Then eventually she became senile and forgot about politics and actually became very benign. Both Charlene and I breathed a sigh of relief." Looking back on his red-diaper childhood, Posner considers his parents hypocrites. "It was just talk," he says of their radicalism. "They wanted me to live the same conventional life that they lived."

What a silly worry, her politics interfering with his career. It seems clear, too, that Posner relishes the story of his mother being a Communist. Who wouldn't? But he pretends it was annoying baggage. And this infamous passage from the interview:

"I don't know if this is true of everybody;" Posner says, "but I loved my parents when I was growing up and they were really the sort of parents you should be grateful to-my mother gave me great cultural enrichment, and my father helped me buy our first house, so they were ideal parents. But my thoughts about them are dominated by their old age. I don't make allowances: when I think about them, there's no affection. Charlene thinks I'm a little bit unnatural about my family. But so many people have these decrepit, horrible old parents, and then they're so upset when they die at ninety; and regard it as a medical failure that the doctors didn't do this and didn't do that. My father was even annoyed when my mother died--he thought the doctors hadn't tended her carefully enough--though by the time she died she couldn't speak, she couldn't use her hands, she wasn't human. And it's not as if you had a cute animal with the same mental ability--when you see human beings like that, you don't think, Well, she's on the level of a chipmunk." Asked what he felt when both his parents had died, he looked puzzled, as though the question didn't make sense to him. "I don't have any feeling about it," he said.

I don't believe much of this at all. He's being evasive. To the extent that I do believe it, I think he's toying with his interlocutor, pretending that normal irrational responses to mortality are, by virtue of being irrational, strictly off-limits.

His mother was probably more okay to be done with him, at last. A very unpleasant fellow, it seems. Also, therapeutic candor is way overrated both in fiction as well as in real life, creativity and soul baring be damned.

"Well, it's hard to understand wanting to tell your dying mother you'll do fine without her, or having that be part of a therapeutic conversation you'd write about. But apparently she took it okay...hard for me to get into the psyche of these beings. Or maybe she just had the empathy of a saint."

Maybe his mother was worried about how he would do without her, and his telling her that he would do fine, was in effect the comfort that she wanted. Do I pick up a hint of some Aspergers, maybe, that his mother would be aware of, and hence her 'eccentric' comment?

Coming back a little late, but Franzen is a high IQ idiot with an impressive prose style. Totally without emotional intelligence, he is yet an acute observer and an adroit manipulator of readers. The writers I read for their prose style alone -- John Banville and his vanishing ilk -- write an awful lot better than Franzen. But I do not normally read for the experience of excellent prose -- though that's a good enough reason. I read to be made to care, to partake of a vision that is otherwise forbidden to me, and to know a unique and irreplaceable voice when I hear it. This is not what Franzen offers, for all his gifts, so I don't read him -- for now.

Unless she worried aloud he wouldn't outlast her -- in which case Mom is probably the formative Narcissist here -- I do consider it tone deaf of him to pop in on her death scene and make it about his own odds (and oddities.) Note I said tone deaf, not unfeeling. It's a given it's unfeeling, but it was also a "presentationally challenged" type of remark, like telling a former spouse or lover who's leaving you she has prepared you so well for happiness with the next woman that you are actually very cool with breaking up.

As they say about great writers who are also state-of-the-art jerks -- nothing matters but the work. And if you are a great writer -- like V.S. Naipaul, who is one deeply sickening man -- it's true. But we are talking about Jonathan Franzen. He may aspire to be a monster hipster, but he cannot manage to be a real monster. It's exactly what's wrong with this fiction, too.

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