Holy Crap, Franzen’s Been Eviscerated…

…in the NYTBR:

A shot at the form, one which resonates with your host: “‘The Discomfort Zone’ advertises itself, in a rather optimistic subtitle, as a ‘personal history,’ and was described during its pre-publication buildup as a ‘memoir’ — a mischaracterization that further disserves a genre that already suffers from too much approximate thinking and lack of discipline on the part of so many who indulge themselves in it. The fact that four of the six chapters here previously appeared in some form in The New Yorker confirms your suspicion that the author merely padded a bunch of pre-existing occasional pieces on a variety of subjects in order to produce the kind of life-story narrative that everyone seems to want to read right now.”

But here’s the real killshot: “This project is, however, fatally marred in Franzen’s nonfiction by a flaw that readers of Franzen’s fiction are already likely to be familiar with, which is the author’s total lack of humor — a quality without which, as every stand-up comedian knows, obsessive self-exposure is tedious rather than entertaining or edifying. It’s hard, indeed, not to be struck by the almost willful refusal to consider the humorous — and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful — in Franzen’s work: a body of writing in which every landscape is a landfill (all three of Franzen’s novels are, in fact, filled with surreally detailed descriptions of blighted cityscapes), every season is rainy. ‘There was something dreadful about springtime itself,’ the author recalls here, somewhat astonishingly, of a season in his childhood.”

Call a man anything, but when you call him humorless, you might as well call him inhuman. Which the reviewere actually does, though you need to read it in context to get at the sly way he does it: “Who, after all, wants the company of a character so self-involved he doesn’t even realize he’s not human?”

Thanks to my reader in Manhattan for the tip.


  1. Dorian Speed says

    I checked out “How to Be Alone” and have read a couple of the essays. I think they’re okay, but I don’t know that I understand why Franzen is supposed to be so great.

    Then again, I am just mad that Richard Russo didn’t win the 2001 National Book Award. Even though _Empire Falls_ isn’t my favorite Russo book, I think I probably like it better than _The Corrections_. Which, technically, I have now checked out twice without reading.

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Oh, the Corrections is good, all right – catches that late ’90s thing so so well.
    Where should I start with Russo?

  3. Dorian Speed says

    _Straight Man_ was the first Russo book I read, and I just reread it for the third time. It is so, so funny and also quite poignant. _Empire Falls_ is kind of bloated, but still enjoyable. I am now reading _The Risk Pool_ and I like it, but it’s not as light as _Straight Man_.

    It’s probably annoying to use _these_ _marks_ to indicate an underlined title, but I want to be proper.

    Have you read _Staggerford_ by John Hassler? _Straight Man_ is similar in tone to the first part of that novel, before it gets so darn sad.

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