The Book Club

A Male Novel Reader’s Guilty Pleasure

Dear Judith,

What a lovely rendering of Denise you gave in your last letter. Yes, “hunger” it is. I think that’s what I was getting at, in a kind of periphrastic 3-o’clock-in-the-morning way when I described her besetting sin as “Greed in its sensual variety.”

I came to this book ready to dislike it from the get-go. First off, the book has been hyped to such a point that I was amazed at how well it was put together. (This is a common reaction. This afternoon I was driving up 880 with a friend of mine who asked, “How’s the Franzen book?” “Superb,” I replied. “That’s too bad,” he said.) Second, I had just read Elmore Leonard’s tendentious, wrong, but un-get-out-of-your-headable essay on how to write, in which he warns that opening a novel with weather–which Franzen does–is Novice Fiction Writer Mistake No. 1. Third, I distrusted his pyrotechnic use of metaphor: “Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred.” Fourth, I detected sneering in the “obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines” in Alfred and Enid’s house.

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But then I got to Chip. Chip is a male novel reader’s guilty pleasure. He’s the sensitive, dipsomaniac (“… but women loved him”) failure who is the protagonist of the novel that is in every 40-year-old’s drawer. I expected him to dominate the novel and to serve as evidence that Franzen, for all his talents, was now three novels into his career and had failed to progress. But no. Chip is limned through such inventive means (the way he bumps into his agent’s husband, a great bore, while trying to shoplift a runny filet of salmon by hiding it in his underpants; or the way, at the Warren Street Journal “he sometimes felt insufficiently transgressive, as if his innermost self were still a nice Midwestern boy”) that his very stockness as a character served to set off Franzen’s virtuosity. And once it becomes clear that Chip is going to be spirited off to Lithuania, we know we’re in Balzac territory, or at least in the territory of the Grand Novelist’s Gesture that very few writers have the guts to attempt nowadays. I finished the first big Chip section eager to get back to him.

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If I then didn’t miss him when he disappeared to Lithuania for several hundred pages, it’s only because the intervening material was so arresting. I think Gary is the best-drawn of the children. Rare is it that a book’s ace shit gets such good lines as “What this stagnating economy needs, thought Federal Reserve Board Chairman Gary R. Lambert, is a massive infusion of Bombay Sapphire Gin.” And there’s something I’ve never seen before in the way he is trapped in an awful marriage. First, that “mixed grill” that Gary starts making for dinner–a responsibility which starts out somehow kind of fun but quickly turns humiliating: “He loved it and loved it and loved it and then all at once he didn’t.” Then, the way Franzen keeps subtly elaborating on Caroline’s wickedness, having her, for instance, ridicule to her children the Midwestern way Alfred and Enid say “wunnerful.”

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Yes, Franzen is in love with objects and situations and settings and paradoxes. But since his subject is a sterile suburbia (which is about the most important subject in America), those are the only means of characterization at his disposal. You can see how he makes use of them in outlining his minor characters. Caroline’s snotty, Lacey Davenportish mother, for instance: “Caroline’s mother, now seventy-six and in scarily good health, lived with her second husband in Laguna Beach and was a major benefactor of the California Democratic Party; she came east every April and bragged about not being ‘one of those old women’ who were obsessed with their grandkids.” Or the Meisner daughter in Vienna, to whom Denise pays one of those well-since-I’m-in-Europe visits. “Klaus,” she says to her husband, “you know the tiny, tiny little house my family used to live in … well, Denise’s parents were our neighbors.”

That strikes me at least as genuine feeling. But at this point, the most genuine feeling I myself have, as I sit here in the Oakland Airport Holiday Inn, is exhaustion and a desire to go to sleep. I’ve enjoyed reading this book with you. I fear you’ve got more of your misgivings onto the page than I have my enthusiasms, but I won’t be budged from my sense that this is a really one-of-a-kind book.

All best,
Chris

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