The linear procession that is my weekly plow through the latest furrow of the Penny Press couldn't have started off worse this time around - not even with a 'short' story by Alice Munro: The New Yorker featured a long piece by Jonathan Franzen that was just about as appalling an exercise in narcissism as anything I've seen from somebody who doesn't run a book-blog. Franzen, of course, is the author of Freedom, the big gaseous novel that's going to win the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Zee-Magnee Prizes for Greatest Thing Ever Created By Anybody, Including When God Created the Universe. He's also one of the ground-zero survivors of the suicide of his friend and fellow author David Foster Wallace, and I understand and accept where that confluence leads. It's probably inevitable that some writing would result from it - after all, in such circumstances, even the least literary person in the world might be moved to put pen to paper. Franzen is not the least literary person in the world - he himself has commented many times on his apparently uncontrollable urge to, as he puts it, "narratize" himself - so something like this essay was probably going to happen at some point.
But I find myself asking the same question about this piece - a clumsy half-cloning of a literary appreciation of Robinson Crusoe (for which an expedition to Selkirk Island was enacted, of course - nobody reads at home anymore, silly!) and a reminiscence of a lost and troubled friend - that I ask about so much of Franzen's work: did it have to be so bad? Did it have to show so little thought, or rather, so much completely misdirected thought? I know Franzen would probably say it's his arch and awkward impulses that make him worth our time as a writer, but there's a difference between adopting an arch and awkward kitten and working full-time at the animal shelter.
Franzen's been writing things - fiction, nonfiction, and the pure self-absorption he and Wallace perfected for a whole new generation - for years; how could he not have seen how maladroit this piece would end up being, if he insisted on keeping the mechanical framework of the Defoe device? It's maddening to watch him churn out the requisite travel-essay paragraphs (it's so windy there!), the requisite lies (tobacco addicts always, always, always claim their vacations from the busy world were also vacations from tobacco, when if that's how addiction worked, nobody would be addicted), and the requisite posturing (litt'rary authorities are startled awake and hauled on stage, as though Franzen felt compelled to say, "hey, don't forget - I'm an incredible intellectual heavyweight, in addition to being this shy and sensitive guy") - especially maddening because behind all that stuff, he's actually got something to write about this time. I would have read a Daniel Defoe essay from him with interest, but yoking it so stubbornly like this to a very, very different kind of essay - more interesting, yes, but also more shameful to actually publish - is a beginner's mistake, or else the mistake of somebody who no longer has those 'first readers' every writer needs so badly.
So our author goes to Selkirk Island to read Robinson Crusoe - but also because he has to do something in the wake of his friend's suicide. As a result, neither the trivia nor the trauma is well-served, but the trauma is at least arresting ... and interestingly conflicted. I was surprised - and I shouldn't have been - by the sharpness of the anger in Franzen's writing about what Wallace did. And of course I was fascinated, who wouldn't be, by the new personal details Franzen reveals about Wallace's final year and downward spiral, the idea Franzen has that Wallace considered his suicide to be, in drug addict terms, "one last score" and an act of vengeance against both himself and his closest friends. But just because such details are fascinating doesn't mean I should have been reading them - the personal, wounded parts of this weird piece are the best writing Franzen's ever done, but they should have remained in his journal where they belong. I wish I could get this point through the Yaddo-addled brains of all our most lionized young writers: the reading public doesn't, in fact, need you to "narratize" every aspect of your lives - exercising more restraint and more narrative control would actually make you better writers.
Fortunately, that first course didn't ruin the meal. I moved on to the new Harper's, and once there I did what I now happily always do: I turned straight to the "New Books" column and settled in to read Zadie Smith. I don't know Smith, and I have no idea what she thinks of her new gig as Harper's fiction critic, but sometimes even Irish Catholics know when not to question a good thing, so I just sit back and enjoy the show. I've rhapsodized here before about Smith as a literary critic, and here that rhapsody is put to the worst test the love of any book critic can face: what do you do when a great critic writes about a book you just don't care about?
In this case, Smith writes about Edouard Levy's Suicide and Peter Stamm's Seven Years, and I couldn't care less about either book, which made the going tough. But even so, the wonderful, winning tone, the voice Smith is creating in these columns won me over (finding the right voice being, of course, essential to the long-term business of writing anything) - won me over to her column, that is, not to the pretentious pieces of poop she reviews in it this time around. Here's hoping next month she gorges herself on murder mysteries, or else takes in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon and tells us all about it. And in the meantime, this particular issue of Harper's has one other thing that's enormously worth your attention - no, not that laughably hideous cover illustration, which struck me as a bizarre practical joke until I remembered what century I live in ... no, Nicholson Baker's scintillating essay "Why I'm a Pacifist" is the non-Smith highlight of this issue, a refreshingly meaty essay where I'd expected to find yet more Franzen-style narcissism. It was so good it almost convinced me that some of its daffiest contentions just might be true.
But, much to my surprise, the real saving grace of my Penny Press trawling this time around came from a source I'd almost completely discounted: the good old Atlantic, whose slide into just another Beltway glossy has been decried here and elsewhere. Much to my dismay, I've come to associate the Atlantic with reading disappointment, and certainly a glance at this issue seemed to confirm that: a 'genius' issue without one true genius on display, a 'culture' issue as though that were a special, distant place (Selkirk Island, perhaps?) for which we should designate an isolated visit once in a while ... and that Editor's Note! Has 2011 yet seen so vertiginous a combination of arrogance and cringing? The Editors intend, I think, to offer some kind of justification for their decision to include to short stories in their 'culture' issue even though they've long since banished fiction from their ordinary (non-culture?) issues. Airy words are aired about the special qualities shared by the two stories in question, one by Stephen King, the other by Mary Morris, but I knew better than to get my hopes up, and I was right: the stories have a lot in common, beginning with the proudly-declared triviality of their origins and ending, I suppose, in how boring and awful they both are, but when the Editors describe them as "entertaining, interesting, and gloriously open," they're adding a whole lot of sawdust to the bread.
No, it wasn't the special 'cultural' offerings on hand that made the issue for me: it was the workhorse rear-end (...) of the thing that did the trick, as always. Once all the 'geniuses' are done being interviewed about how incredible they are, the real power-hitters come out, and we get three fantastic essays in a row. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the impossible: an essay about Malcolm X that I actually found interesting. Christopher Hitchens reassures me that his medical treatments must be going well, because he turns in a long and utterly beguiling essay on yet another subject that doesn't usually interest me at all: the poet Larkin and his various smutty doings. And best of all, towering over this week's Penny Press offerings, there's the mighty Benjamin Schwarz, writing about James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce - and in the process writing about yet another subject that doesn't interest me at all: Los Angeles. Only a whole lot of money could ever possibly induce me to visit Los Angeles again, and nothing on Earth could make me re-read Mildred Pierce - and yet there I was, eagerly lapping up every word Schwarz wrote about both, solely on the basis of how wonderful those words are:
Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers ("She had a talent for quiet flirtation," as Cain explained of Mildred's technique, "but found that it didn't pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.") He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce - the foundation of Los Angeles's service-oriented economy - not just absorbing but romantic.
As usual with this critic, I could go on quoting (Hitchens on Larkin is equally quotable), and reading this piece by him and that piece by Zadie Smith (and knowing that Sam Sacks is there, every week, over in the Wall Street Journal) reminded me yet again that the current state of heavyweight American book-criticism is in good hands. Even if they all occasionally write about books I wouldn't cross the street to read.