It’s hard to write about Jonathan Franzen’s work without writing about Jonathan Franzen the Public Figure, an entity that seems to bear surprisingly little resemblance to the man himself. Now that his reputation as a crotchety jerk is all but set in stone, it’s easy to forget that Franzen’s original sin wasn’t dissing Twitter or calling Jennifer Weiner a hack but rather some rather tepid hand-wringing during an interview with Terry Gross about whether having an Oprah’s Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections could be construed as selling out. In the end—by which I mean by the end of his sentence—Franzen had decided that it didn’t, but that didn’t stop Oprah from disinviting him.1
The charges have shifted and morph over the years. More recently, Franzen has been assailed for being insufficiently grief-stricken at the death of his friend David Foster Wallace2 and, retroactively, for saying that his ambition for The Corrections was that it reach a male audience.4 You get the sense that these criticisms have less to do with Franzen than what he represents—an exceedingly privileged rich white male who nonetheless finds the world disappointing and unjust. Identity politics aside, I find it really hard to look at the facts of these claims and come away with any other conclusion than that Franzen has been frequently and repeatedly swift-boated. There’s part of me that wants to avoid it all, but with his new novel, Purity, Franzen seems be directly addressing—and quite possibly trolling—his critics. Here at last, he’s given them what they’ve been waiting for—a book that openly takes aim at millennial, feminism, and the necessity of secrecy in a world where privacy is becoming an ever more alien concept.
Slate’s Audio Book Club has posted an interesting discussion on Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” In addition to pointing out that Egan was inspired by The Sopranos and Marcel Proust, the reviewers wonder if “Goon Squad” is somehow structured like a Facebook page.
If you want to find out for yourself, the book is still available at Trade Paperbacks.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Jackie is a punk. Judy is runt. They both got disillusioned by the Information Ay-age.
Status: Hey ho, let’s go.
JENNIFER EGAN’S “GOON SQUAD” TRIED TO SOUR ME with opening chapters about a young New York neurotic and an aging record producer whose primary function seemed to be to reminisce about, i.e. name drop, old punk bands. I’m glad I persevered, though, because “Goon Squad” is an exceptional book about aging, identity and remembering. In subtext, the story is about much of what Proust wrote about (Egan quotes him at the opening of the book). In actual text, “Goon Squad” is loosely about music, which is so effective as a vehicle because 1) it is so readily nostalgic for so many people and 2) because it is the form of media that has gone through the most revolutionary and resisted changes as a result of digital technology, a struggle repeated by many of the people in the novel. Egan weaves together the colliding chronologies of a constellation of characters (can you tell the rum is working?) in different chapters, each written in their own distinct style. This is, at times, as obnoxious as it sounds; but for the most part it’s riveting and expertly crafted. Egan even managed to overcome my strong reluctance to predicted technologies of the near future. In a few of the chapters that spin her narrative forward into years that haven’t happened yet, she draws some not so unreasonable logical conclusions from today’s cutting edge gadgets, and doesn’t push the envelope too far in most of her imaginings. A Nine-Inch-Nails song from some uncertain year ahead is called “Ga Ga” in order to appeal to toddlers and infants who can now download songs with the push of button; this feels a little extreme. Yet, a chapter from the perspective of an adolescent girl in the 2020s is written in some variation of power point slides. Her mother, who we have met before, complains about this kind of writing, and that seems just about right.
Do you want to trade paperbacks?