Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing Home

If he had been born eleven years later, I might’ve seen Jonathan Franzen across a football field on a brisk Thanksgiving morning. He would’ve been difficult to detect amongst the orange and black pompoms and face paint, but maybe the readable expression of distaste teasing his features would’ve distinguished him.

I’m being presumptive, but I don’t think Franzen attended the Webster Groves/Kirkwood High School Turkey Day Game in 1998, a yearly standoff between suburban rivals drawing generations of Statesmen and Pioneers. His fictional character, Martin Probst, did and took pleasuring in feeling both “anonymous and secure.” That’s not how I felt. I was adorned from waist to neck in red and white paint. I was the P and I knew where to stand, but, maybe like Franzen, I felt less certain about myself than my spirit.

I didn’t know that Jonathan Franzen grew up no more than ten miles from my parent’s home until a few years after I read The Corrections, a novel about a family in distress, for which he won the 2001 National Book Award. The book had come to me recommended and had gained an allure of controversy when Oprah Winfrey cut it from her cannon in response to the author’s disparagement of her club members. The story shifts its close third-person perspective between each uniquely funny and dependably tragic Lambert, cultivating enough entertainment and insight to make for an excellent read.

Franzen wasn’t much more than another impressive figure in a long lineup of writers whose work seems to inspire and dishearten my own ambitions in equal measure, until I read his first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City.

As is often the case when I’m bookshop browsing without a title in my sights, I bought the book because of its cover. There it was—that glorious monument that seems to overshadow all other aspects of our city’s identity: the Arch. Reading that novel was like discovering that the first eighteen years of my life had been secretly filmed, then spliced with visions of car bombs, civic unrest, surveillance and sex. It was awesome.

After Franzen finished reading from his most recent work, The Discomfort Zone, at the St. Louis County Library last Saturday, I asked him (nauseous with public speaking anxiety) if he thought the premise of his first novel, that an Indian woman could assume a politically powerful role as police chief of St. Louis City, was absurd. I wanted him to admit to a personally gratifying fantasy exploration or deep suspicions and elaborate theories regarding the St. Louis underworld. To my momentary disappointment, he said it was the former.

“Back then I was lucky enough to not know what I was doing, which makes it so much easier to write books. To not be able to see why you’re attracted to a subject.”

“It’s about somebody from the East going back to St. Louis and invading the place and trying to wrench some kind of story out of it.”

“I had a quiet childhood here in many ways. You know my parents did not hurt me. They had their problems as people, but they tried their best as parents and they were pretty good. And one of the reasons we were where we were was to protect me from anything really interesting. The whole premise of living at Webster Woods was—make sure nothing you would want to write a novel about will ever happen here.”

But as a setting and even a subject, St. Louis provided Franzen with a compelling framework, larger than his own relationship to the landscape of home. In the novel, he addresses the city’s disastrous succession from St. Louis Country and the brokering of power illustrated in a fictional real estate scandal that bears resemblance to a controversy embattling Northside neighborhoods today.

“I thought it was an interesting place and I thought it was, the city itself, a tragic city in many ways; that it had fallen harder, in a more humiliating fashion than a lot of other big American cities.”

The Discomfort Zone seems to have provided Franzen with an opportunity to again consider the world he grew up in without the posture and distance of fiction. The book riffs a bit oddly on his appreciation for the comic strip, Peanuts, and a consuming obsession with birding (as in he has identified 590 species of birds all over North America), but it does so with candor that is both ugly and stunning, funny and familiar.

The first line of the book, “There’d been a storm that evening in St. Louis,” and later moments like, “I grew up in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class,” resonate with me for obvious reasons, but I wonder how enthralling or relevant it feels for other readers. The issues of family, the writer’s favorite playing field, are probably universally stirring and the quality of his craft is enough reason to read.

Another library attendee on Saturday asked, “How does your family feel about all of this?” I don’t really like it when fiction writers are pushed to reveal connections between their work and their personal lives, but here it was appropriate.

“How do they feel? I think a certain resignation sets in at some point when you have a writer in the family. It’s like, okay, we’re never going to get that basement dry. And you just kind of learn to live with it. They’ve actually been wonderful.”

His brother, Bob, who has apparently campaigned for a cameo in the film version of The Corrections, has been a more tolerant sibling, Franzen said, than those of most writers who choose to dredge their personal histories for content. When sections of the novel first appeared in The New Yorker, Bob and other family members had to endure fact checkers clarifying the details of intimate and even humiliating experiences.

“There are certain aspects of the book, particularly the portrait of the parents that cuts sort of close to home. My dad had an illness related to what the main character, the father character, in The Corrections had. And I said [to Bob], ‘You know, you may hate the book. You may even hate me…’ on the phone to him one time and he interrupted me to say, ‘Hating you is not an option.’”

“And that’s actually one of the two or three nicest things anyone has ever said to me.”

St. Louis doesn’t seem to hate Jonathan Franzen either, despite some embarrassing portraits and his choice to live in New York City. At least the room I was sitting in with a hundred or more people appeared happy to claim him.

The Discomfort Zone is now available in paperback. If familial strife doesn’t appeal, Franzen also recommends the following novels: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë, The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, and Independent People by Halldor Laxness.

I’m attempting to form my own list of favorites in the “personal profile” section at the top of your screen. I love to know what people read, so I thought, in the spirit of contest, I would give my hardback copy of The Corrections (a collectable as it bears the now rescinded Oprah seal of approval) to the first person who posts a comment declaring a few of their favorites.

Let the fun begin.


ace said...

I think I have just have figured out how to respond to your blogs. You should send the gooey butter article to your Aunt Gail. That was her treat for her children and that is why I am always on a diet.

Keep up the great articles or blogs. You do need to have spell check so you do not embarass certian member of the family! Me!



Anonymous said...


I am a huge fan of "Cruddy", Mr. Franzen's "How to be Alone", "The Man in the Holocene", "The Plague", "Song of Soloman", "Mother Night", and the complete works of Borges and Faulkner.

Thank you for immortalizing my mother in cyberspace, you were an amazing friend for that weekend, as you have always been.


p.s....already have the corrections, thanks.

Edan said...

I already have The Corrections, too, but I can't help but share my favorite books: Self-Help: Stories by Lorrie Moore(and her other books too!); CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders; Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham; a bunch of stories by Alice Munro; Pnin and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Underworld by Don DeLillo; The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury...
I can't stop...

august said...

I believe you gave me both CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Handmaid's Tale (both on the previous post) and they hung out in my top tier for years.

But now I'm older and more angry so its Ayn Rand holding down the top two: Anthem and Fountainhead. With Jerry Rubin's Do It! in number three.

I already have The Corrections, but I've been too scared to read it.