This is probably the most impressive book so far in my Contemporary Literature Survey: I got to page 66 before giving up on it. My motivation for yielding was the usual: boredom; a consideration of the waste of my life which reading this novel constituted; an acceptance that, in spite of some better passages, there were still another 500 pages to go and I couldn’t envisage the circumstance which might lead to me reading them.
As a stylist, Franzen is a cut above the writers I’ve read so far. As a thinker, he is too. Unfortunately Franzen belongs to what I like to term the Theodore Dreiser school of American realism: for him realism consists in relating the trivial lives of dull grey everymen. What has after all happened in 66 pages: an old couple have come to New York to visit their son and daughter; they have been met at the airport by their son and they have gone back to his flat. A few other things have happened, it’s true – and there’s even been an interesting interlude (see below) – but in the main the aforegoing is the sum of it, described in slow and painful detail – detail which, in the end – particularly with reference to the old couple – led me to giving up on the work.
There were, however, some pages which made me believe at the time I might even persevere and read the book the whole way through. I had managed to get over the tedious opening passages (does Franzen even knowingly allude to the tediousness of his opening in the screenplay that our hero’s writing?), and suddenly found myself unaccustomly engaged by the offshoot of a backstory: our hero, whilst teaching literature at a university (what else would the hero of a contemporary American novel be doing?) – an older man, then – was having an affair with one of his students (what else would the hero of a contemporary American novel be doing?). Well, cliched as it is, it does still have an intrinsic interest – the precise sort of intrinsic interest, indeed, which isn’t to be found in the banal chatter of two old people discussing their everyday problems.
I know, who’d have thought two people having sex would be more interesting than two people discussing an armchair? But it’s more than that, I feel: it’s that Franzen has introduced in this episode what might even be described as a story, something with which the reader might be engaged, might even become enthralled. And perhaps, having tasted of the fine fruit, it was being offered once again the gruel with which we’d begun the meal which decided me to finally end it.
As I say, Franzen is often a fine stylist, but that doesn’t withhold him from the odd, what I shall call, Ted Hughes-moment, in which a fine piece of writing is marred by the intrusion of a single inapposite word. (If only I’d noted down a few examples on the way, eh? – this might even be a worthwhile review). He also has a good appreciation of the nature of humanity – which is a pleasant change to the other books in this series: the dull grey everyman who populate the book are at least well observed, even if this makes his account of them no more bearable.