Hidalga, Jesús Blanco. Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community: Narratives of Salvation. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Jonathan Franzen has written five novels, published a number of non-fiction collections, and is a regular contributor to periodicals such as Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker. He has won the National Book Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2010, Time magazine put him on its cover alongside the provocative declaration that he is the “Great American Novelist.” His novels are usually heralded with the fanfare reserved for Very Important Books. HBO held the option to develop The Corrections for TV for several years, and Showtime is currently working on bringing a twenty-episode adaptation of Purity, starring Daniel Craig, to the small screen. The actor, writer, and noted alumna of the U.S. version of The Office, Mindy Kaling has tweeted that “Jonathan Franzen can write so well I’m worried he’s going to die soon,” and Oprah selected two of his books for her highly influential Book Club. In light of the controversy surrounding Oprah’s subsequent deselection of The Corrections and Franzen’s own tendency to opine on any given topic, he has also acquired a reputation as something of a curmudgeon if not, at times, an all-out crank. His discomfort at The Corrections’ selection for Oprah’s Book Club centred around his stated desire to appeal to male readers who he felt would be put off by the giant corporate O on the book’s cover marking it out as a woman’s book. The list of things Jonathan Franzen hates regularly does the rounds of social media (which is also something that he hates). He is unquestionably an established figure in the popular literary culture of the United States.
Somewhat curiously then, considering his status as one of the United States’ most notorious contemporary writers, the body of literary criticism on Franzen’s work is relatively thin. Philip Weinstein’s 2015 monograph The Comedy of Rage is one of the few single-author studies of Franzen’s work along with Stephen Burn’s Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. Both are necessary contributions to a relatively barren field of criticism, but both books are also slightly hamstrung precisely by being the first attempts at sustained analysis of Franzen’s writing. Franzen may be a writer of note but it has been his fate to be overshadowed in academic circles by his erstwhile friend and rival David Foster Wallace when it comes to being the subject of sustained literary criticism. As with all writers who become the subject of study, a case has to be made to justify the value of that study. What that writer has to say and the importance of what they are saying has to be established and accepted within academe before critics can fully assess the problems in how the writer says it. I would argue that this is the case with Franzen’s work, certainly within academic circles: the case for his inclusion within any sort of canon is still being made.
With each of Franzen’s novels, however, a pattern has emerged of a decidedly narrow, middle-class world view that may have been shooting for irony but was often wide of the mark. Perhaps an unfortunate victim of timing, or perhaps the leader of this particular literary charge, Franzen has found himself on the receiving end of harsh criticism from some literary reviewers who have suggested that unless a writer is white, male, and named Jonathan, they are not likely to attract much attention (Pollitt). A backlash of sorts greeted Purity’s publication, which saw decidedly mixed reviews—raves in the usual literary circles, but profound and sustained questions about Franzen’s representation of women and class in others. In fairness to Franzen, he has acknowledged the automatic privilege granted to him simply by being a white man in the literary world, but the manner in which he does this can often serve to backfire, as with the declaration in Purity that there is “a plague of literary Jonathans” (207)—surely meant as humour or irony, but dangerously close to self-pity.
It is this idea of a pattern in Franzen’s writing that Jesús Blanco Hidalga positions as the centre of his analysis of all five of Franzen’s novels. As Weinstein also does in his book, Hidalga identifies a turning point in Franzen’s development as a writer and uses this as the hook upon which to hang his argument. Taking ideas of community and personal relationships as his starting point, Hidalga seeks to trace Franzen’s development from a writer with decidedly postmodern tendencies working in the same vein as DeLillo and Pynchon, to the Franzen we are familiar with now who is unapologetically concerned with social realism. Certainly, there is a clear break from Franzen’s two earliest novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion (both essentially Systems novels full of self-conscious trickery and big ideas about political and cultural structures), to the apparently more family-orientated domestic drama of The Corrections. At the core of all Franzen’s novels, however, is always some sense of a family unit or domestic centre. These are not always the traditional nuclear family unit, or even relatively functional relationships, but particularly in terms of The Corrections, the central question is not of global scale or social import but of smaller, personal issues such as whether “an outrageous Midwestern mother will get one last Christmas at home with her family” (Franzen, “On Autobiographical Fiction” 136). Freedom follows a similar path with the disintegration of a family unit sparking the novel’s action, while Purity takes an already broken family unit and uses this to drive its plot. Franzen writes domestic dramas, but the grand abstract nouns of their titles lend the novels an air of importance, suggesting that contained within their many hundreds of pages will be vital insight into the human condition.
What Hidalga suggests in his Preface is a “recurrent rhetorical strategy of ideological and psychological self-legitimation” can also be read as simple repetition, or less generously as a lack of imagination on Franzen’s part. For this reviewer, Franzen’s fiction does seem to tread the same ground, lacking the progression that Hidalga suggests is central to his decision to abandon postmodernism for a more realist style because the stories have essentially stayed the same. If one does not accept Hidalga’s premise from the beginning, then, it is difficult to accept much of what follows. That is not to say that there is not valuable insight into Franzen’s writing contained within this book, with the chapter on Freedom being particularly strong, but it becomes increasingly difficult to accept Hidalga’s reading unless one is also sympathetic to Franzen himself. It behoves the reviewer at this point to admit that while she is fascinated by Franzen, she is not sympathetic to him. However, surely the most worthwhile analysis is that which challenges one’s own readings, with passive agreement not always being the best outcome.
The book is arranged in chapters dedicated to each of Franzen’s novels in chronological order, following a detailed introduction in which Hidalga sets out his theoretical framework. The Introduction itself is quite dense and, in many ways, sets the tone for the rest of the analysis, which often tends to concentrate on extended discussions of Frederic Jameson, Lacan, Ulrich Beck, and others while leaving space for only brief direct analysis of the novels themselves. The chapters dedicated to Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City are particularly guilty of this, with Hidalga clearly revelling in the theoretical abstractions afforded by lengthy engagement with ideas of postmodernism and explaining how in his early novels Franzen wrote against his own personal inclination towards realism. It is in these early chapters that Hidalga’s idea of narratives of salvation are weakest. Hidalga’s reading of the final lines of Strong Motion in particular is questionable. The ambiguity of that novel’s ending is presented as “Louis and Renée are saved by their commitment to each other, by becoming a community of lovers, a world of two where, in spite of all the suffering truth can always be generated” (118). Hidalga refers to this scene throughout the monograph as a kind of happy ending, indicative of the growth Louis and Renée have experienced in the novel. The idea that romantic love saves Louis, or encourages some kind of maturity in him, is simply not true. He is one of Franzen’s most deeply problematic characters, immature, selfish, violent, obsessive, and prone to chronic self-pity. Renée asks Louis, “How can we ever live, if you’re not happy?” (507), and while what Louis finds inside himself “didn’t feel like a sorrow anymore” (508), neither is it happiness or contentment, or even salvation. Hidalga’s suggestion that Louis “lovingly dedicates himself to her care” (165) after Renée is shot elevates Louis to some kind of hero, sacrificing himself on the altar of love when it can just as easily be read as Louis punishing himself, wounding himself not out of love but compulsion, for his own actions that directly led to Renée being in the position to be attacked in the first place.
A curious omission from Hidalga’s analysis of Franzen’s oeuvre is a discussion of any depth of the troubling engagement Franzen has with matters of gender relations, representations of women, and feminism more broadly. There is a brief allusion to the problem of Franzen’s feminism in a brief passage in chapter 7, but these issues are so barely addressed in the book that the terms “gender” or “feminism” do not even warrant inclusion in its index. Considering the numerous discussions of “love relationships” throughout the text—and Hidalga’s assertion that characters such as Strong Motion’s Louis Holland, The Corrections’ Chip Lambert, and Freedom’s Walter Berglund all find salvation through their relationships with women—it is surprising then that the manner in which Franzen writes women characters and interprets feminism should be so roundly ignored. Hidalga begins an interesting examination of Franzen’s treatment of feminism, particularly his use of ecofeminism, but this does not expand beyond a brief paragraph. Quite rightly, Hidalga observes that Franzen employs elements of ecofeminism in how he equates women’s bodies with the physical landscape and nature, but I would argue that there is a cynicism in how Franzen does this which Hidalga leaves unchallenged. It is merely in service of the narrative, and ultimately in the case of Anabel in Purity only functions to make her an even more unlikeable, hysterical character with the result that the manner in which “she resorts to women’s status as social victims in her recurrent dialectical battles with Tom is unequivocally presented as unreasonable” (233). Hidalga also notes that Franzen “sought political legitimation and critical thrust in feminism” (233). Clearly, Hidalga can see the problems inherent in Franzen’s women characters, but to engage with this in more detail would undo the narrative of salvation which he seeks to establish, which goes some way to explaining Hidalga’s classification of Anabel’s depiction as “satire.” Hidalga is not the only critic who glosses over this characterisation of Anabel, with Philip Weinstein describing her troubled behaviour as “kookiness” (Weinstein 222). Franzen’s narratives of salvation are fundamentally gendered and uniformly heteronormative. More often than not, these women are set up as devices within the novels to act as antagonists for the stereotypically troubled middle-class white men who populate their pages.
One of the strongest sections of the book comes in the chapter on The Corrections when Hidalga engages directly with the deliberately and persistently limited scope that straight white male writers in the United States hold themselves to. Hidalga notes that “it seems clear that most contemporary white straight American writers, even those of radical persuasions, lack the knowledge and/or confidence to attempt description [sic] of social groups other than their own” (154). In speculating on the reasons for this, he suggests that heightened awareness of minorities makes these writers reluctant to engage with characters beyond their own experience for fear of inviting hostility. Hidalga observes the inevitable “restriction in both social point of view and discourse” that this approach imposes on Franzen’s fiction. This ultimately results in a retreat to the relative safety of the “more abstract […] the workings of an impregnable system” (154), as if that same system did not also impact, probably even more so, on the very social groups these writers choose to exclude from their fiction.
The final sections of the book lose focus somewhat. A brief six-page chapter follows the chapter on Freedom and reads as the original conclusion of the monograph. Of course, the risk any critic takes when producing a piece of analysis on a living, working writer is that they will publish something just as your own work is concluding. The sense with the epilogue, which doubles as a chapter on Purity, is that it was tacked on to take account of Franzen’s most recent publication, forced into a structure where it does not really fit. Certainly, the analysis of Purity feels rushed and nowhere near as developed and considered as the rest of the book. However, despite many points of disagreement for this reviewer, overall Jonathan Franzen and the Romance of Community is a welcome addition to the body of work on a significant writer. Hidalga presents some interesting and thought-provoking analysis of Franzen’s work and will surely encourage more detailed analysis and examination of a writer who excites and infuriates in equal measure.
Burn, Stephen. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. Continuum, 2008.
Franzen, Jonathan. “On Autobiographical Fiction.” Farther Away, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
—. Purity. Fourth Estate, 2015.
—. Strong Motion. Picador, 1992.
Pollitt, Katha. “Franzenfreude, Continued.” The Nation, 15 Sept. 2010, www.thenation.com/ article/franzenfreude-continued/
Weinstein, Philip. Jonathan Franzen: The Comedy of Rage. Bloomsbury, 2015.
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