The Likeability of Awkward
Franzen, to me, falls roughly in the category of comedians like Ricky Gervais and John Cleese. Reading his novels is a bit like watching an episode of "The Office", where David Brent makes one big social cockup after another. Or like when Basil, in "Fawlty Towers", goes into a spin and makes a big problem out of something that wasn´t even an issue before it came into contact with him. I sit in my sofa and want to look away, but I can´t, so I put up my hands to cover my face, but still look through my fingers. I talk to the screen, nonono, don´t go there, don´t do that, dooon´t...
That´s what it´s like for me to read Franzen, that´s what "The Corrections" was like, and "Freedom", too. He is so very clever at getting his characters into just that, yes: that dis-comfort zone, that each of us have been in for ourselves and will be in again. And, I laugh. Cringe and laugh. So yes, absolutely I think he does great comedy, though that isn´t how his writing is labeled.
In this book, he writes about his childhood in Webster Groves, Missouri, where he grew up as the youngest son of three. As a child, he identified with Snoopy, as if, being the youngest, he wasn´t really considered as human as the other members of his family. I suppose this early outsider position is a hotbed for a novelist in the making. And he continues to be a bit offside, a bit nerdy, a bit undiligent at most things that his father considers useful and formative. He should have been an engineer, of course (who shouldn´t have been that?), but instead he persists and studies German. It doesn´t surprise me that he knows his way around Goethe and Mann, having read his novels. And the way he tells the tales of his life makes it clear that just like with Flaubert, his characters are him. At least a bit of him. Or a large chunk of him.
Even on television, Franzen comes off as being rather awkward. He is not particularly likeable, and from that famous Oprah-incident and on, he has been gauche every time I have seen him. But it kind of adds to his writing, makes him more authentic, in my mind at least. It makes me like him more that he is a bit lacking in the charms department. He gets his work out there, is having great success, and makes a significant contribution to my reading, as well as other peoples.
And one thing that I keep thinking all through this read is, what does it cost to keep the past so alive? Particularly a past that is painful. Some writers are so great at writing about awkward stuff, they seem to remember the past in such detail, and I can´t help but think that it must take its toll on them. Of course, the artists who can, may be of great help to others, and I imagine there is great reward in this. I am, personally, a great believer in balancing one´s books and then closing them; moving on in life, looking forward and not dwell on the past. I just can´t imagine ever wanting to write anything as personal as this, myself.
If you haven´t read Franzen, if you think those novels seem lengthy and heavy, do read "The Discomfort Zone". It´s actually a great introduction to Franzen´s work. You will get an idea of where he gets his stuff and how he writes. I highly recommend him.