01092013: Bye, Franzen; and Proust, still

01092013

Typical: After smugly announcing my rare streak of dutiful blogging, I all but fall off the face of the earth. Blame, if you please, the National Library of the Philippines—went there for the first time last Monday, and then again yesterday, for rather yummy work. (I’ll cease mention of the NatLib for now, because then I won’t be able to control a harangue on the state of reading in my country, how shoddily we treat our books and the institutions that care for them, and basically: my resignation. Bah, humbug.)

Anyway. Since I last checked in, I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone—his personal history, the cover claims. (Why not call it essays? Or a memoir? Because Franzen is at pains to show you what a cool cat he is, that’s why.) Franzen’s a different animal here, is all I can say—or, perhaps more aptly: I come to strange realizations about the big grump I’ve always loved. I was drawn to The Discomfort Zone because he can be so incisive about his family [see his other essays in How to Be Alone and in Farther Away, which I read and enjoyed in last year’s blog-coma] and, consequently, himself; that is, I saw The Discomfort Zone as a back door into The Corrections and partly into Freedom. This is Franzen, I told myself, unadorned—no excuse of fiction to cover it up. This is, perhaps, the curmudgeon explained, if obliquely. (Why do you read memoirs, Sasha?)

Reading The Discomfort Zone, however, I’m reminded of how much I have always hated the man’s digressions. In The Corrections, it was Lithuanian shenanigans; in Freedom, it was the goddamned environment and the frakking birds everywhere. I understand now, however, that this is how Franzen’s mind works: Franzen, I’ve found, shies away from an indulgent narrative about families—about his family, here in particular. Snidely, I think: His essays need to have reach—they shouldn’t only be about the Franzens. And so: Family dynamics should naturally draw on Snoopy and its creator. An awkward adolescence—too enlightening, really: who knew Franzen was such a big dorkus?—dignified by an examination of the youth group he belonged to. Selling the house his mother had spent nearly a lifetime to build—a house full, no doubt, of his mother’s disappoints—should lead to a dissection of real estate in America. And, goddammit, troubles with his wife should veer into bird-watching in them good ol’ United States.

Perhaps he’s living up to that irritating moniker, “a personal history”—that this wasn’t indulgent and navel-gazing, that this wasn’t a book of essays that focused merely on one’s self. This was broad; this tackled Big Issues. But come on, Jon: Your family is the story, your patent uncoolness is the story, your heartaches and your disappointments are the story. Stop trying to distract me with ducks, dammit. I loved him best when he let go, when he so baldly talked about what made him tick. I loved it when he was earnest, if clumsy: I’ve always maintained that Franzen possesses such heart, all the better because it is so unexpected—and it’s no different here. More of that, please.

A tiny voice in my head sneers that this is just about what interests me. I tell that tiny voice that it is mostly right: I wanted a more personal Franzen—I found that in How to Be Alone, and I found that in about one and a half essays in The Discomfort Zone. What these have in common, aside from the family as touchstone: Language and literature, the wielding and the imbibing of. I will argue, though, that those remain personal. That is: I found a more personal Franzen than what we normally see and read. In much the same way I can’t seem to sever my private life from my reading life when I blab here, Franzen assures me that the books one devours and the life one tries so very hard to lead are intricately, if irrevocably, connected. So, you know: More of that, please.

* * *

I’ve also been reading Swann’s Way—there was one terrifying day that I’d left Franzen in the house, and I had to swallow idiotic shame at reading Proust on the fucking train to work (remember, dearest: There are no reading pretensions in this country, Sasha.) I’ve been reading Swann’s Way, but I think the initial fascination is waning: See, I just reached his first taste of tea-soaked madeleine this morning on the train (I owned up to Proust-reading fast, look!)—and I giggled. Not amusement, mind you, but I-am-laughing-at-this-silliness. I couldn’t banish the juvenile in me going: Hurhur, shrooms. So, Proust must be set aside, if only for a couple of days. Just to get over the giggles.

____

lar-button-finalPSA: So I finally read The Discomfort Zone—after years of it languishing at the foot of TBR Mountain as part of Iris and Ana’s Long-Awaited Reads Month. I’m not sorry it didn’t work out; then again, I’m not even certain if it really didn’t work out at all. Hm. [Next up for #LARMonth: I’ve always wanted to read Slaughterhouse-Five, and I really need to have some James Salter swimming in my system. Ye have been warned.]

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8 comments

  1. “Franzen assures me that the books one devours and the life one tries so very hard to lead are intricately, if irrevocably, connected.” Yep: my blog is nothing if not a testament to that. I’m really glad LAR Month gave you a chance to remove a long-standing title from the TBR pile, even if it wasn’t a complete success. That’s what it’s for, after all :P Curious to hear your thoughts on Vonnegut! I adored Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s been so many years.

    1. You and Iris have made sure that January’s a great month for reading–if not to assuage one’s guilt about all the unread books in one’s shelves. I can’t not say it again: Thank you, guys!

  2. severalfourmany · · Reply

    “I’ve also been reading Swann’s Way—there was one terrifying day that I’d left Franzen in the house, and I had to swallow idiotic shame at reading Proust on the fucking train to work”

    Not sure I understand this. I can’t figure out if there is some strange cultural difference I don’t get or I’m just an idiot. Why would someone feel shame at reading Proust on the train to work? That is not something that would have occured to me. What am I missing?

    1. It’s mostly my self-consciousness–some imagined accusation in my mind that what I’m doing is incredibly pretentious. Then again, I live in a country that doesn’t seem to care about whatever random strangers are reading.

  3. […] Sasha blogged about Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, discussing her dislike for the man behind the author, but also seeing glimpses of an author she is interested in. […]

  4. Do you think reading Proust pretentious? What is a pretentious reading of Proust?

    1. Not at all. I simply felt self-conscious reading a book with such a reputation on the train. Not that anyone would notice, haha. Re “a pretentious reading of Proust” — let me brood about that for a while.

      1. Perhaps the question “what is a pretentious reading of Proust?” implies an even broader one: how do people choose what to read? Why would we consider Proust worthy of reading (over other writers)? Is it simply an affinity for the “Western cannon” (whatever that is)? Because Proust is part of the Western literary tradition, does it makes us “read” him in a particular way? Sorry for all the questions– I don’t mean for the questions to be bombarding! How readers choose what to read, inside and outside the academe, is a topic that I find very fascinating, and as an avid reader yourself, I’m sure these questions have crossed your mind as well :) I think that reading is a very politically-involved activity, consciously or unconsciously, no matter how “universal”/”beyond politics”/”pure art” a text may present itself. What readers choose to read and how they read, I believe, always reflects the politics of the reader. What do you think?

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