Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Perchance to Dream" by Jonathan Franzen in Harper's Magazine

In his now famous essay "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels," published by Harper's Magazine in April, 1996, Jonathan Franzen unwittingly laid out a template for his soon-to-appear 3rd novel, The Corrections. Anticipating my blog post on that "substantive" novel, I am making some comments that provide context to that literary tour de force. It is ironic that the focus of this 20-page essay was a return to tragic realism in the spirit of novelists like Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair. In effect, Franzen would depart from his first two postmodern-style novels ("no-mo Mr. po-mo") adopting a writing style based on minute detail and realism. The phrase "perchance to dream" is from Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy.

Franzen grew up on a steady diet of great literature. "I was in love with literature and with a woman to whom I'd been attracted in part because she was a brilliant reader" (italics mine !). He recounts his disappointment with the reception of his first 2 novels, "the failure of my culturally engaged novel to engage with the culture. I'd intended to provoke; what I got instead was sixty reviews in a vacuum." He pokes fun at a radio announcer who "brushed at the novel's pages as though he hoped to absorb the plot transdermally." He mourns the ascendancy of television and the Internet and belatedly recognizes that "the dollar is now the yardstick of cultural authority." He remarks on the "incompatibility of the slow work of reading and the hyperkinesis of modern life." Great novels are also incompatible with the consumer economy: "The consumer economy loves a product that sells at a premium, wears out quickly or is susceptible to regular improvement, and offers with each improvement some marginal gain in usefulness. To an economy like this, news that stays news is nor merely an inferior product, it's an antithetical product. A classic work of literature is inexpensive, infinitely reusable, and, worst of all, unimprovable."

Franzen writes "At the heart of my despair about the novel had been a conflict between my feeling that I should Address the Culture and Bring News to the Mainstream, and my desire to write about the things closest to me, to lose myself in the characters and locales I loved....How was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale ?...How can you achieve topical "relevance"without drawing on an up-to-the-minute vocabulary of icons and attitudes and thereby, far from challenging the hegemony of overnight obsolescence, confirming and furthering it ?...Exspecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society - to help solve our contemporary problems - seems to me a peculiarly American delusion."

With the publication of The Corrections he was able to do both in the "tragic realism" tradition of "Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe." Franzen opines "tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost." While Sinclair was bringing news to the public about atrocious worker conditions, Franzen adopted the same style, and applied it to a farcical situation to report on the trials and tribulations of an upper middle class family, whose life challenges revolved around job satisfaction, marital happiness, meaningful lives, rather than basic survival.

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