I was fully prepared to give Franzen a fresh start, to overlook his deep-seated sexism which kept me from reading Purity (The Guardian’s review mentions “tedious stereotypes embodied by the female characters” which applies across all his work), to hold my breath against saying something bad about this champion of birds, a man who prefers the quiet life of Santa Cruz to one of immersing himself in technology and social media. And yet. The words started to ricochet in my head as I kept turning the pages: Shut up, shut up, shut up.
It’s my fault, really, for giving him my attention, my eyes. Once committed, I had to skim to the end to see what topics he covered (mostly globe trotting trips to acquire fresh birds for his life list). It’s one long brag session that remains clueless about how he appears to the outside world, a white man’s barbaric yawp at a time when we realize that we are sick to death of pretending that we’re interested in what those privileged men have to say.
- A $78,000 check arrives, money he doesn’t need and hasn’t been counting on, an inheritance from one of his forgotten relatives, then blown on a trip to Antarctica just so he can see it before it melts.
- Breezily sneaking in a critique of Clinton’s “sloppy handling of her emails”, “poorly messaged campaign”, and “decision not to campaign harder in Michigan and Pennsylvania,” before an off-hand remark about being in Ghana on Election Day.
- His deathly fear of black people and Harlem in NYC in the 1980s which he thinks he redeems by saying his biggest mistake was not realizing they might be more afraid than he was.
- His frantic search for suitcase at JFK when he stole that of the man behind him at the coffee counter (a “young Latino” described as such three times, this man offering his own receipt for Franzen to expense his $6 coffee, for which Franzen “thanked him warmly and repaid his kindness by walking away with his rollerboard suitcase”). Warm thanks from the multimillionaire white man who just stole your suitcase.
- A somewhat pointless story about his one-time friendship with Bill Vollmann that ended when Franzen became a “more crystalline version of” himself, unless the point was to work up to the request that Vollmann made to go camping with Franzen and DFW on the Salton Sea, to which invitation Wallace responded with “pained silence” and which Franzen later regrets not insisting on, wishing that he could step into an alternate universe where he camped there with his genius pals because by the time he writes this, Wallace is dead and he’s no longer speaking to Vollmann.
The 10 rules for novelists have been ceaselessly mocked elsewhere (basically 10 rules for writing like Franzen). The single useful bit I got from this waste of a morning were the two lessons Franzen learned from Henry Finder at The New Yorker: “Every essay, even a think piece, tells a story.” and “There are only two ways to organize material: Like goes with like, This followed that.”