Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jonathan Franzen and The Great American Novelist

Here's a picture of - what? A man pouring himself a glass of water. Or no, a man hiding from the camera. Or maybe a man who knows he can't hide from the camera. (Is that why he is grinning?) (Or is that why, in the end, he seemed to get a bit irritated with the camera?) He will say in the next few moments that he knows he needs to be careful what he says because next thing it'll turn up on a blog. And here it is, the picture anyway. Of a man who has just read to a great crowd in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester and knows he's about to be quizzed on the fact that he has been designated the Great American Novelist and on the Author as Personality and Cultural Phenomenon, and all he really wants to talk about is his novel, and if his novel could only just wing its way into the world without him he'd be a damn sight happier. I think.

Anyway, the most interesting moment for me in all that talk was what he said before he even began reading, which was that his intention in writing The Corrections and Freedom (both door-stoppers) was to write a sustained narrative in a time of atomised narratives. It's the kind of statement that hits you between the eyes as the statement, the most relevant and interesting for now, and in my opinion its unpackaging could have filled the whole evening, but there we were hearing Franzen, head down and his eyes shielded by those horn-rimmed specs, asked for his reaction to the GAN thing (no fun, he said, to land in a country where that's being flagged about you: the only way is down), how he felt about all the publicity (it's such a contrast to the privacy of the writing experience, he told us drily, that it was helpfully unreal. It's just a novel, he said, as he has on other occasions, he just hopes you enjoy it and don't take it too seriously). He was asked what he thought about the fact that the writer is expected to be a nice person (which to me seemed rather a strange question: nice? rather than glamorous etc?, and I don't even remember his answer: my notes, which I can't read, seem to include 'sometimes irritable'). For me the whole event was imbued with a strange sense of dislocation which I think was the dislocation between the general thrust of the questioning and the novelist's own interest.

In one moment when the attention did turn to the novelist's art, Franzen was asked about his use of multiple viewpoints, and his answer was very interesting. He himself had multiple viewpoints on all sorts of issues, he said, and the thing that is great about the novel as a form is that it is able to give full life to irreconcilable contradictions.

And as far as I'm concerned the extract he read was fabulous.
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