Pearl Jam records (and sells) most of their shows and they occasionally videotape them as well. But they don’t do TV all that much (excepting the recent Late Late Show episodes). There seemed to be something special, or at least different, about Pearl Jam on Austin City Limits. Think of it almost like Unplugged Updated.
It opens slow with Eddie on an acoustic guitar and strings behind him. In fact, the whole set seems less heavy than many of their sets. But that’s not to say that the band doesn’t rock out, because they do.
The first six songs of the set come from Backspacer. And then they bust out “Army Reserve” (which makes sense given who is in the audience, see below). Then there’s a wonderfully raucous version of “Do the Evolution” (one of my favorite PJ songs).
After that riotous track, they bring the strings out for one more song. It’s a rather funny little joke because it’s just the strings and Eddie on acoustic guitar playing “Lukin,” the 80-second song that is so fast you can barely hear the words.
[READ: November 20, 2011] “Perchance to Dream”
A while back I read all of the Jonathan Franzen articles that were published in The New Yorker. I thought I had read everything he’d published until I realized I had forgotten to read this piece (possibly his most famous) that was published in Harper’s. It fits in well with this weekend’s theme because it was mentioned in Evan Hughes’ article that I talked about yesterday and because David Foster Wallace is mentioned in it.
As with most of Franzen’s non-fiction, it’s not easy to write about critically unless I want to argue with him, which I don’t necessarily want to do. So instead, I’ll try to summarize. Of course, this is a long and somewhat difficult article, so let’s see what we can do with it.
The first surreal thing is when you see the byline: “Jonathan Franzen is the author of two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, and is writing a third.” It’s hard to imagine he got a huge article in Harper’s before he wrote The Corrections.
The second surreal thing comes in the text: It opens with “The country was preparing for war ecstatically, whipped on by William Safire (for whom Saddam Hussein was ‘this generation’s Hitler’) and George Bush, whose approval stood at 89 percent.” And it is only a few paragraphs later when he mentions Patriot missiles that it clicked that this was written in 1996 and not 2001 and that he was talking about the 1991 Iraq invasion. He mentions this as a prelude, saying that he was trying to sequester himself in order to start writing again.
Then he talks about Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters as a benchmark in terms of insight and personal conflict, even if it is so crazily outdated (that someone would throw an inkwell!). He talks about this book quite a bit. I’m, not sure I found it compelling enough to want to read, but it’s always interesting to hear a fan write about a book I’ve never heard of. He will return to this book throughout the essay.
Then we go back to 1981, when Franzen got out of college and he was intent on writing novels that would change the world. And then when his first book was published he was overwhelmed by how much no one cared. In fact, no one cared about novels at all, he discovered.
Long ago Time magazine put “real” writers on their covers (James Baldwin and John Cheever had made it once), but now it’s just best-selling authors that make it (Stephen King). By 1993, Franzen was beginning to despair. Not just about the state his novel, but of the state of the novel in general.
A century ago, a new book by William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that today a new Pearl Jam release inspires.
Indeed, he’s despairing about the state of American culture (it’s funny how curmudgeonly he sounds at 44): leaf blowers replacing rakes, CNN replacing news (if only he’d imagined Fox). He even bashes the “Infobahn” which he says is set out to destroy reading. These arguments are not new or exclusive to Franzen, but he articulates them well.
Then he begins talking about what his “third” novel was like. This was before he had written and presumably before he had even begin The Corrections. This proposed third novel was meant to satirize all of contemporary society (pharmacology, TV, race, Internet boosterism, the Dow Jones and even more) and still leave room for characters (actually, there is quite a lot of that in The Corrections, although it sounds like he changed it quite a bit).
But Franzen had also gotten mixed up with Hollywood during this time. He wrote a “treatment,” spent a ton of time on it and then was asked to give it to another writer to “fix it” (who would get 50%). That should be a wake up call for any young writer with integrity. (He balked and wouldn’t give it up (and lost a lot of money). Speaking of Hollywood, the film of Fox’s book Desperate Characters doesn’t do the book justice (but that’s no surprise).
Mind you, this talk of the death of the novel has been around for a long time (Philip Roth pronounced it dead in 1961–of course that didn’t prevent him from writing a novel a year since). And yes he reiterates a lot of the stats about how people don’t read, they only watch TV, but at least he points out that the bestsellers fifty years ago were just as trashy as the ones from today (the books that last were the classics, but it doesn’t mean they were popular). But what I think is new to Franzen is his observation about why novels shouldn’t appeal to people anymore: “the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction, preoccupied with manners, has always thrived.”
Anther keen observation (Franzen is quite good at them), “When a writer says publicly that the novel is doomed, it’s a sure bet his new book isn’t going well”
And the depression spiral just continued. (It’s interesting that he and DFW were friends, apparently wallowing in misery together). Franzen writes this wonderfully astute comment, “I can’t pretend the mainstream will listen to the news I have to bring. I can’t pretend I’m subverting anything because any reader capable of decoding my subversive messages does not need to hear them.”
The other author that Franzen cites a lot in this article is Shirley Brice Heath. Heath is a linguistic anthropologist (that sounds cool!) who writes about reading and readers. Her main observation is that there are two types of people who are readers today–those who were brought up reading and the social isolate who read because it was solitary (of course people don’t like to admit that they were in that group). Of the two, she says the social isolate readers are more likely to become writers.
So eventually, Franzen got a job teaching writing, but he was so disheartened by the state of literature classes (and what the poor kids had to put up with–bad novels and long discussion about he author rather than the book) that he grew equally disheartened in academia. (It’s interesting that Eugenides’ new book deals pretty directly with this subject).
Franzen moves into unexpected territory when he starts talking about women and minority writers. He says that 70% of fiction is bought by women, so it’s no surprise that the many books that sell have been written by women. Of course he says that authors who belong to a tribe (any minority) are easier to pin down as a niche against the mainstream “white male” culture. But then this leads to the ghettoization of these writers and we get books about “My Interesting Childhood” and authors who can’t break free of the niche.
As the essay winds down, Franzen makes comments about the state of writers today. How more “authentic” writers are courting publicity: Michael Chabon (gives out his email address), Rick Moody (who we now know was Eugenides’ friend and ultimately Franzen’s friend–writes a comic strip for Details in which a body double signs autographs as Rick Moody). Everyone has to sell himself to make a splash. This is counter to folks like Pynchon, DeLillo and Salinger who were repulsive. But as Franzen points out, Silence is “a useful statement only if someone somewhere expects you to be loud.”
He also mentions having a long conversation about this with DFW. There’s an interesting aside in which Franzen wants the non-German speaking world to recognize that Kafka is funny… a subject that DFW addresses in one of his essays, “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed” (coincidentally also published first in Harper’s two years later in July 1998).
Franzen concludes that just because a novel can impact the world doesn’t mean that it must do so. Despite all of the negativity in the article, Franzen ends on a positive note (with a little help from a letter from Don DeLillo (who also wrote to DFW often).
Six years after this article, he completed The Corrections.
Franzen is an interesting guy and a very good writer. Despite all of the seemingly whiny nature of this article, I think it’s very effective in discussing the state of the novel in the 90s. Things have gotten worse in general, although with the Kindle it seems like more people are reading (maybe it just seems that way). And yet that didn’t stop him from getting a huge amount of press for his last two novels. Wonder if he feels any better about that (well, given his reaction to Oprah, I’d say no).