Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Path to Freedom

This is the title of an essay by Jonathan Franzen published in the Guardian, apparently as part of the publicity surge around his new essay collection. In this piece, he explains how he “overcame a sense of shame, guilt and disloyalty” (to his former wife, mostly) in order to became a great writer. What he doesn’t seem to have overcome, though, is an awkward degree of self-absorption. It is this self-involvement which allowed Franzen to slam last year in the New Yorker David Foster Wallace, ostensibly a friend and undoubtedly a competitor, as a narcissistic jerk – someone who contemplated his suicide as an adulation-craving career move, committed as if to spite him, Franzen.
It should come as no surprise that a few years ago NYT warrior-princess Michiko Kukatani ridiculed his previous non-fiction book, “The Discomfort Zone,” as “giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed.” Compared to him, it seems Wallace at least had a degree of introspection – which did kill him eventually. What’s really paradoxical is this: how could someone so full of himself like Franzen become a recognized social novelist? What, in particular, drove him to explore such a fundamental theme as the thwarted pursuit of freedom in contemporary American society? Maybe he thought America had developed the obnoxious obsessions he describes to spite him, too?