Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Franzen’s New Novel

Posted in Books,Fiction by bourdaghs on the September 8th, 2010

Like you, I’m currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. (You are, aren’t you?). I have to reserve judgment on the novel as a whole until I finish reading it–and I’m a sssslllloooowwww reader these days–but in general you can color me impressed. As he did in The Corrections, Franzen presents a painfully life-like portrait of what Elvis Costello a couple of decades ago called “emotional fascism.” That is, he draws a finely detailed topographical map of the decline of American democracy, all as lived out in the privates lives of our psyches and families.

His choice of my hometown, the Twin Cities, for the opening scenes seems prescient, too. What’s happened to Minnesota over the past three decades presents in distilled form the effects of Reaganism, consumerism, and religious fundamentalism. Back in the 1970s the state was celebrated as the “Minnesota Miracle,” a bastion of progressive values and a can-do spirit, but now our bridges fall down, our schools disintegrate, and our families work two and three jobs so that we can cut taxes on the wealthy, buy incredibly cheap underwear made in Guatemala, and prevent gay people from marrying.

The following paragraph, from a therapeutic autobiography written by the heroine Patty as she looks back over the wreckage of her life, captures the novel’s central theme:

  • Where did the self-pity come from? The inordinate volume of it? By almost any standard, she led a luxurious life. She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free. (p. 181)
  • That’s about as succinct a depiction of emotional fascism as you’ll find anywhere.

    So I like Franzen’s choice of setting. But I’m also gnawed at by the sense that he gets the external details wrong: the texture of daily life in St. Paul just doesn’t jibe with my own memories. It’s a bit like that typical scene in parallel-universe science fiction when the hero starts noticing little slips in the world around him and starts to wake from the illusion and realize that he has left home far behind.

    For example, the depiction of the Ramsey Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Granted, I didn’t live there in the 1990s, but the portrait of the neighborhood just feels off. For starters, the renovation of that neighborhood largely took place in the 1970s and 80s, not the 1990s. Moreover, the kinds of municipal corruption and street life he depicts for it sound East Coast to me (or perhaps Chicagoan); we had corruption and crime in St. Paul, but it wasn’t of the genus that he depicts. Likewise, the scene set circa 1980 at the Longhorn, the legendary bar in downtown Minneapolis that spawned the Suicide Commandos, the Replacements, and a hundred other punk bands, is all wrong. For starters, Mohawks and safety pins weren’t the fashion of Minnesota punks, nor was pogo dancing a big deal. And I never ever saw a crowd at the Longhorn pack the front of the stage for a local opening band: for better or worse, that just wouldn’t have been cool. In sum, I’m pretty sure Franzen never set foot in the place.

    A couple of his major characters attend Macalester College in the late 1970s and early 1980s–as did I. I probably passed them in the dorm hallways and at Kagan Commons cafeteria. But they do and say the wrong things. One of them, for example, wants to find out where the “townie girls” hang out. I’m sure that expression was never used at Mac; the closest thing would have been “St. Kate’s girls,” referring to the Catholic women’s college a mile away, but even that meant something quite different from “townie girls” as Franzen’s fictional character uses it.

    So what do you do when your knowledge of reality interferes with your enjoyment of the dream of fiction? I guess you sit down and write whiny blog posts….

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    Speaking of the Devil

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the September 1st, 2010

    In my reading recently I’ve been haunted by the devil.

    For example, he shows up, albeit ambiguously, in Charles Baxter’s fine 2008 novel, The Soul Thief. The narrative, written with Baxter’s usual intelligence and style, traces the life on one “Nathaniel Mason,” as told in the first person–or, perhaps not. It might be that Nathaniel is dead and his place has been taken up by a psychopathic mimic, ala Norman Bates in the film Psycho, which is alluded to repeatedly (we even get a creepy motel scene at the end). Or perhaps Nathaniel is none other than Satan himself–another possibility deliberately raised. The first half of the book, detailing Mason’s younger days as a grad student in Buffalo, New York, is especially strong, as good as anything Baxter has written.

    So I finish that novel and then in all innocence move on to Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). Here, the central figure is Dougal Douglas (or, sometimes, Douglas Dougal), and again the narrative strongly suggests that the protagonist has more than a bit of devilry to him. He even invites people to touch the two bumps on his scalp where his horns were surgically removed. It’s a terrific comic yarn about the dark powers of the humanities to disrupt the social order. Douglas is a recent “Arts” graduate hired by an industrial firm in South London that fears it is falling behind the times in its failure to carry out “human research” on its employees. Once he arrives all hell breaks loose, literally: weddings fall apart at the altar, loyal workers start skipping shifts, and young men take to battling it out in the streets.

    The Christian undertones are missing, but there is more devilry afoot in another work I’m reading just now, Okazaki Kyoko’s awarding-winning manga, Helter Skelter (serialized 1996, published in book form 2003). The heroine is a beautiful fashion idol who becomes increasingly cruel and cold to those around her as the surgery, drugs, and manipulation that artificially generate her desirability take an increasing toll on her person.

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    The Early Summer Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the June 17th, 2010

    Here’s what I’ve been reading lately. How ’bout you?

    Ugaya Hiromichi, J-Poppu to wa nani ka: Kyodaika suru ongaku sangyo (What is J-Pop? The expanding music industry, 2005). A provocative study of the music business in Japan since the late 1980s, when marketing executives coined the word “J-Pop” to suggest the appearance of a Japanese pop music scene that could compete on an international basis. Ugaya isn’t as interested in musicians as he is in the business, technological, and marketing sides of the industry. He shows, for example, how the switchover to the CD format (along with the rise of inexpensive CD players) transformed the gender and age demographics of the music-buying audience in Japan.

    Jane Austen, Persuasion (1816). In which a British female writer tells us what women really want. It’s amazing how contemporary Austen’s characters remain, despite the now-archaic nature of the world they occupy. Differences of birth or class are both overcome and reinforced (just like today!), and of course the colonies hover in the background: the widowed Mrs. Smith gets her happy ending when her rights over her late husband’s estate in the West Indies are recognized. No wonder Natsume Soseki loved her writing so much. A fine novel to begin the summer with.

    Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch (1998). In which a British male writer tells us what men really want. Hornby’s comic memoir of his life-long obsession with soccer seemed a good choice to accompany this year’s World Cup. As usual with Hornby, it’s inlaid with countless funny, poignant observations–e.g.:

    The first and easiest friends I made at college were football fans; a studious examination of a newspaper back page during the lunch hour of the first day in a new job usually provokes some kind of response. And yes, I am aware of the downside of this wonderful facility that men have: they become repressed, they fail in their relationships with women, their conversation is trivial and boorish, they find themselves unable to express their emotional needs, they cannot relate to their children, and they die lonely and miserable. But, you know, what the hell?

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