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A Literal Translation of a Literal Translation*

Ex-Carcel, Valparaiso, Chile

Having been a writer for something like three days, I now consider myself sufficiently equipped to start dispensing advice. Gather ‘round.

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I purchased The Corrections years ago with a Barnes and Noble Gift Card I received, read close to 100 pages in, and then returned it for cash (for some reason, they allowed me to do this back then). In fairness, this was motivated by equal part lack of chemistry with the novel and equal part the urgent need for $21.99, not a negligible amount of money for me as an undergraduate. Or even now, sadly. So I won’t presume to recommend or abuse fiction’s favorite son, but I beg anyone writing or aspiring to write fiction today to read this (not exactly laudatory) review of Franzen’s Freedom by B.R. Myers for The Atlantic – not because its analysis of the novel is necessarily apt (I wouldn’t know) – but because it highlights flaws universal to so much contemporary American fiction that have made me really bloody fed up with it.

Pressed for time? At minimum, read the following sentences and swallow them whole. If, like me, you are occasionally guilty of the same crime, let them deconstruct and reconstruct how you use the English language, because B.R. Myers sees right through us:

…a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But… one need read only that the local school “sucked” and that Patty was “very into” her teenage son, who in turn was “fucking” the girl next door, to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter… There is no import in things that “suck,” no drama in someone’s being “into” someone else… The result is boredom. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang. The reassuring vulgarity follows the flight of pseudo-eloquence as the night the day. Like the rest of these people, Franzen should relax. We don’t need to find a naughty word on every page to know that he is one very regular Joe. (emphasis mine)

For macro-level writing advice, Myers notes that:

…the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family “typical” enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society [the author] can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.

He expands on this by offering several passages from Freedom where sex, marriage, rape, etc., are described flatly, stupidly, or worse yet – falsely. His point is simple: sex, marriage, and rape are indeed everyday aspects of our society. If you are writing a “social novel,” it may seem like a good idea to mention them. But please, resist this urge if you have nothing interesting or powerful to say about them.

Finally, for a quick serving of racial indignation, Myers quotes this little snippet from Freedom, apparently about one of the main characters, an older, married white male, who falls for his young Indian female assistant:

To throw away his marriage and follow Lalitha had felt irresistible until the moment he saw himself, in the person of Jessica’s older colleague, as another overconsuming white American male who felt entitled to more and more and more: saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian, having exhausted domestic supplies.

Again, I haven’t read the book. But I’m having trouble imagining a context where that passage would not induce feelings of nausea. Says Myers:

If his love is not strong enough to counter an access of political correctness, nor strong enough for him to see Lalitha as a woman first and an Asian second, why should we care about it? As for the vile phrase “having exhausted domestic supplies,” Walter, who has so far been faithful to his wife, has no reason to apply it to himself.

I hope we have helped.

*This title is in reference to a joke that may or may not have been made by Pierre Menard, as recounted in Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” in Ficciones. If anyone picked up on that, we should talk. Seriously.


3 responses

  1. orlando

    thanks for this piece. hard to get hold of the Atlantic here in London though it sounds like my feelings on Freedom would be mroe or less exactly echoed if I could read the whole piece.

    also, re: the title, I got the reference. why do we need to talk and why must it be serious?


    September 30, 2010 at 9:18 am

  2. Ujala Sehgal

    Thanks for the comment Orlando – Myers’ whole review makes some phenomenal points. I also suggest Elif Batuman’s “Get a Real Degree” essay for the LRB, if you haven’t read it yet.

    The “seriously” referred to the “should” not the “talk”… and I wrote it because I’ve a deep appreciation for anyone who picks up references to footnotes from Borges!

    September 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

  3. orlando


    many thanks for the recommendation. another great piece.

    have you read this in a similar vein?

    October 1, 2010 at 5:49 am

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