Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best Books of 2010

Another specatacular year of reading, but this is not my post. It belongs to one of the members of my old book club that began in my kitchen and will celebrate its 25th anniversary in Italy this summer.

One of the reasons why I love this book club -- even though it continues in a city that I no longer live in -- is that it's comprised of serious readers. Genuine smarty pants.

What follows is the review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom that one of the members submitted when he couldn't attend the regularly scheduled meeting. It's almost as brilliant as the book itself. Careful, there are some spoilers here, but I doubt you'll mind. You'll be too captivated by his prose. This is why words were invented...and why I'll see you in Italy in July.

So begins his review....

Belated Merry Christmas and Holiday wishes to all!

I am sorry I missed the last meeting and discussion, especially so since I've now read Freedom (Chris & Peter, thanks for lending me your copy, I couldn't put it down for a few days!) and was very impressed by most of the novel, all of it in fact except for the last hundred pages or so. So, for those of you who like things short and sweet and want to get back to the egg nog and don't want to read chapter and verse, I've given it a mark of 8.5; for the others, here's why:

Wow! The first 27 pages alone are worthy of being anthologized for the next century at least in yearly collections of 'great short stories' - masterful! Word by word, sentence by sentence, some of the smartest, funniest, most stimulating prose I've read since, well, since Charley retired from the Citizen. What a launch: Franzen had me by the short hairs from the very first pages and I just couldn't put it down -- not for the story, not for the characters, but for the book itself: where was it going and how and why? Fortunately, Franzen knows that too much of a good thing is not so good, especially when you're in it for the long run (and is he ever!). So, after that virtuosic demonstration of skill and bravado in the intro, without departing too radically from the dominant
realism of the conventional novel, he circles back and changes voice, pacing, diction; he alters the lighting, he varies the angles; he distorts the shots with medicinal doses of venomous irony and black humor; he pulls back and builds up his portraits and heightens his landscapes with Swiftian exageration and moral caricature;, he paints clinical and painfully detailed tableaux of biological imperative; presents a bewildering psychological bric-à-brac of pandering, dependency, anal fixation, predatory instinct; assembles a collage of the most absurd rationalisations for social gangterism and cancer-like proliferation; constantly renews his arsenal of effects, his palette, his technique... But -- and this I find even more admirably perverse and subversive -- ever skillful, he stops just (but just) short of coming across as too clever and so avoids pushing this dazzling display beyond the point where any remaining illusion of reality could be compromised for those readers who insist on verisimilitude (the same readers who keep the book on the bestseller lists week after week and will go see the movie).

So, as you may have gathered, I did like this book a lot. It is the only North American work of fiction I've come across in some time that raises so many questions about the great myths of freedom and happiness; and morality; and love; and responsibility and 'goodness'; and about human nature and the predatory nature of this large primate; and about nature itself and and how attempting to 'save' it from ourselves means saving ourselves and how that may simply not be possible because of our place in nature; and about how art relates to all of that; and, and, AND...; and all this simply by describing the mostly mundane actions of its mostly mundane characters, by letting us in on their mostly unremarkable conversations and by gradually revealing their very ordinary, basic, self-preserving motivations. Flawed? Whining? YESSS: at last characters I can identify with! And I love birds and we keep our cats inside.

As I may have mentioned once or twice in the past, I'm no great fan of realism in the arts: I just don't get the point of it, don't really think it's possible anyway, and thought that Warhol had made the ultimate statement (ad absurdum) on the subject when he stood a camera on a tripod in front of a sleeping man and filmed for six hours (no music, no editing, no camera movement, just straight unadorned mechanical representation) (ah! but then, when it was shown, being an artist, he projected it at 16 frames per second rather than the usual twenty-four... of such slow motion stuff dreams were made in the old avant garde...). Thus the conventional novelist would use his art so readers can forget they are dealing with a written artefact and experience the illusion of reality and project themselves into the story and identify with the characters; this, though, more often than not so the reader can be led by the hand and by the nose to a moralizing (happy? well, at the very least: good) ending where the reader is reassured about our shared humanity, our institutions, our (basically good) intentions (goodness is good, isn't it? : sins are atoned for, good deeds are rewarded, villains are punished, heroes are celebrated and get the girl (or the guy), the system is seen to work and (our, but there is no other, is there?) civilisation is saved. Our very own form of socialist realism, I'd say: no model workers in tractor factories, but fairy tales nonetheless. And I still think that the duty of the contemporay novelist is to write books that cannot be made into films, will not let themselves be reduced to just another cretinizing movie!

So I initially liked very much that this novel pretended to be a realist novel and I enjoyed for several hundreds pages what I took to be a subversion of the realistic esthetic's usual moralizing purpose and material goal (sale of movie rights to Hollywood, Oscar, massive DVD sales and downloads) and I was only too happy to be led (by the nose) to what announced itself as a deeply pessimistic, dark and accordingly depressingly satisfying, if disturbingly conservative, conclusion to what appearing to be a great book. Ah! but, that was not to be: cliché came rushing in, right on time to save the cavalry and set up a gated nature reserve: Walter makes his rant, pays the price, gets his prize, pays again and most dearly for his most banal red letter sin, takes back poor (but talented autobiographer) Pattie out of the deep freeze, no less, closes the cottage and moves back to the Big Apple to be with at long last successful and much mellowed friend, quirky in-laws, house-bound pets and middle-class smog, not to mention wayward Republican son who has discovered monotheism, monogamy and shade-grown coffee. Alas! And thus what came very close to being a great and exceptional book, is now reduced to another good novel, granted not a small accomplishment, but in light of what could have been, a somewhat disappointing one. And re-thus, final indignity for a humbled sell-out Franzen, my 8.5 instead of the 9.5 triumph I had initially contemplated.

In my (final) view, Franzen could have preserved the integrity of his book by picking up a chain saw and savagely MTRing his manuscript just before Walter launches on his stereotypically cinematic rant and belated reach for shlocky and pathetic hero satus: this book, to achieve greatness, which it nearly did, absolutely did not need a hero or, for that mater, a villain; the only character that could have been both is Richard (had he remained untamed and unshorn in Jersey) and, ironically, he is the Artist. An also fittingly ironic epilogue, by way of an afterthought on the title, could have been Walter's visit to his drunken, penniless, pratically homeless trailer-park-white-trash brother Mitch, who is probably the most self-aware character in the novel when he famously and slurringly says:

"I finally figured that out. I'm only good at taking care of me."
"You're a free man."
"That I am."