Jonathan Franzen and the novel writing tradition that still has made-in-America stamped all over it

Who says that the internet has homogenised taste — turned, say, novel-writing into cooking from essentially the same imaginatively and stylistically flaccid hamburger recipe on every continent where people write in English?

Somehow, the transatlantic gap in literary endeavour is as wide as ever. We have never seen American novelists’ tails tweaked as impishly — but accurately — as in a Private Eye review in September of a new book by Jonathen Franzen. Most entertaining about this delectable evisceration is that in several places, stylistic tics suggest that the critic could very well be American. The reviewer could also be Canadian: if not, we are ready to toss her — or him — a truckload of bouquets, since who is more lovable than the arbiter capable of (tribal) self-mockery?

‘Super-sighs me’

Oh dear me, Tallulah, the beetle-browed sedulousness with which these big, serious, American novelists set about writing their big, serious, American books. Even to pick up a copy of Purity, with its gleaming cover, the sobersided portrait of its proud yet faintly dishevelled author on the inside back jacket, the promise of its 562 infinitely worked-over pages notwithstanding, is to be instantly transported to what Ronald Firbank would call ‘the heart of a brainy district’, where everything is big and fat and fine and dialogue, description and moral engagement are as bloated as the Greek national debt.

Like many a mock-masterpiece from the further side of the pond, Mr Franzen’s new one comes pregnant with literary allusion and heavy-duty metaphorical freight.


Purity’s essential drawback […is…] that it rambles all over the place, over-eggs every pudding served up on the reader’s plate and drags out its conversations to such a length that they plummet into inconsequentiality, while leaving vital questions as the matter of the lost warhead, [and] what Project Sunlight is actually up to …in such long-term abeyance the reader almost begins to forget they are there.

And of course this is a big, serious American novel, decked out with rather painful stylistic flourishes (‘her short-term memory aching like an unmilked cow’, etc.) doffing its cap to the titans of a bygone era (Steinbeck and Dreiser are mentioned, among others) and harbouring a thematic palate that simply glows with the issues of the day. Feminism, internet activism, the state of the planet and data access are all much in evidence, each picked up with a pair of tweezers and advertised with such obviousness the reader yearns for an agenda that wasn’t quite so blatant, so clearly devised in advance of the people acting it out.

To be fair to Mr F, the second half does contain a handful of excruciatingly funny moments, most of them to do with the current state of the American literary marketplace. There is, for example, an hilarious account of ‘Charles Blenheim’ …obsessed with the idea of ‘the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon’.


As to whom our man is sending up here, well the answer would seem to be himself. … The very best modern US practitioners, you sometimes feel, are writers like Annie Proulx or Mary Gaitskill, cool-eyed miniaturists who concentrate on smaller canvases and don’t see the point of trying to conceptualise worlds they have trouble understanding without a great deal of research …

— Private Eye, 18 September – 1 October, 2015 (No: 1401)