mid-read thoughts on Franzen and Houellebecq
The two books I am trying to finish this week are big name books – Michel Houellebecq’s Goncourt-winning La Carte et le Territoire and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. This is my first experience with both authors, actually, and I definitely dragged my feet getting started on either book.
Until now, Houellebecq has intimidated me as a reader, mainly because I’m aware that the labels used to describe his work set me up to disapprove of his project before turning that first page. I hear from certain Francophone friends that he’s doing something very profound, from others that he’s a phony, or that he’s overrated. Interestingly, Swiss Francophone readers tend to be wary of what they consider French literary snobbism, where writers get away with being inconsistent or opaque and if you don’t get them you’re just not philosophical (or smart) enough; this perspective is useful for me because it annihilates the awe factor I might have as an unabashed Francophile and helps me evaluate a book with the same critical mind I use on Anglophone fiction. Also, I admit that I don’t usually enjoy literature which even hints at vulgarity and this is one of the most common labels applied to Houellebecq. Nevertheless, I have remained interested in his work since first hearing about him and I opened his latest novel with more curiousity than pre-conceived notion.
Interestingly, La Carte et le Territoire has done nothing but surprise me with its ordinariness. He is clearly an accomplished writer, but so far his prose is conventional and I’ve found nothing shocking about his descriptions or even the story. The book is about a painter named Jed Martin, but even he strikes me as a very dull creature for the moment and I’m 100 pages into this 400 page book. Houellebecq has written in a character named Michel Houellebecq, and included his real-life buddy Frédéric Beigbeder among other high-profile literati, a “trick” which, admittedly, doesn’t impress me much as I can’t yet see the point. Although apparently Houellebecq in the novel gets murdered – so we’ll see. I’m prepared to reserve final judgment until I’ve finished the book…
Now, for Franzen. I have some vague memory of trying to read The Corrections about seven, eight years ago. But I gave up on the book. This is unusual for me, because really Franzen should be exactly the kind of writer I would enjoy. His writing tends to be detailed, careful and subtly sarcastic, and he holds a magnifying lens over parts of the American psyche. I’ve read several of his New Yorker non-fiction essays and enjoyed them. So I’m not sure why I put off reading The Corrections and why I’ve resisted reading Freedom. In any case, I’ve got both books in hand now.
Like La Carte et le Territoire, I was expecting fireworks or something flashy or showoff-y from the first page of Freedom and this isn’t there. That isn’t to say it’s bad. Again, this is just a novel. So far a well-written novel, with a nice percentage of quotable moments and insightful narrative. But it isn’t mind-boggling, nor will, I’m pretty sure, it alter my perception of America in some profound way. The real question for me is not whether the book deserved all the hype it received, but why do we feel the need to generate such hype for a single book in the first place. There are dozens of books published every year that are just as good and even better than Freedom, so I take issue with the publishing and marketing model more than with the book. Franzen is a good writer and he should be esteemed and criticized appropriately.
Now, hopefully, I won’t be back to contradict all this first-reaction downplaying when I’ve finished both books…