The Rage of Jonathan Franzen

franzenJonathan Franzen is the angriest novelist in the world. He is the novelist who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.

He is angry because Salman Rushdie uses Twitter, and nowadays people can buy books on the Internet, and the Home Depot, and he had to go to Germany one time, and also some women exist who have not had sex with him.

I wasn’t born angry. If anything, I was born the opposite. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I think it’s accurate to say that I knew nothing of anger until I was 22. As an adolescent, I’d had my moments of sullenness and rebellion against authority, but, like Kraus, I’d had minimal conflict with my father, and the worst that could be said of me and mother was that we bickered like an old married couple. Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hanover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin, where I was living on a Fulbright grant, and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus.

Think of all the women who have never slept with Jonathan Franzen. His anger must grow by the day. Soon it will envelop the world, and we will be forced to bow down in chains before it, and create ziggurats out of human corpses as terrible tribute. Some of these women who Failed To Fuck Jonathan Franzen might now be on Twitter, which is wrong because of a German essayist who is now dead.

I myself have never had sex with Jonathan Franzen, to the best of my knowledge. Not once has he used his hands or mouth or his genitals – whether in part or as a conglomerate – to bring me to the point of orgasm, which I have been given to understand is pretty much the gist of the whole thing.

I wonder if [Kraus] was so angry because he was so privileged. Later in the Nestroy essay, the Great Hater defends his hatred like this: “Acid wants the gleam, and the rust says it’s only being corrosive.” Kraus hated bad language because he loved good language – because he had the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love. And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.

“Hate us ’cause we’re beautiful?” Kraus and Franzen ask. “Well, we don’t like you either.” Franzen is wearing a T-shirt reading “Don’t Hate Me Because Your Boyfriend Likes Me.” Kraus is dead.

As a wedding present, three months after I returned from Berlin, my college German professor George Avery gave me a hardcover edition of Kraus’s great critique of nazism, The Third Walpurgis Night.

As you can imagine, marrying the woman he loved and then receiving a rare book from a man he respected filled Jonathan Franzen with a molten and an unbearable fury, because there is nothing more enraging than privilege or good luck. It was too much for him to bear, and it made him particularly special. He became so angry that he temporarily became a geode. A geode full of crystals, but also of anger. (Have you had sex with Jonathan Franzen yet? No? Be careful. He will hate you for it and fling coins at old German women to punish them.)

The thing about Kraus is that he’s is very hard to follow on a first reading – deliberately hard. He was the scourge of throwaway journalism, and to his cult-like followers his dense and intricately coded style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out. Kraus himself remarked of the playwright Hermann Bahr, before attacking him: “If he understands one sentence of the essay, I’ll retract the entire thing.” If you read Kraus’s sentences more than once, you’ll find that they have a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.

Oprah once tried to enjoy one of Jonathan Franzen’s books without his permission, which was bad because she had been on television. Television is also bad; perhaps not as bad as Twitter, but they both start with T, which rhymes with P and which stands for Pool. Trouble also starts with pools. Right here in River City.

Although Kraus could sound like an elitist, he wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture; the calculated difficulty of his writing wasn’t a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality – people Kraus believed ought to have known better.

It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds. But I confess to feeling some version of his disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers.

Sometimes things sound elitist, but you are wrong to think so. Twitter has consumed the elderly novelist Salman Rushdie. He will be missed.

***

Every woman must decide how not to sleep with Jonathan Franzen in her own way. I learned from my grandmother, a wise woman who lived in the forest and only very rarely slept with Jonathan Franzen. She told me once, on a frosty winter night, how best to escape his sexual clutches if I ever encountered him on the path that led to the nearest market town.

“You will know him,” she said, “for he shall be riding on a white steed, and his right hand will bear no glove. When you see him, you must rush at him, and throw your kirtle over him, and hold fast to him, no matter what form he may take as he struggles against you.”

“What forms will he take?” I said. She leaned in close to me and stoked up the fire.

“He’ll turn into a serpent in your arms,” she said, “a deadly adder. Then a bear, grim and terrible; then a lion, all teeth and claws. Hold him fast and show no fear, for he shall then melt into a burning brand, and you will feel as if you are clasping Hell itself to your bosom. But he shall not – he can not – do you true and lasting harm, as long as your heart holds no fear in it. Last of all he shall turn into a flaming coal, which you must drop into a well, and he will emerge a naked man, truly himself. All you must do then is cover his nakedness and not have sex with him. Then you can go on your way. But that’s the most important part, not having sex with him at the end. Don’t forget and accidentally have sex with him.”

“Will it kill me?” I asked her.

“Oh, no, child,” she said. “It won’t kill you. Jonathan Franzen cannot kill. He conquers, but he never fights. The most he will do is write novels at you.”

I buried my head into her neck. “I don’t want him to write novels at me,” I cried. “I don’t want him to write novels at anyone.”

She laughed softly but not unkindly and stroked my hair. “There, there. No one can stop Jonathan Franzen from writing novels. Women stronger and older than you have died in the attempt. There is only so much we can accomplish in this life. Be satisfied with not having sex with him. Not having sex with him is enough.”

The next day I set out to seek my fortune. And I gaed a’ that day, and a’ the next day; and on the third day, in the afternoon, I came up to where a shepherd was sitting with a flock o’ sheep. And I gaed up to the shepherd and asked him wha the sheep belanged to; and the man answered:

“John Franzen of Manhattan
Ance lived in Bellygan,
And stole King Malcolm’s daughter,
The King of fair Scotland.
He beats her, he binds her,
He lays her on a band;
And every day he dings her
With a bright silver wand
Like Julian the Roman
He’s one that fears no man.
It’s said there’s ane predestinate
To be his mortal foe;
But that ane is yet unborn
And lang may it be so.”

Jonathan Franzen will one day drown the world.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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