The Casual Blog

Tag: Jonathan Franzen

Purity, the Montrose Trio, Gore, and Gates

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It’s been a foggy, drizzly week in Raleigh, which tends to lower high spirits, but is good for introspection. I finished Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity. The book offers several interesting characters, including social activists who think about the big issues like out-of-control surveillance and global warming. Mostly, though, the book is about close family and romantic relationships, and shame and guilt. There’s enough that’s closely observed and honest here to be affecting, and I found myself hypnotically absorbed in some sections. As I neared the end, though, it, or I, lost steam, and I was glad to be done with it.

Saturday night we went over to Durham for dinner at Watt’s Grocery with friends and a concert. It turns out Watt’s is more vegetarian friendly than shown on the menu, willing to create a custom plate of the non-meat offerings, and mine was good. At Duke’s Baldwin auditorium, we heard the Montrose Trio, a new group made up of two former members of the Tokyo Quartet and pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They performed works of Turina, Beethoven and Brahms. Turina was new to me — Spanish, 1882-1949 – and reminded me pleasantly of Ravel, while the other pieces were old friends. Montrose was truly excellent – musicianship of the highest order, applied to great music.

The November issue of the Atlantic has an interesting piece on Al Gore and his involvement with Generation Investment Management, a global equity fund. The company has significantly out-performed the market since 2005 by investing in companies that are not only well-managed compared to their competition but conscious and responsible in their social and environmental actions. This approach runs counter to the conventional wisdom that successful capitalists must place profits ahead of values. The theory of Generation is that long-term profits require long-term thinking, including thinking about sustainability.

The same Atlantic has an interview with Bill Gates on his new endeavor to address climate change. He’s of the view that we’ve got to make major technological breakthroughs relating to energy to prevent or mitigate disastrous environmental changes, which will require research to go into overdrive, and he’s committing $2 billion of his money to the effort. He’s obviously studied up on the subject, and he hasn’t lost all hope or become hysterical. As he points out, either we focus our resources on finding a solution, or we run the experiment of what happens when the planet’s temperature rises by two degrees – and then three degrees and then four.

Freedom and private matters

I finished Franzen’s Freedom on the flight back from Dallas earlier this week. Although the last half of the book was not as surgically precise and constantly surprising as the first, it was still very fine, and I was glad I read it. It passed my test for a novel that is in every sense worthwhile: it explored questions and won insights that just can’t be got at through any medium other than a novel. The subject matter involves some of the big issues of our time, such as global warming, overpopulation, environmental irresponsibility, and species extinction. But just as in other great novels, most of the interesting revelations relate to private matters — interior lives and intimate relationships.

Writing about things that are generally considered private is a risky business. Even with the license of a novelist, it takes a degree of courage close to recklessness to be direct and truthful about intimate aspects of our lives. For all the things Freud got wrong, he was surely right that civilization depends on a degree of repression of our basic urges. By the same token, our social lives would be unsustainable if we lifted all self-censorship. It’s true, as Jack Nicholson once violently asserted: we can’t handle the truth! At any rate, we can’t uncritically expose all of our feelings and our emotional lives without causing outrage and social havoc. But this is part of the gift of the great novelist: to guide us into and through these hidden things in a way that enriches rather than injures.

I’m constantly struggling, when I write for the Casual Blog, with the question of what is too private for public exposure. Where one draws the line plainly depends on what kind of person one is, which in turn depends on every other social variable — personal history, family, community, customs, laws, etc. And the line may also vary according to the subject involved. And the best answer for today may not be the best in the future. Pushing the line may actually change the kind of person one is or is perceived to be, either for better or worse. My current model involves trying to be conscious of the line and to get close to it without going over it. But it’s always a judgment call made in the fog of complexity. Mistakes are sure to happen. In such cases, I have to hope the parties affected will forgive and eventually forget.

I’ve wondered whether it crosses the line to explore the implications of Jocelyn’s latest adventure — free form travelling in South America. This is not all happy stuff. As a dad, I’m in a fugue state: full of admiration for her spirit and courage, full of pride, but also full of worry. As I told her very bluntly, she is throwing herself in front of some existential risks without understanding them very well. She did not appreciate this criticism, and just as bluntly told me so. She is highly confident of her ability to deal with the unexpected, which is impressive, yet worrisome. Does she have any idea how vulnerable she could be? Is it better if she doesn’t? At any rate, I’m sufficiently on edge and preoccupied with such risks as kidnapping that I will refrain from discussing her itinerary. But I should also say, according to her emails, she’s having a fantastic time.

Freedom, my Provo novel, and TCI diving

I used to think of reading novels as a basic necessity, like food, water, and shelter. Novels were also my friends. Some were fun, some were wise. Reading novels was necessary, I thought, to build a conscious mind.

Beginning in my mid-teens, I took on, in no particular order, a lot of big classics, including Russians (viz Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), Brits (Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Elliot, Hardy, Joyce, Woolf), French (Proust), Germans (Mann), and Americans (Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, James, Wolfe, Faulkner, Salinger). In the seventies and eighties, I read many great books of the previous or current generation, including Nabokov, Roth, Updike, Heller, Cheever, Naipaul, Pynchon, Bellow, Vonnegut, Stone, DeLillo, Gardner, Kennedy, Davies,and Millhauser. At times I had enthusiasms for genres, including espionage (Le Carre), hard boiled (Chandler), mysteries (Christie), sci fi (LeGuin), historical (P. O’Brien), and horror (King). And on and on.

And then it was over. I didn’t suddenly stop reading, but at some point it was no longer necessary for me to have a novel near to hand. No, it was worse than that: I lost my faith in novels. I was no longer sure they were a good investment. Perhaps it was because of new circumstances in my life (too busy? but I was always busy), or maybe the change reflected a shift in the larger culture. Could the era of literature be ending? I’m not sure. But in bookshops, when I looked at the fiction shelves, instead of seeing endless exciting possibilities, as I used to do, I was struck by the opposite — masses of books that, I felt, would probably do nothing for me.

I shifted my non-professional reading diet to mostly history, biography, science, and journalism, along with poetry. I began applying a tough filter for taking on fiction: only books that I thought might be transformative or unforgettable make the cut. I continued to find such ones from time to time (McEwan, T. Wolfe, M. Amis, Spencer, Roth, Eugenides, Shteyngart, Yates). But not every day — or week, or month.

A couple of weeks ago I found another. For Labor Day weekend, Sally and I took a diving trip to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. I’d just read the first rapturous reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and decided to pick it up in an airport bookshop. On the trip down, it was nowhere to be found (though it was in the front of all airport bookstores by the following weekend). Therefore, I went to Plan B. As soon as we got to Provo, I downloaded it onto the iPad — my first contemporary enovel.

It is a great book for a long sandy beach with palm trees, blue skies, and turquoise water, but also a great book for a long plane trip, or extended insomnia. It contains multiple lives, with problems you know well (like painful family relationships, loneliness, global environmental disasters), in settings you know well (various American cities) but have never seen from these angles. It requires no conscious effort, though you pause now and again to note the incredible craftsmanship (no visible strings or joints). Reading it is like living a different life. And when you emerge, it makes you grateful to have your own life.

On our diving days in Provo we left the Royal West Indies hotel at 8:00 a.m. and returned around 3:00, after two dives and a good number of nautical miles. Then, exhausted, we’d sit on the beach or by the pool and read for long periods. From time to time, we’d take a dip to cool off or have a rum drink. It was sweet.

Of course, not perfect. My new reading technology, the iPad, did not work in direct sunlight, so I read some paper books as well. I also had to address some diving technology glitches. On day two, I decided to try to perfect my weighting, which required obtaining more lead from the boat, which required swimming against the current, which led to falling behind the group and working to catch up, which led to over exertion, overuse of oxygen, mild narcosis at 100 feet, problems reading gauges, an out-of-air emergency, sharing air with Sal, and, back on the boat, loss of all stomach contents. On another dive my octo malfunctioned and started rapidly dumping air. We had to abbreviate that dive, but had some good sightings.

We had close and rewarding encounters with several reef sharks, sea turtles, barracuda, and countless luminous small fish. Unfortunately, we saw many lion fish, which are spectacular looking but poisonous and horribly destructive of the reef ecosystem. In areas, the coral was dead, a ghostly white. But there were large, healthy areas, with bizarre shapes and bright colors of otherworldly beauty.