Book review: The Franzen project

Jonathan Franzen’s reception at Swarthmore last spring was lukewarm. He spoke fatalistically of the social impact of fiction and disavowed the readings of his books that would point to any social messages. When he admitted that the one explicit goal of his latest novel, “Freedom,” was to give voice to the feline plight of the song bird, he was met with laughter; to be fair, we thought he was joking (perhaps if he’d been championing avian gender politics). His reading somehow failed to win over a crowd of college students who had more than likely passed the time before he took the stage checking Facebook or texting, and he didn’t make any friends during the Q&A: the first question was, rather, a statement (“Technoshock.”), and Franzen returned fire when a student asked what he thought of John Green’s use of social media (“Who?”). The general consensus: curmudgeon. He was everything Zadie Smith hadn’t been when she’d spoken several months before. Perhaps hesitant to be the bearer of bad news, Smith brought not one, but two visions of a literary future. The first involved a not-terribly-developed metaphor that cast writing as something like building a chair, the idea being that even if you don’t get published, there is virtue in the act. Initially this smelled of vaguely new-age self-cultivation, but it gradually took on ominous undertones: one could imagine a world of isolated, second-rate craftsmen knocking together three-legged literary stools while the pall of a second Dark Age settled over the land. Of course, this was quickly ameliorated by the second, and primary, vision, heralded by the glorious phrase that seems not to stick in your throat when the Penguin Press logo graces the spines of your books: “Social media and self-publishing are democratizing the publishing industry!” This phrase, bandied about like a sutra that one hopes has a cumulative effect, always reminds me of Churchill’s quip that the surest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with one of your constituents. In any case, we have two visions of the future, one of techno-fear and the other of techno-joy; the question is, which should we embrace?

Rather than answer this question directly,  Franzen has decided in his latest book, “The Kraus Project,” to take a backseat to a still more fiery prophet, Karl Kraus. A German-Jewish intellectual, Kraus edited and published 922 volumes of his journal Die Fackel from 1899 to 1936; after 1911 he was the sole contributor. He was at the center of the Viennese intelligentsia, and his readership included Walter Benjamin, Kafka, and Freud. As a satirist he attacked psychoanalysis, German nationalism, and most of Vienna’s other periodicals. He was recognized for the wry aphorisms his essays generated, like “psychoanalysis is the disease of the mind for which it believes itself to be  the cure,” or “bureaucrats lie to the newspapers and then believe the headlines.” Kraus was sly, funny, and vitriolic to the point of incomprehensibility. While Franzen’s warning that Kraus is deliberately hard to follow was turned against him by snide readers in the Guardian’s comments section (as in, “and I guess it’ll take Franzen and his big ‘intellect’ to guide me through.”), this is exactly what he does. With the assistance of scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann, Franzen provides a number of illuminating annotations that clarify, contextualize, or, in the case of Kraus’s most furiously penned sentences, simply admit that they don’t really make linguistic sense. While the extensive annotation does result in a lot of non-linear page turning, ultimately it turns two potentially antiquated essays into engaging historical documents, intellectually and emotionally.

This is of the utmost importance, because the bulk of the book is taken up by these two essays: “Heine and the Consequences” and “Nestroy and Posterity.” Ostensibly, these essays mirror one another: in “Heine,” Kraus is attacking Heinrich Heine, a celebrated poet he sees as overrated, and in “Nestroy,” he champions the misread and underrated Johann Nestroy. I say ostensibly because Kraus is so thoroughly satirical that what he seems to be criticizing is rarely what he’s actually, or, at least, most genuinely, criticizing. Therefore, while it’s impossible to miss the relish with which Kraus aims his polemic artillery at specific figures, Franzen’s annotations help to clarify the ways in which Nestroy and Heine are being used as springboards to talk about more pressing issues. Thus, the indictment of Heine becomes a critique of a degradation of the German language, a linguistic infection smuggled in by the “feuilleton.” Literally translated as “small sheet,” feuilleton referred to the essays, short fictions, and travel pieces that composed the “culture” sections of newspapers; it was, essentially, pop reportage. Along with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Robert Musil, Kraus spoke against the negative effects of the form’s proliferation. Seemingly intimate and clever, feuilletons were in fact mass-produced and, in the pre-television era, addictive commodities that were encroaching on the space reserved for serious literature. They were full of imprecise language, heavy on adjectives, low on substance (think of the strangely homogeneous openers to magazine interviews, which, across the board, generally amount to “this celebrity is a celebrity, but also kind of like us”). The fear was that as the slick, substance-less style of the feuilleton bled over into news reportage which requires journalistic objectivity, the focus would shift from content to form—until content was excised entirely. This begs an equation with the modern day—where the blogosphere is glutted with posts written so individualistically as to be interchangeable, to use a kind of Krausian paradox—and Franzen obliges.

“Heine and the Consequences” serves as something of a warm-up for the second essay, wherein Kraus, and Franzen, bring out the big guns. In “Nestroy and Posterity,” the reconsideration of Nestroy doubles as an indictment of the technological dehumanization of man. As Paul Reitter observes in a footnote, “For Kraus—as for, say, Marx—liberal faith in progress was the worst sort of ideology[…] once the popular imagination has atrophied, the likelihood that technology will be misused hardens into a certainty.” In this essay, the real goal of Kraus’s writing becomes clear: to galvanize the public out of their imaginative lethargy, even if it means spitting in their face and bending language until it breaks. He wants to invert preconceptions, primarily the post-Enlightenment faith in a stable past, and the rose-tinted certainty that the only way for progress to go is up. His contradictions and paradoxes, his ultimatums, like Germanic vs. Latin, and his penchant, as a German Jew, for anti-semitism, were all calculated, his aim to inject a dose of pre-empiricist doubt into a culture that knew just where modernity was taking them and “never [ventured] out without a guard of historians to club down memory for it.” Kraus was out to upset the popular consciousness; he was not to make friends.

And neither was Franzen when he published an assembled extract under the title “What’s Wrong with the Modern World” in the Guardian several weeks before publication. In a decidedly Krausian dichotomy, the comment section’s detractors were of two minds: some took issue with form, others with content. Those who criticized on the grounds of form gave voice to a strange phenomenon, namely that we require our satirists to address their issue of choice with a certain amount of, to use a Franzenian term, “coolness.” On the one hand, Franzen can be hard to defend: his references to AOL are archaic and the Mac vs. PC ads were a long time ago. At the same time, it is as if to say, “Yes, Mr. Franzen, I know Apple is evil, and has working conditions such that they’ve installed security nets around select factories to prevent employee suicides, and they cite a deficit of qualified STEM graduates to substantiate their requests for additional H1 visas while circumventing taxation that is put in place expressly to provide funding to schools, and Facebook is very likely providing all of my personal information to the NSA; but do you have to be such a dweeb about it?” Disappointingly, the New Republic also opted for this line of criticism. They recently published “top 5” lists (a feuilletonistic form if ever there was one) undercutting Franzen’s and Dave Eggers’s latest books, both critical of the technocracy, criticizing Franzen for his “pretentiousness” and Eggers for his technological ignorance. While Eggers perhaps should have known what an operating system is before writing a book about the Internet, the criticisms against Franzen feel like cop-outs: accusations of pretentiousness are almost ad-hominem, Jennifer Weiner citing “male privilege” a non-sequitur, and “well, you haven’t even really embraced it!” like criticizing the uninitiated for not knowing what the kool-aid tastes like. Those concerned with content are, at least, unabashed in their criticism. They stalwartly believe Franzen to be a Luddite, and that all technological progress is silicon manna. These types are more difficult to argue with. Perhaps the only productive counter I can offer is that those who criticize his content are really still engaging with form; more precisely, perhaps Franzen, in translating Kraus and saying the things he does, has a project of his own.

His translation closes with a poem entitled “Let No One Ask.” It was written by Kraus in July 1934 following his months of silence in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. The final line of the poem is clear: “The Word went under when that world awoke.” Kraus had been silent because there had been nothing to say. Satire is predicated on a discrepancy: when a bureaucracy says one thing and does another, the satirist’s job is to explode the absurdity with language. In fascism, there is no discrepancy. No margin exists for dissent, and the writers of clever articles are rounded up and killed. Luckily, we haven’t quite reached that point (although a government that “discriminately” trawls for personal data and defines probable suspicion of terrorism as three degrees of separation probably doesn’t bode well). In his indictment of the modern world, Franzen is most convincing when he is being least polemical. Scattered throughout the book are memoirish footnotes, mostly recounting his time spent in Germany on a Fulbright. These are a welcome relief from the occasionally arcane essays, and it’s a joy to listen to Franzen reflect on his young, pretentious self, whether he’s trapped in Oedipal struggles with Pynchon or writing Krausian letters to the Boston Globe. In one of his more pensive footnotes, Franzen reflects on his correspondence with and decision to marry his then-fiancee, and observes that, although he’s no fan of Freud’s template, he had perhaps let his id override him the whole time. He says this about a period during which he wrote reams of self-justification; today, self-diagnosis is regularly performed in 140 characters or less.

Franzen’s project then is, like Kraus’s, a linguistic call to arms. Language is a dangerous thing and our efforts to employ it often lead only to our circumscribing ourselves: we understand ourselves within a framework of language, and our construction is rarely without flaw. Self-interrogation and the recognition of oneself as fallible are not encouraged by social media, a blatant device of self-construction which practically celebrates the relinquishment of the reins to the id. But to focus on the institutions Franzen attacks (as in, his equation of Twitter with smoking) is to miss the larger point. The book is not an attack on the technologies of modernity, but rather the language of modernity. Franzen admits that he profits by technology just as much as the next consumer. It is when we cease to interrogate this profiting that we fail, when we submit to rhetoric like “the unstoppable progress of technology” without wondering whether what lies beneath the contentless form of this language is not simply “I like what technology can do, and, as a resident of the moral gymnasium that is upper-class America, I can’t imagine anything I like doing also having repercussions.” We render language arbitrary at our own peril, because all the time we spend wrestling with it, identifying discontinuities and challenging personal axioms, is in preparation for the moment when it really and truly fails. For perhaps that is the last discrepancy that satire can register: its own disappearance. Thus, Franzen’s work, like that of all literary agitators, is to keep language alive by stirring it up, so that when the Word goes under, we will recognize its absence.

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