I’ve tried to make the case that we should stop using variations on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as titles, but in this case, I’m going to go ahead and break down — without getting too redundant — what we actually talk about when we talk about Jonathan Franzen.
What we talk about when we talk about him is the fact that there is no modern American literary author whose lovers and haters are so vocal. Either you think he’s the great American novelist or you despise him so much that you totally dismiss anything he writes because of your hatred.
His latest work, The Kraus Project, definitely will not change any of that; it may, in fact, alienate people who have set up their tents in the Team Franzen camp, because Franzen’s translation and exploration of the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus is ultimately a boring book. It’s an excuse for one of America’s most famous writers to do whatever he wants. Thankfully for us, Franzen addresses boredom and reading, by letting us know that “It’s as if being bored has become the way to reassure yourself that you’re doing serious reading, as opposed to playing Angry Birds.” So if you find yourself fighting back tears trying not to be confused by both the Kraus stuff and Franzen’s mini-memoir disguised as criticism, the Freedom writer has basically given you the go-ahead to put down The Kraus Project and go play with your iPhone.
In the event that you’re the type of person who would rather spend their time playing Candy Crush than reading The Kraus Project (Angry Birds is so 2010), but you’re still curious about the book, we’ve broken down some of Franzen’s finer points.
Let’s start with a fun pull-quote for the haters: “I wonder if he was so angry because he was so privileged.” Franzen, in discussing Kraus, asks the question that many of his own critics have asked.
Franzen says that Kraus’ “demolition” of Heinrich Heine “was not simply an assult on a pop hero of Dylanesque stature,” and later mentions the arguments for Dylan to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He uses Dylan a few more times throughout the book, while also mentioning his love and admiration for the Talking Heads as well as The Mekons. The other Jonathan (Jonathan Lethem, that is) also likes to talk about his love and admiration for the Talking Heads and Dylan, which leaves us to wonder if appreciation for both of the above are prerequisites for joining the exclusive Literary Jonathan Club.
Franzen writes, “Many of Kraus’s generalizations about women sound unattractive today.” This is fairly hilarious coming from a man who apparently didn’t read any of the criticism of his Edith Wharton piece.
Franzen doesn’t seem to mind Norman Mailer’s “talent for self-advertisement,” but has publicly called out Jennifer Weiner’s “Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion.”
Who said this: “I wasn’t born angry. If anything, I was born the opposite.”
A. Lady Gaga
B. Jonathan Franzen
C. Jessica Rabbit
If your answer is B, you’re correct! Your prize is that you don’t have to read The Kraus Project!
Then Franzen takes on revolution and social media, making his point that “Twitter executives are still banging the utopian drum, claiming foundational credit for the Arab Spring. To listen to them, you’d think it was inconceivable that Eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets without the benefit of cell phones[.]”
He’s right, of course, that prior revolutionaries didn’t have social media to help spread their message, but it’s baffling that he doesn’t seem to compute that things change, tactics evolve; this seems to be the central problem Jonathan Franzen has with just about everything in the entire world. To try and dispute the fact that Twitter was an important part of the Arab Spring is just downright silly, no matter how unattractive its executives’ bragging might be. A page later he goes on to say, “Twitter addicts” called him a Luddite for calling Twitter “dumb.” And suddenly the circle is complete; we realize that all Jonathan Franzen is trying to do is tell us — once again — that he’s never going to use Twitter.