Imagining Jonathan Franzen

Posted by Cila Warncke

I find literary interviews marginally encouraging. Selfishly, I’m pleased to hear Jonathan Franzen took nine years to complete his novel ‘Freedom’. A paragraph lifts my heart like a balloon, then pricks it:

It isn’t just that the latest novel took nine years to finish. It is also that, within that period, only a little over a year was spent actually writing it. He looks back on that year with something approaching joy. “Most of those months were heaven. I was miserable much of the time, but miserable in the happiest way.”

Imagine, interjects the journalist. “If being miserable in a happy way is his idea of heaven, imagine what the first wordless eight years were like.” Before there is time for imagining, though, it’s off again on anecdotes about Oprah’s Book Club and defunct comic novels. There are two reasons for the athletic leap from “agonisingly blocked” writer, wearing earplugs to drown the world out, sitting in a bare room waiting for inspiration, to the feted, Time-magazine cover star, and putative “Great American Novelist”. For one, a newspaper interview does not permit lengthy discursions on the emotional cost of the writer’s life. For the other, it’s simply too monstrous. To truly imagine those empty years – and not just the recent nine but, especially, the glossed eighteen years spent writing his first three novels – is to go someplace most of us hope to never have to go.

It is tacitly agreed in our culture that we only talk about valleys from the safe height of the mountaintop. No-one, I suppose, much wanted to interview Franzen during the “Days spent asking questions about certain characters in certain situations, trying to work out chronologies, logic trees burnishing off into infinity. [Days writing] Horrible, unreadable, intensely boring stuff.” Triumph we want a piece of, vicariously; of despair we have enough ourselves. Yet that is the bulk of life. We may wish to live like mountain goats, skipping from one high stony perch to another, but reality is a long trudge through boggy lowlands and hands-and-knees clambering through briar-patches. Most of the time we don’t even have the satisfaction of recognisable trauma; of the literal cliff-hanger which provides, at least, the adrenaline-kick of danger, the satisfaction of instant feedback, of adversity overcome. Catastrophe is almost as disconcertingly elusive as victory. In between lies existence.

Imagining that burns like looking into the sun. We don’t imagine the humanity-defying impassivity of time and space because it is unbearable. Car crashes, divorce, a death in the family, the loss of a limb; these are sufficiently big and bad enough to reduce to neat packages of cause-and-effect; stories with morals. There is no way to rationalise getting out of bed every day and not knowing if what you are going to do that day will make a difference to anyone, not even yourself. Where are the words for how it feels to go to a room and sit there, putting one word after another like the footfalls of some poor fool lost in the Gobi? Against trackless time humility, arrogance, hope, and fear are just postures. No-one can feel any one thing, in any one way, over those years. Time erodes everything, especially the possibility of capturing a fragmentary truth or beautifully expressing an idea.

Worse than having nothing to say is the possibility of discovering that, as T.S. Eliot put: “one has only learnt to get the better of words/For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/One is no longer disposed to say it.” Imagine waking up each day with the bated-breath dread that everything you did the day before, everything the last month, year, decade has lead to might be undone by an unsolicited burst of inspiration. Even the shadow of that thought petrifies me. I would be afraid to speak, afraid to love, afraid to read, afraid even to dream; afraid that the weight of the world, balanced on a pin-point of inspiration, would shift an atom left or right and obliterate forever the idea I was fighting to express. I wouldn’t be afraid of running out of ideas, but of never finding my feet amidst the torrent.

Everything we think we know we learn by a slow process of mistakes and misdirection. We learn heat burns by putting our hand against the stove. I can’t think of anything more terrifying than waking up every day knowing that it might be the day where a newspaper headline, a chance conversation, or a memory, might trigger a realisation that will turn a lifetime of hard-won truths to stony lies. No wonder we use platitudes like shields. It takes years of education and inculturation to build the flimsy shelter of conventional morality. To admit that there is no singular truth, no Platonic ideal, is to gaze into the pitiless inadequacy of our emotions and coping devices. It is to realise that the creative act is not a thrilling distillation of one sensation, or attitude, but a ceaseless struggle through head-high jungle armed with a dull machete and no clear sense of direction. It is to fight the temptation to differentiate between success and failure. It is to accept there are no answers but go out looking anyway.