Saturday, April 30, 2011

Readings: Jonathan Franzen's FREEDOM

Last night I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s transcendentally good novel, Freedom. Despite being plagued by a busy schedule of late, I devoured its 562 pages in a week; a pace which—these days—says, “I couldn’t put it down.”

Among his many skills as a writer, Franzen’s ultimate forte, imo, is the development of his characters. Next to that skill, may be his extreme sensitivity in detecting every spooky little nuance of the zeitgeist.

I have selected three excerpts that I particularly liked, each for its own reason. The first one spotlights the character, Walter, with whom I identify strongly on certain levels, one of which is demonstrated here in his opinion of the Dave Matthews Band. [“Dave Katz” is Walter’s long-time best friend, a “legendary” alternative rock musician; Insanely Happy is song by a band Walter has just been to see with Patty, his wife]:

On the way home to Ramsey, in the family Volvo, Walter raved about the excellences of Insanely Happy and the debased taste of an American public that turned out by the millions for the Dave Matthews Band and didn’t even know that Richard Katz existed.

“Sorry,” Patty said. “Remind me again what’s wrong with Dave Matthews?”

“Basically everything, except technical proficiency,” Walter said.


“But maybe especially the banality of the lyrics. ‘Gotta be free, so free, yeah, yeah, yeah. Can’t live without my freedom, yeah, yeah.’ That’s pretty much every song.”

Exactly. The resonance of that mini-critique with the novel’s title should not go unnoticed.

Next, this passage, showing Walter’s insight into the Achilles Heel of the American political reality:

“The reason the system can’t be overthrown in this country,” Walter said, “is all about freedom. The reason the free market in Europe is tempered by socialism is that they’re not so hung up on personal liberties there. They also have lower population growth rates, despite comparable income levels. The Europeans are all-around more rational, basically. And the conversation about rights in this country isn’t rational. It’s taking place on the level of emotion, and class resentments, which is why the right is so good at exploiting it.”

I could not agree with that more.

Another thing that I have in common with Walter is a Swedish immigrant great-grandfather with socialist tendencies. Mine drank himself to death at an early age, after coming to this country young and alone and having founded a business as a boiler-maker in Michigan. Franzen imagines Walter’s ancestor thus:

“America, for Einar, was the land of unSwedish freedom, the place of wide-open spaces where a son could still imagine he was special. But nothing disturbs the feeling of specialness like the presence of other human beings feeling identically special. Having achieved, through his native intelligence and hard labor, a degree of affluence and independence, but not nearly enough of either, he became a study in anger and disappointment.”

Franzen had previously said of Einar that: …[he] then relocated to Bemidji, where he did a good business as a road builder but ended up selling his company at a disastrously low price to an oily-mannered associate who’d pretended to have socialist sympathies.” Thus, as it was in northwestern Michigan for my Swedish forebear, so it was very much also in Minnesota for Walter’s.

I predict that anyone who follows my strong recommendation to read this great novel will find similar insights into the many nuances of “freedom” and similar correspondences between the lives Franzen’s characters and their own lives, as expressed in the quest for freedom.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Readings: Simic on the Human Condition

This may be as succinct a description of human existence as I've ever seen:

With Paper Hats Still on Our Heads

The check is being added up in the back,
As we speak.
That’s why we don’t see any waiters
Prowling around here anymore.
The rustle of bill you’re counting
Makes me think of grass
Being mowed with a scythe in a graveyard
I don’t reckon it’ll be enough.
Dip your finger in what’s left of the red wine
And let me suck on it slowly.
I wish they’d at least clear the dirty plates.
No prices on the menu
Should’ve been an instant tip-off.
Chitterlings in angel gravy,
How in the world did we ever fall for that?
Love of my life, start your jive.

~ Charles Simic, from Night Picnic


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Readings: Mystery Poet, take 2

It’s Saturday morning. It’s raining outside. I tossed and turned all night, and I can’t find any jazz sad enough to make me feel good by contrast.

Because it’s Saturday morning, I’m supposed to be composing a blog post including more of the poetry of Al Levine. This is not an outside assignment, but an interior commitment—the kind one had best not shirk. I don’t feel like doing this, but there it is on the list—non-negotiable. So…

The following is not the poem that I had planned to share today, but it is on the list. And it suits my mood. So here it is:


First she commits seppuku
By stabbing herself in the stomach
And then without ripping up

And spilling out her guts
She follows me into the kitchen
Where I’ve heated up the stove:
All ready to roast her body when she dies.
But she’s not dead,
She only follows me around the house
With a smirk on her face
And a small neat elliptical incision on her belly.
She wants to embrace me
Thinking to overcome me by the force of my aversion.
But I surprise her by taking her shoulders in my hands
And holding her close.
She’s not even very bloody
But I can’t remember whether her body is warm or cold.
I could have eaten her then,
Neither dead nor alive.

There. Debt paid. Have a great day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Readings: A Failure of Love

I am well underway with my reading of a second novel by Mary Robison, One D.O.A., One on the Way. While this one may never be able to replace the first one in my reader’s heart, it is an excellent read. I love the way that Robison structures her fiction as a series of short, numbered sections. I share with you below two such sections, which hit me very hard, narrated in the voice of the novel’s protagonist:


I had a different husband in the late ‘90s. Charlie. He was a professor of neuroscience, from a harbor town in northeast Ireland. We were fine being married. For over two years, we were fine. Then one day his mother was thrown from a train that collided with another train on its way to Connolly Station. So, Charlie went home to take care of his mom, and we would talk on the phone every few days. I thought he’d say something, eventually, about returning to the states. He never did, though. His mother was pretty much broken to bits. A widow. And Charlie had a much younger sister. We stopped calling back and forth so often, he and I. Until it became once or twice a month, once a month, every two or three months that we’d talk. Then I dragged myself through divorcing him. It was sad.


I should have offered to join Charlie in Ireland, and offered to help him take care of his mom. Helped with his sister. He must have waited for me to do that. While all I could think of was, When’s he going to wrap up and come home?
xxxxxxThere that is. Written right on me. Never, ever to be scratched out.

It seemed to me upon reading these two brief sections that they accurately describe the key mechanism of the failure of relationships—how love dies. While most of us may not commit transgressions against our partners quite as grand in scale as the one described here, still it is the accretion of many little instances of the same type of self-centered neglect which finally adds up to the destruction of what we have: that which we should be treasuring and nurturing, but allow to weaken and finally die through our inertia and neglect.

Robison’s writings are full of such valuable (and accusatory) insights. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Readings: A Mystery Poet

As is obvious from the (increasingly scant) posts below, I continue to read both fiction and non-fiction. But recently my reading has been more strongly focused on poetry. So when my friend, Pentimento, asked me recently if I had ever heard of a poet named Al Levine (I hadn't), my curiosity was piqued.

Pentimento remembered a poem by Al Levine entitled "An Alphabet" which had appeared years ago in The New Yorker magazine. She was able to find it online, but couldn't unearth much other information about Al Levine. Her research seems to have shown that he published only one book of poetry: Prophecy in Bridgeport.

I was able to determine that my library has a copy of that book. That copy has been taken out of general circulation and shelved at our annex facility, where unread books too worthy to pulp reside in literary limbo.  I immediately put in a request to have the book delivered to me at the main library.

When I received the book and checked it out, I discovered that it had last been borrowed on November 4, 1981, a couple of months after the break-up of my first marriage. In the interim between then and now I have lived through two subsequent marriages and raised two daughters to adulthood . It seems a long, long time. (But, then again, it doesn't...)

I haven't been able to find any additional information about Al Levine online. Some of the poems in Prophecy in Bridgeport were published in New American Review and Harper's Magazine, in addition to The New Yorker (and a couple of other, lesser publications), and the book was published by Scribner's--so Levine must have been a hot commodity for a spell in the late sixties and early seventies. But he has completely disappeared--as nearly as I can determine--save for the availability of his one book from various used book dealers.

On page 22 of Prophecy in Bridgeport are two short poems which I like and which seem to me to be characteristic of Levine's work. I present them here, noting that all of the poems in the book are in italics:


A ray of sunlight struck
The face of a corpse
The woods
A frog's face
The exposed nerve of a dying hare
The jacket of a copper slug
The exposed bud of a March tree
The face of a corpse
The sole of his boot
The cloud drifting over his face
The moon


My friend in the bath house
Took her trumpet from its black case
And blew a long silver note that fell on the stones
Glistening with a kind of afterbirth
That died a long way off in the black spruce forest
And the creature which had just been born
Licked itself on the wet flags
And rose, following.
The quivering trees.

If anybody coming across this post knows anything about Al Levine, please share it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Readings: The Novel

I'm reading Mary Robison's 2001 novel Why Did I Ever.

What I'm thinking is, that this may be the very best way to write a novel, after everything else has been done.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Readings: The Virtue of Wisdom

: St Mark the Ascetic, “On the Spiritual Law”

79. I have seen unlearned men who were truly humble, and they became wiser than the wise.

80. Another unlearned man, upon hearing them praised, instead of imitating their humility, prided himself on being unlearned and so fell into arrogance.

St Mark the Ascetic; early fifth century (?); a desert hermit, probably in Egypt or Palestine.

The wisdom of this ancient monk has outlived his biography; a state of immortality to which we should all aspire.

It occurs to me that the corrosive anti-intellectualism so rampant today in our conservative political class might find its antidote in the wisdom of item "79" above...