Shouts & Murmurs (And The Non-Fictional Life)

I’m in the mood for non-fiction today. (I wonder if that says anything about my upcoming year). The blogwise advantage of discussing nonfiction pieces is that I can link them here in full, thus making the blogging experiences that much more communal, which is apparently what everyone is striving for these past few days, if to judge by the amount of posts about co-reading challenges. Incidentally, the other popular headline these days is “books I’ve bought/read/used as a doorstop in 2011”, which only goes to show how much of an order-freak we all really are. Lists galore.

New Yorker cover. Inside: J. Franzen waiting to tell you all about Masafuera

Here’s a nice piece of nonfic writing to get us started: an essay (“reflection”) by Jonathan Franzen, called “Farther Away: “Robinson Crusoe”, David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude”, published in the New Yorker in April 2011. It’s a tad long – well, let’s face it, it’s a lot long – but definitely worth it. I’ve shared my fondness of Franzen before; his characters are always very round and interesting. Well, this time there are no characters, just musings on the time he went to the south-pacific island called Masafuera, where Robinson Crusoe takes place, to mourn the death of his close friend and famous writer in his own right, David Foster Wallace. The piece is well-written and certainly brings up important thoughts on Foster Wallace’s suicide. I did, however, have a problem with Franzen’s description of him. Somewhere in the middle Franzen complains about how “people who had never read [Wallace’s] fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul”. This, I had thought, was the beginning of a very candid and poignant observation of our constant need to idealize the dead (would Cobain, Lennon or James Dean be the symbols they are today had they lived to see 60?). Instead, Franzen seems to have fallen into his own trap, describing his personality as “more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, […] more lovable—funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies”. I mean, this might very well be a very accurate description of the man – I wouldn’t know – but this whole thing about ‘being at war with your demons’ etc. reads very romantic to me. Oh, the poetic soul, and so on. Not that I have a more fitting adjective to suggest; I guess my point is that every attempt to describe someone with a list of adjectives is doomed to fail. Franzen then goes back to share his insight, which turns out to be authentic and personal after all: ” …still [ it was] hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.”

Staying with the New Yorker, but moving to the funnier ha-ha rather than the funnier hmmm, wait, no, I don’t think that was meant as a joke, here are a couple of pieces by Andy Borowitz. “Alarm Bells” is a useful guide to first dates you should steer clear of. “New Year’s Resolutions, Seven Months Later” is somewhat older (2004) but feels super relevant today of all days. Though it’s hilarious any day, to be sure. Also, look what a great cover that issue had:

I was going to discuss some poetry too but I think I’ll save it for another day and stick to articles for now. Here’s a cute list from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, just so it wouldn’t look like I go exclusively to the New Yorker to get my giggles on: “Famous Opening Lines from Novels Updated to the Modern Age.” by Sean Ryan. Personal favorite: “Call me Ishmael_65”.

Hurray for Blogism

Having given it an acceptable – yet not excessive – amount of thought, I have decided to jump-start my blog with a festive post on some recent readings (hurray indeed!). I’d be lying if I said I had a very specific, well-thought plan for this blog. Like any lazy writer, I’m mostly hoping it will soon develop a life of its own, or some other similar cliché. Either way, in a very appropriate manner, it begins… with a book.

Well, two of them.

The first is Jonathan Franzen’s long-awaited Freedom. Though I am usually not one for all this Americana (college basketball, suburbia, green-vs.-corporate politics), I found myself enjoying it very much. Which is perhaps not much of a surprise – I loved The Corrections – but mostly, I think, it goes to show that well-built characters and relationships can survive any setting. What was extra clever about Freedom, and only revealed towards the end, was that it is in a sense a book about a book (well, manuscript). Despite everything Walter B. was put through by his horrific wife, he stayed put; what finally broke him down and forced him to regain control was Patty’s manuscript. Oh, the ars-poetica of it all. Sometimes the situation needs to be put into words for us to fully accept and understand it (more on this later. Probably).

I was also going to say something about His Loveliness, Stephen Fry’s (latest) autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. Then I realized I don’t really have anything to say about it. What is there to say? Some people are born with the right words, some achieve them and some have those words thrust upon them; Stephen Fry seems to be all and none at the same time. He has all the right anecdotes and all the wit to make daily events into anecdotes too, which is way more useful. Mr. Fry, I adore you! There, I said it.