Jonathan Franzen, A Federal Prison & A Reader’s Manifesto

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If you like playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon n’ Eggs, I tempt you to connect the dots of this post’s title before reading on any further.

In an article released online by The Intercept, a site “dedicated to producing fearless, adversial journalism,” federal prison inmate Barrett Brown penned an article titled “Stop Sending Me Jonathan Franzen Novels.”

Mr. Brown is an imprisoned American journalist and founder of Project PM, “a crowd-sourced investigation into the cyber-industrial complex.” In 2012 he was sentenced to 63 months in prison after the FBI raided his house and indicted him on 12 federal charges.

In the October 6 piece mentioned above, Mr. Brown does a convincing job of demystifying what in recent years has become the cult of Jonathan Franzen, author of notable works such as The Corrections and Freedom. His latest novel is called Purity.

As you might glean from the title of his review, Barrett Brown is not a card-carrying member of the J. Franzen Party. He actually starts his review of Purity by quoting Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, who describes Franzen as follows:

By now, Franzen is often regarded less as writer than as cultural signifier, emblem of white male hegemony. That this has little if anything to do with the substance of his novels is (perhaps) the point and the tragedy; when it comes to Franzen, the writing is where we go last.

When Mr. Brown gets to the subject at hand himself, this is what he had to say in a nutshell:

Purity isn’t a terrible book or even a very bad one. There is some clever use of language once in a while, yet Franzen resists the temptation to dip into the self-conscious attempts at “literary” phrasing that mark so much of his competition…Characters will sometimes think clever thoughts or even say them out loud, but not so often that this becomes unseemly. Now and again we are even presented with snippets of real insight. One can see how Franzen could have written a much better book 15 years ago.

Mr. Brown then goes on to Franzen’s interpretation of the state of fiction today through the author’s 1996 Harper’s essay, “Perchance to Dream,” and summarily tears down that Berlin Wall of triteness when he says that people would be better served to read a piece from an old friend of mine from my Korea days, B.R. Myers, who penned a scandalous (well, as scandalous as the publishing world gets when it’s not centred around such cerebral topics as how many hues of grey exist and can a million little pieces really be one big piece of hyped-up poppycock?) article that appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of The Atlantic called “A Reader’s Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose” (and would be published a year later as a book).

Barrett Brown winds down his own piece on Franzen and Purity with this rather, er, direct commentary:

Let me put it this way. I was interested enough in WikiLeaks, state transparency, and emergent opposition networks to do five years in prison over such things, but I wasn’t interested enough that I would have voluntarily plowed through 500 pages of badly plotted failed-marriage razzmatazz by an author who’s long past his expiration date simply in order to learn what the Great King of the Honkies thinks about all this.

And who said all federal inmates are boors and ignoramuses who have nothing to contribute to society! If you missed the recent debate between a group of young Harvard go-getters who had their asses handed to them by a bunch of prisoners in a hotly contested debate that was moderated inside a federal correctional institution, then perhaps someone like Barrett Brown will set you straight.

As Mr. Brown concludes at the end of his piece, very poignantly, I might add:

We live in a sort of silly cultural hell where the columns are composed by Thomas Friedman, the novels are written by Jonathan Franzen, the debate is framed by CNN, and the fact-checking is done by no one. Franzen’s nightmare — a new regime of technology and information activists that will challenge the senile culture of which he is so perfectly representative — is exactly what is needed.



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