Look mum, no hands

27 Nov

It started back there with Orhan Pamuk, and now, all of a sudden, it’s an obsession. I didn’t notice the trend at first, because you never do notice that kind of thing until you’re in the middle of it, but before I knew it, I was through The Museum of Innocence, The Little Stranger, Freedom, and was pulling Wolf Hall off the shelves.

Must. Read. Thick. Books.

Reading The Museum of Innocence was like taking a walk in a summer shower. Sensuous and inspiring all in one. It’s set in Istanbul, and if I were a city, I’d aspire to be Istanbul, opulent and melancholy and seething and vibrant and cohesive and divided and bloody hard work all wrapped into one.

But more than losing myself in characters and plots and settings, reading big thick books is making me slightly euphoric (can you be slightly euphoric, or is euphoria an absolute state?) simply because I am reading them.

I am reading them because I can.

My fragility is fading.

This time last year, I was reading, but it was either with ferocious focus (The Shaking Woman, The Spare Room, A Year of Magical Thinking) or it was flitting about on the internet, filling my hours with links and words I didn’t even try to absorb. (I know the internet gets blamed for shrinking our attention spans and our brains, but maybe sometimes it’s more a case that we go to the internet when we’ve already got shrunken spans and brains.)

I don’t know how other people measure their wellness, but obviously, for me, reading is a measure. This time last year, there is no way that I could have picked up a book with several hundred pages and expected myself to finish it. Last year, I might have picked Freedom up, but I wouldn’t even have noticed the point where I stopped reading it. I would have just put it down one night before I went to sleep and never picked it up again.

This year, I can start on the first page, end on the last, *and* tell you something of what I have read. This year, if I stop reading a book, it’s because I decide to stop reading it, not because I’ve forgotten I ever started it. Which brings me to Freedom, the reading thereof, and whether or not I am going to finish it.

I am a finisher of books. Not without exception, but by and large, and I don’t abandon books easily. It might even be said that I over-think the decision to stop reading a book.

Reading Freedom started out well, by which I mean when I read the first sentence, I thought, ‘I am gonna love this,’ because I do love these [insert adjective] stories. What adjective should I put in there? I’m inclined to put in rambling, but there you go that’s why I’m not a critic or textual analyst, can’t think of a better word than rambling. Ever since Becky Sharp absorbed an entire adolescent weekend, I’ve liked the opportunity to sit and read and read and read and to know that even if you’re being told a lot of things you’re still not being told everything. I love domestic dramas and abundant characters and sprawling narratives. But on page four, which is the second page, I got my first inkling that me and Freedom were not made for each other.

“There were also more contemporary questions, like, what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary? Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighbourhood? Was it true that the glaze of old Fiestaware contained dangerous amounts of lead? How elaborate did a kitchen water filter actually need to be?”

Hmm. Okay. Firstly, it isn’t very original and secondly, I’m over it. I am over this constant attack on women, attack disguised as coolly ironic observations of women’s preoccupations. And please don’t say that this is a general critique and it’s not aimed at women, because it *is* about women, and I say this not only because I know if this were a cartoon it would be a woman’s speech bubble, but because the next paragraph affirms it: “For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”

So I was only a few hundred words in, and my heart was beating with the stress of taking this personally and I was thinking this isn’t going as well as I thought it would.

Now, I know that there’s a difference between author as messenger and author as protagonist. I’m not especially good at textual analysis, but I know enough to know that I shouldn’t confuse the two and I shouldn’t be taking this personally, so I kept reading. In lots of ways I kept enjoying myself and got swept away in it and wanted to know what happened next and neglected to get the tea ready because I was asborbed and so on. But there were a few things that kept niggling at me, and most of the time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being despised or at least held in contempt.

Here’s my problem. Dabbling in comedy I learnt that as the creator, you must eventually include yourself. Your observations might be clever and smart and erudite and all of those things, but if you don’t turn it back on yourself and include yourself in the joke, you’re just being mean. Or disdainful. Or contemptuous. Or some combination of those and other things.

The more I read of Freedom, the more I felt that the overall tone of the novel was disdain, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was because the author kept a disdainful distance from his characters. Further, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he treats his characters that way because that’s how he thinks of people generally. It greatly affected my willingness to keep reading, because just as I don’t want to go to a night of comedy to be constantly put down nor do I want to spend a week in the company of a book which treats me with such disdain.

Again, I know to separate messenger and message from author as person and their opinion, but I was heavily influenced by a sentence from The Discomfort Zone which I have never been able to forget. I read The Discomfort Zone, Franzen’s last book of essays and memoir, at the same time as I was reading And When Did You Last See Your Father? and I think perhaps that wasn’t a good combination because there was just too much discordance between Morrison’s and Franzen’s styles. Whatever the reason, I found The Discomfort Zone to be disconcertingly cold and distant, particularly for a memoir. For example, in talking about his separation from his wife, he writes (and you will be able to tell the sentence that has stayed with me):

“…I didn’t believe we’d really separated. It may have become impossible for us to live together, but my wife’s sort of intelligence still seemed to me the best sort, her moral and aesthetic judgments still seemed to me the only ones that counted. The smell of her skin and the smell of her hair were restorative, irreplaceable, the best. Deploring other people – their lack of perfection – had always been our sport. I couldn’t imagine never smelling her again.”

Back when I bought and read The Discomfort Zone, everything I read was part of a focused attempt to make sense of my own life which was, at the time, a shambles. Morrisson’s work made absolute sense to me, but Franzen’s left me confused and baffled, both about myself and about the work. When I finished reading it, I studied every piece of criticism I could find, trying to make sense of my impressions and responses. It’s interesting that in the front cover of the book, I have copied this from a review in The New York Times: “…the inevitable revelations that you get here make you reconsider the novels more harshly than more compasionately.”

Were the mister reading this, or if I had decided to talk about this between overs or over a cup of tea, he would say, ‘What’s the big deal? If you don’t like it, don’t finish it.’

Point. But I don’t want to miss out on Freedom. I mean everyone else likes it, no one else is taking it personally and also I don’t want to be the tosser in the corner waving my glass around and saying, INXS was great until Shabooh Shoobah, LA is fine but you really want to be in Chicago, Franzen is overrated. It could be that I’m out of practice reading fiction and I need to warm up first. I mean, about ninety percent of the things I’ve read in the last two years, both hardcopy and online, have been memoir of one kind or another. Maybe I just need to get my fiction brain back in gear.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. First of all, I’m going to read Wolf Hall, and if I haven’t found another big thick book by then, I’ll go back to Freedom. Either way, it’s tragically exciting to be reading thick books again.


40 Responses to “Look mum, no hands”

  1. genevieve November 27, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

    It’s not ginormously thick, but you can’t go wrong reading The Master by Colm Toibin.
    Or Trout Opera by Matt Condon – that is very fine. Might be hard to get quickly though.

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

      Prolly wouldn’t be able to get Matt Condon here, but I think the mister’s got The Master somewhere.

  2. Pavlov's Cat November 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    I’m taking it personally.

    I’m taking personally the reinforcement in this book at every turn that men do indeed think of women as objects: prizes, burdens, trophies, punishments, you name it, but always currency in some economy or other, often the economy of masculine competition, as in ‘My woman’s better than your woman. Also, I have more women than you.’

    What Franzen is telling me about American men, perhaps all men, and what they really think about women makes me want to barf, except that I did already sort of know it, so the moment for barfing is past, and now that you’ve told me these things about Franzen and the enjoyment of trashing other people for not being perfect and so on, I’m starting to think that what he says men think about women is really actually what he thinks about women. Messenger or no messenger.

    Also, I have just come across a putdown of Ian McEwan (one of the characters is reading Atonement) that was just utterly pathetic. Fancy being self-consciously writing a Great Book of Our Times and yet not being able to resist throwing in that sad, self-revealing little dick-wave. Gag.

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:33 pm #

      Though I guess – and I only just thought of this – it seems he thought that way about all people, not just women. If that’s consolation.

      • Pavlov's Cat November 27, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

        Probably, but what I’m having a lot of trouble with is specifically the way that Richard and Joey talk and think about women and sex. Of course it’s a separate question from how Franzen talks and thinks, but I think his portrait is an accurate one and that’s what I find so difficult and upsetting. Because it’s telling me things will never change and men will always think about women like this.

        All of this is different from whether or not it’s a bad book, of course, and I don’t think Franzen writes bad books — I thought The Corrections was better than this one, but then, I thought The Corrections was great. I’ve stuck with Freedom to within sight of the end, and certainly would not have done that if the plot and characters were not luring me forward. It’s like putting up with the motion sickness in order to get to Kangaroo Island.

  3. francine November 27, 2010 at 1:17 pm #

    I confess to be one of those people who have not (yet) read Freedom. It is on my list, even though I may never make it there. You see, I once made it through The Corrections. This was an accomplishment more due to force of plot than to any kind of sentiment for the characters. I know that we don’t have to like everybody – I mean, that’s what real life is for, right? – but I could not sympathise with ANY of the characters in that book. And that made it hard to read, because it is a character and relationship driven kind of book.

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

      I didn’t/don’t like anyone in Freedom either, which, as you say, doesn’t have to matter…I didn’t like Becky Sharp much either. But yes, you do need to care what is going to happen to them.

  4. meli November 27, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

    don’t know anything about freedom. but reading wolf hall was one of the nicest things about my very nice summer. enjoy!

    i’m on long books too at the moment – two thirds of the way through david copperfield. there’s something about reading dickens in winter…

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:24 pm #

      Also, here’s something I didn’t know, but in the early days of a baby, I read heaps and heaps. Once I worked out how to balance the baby and the book while I was feeding, I chewed through books. I have very happy memories of that time.

  5. Rae November 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm #

    I couldn’t finish it. He is incredibly distant from his characters- in fact he seems to dislike them, and perhaps people in general.

    I never realized that the reason I felt affronted by the way he treats Patty is because it seems like an affront to women. You are so right.

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

      How far did you read? I’m about 3/4 through, so it sort of seems silly not to finish it now.

  6. elsewhere November 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    Much to think about there, including whether or not to read Freedom…all that stuff you say about having to include yourself, having to include some likable characters or no one will go on the journey with you…I totally agree with, from my experience of scriptwriting. Disdain is just disdain, after a while.

    Running out of battery power here, but just wanted to say: I’m pretty sure there’s a ‘what city am I?’ personality quiz on FB.

    • ThirdCat November 27, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

      I wouldn’t not read it on the back of my reading of it. As a reader, I have a lot of flaws, and there’s lots of people have lots of good things to say about it.

  7. The Coffee Lady November 27, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    I think its utterly fine to hate books other people adore. I have a whole list. And of course, my opinion is the superior one.

    • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 10:22 am #

      No, my opinion is the superior one.

  8. Cristy November 27, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    I can’t stand Franzen and you’ve just put your finger on why.

    Yay for your restored attention span!

    Wolf Hall is a gem of a book. Enjoy!

    • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 10:26 am #

      Are you getting much reading in at the moment? If I look back, it was about the time my second child was born that my reading took its first serious dive.

  9. suse November 28, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    I haven’t read any Franzen but Wolf Hall was the highlight of my reading in 2010. Well, along with the latest Kate Atkinson (Started early, took my dog) which is a gem.

    Hooray for your return to big meaty books. Must feel like coming home.

    • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 10:23 am #

      I’ve got an unread Kate Atkinson here somewhere. Or is it in storage? Shall go and look, because that’s a very good idea for my next book. I’m supposed to not be getting anything new until I’ve read all the unread things on my bookshelf.

    • Pavlov's Cat November 28, 2010 at 11:47 am #


    • SQ November 28, 2010 at 4:03 pm #


      • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

        Actually, I’ve been meaning to tell you, I’ve got one of your books on my bookshelf here…that’s how good my booktheft skills are.

  10. Helen November 28, 2010 at 6:08 am #

    I haven’t read Freedom but my impression of The Corrections was that his treatment of male and female characters was more evenhanded than your description of his latest novel here. Perhaps he’s ageing badly.

    I have the same kind of conflict with the Australian writer David Foster: I think he’s my favourite Oz novelist and without peer in so many ways, but he sometimes diverges into ugly racist tropes (and has been, on occasion, published in Quadrant. Ew.) And the division between the author and the characters is not clear. So, yes, I really get that. (I haven’t read his latest).

    • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 10:24 am #

      See, now I’m thinking I’d better go and read The Corrections, but on the other hand…what a pity to have wasted all the hours I’ve wasted not reading.

  11. Frances November 28, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    I preferred “Corrections” to “Freedom”, but I read the quote re Patty as true to the reality of those days, and meant almost satirically. Surely he makes it clear that she’s worth so much more than that? That she’s diminished herself?
    Just as when her mother says, re her basketball,” I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be fostering so much aggression and competition…” Yes, that was a very common attitude, particularly about women’s sport, before the “winning is everything” days. I’m wondering whether, because I’m in my 60s, I fell on such with little joyful yips of recognition.
    As I did with her father’s friends and her discomfort with their “ocular pawing,” and the observation that the rich give mean presents: the book with a few pages printed upside down, eg.
    Patty is surely a more admirable and likeable woman than, say, the inane hippy mum in Cate Kennedy’s “The World Beneath”? I’m trying hard here to think of some more positive literary females, but at the moment I’m at a loss.
    Yes, the “Atonement” comment seemed gratuitous and pointless.
    And, truth is I can’t particularly remember how “Freedom” ended.

    • ThirdCat November 28, 2010 at 5:03 pm #

      I guess I’m just feeling like I’m worn out by that particular satire, but a friend of mine in my bookclub had the same yips of recognition that you describe. You’ll remember plenty of positive literary women in the morning. I’m sorry to say I haven’t read The World Beneath. I forgot to buy a copy when I was home, and it will cost a fortune to order it here now, because the Australian dollar is so strong.

  12. Pavlov's Cat November 29, 2010 at 1:57 am #

    My theory about The World Beneath is that both the parents start out looking like caricatures to the daughter, and to each other, and no doubt to the world at large, and then as we get to know them better they get more and more three-dimensional though not necessarily better. I probably liked the hippy mum better than younger female readers anyway because I am closer to her age and remember women like her (indeed we were all a bit like her in the early 70s) whereas I think there’s some reflexive generational distaste among Gen X and Y readers. What I like best about her is that she is in fact loving and generous and independent — that underneath all the floaty scarves and so on, the hippy ideals are there, and solid.

    • ThirdCat November 29, 2010 at 7:46 am #

      How *could* I forget to bring that back with me?

  13. Frances November 29, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    The female portrayal I liked least was of the Australian mother in The Slap, who not only was an overly zealous, protective helicopter mum, but was initially cold and neglectful of her baby. That is, the poor woman not only embodied one maternal failing, but all.

    • ThirdCat November 29, 2010 at 7:40 am #

      I found that character problematic, because she seemed so inconsistent. I couldn’t get my head around her motives or actions at all.

  14. Craftastrophies November 29, 2010 at 3:19 am #

    I have not read Freedom, and since I am still in the inability to read thick books stage, probably won’t. I did listen to the Slate Audio bookclub of it, which is what I do with popular, ‘important’ books that I don’t think I’ll read. Sometimes it makes me want to (I bought infinite jest for when I can tackle things like that again) but their review of Freedom simply confirmed that this is not a book I want to read, ever.

    For a while I’ve only been able to stick with non fiction, because I don’t have to read that looking for meanings and messages to sort out my own emotional landscape. But now I’m editing non fiction, I can’t even manage that. So it’s short things and light things and familiar things, and LORD I am bored.

    • ThirdCat November 29, 2010 at 7:45 am #

      You could try the Sarah Waters Little Stranger book…I really liked it, and if you lose concentration, you can sort of pick up the threads again. It was like reading Rebecca.

  15. suze November 29, 2010 at 4:57 am #

    Ëveryone else likes it”. Not true. London Review of Books \was pretty scathing I thought, and there was a negative American one too – might have been Wall Street Journal or even NYRB.

    • ThirdCat November 29, 2010 at 7:44 am #

      Just went and read the LRB review, but I’ve bookmarked to go back and read more carefully.

  16. penguinunearthed November 29, 2010 at 10:04 am #

    I really enjoyed this post, because I feel as if I’m almost back in that ‘reading thick books’ frame of mind too. I’m really hoping to get some serious reading done in the next year, and it’s been a long time, quite a lot pre children, I think, since I chewed through Tolstoy, Dickens, Victor Hugo etc etc. That said, I did love Wolf Hall this year, and want to read more of that period, so I’m inching my way back.

    For me part of it is wellness, but part of it is using far too much of my serious attention on work, instead of myself (or indeed the rest of my life).

    If you get a chance for another book post, when you’ve read a bit more, I’d love some good recommendations.

  17. Laura December 3, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    What you’ve described sounds very much like another manifestation of the thing that’s always been really unappealing about Franzen, his aggressive terror of anything that strikes him as middling, middlebrow – and pretty often this gets mixed up with anxiety about the perceived feminisation of that strand of culture. It goes back with him at least as far as the Oprah / Corrections debacle. Not that I don’t still fully intend to read Freedom once I go on holiday in about ten days. Apart from anything else, he has on more than one occasion saved me from Christmastime family misery and I’m hoping he can cushion me from the worst bits of the horrible one that’s coming up this year.

  18. charlotteotter December 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    I’m a fast reader and I love a big fat book. I hope you love Wolf Hall – in my book, it’s the best thing that’s been written this century. I also recently read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld and I thought, all this fuss about Franzen? HERE’S the American literary genius we should all be talking about, but we’re not because Curtis is a woman and thus under the radar.
    Back to Freedom, I think you’re right about Franzen and women. Whether he likes Patsy or not, he doesn’t REALISE her. His two males protags are fleshed out and human, but Patsy is always an amalgam of other people’s gazes, never HERSELF. I don’t think he intended that at all, I think, as you suggest, that it is a reflection of how he views women.
    Straight after Freedom, I read Stephen King’s Under The Dome, which though fat is not my usual fare, but I loved it. I thought: now, HERE’S a storyteller.

  19. Jennifer (ponderosa) December 9, 2010 at 5:53 am #

    Hello — I saw your comment on my blog and promptly came here, where I have been digging through your archives…

    I have never read a book of Franzen’s and I never will because I do not believe that he is writing for me. He’s not talking to me. Why should I listen in on his conversation with other people? Now that sounds bitter but I don’t feel bitter; it’s just — well, lots of books exist in this world, you know?

    I think you’d like this commentary on Franzen’s book by a woman novelist who lives in Montana, Charlotte Freeman. She says this, “The canonization of Freedom as ‘the Great American Novel’ stakes a claim that what counts as the central American experience is the struggles of upper-middle-class white people seeking to move up in the world.”

    • ThirdCat December 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

      Everyone! Go and read that link Jennifer (ponderosa) has given us.


  1. I read Freedom « blue milk - December 2, 2010

    […] Franzen’s Freedom and you’re wanting somewhere to think about it then I recommend adelaide by adelaide. (In discussing Franzen’s new novel she is paying particular attention to the depiction of […]

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