mr. difficult

June 4, 2009

So I read that new Jonathan Franzen story in the New Yorker today and at first I just hate hate hated it, and this is in part because I hate it when stories start with the full name of a main character, like when a story starts like “FirstName LastName was/did/felt something,” like, I just can’t stand that kind of Dick and Jane declarative opening to a story, it seems so stagey and false, so unsubtle, like it’s coming from somebody who doesn’t have DEEP WRITERLY PASSION LIKE ME but instead like somebody who has this special notebook full of quirky and interesting character names that they’ve saved and collected over a period of time, like the writerly version of one of those people who cut out magazine pictures of desired things for their inspiration walls, but also besides all of this, I was really predisposed to hate Jonathan Franzen because at a formative moment in college, I think summer of junior year, I read that big Ben Marcus takedown of him in a back issue of Harper’s and I remember reading that takedown excitedly and being like, “Fuck yeah, Ben Marcus, you tell that douchebag!” because I went to Florida State and that’s how we expressed ourselves, I think I might’ve smashed a can of Natty against my forehead afterwards just for good measure, and then, in the interest of keeping my readerly high going, I thumbed down through the unthumbed stacks of the New Yorker at the library to find Jonathan Franzen’s 2002 essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” which had inspired the aforementioned Ben Marcus takedown, and I read it and you know honestly didn’t think it was that bad of an essay and didn’t even really disagree with it that much at all, I had actually tried and failed to read Gaddis earlier that year because I had written this story called “Che Guevara takes his date to McDonalds” which was about an insecure college student (totally not autobiographical, workshop!) who had assumed the identity of Che Guevara by buying a uniform at the Gap and after the workshop, my professor had told me I should check out William H. Gass, he thought I would really like him, “the early stuff, especially,” and I had said, trying to sound smart, “Oh, I know him, he’s the guy that wrote The Recognitions, right?” and he said, “No, that’s William Gaddis” and this was so like the Barthes/Barth debacle of 2005, so embarassing, Walter Kirn, and so I had gone to the library after class and gotten In The Heart of The Heart of The Country (which I still think is the best title of a thing ever, way better than “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife and The Tunnel and some of the essays and also The Recognitions and A Frolic of His Own and I didn’t make any progress in any of them, not one, they were all too hard for me except for In The Heart… which wasn’t hard but was just boring and I think I got through maybe about thirty pages of The Tunnel which I found the most readable of the lot except there was all this unpleasant stuff in it about shitting and Nazis and I was like, you know, fuck this and I just read Vox again and probably jerked off, although before I took the books back to the library, I did get really high and flip through Willie Masters’, which activity I think is like the pretentious literary version of a little kid looking wide-eyed at a vintage seventies Playboy found in a moldy box in the garage, but then I had forgotten about all of this stuff by the time I read that Ben Marcus takedown of Jonathan Franzen and so I read it and I was all like “Fuck yeah, Ben Marcus! Fuck you, Jonathan Franzen!” and this was the kind of thing I did on Saturday afternoons when my friends went to football games and I was bored and waiting until it was time to get drunk, and so in my mind I’ve always had this subconscious prejudice against Jonathan Franzen based on really nothing substantial at all, the Oprah thing, I guess, maybe that, but so I would read something by him that I would find myself enjoying, like that essay about Peanuts from The Discomfort Zone that was in the New Yorker, and I would find myself enjoying it but I would tell myself, like, “Oh, well even assholes can turn out something decent sometimes,” you know, like what-fucking-ever J. Franzen, and so basically what I am saying here is that when I started reading Jonathan Franzen’s new story in the New Yorker, which is called “Good Neighbors,” I was really, really hating it, okay, like a lot, and as I continued to read the first page, I continued to hate it, like there was this line at the beginning of the second paragraph which started, “In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious,” and I was a little physically sick at that, like, oh my god, Volvo, and my eyes were hurting from looking at the computer screen too much and the descriptions I was reading were so arch and polished and sure of themselves, you know, they were so kind of zippy and pert, all snickering at their own jokes, and I was really just hating my way through this story and so I got to the clickthrough at the bottom of the page and my mouse cursor turned into the little hand but I hesitated, like, do I really want to spend any more time reading this asshole and his characters and their words, there is a world out there with light and people and activity, you don’t have to do this, I told myself, but then after a second I clicked through anyway because why not, it’s not like I was paying for this shit, right, and so I kept reading and I’m so glad I did because I really, really liked it, it was great, it reminded me of like reading an Alice Munro story or something, not that they have anything in common and I’m realizing this is a personal metaphor that makes no sense to anybody but okay like in that it was so not like the kind of stories I write or regularly read or the stories that if you asked me what kind of stories I like, I would say, “I like _____,” but then I read it by chance, like I would read a stray Alice Munro thing in an anthology or magazine, and I was just kind of pleasantly surprised with how nice and wonderful it was to read, how much I enjoyed it, like, hey, what do you know, here’s this good story written by a guy I had dismissed for being an asshole, and anyway to get to the point, the way that all of this is connected to I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here is how tonight’s episode was all about what it’s like to be a good neighbor and/or a bad neighbor, how people can and can’t live together, the paradoxes of community, and also there is a connection between the two of them in the way that Angela, the most whiny and complaining and emotionally insecure celebrity (who I still kind of loved for all those attributes while still recognizing them as negative) was voted off of the show tonight and this is like how the way Patty Berglund, who I also loved for her flaws, gets punished for her being herself in “Good Neighbors,” but honestly, really and truly, that’s all just nonsense, okay, self parody, and I give up with this I’m a Celebrity shit, that show tonight was absolutely horrible, it was painful to sit through the whole thing and I hope nobody reading this did so on my account and I cannot in good conscience continue to recommend it to you or dress it up in my pseudo-intellectual bullshit and rhetorical flourishes, it is just bad, okay, so maybe instead of watching it you should just read that story, it’s pretty good if you can get past the first page.

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4 Responses to “mr. difficult”

  1. R J Keefe Says:

    I’m with Mr Sicha: I can’t get enough of this. I was just about to edit a very rough draft of my Franzen-length appreciation of “Good Neighbors” when I saw that you’d written about it, and despite the folly of doing so I rashly tuned in to what you had to say. And I’m as glad that I did as you are that you went ahead with “Good Neighbors.” Or nearly.

    Many thanks!

  2. Sharif Says:

    All New Yorker stories start off that way – even the non-fiction. It’s one of the reasons why the magazine is so unbearable.

  3. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    ha, maybe somebody should do some kind of bitchy quantitative analysis like when charles bernstein determined that all of their poetry was about water.

    maybe somebody should also continue their story about sleep!


  4. […] via Songs about buildings and food […]


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