Burn, Stephen. Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism. London: Continuum, 2008.
Jonathan Franzen’s position in the contemporary American literary landscape is a curious one. His two latest novels – The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2010) – have been more or less universally lauded by literary critics. Freedom was thus proclaimed a “masterpiece of American fiction” on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, and in the Guardian it was hailed as nothing less than “the novel of the century.” And last fall The Corrections was chosen as the best novel of the past decade in a widely publicized poll involving several prominent authors and literary critics. Despite this lavish praise, Franzen’s novels have been largely neglected by literary scholars, at least compared to contemporaries like David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, who have both had entire books and special issues of journals devoted to their work.
As the first book devoted entirely to the work of Jonathan Franzen, Stephen J. Burn’s excellent study goes a long way toward filling this critical lacuna. His book has a double aim: to provide a study of Franzen’s work (with particular emphasis on the novels), and to situate Franzen in a larger group of contemporary authors who can be loosely defined as the successors to literary postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis and John Barth. These successors, whom Burn tentatively labels as “post-postmodernists,” include David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers, who are also amply treated in the book.
In his preface Burn discusses Franzen’s critical neglect and he speculates that this neglect to a large extent stems from factors that are external to the author’s novels. Franzen has always been very vocal in his hostility toward the academy and this agonistic attitude may have discouraged scholars from venturing further into Franzen’s fictional woods. Furthermore, Franzen’s clumsy behavior when The Corrections was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s book club in the fall of 2001 has drawn a lot of attention away from the work itself. (Oprah has apparently forgiven Franzen, since she promptly chose Freedom for her book club just after the novel’s publication. This time around, Franzen gracefully accepted the honor). Such external factors have without a doubt contributed to Franzen’s being passed over by many critics, and Stephen Burn therefore wisely chooses to bypass such distractions in order to focus on Franzen’s novels.
Before his analyses of the three novels (the study was published before the release of Freedom), Burn provides a valuable overview of Franzen’s early writing, much of which has so far remained unidentified. This overview is supplemented by an excellent bibliography at the end of the book, which includes Franzen’s juvenilia from high school and college, as well as his coauthored scientific articles on seismicity. After the chapter on Franzen’s early career, Burn moves on to Franzen’s novels which are treated in separate chapters. In all three chapters, Burn fully demonstrates what was also apparent in his book on Wallace’s Infinite Jest: that he is a very skillful close reader with a knack for detecting intricate patterns, digging up hidden allusions and parsing out complex chronologies. The three chapters confidently pin down the central themes of Franzen’s novels, and at the same time they draw thoughtful parallels to contemporary novels by Wallace and Powers. The analysis of Franzen’s debut The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) convincingly traces the novel’s elaborate intertextual dialogue with T. S. Eliot, while the chapter on Strong Motion (1992) focuses on Franzen’s innovative use of what Burn aptly terms “temporal form.”
The most comprehensive and convincing of the three readings, however, is Burn’s analysis of what remains Franzen’s most important novel, The Corrections. In this chapter Burn successfully shows how intricately patterned, densely interconnected and discreetly experimenting Franzen’s novel of the dysfunctional Lambert family really is, and his analysis constitutes a resounding answer to those critics who considered the novel a retrograde exercise in conventional realism. The most pertinent part of the analysis is Burn’s discussion of the novel’s different ideas of the self. In interviews, Franzen has stated that The Corrections is very much a novel about the self, and Burn demonstrates how different characters in the novel are refracted through different conceptions of the self: Chip’s Foucauldian idea of the self as shaped by institutional power structures, Gary’s materialist account of subjectivity as the inevitable outcome of certain chemical and electrical impulses, Alfred’s philosophical notions of identity, etc. Franzen doesn’t privilege any of these conceptions but stages an ongoing discussion between them, Burn argues.
The readings of the three novels draw a multifaceted portrait of Jonathan Franzen’s achievement, and at the end of the final chapter, I found myself hankering for a chapter on Freedom, which is both a logical extension of Franzen’s first three novels and a step in a new direction. That chapter will have to wait for the paperback edition of Burn’s study which will hopefully be published eventually. Such a subsequent edition could also benefit from a more elaborate discussion of Franzen’s non-fiction. Throughout the book, Burn exhibits a marked impatience with Franzen’s essays, where thorny contradictions are often glibly resolved through “rhetorical flourishes” (in Burn’s words). Burn rightly argues that such contradictions are held in tension in Franzen’s novels, which he therefore holds in much higher esteem than the essays, but his book could nevertheless profitably have included a chapter on the essays collected in How to Be Alone and on Franzen’s memoirs The Discomfort Zone, both of which remain integral parts of Franzen’s collected work.
As stated in the beginning, the purpose of Stephen Burn’s book is two-fold, and even though his introduction to Franzen’s work is very valuable in itself, the most important part of the study probably lies in its ongoing discussion of Franzen’s position in a larger American literary landscape. This position is primarily outlined in the first chapter of the book, where Burn draws a map of American fiction at the millennium, with particular emphasis on literary postmodernism and what came after. While postmodernism has gradually grown weary throughout the 1990s, a new generation of authors have come of age; a generation that attempts to move beyond the pervasive irony and self-reflection of postmodernism. This movement, which in addition to Franzen includes figures such as the late David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, William Vollmann, Dave Eggers, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, is tentatively labeled post-postmodernism by Burn, who outlines three major characteristics of post-postmodern literature: 1) Post-postmodernism explicitly looks back to its roots in postmodernism. 2) It is informed by the postmodernist critique of the realist belief in language as a mere mirror of reality, but at the same time it is characterized by a greater urge to represent something real than its postmodern predecessors. 3) It is much more concerned with notions of character than postmodernism.
Burn apologetically admits that the term post-postmodernism is an ungainly one, but he rightly points out that the term has already been widely employed by e.g. David Foster Wallace and the critic Robert L. McLaughlin. Nevertheless, in its awkward accumulation of prefixes the term seems to be one of the more unfortunate names for a movement that has elsewhere been called for instance “postironic literature” or “the new sincerity.” Neither of these alternatives are perfect, but with their implications of the movement’s specific aesthetic and ethical aims, they seem preferable to Burn’s (and Wallace’s and McLaughlin’s) term, which mainly implies a purely chronological succession. And if we accept the label post-postmodernism, then what are we to call the literature of the 2030s: postpostpostmodernism? Maybe we should simply take our cue from Mark Nechtr, a character in David Foster Wallace’s novella Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, who like Wallace and Franzen wishes to move beyond the trappings of postmodernism:
Mark Nechtr desires, some distant hard-earned day, to write something that stabs you in the heart. That pierces you, makes you think you’re going to die. Maybe it’s called metalife. Or metafiction. Or realism. Or gfhrytytu. He doesn’t know. He wonders who the hell really cares. (Westward, 332-33)
Gfhrytytu really seems to be as good a name as any…
In addition to the name of the beast, one could also discuss the specific traits Burn includes under his post-postmodern heading. The three major characteristics outlined by Burn are a very good starting point, but the list could easily be extended to include for instance a fiercely ambivalent relationship to the electronic mass media, a critique of postmodern irony and a corresponding emphasis on sincerity, a marked interest in materiality and the body, a preference for the suburbs as a setting, a strong emphasis on family – all of which would add to the discussion of post-postmodernism’s corrections of the postmodern patriarchs and help bring the movement into clearer focus. Still, it must be emphasized that Burn’s lucid, sober and well-argued study of Jonathan Franzen and his post-postmodern peers marks an inspiring and indispensable opening of a discussion which will hopefully continue in the years to follow, as we try to plot a meaningful route through the tangled topography of contemporary American fiction.