Blistering Reviews

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My apologies if this thread's "been done," but I wasn't able to get the Search Engine moving (it kept timing out).

Anyway, here's Kakutani's review of J. Franzen's new memoir/autobiography The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History.

August 29, 2006
Books of The Times
A Man Who Looks in the Mirror and Smiles

The central characters in Jonathan Franzen’s critically acclaimed 2001 best seller, “The Corrections,” were an especially unpleasant lot: the hero was a pretentious disciple of Foucault and Marx, a hypocrite who ranted about the commercialized world while maxing out his Visa card on expensive wines; his sister was an obnoxiously competitive hipster; and their older brother was a bossy, elitist yuppie, given to paranoia, anger and depression.

In his new memoir, “The Discomfort Zone,” Mr. Franzen turns his unforgiving eye on himself and succeeds in giving us an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed. He tells us that as a child he was “a small glutton for attention, forever turning conversations to the subject of myself.” He tells us that he felt put upon by public entreaties to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. (“Why should I pony up for this particular disaster?”) And he tells us that he used to find it difficult to enjoy nature’s beauty: a hike up to a spectacular summit was never enough; instead he would imagine himself “in a movie with this vista in the background and various girls I’d known in high school and college watching the movie and being impressed with me.”

While some readers will want to give Mr. Franzen points for being so revealing about himself, there is something oddly preening about his self-inventory of sins, as though he actually reveled in being so disagreeable. And while it doubtless takes a degree of self-absorption for anyone to write a memoir, in the case of this book the author’s self-involvement not only makes for an incredibly annoying portrait, but also funnels the narrative into a dismayingly narrow channel.

In fact Mr. Franzen is so focused on talking about his younger self that he fails (with one or two exceptions) to make other people come alive. His family — which seems to have provided considerable fodder for the dysfunctional family in “The Corrections” — emerges as a blur: his parents are sketched in a desultory fashion in these pages; his siblings are drawn in an equally offhand manner. The town of Webster Groves where he grew up — “in the middle of the country in the middle of the golden age of the American middle class” — is rendered with a lot less detail than the Midwestern suburb conjured up in “The Corrections,” and his later peregrinations around the country feel strangely disembodied as well.

There are two extended riffs in this volume where Mr. Franzen momentarily puts aside his fascination with himself to give the reader some wonderfully observed musings on two subjects that have long preoccupied him: Peanuts cartoons and bird-watching.

He makes the delights of sighting a rare masked duck or whooping crane palpable to even the most bird-agnostic of readers, conveying the solitary rituals of bird-watching, before he abruptly wearies of the pastime, having booked sightings of 400 different types. He similarly captures the appeal of Charles Schulz’s comic creations: the perpetual loser-dom of Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s “confidence that he’s lovable at heart,” the “Beethoven-sized ambitions” of Schroeder.

Unfortunately, Mr. Franzen undermines his sensitively observed analysis of Peanuts by adding that he “personally enjoyed winning and couldn’t see why so much fuss was made about the losers” like Charlie Brown. He proceeds to recount his showdown in a Homonym Spelldown with another student named Chris Toczko, writing that “I was a nice enough little boy as long as you kept away from my turf” and that Toczko made the terrible mistake of being unaware of the fact that “I, not he, by natural right, was the best student in the class.”

Indeed the young Mr. Franzen comes across as less of a Snoopy — “the warm puppy who amused the others with the cute things he said and then excused himself from the table and wrote cute sentences in his notebook” — than as a kind of mean-spirited Lucy on steroids. He describes how he once “dropped a frog into a campfire and watched it shrivel and roll down the flat side of a log.” He describes reasoning that “not having kids freed me altogether” from having to worry about things like global warming: “Not having kids was my last, best line of defense against the likes of Al Gore.” And he describes the judgmental outlook that he and his wife shared for many years: “Deploring other people — their lack of perfection — had always been our sport.”

As described here, that marriage sounds like another hellish exercise in self-absorption. Mr. Franzen writes that he and his wife “lived on our own little planet,” spending “superhuman amounts of time by ourselves.” He fills his journals with transcripts of fights they’ve had, and writes that they both “reacted to minor fights at breakfast by lying facedown on the floor of our respective rooms for hours at a time, waiting for acknowledgment of our pain.” “I wrote poisonous jeremiads to family members who I felt had slighted my wife,” he adds, while “she presented me with handwritten fifteen-and twenty page analyses of our condition; I was putting away a bottle of Maalox every week.”

Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen’s mind remains something of a mystery. In fact, by the end of this solipsistic book, the reader has begun to feel every bit as suffocated and claustrophobic as Mr. Franzen and his estranged wife apparently did in their doomed marriage.

I'm Passing Open Windows (Ms Laura), Tuesday, 29 August 2006 22:13 (seventeen years ago) link

lol franzen

lol dissing foucault

lol get one (1) fucking clue

Pier Paolo Semolina (noodle vague), Tuesday, 29 August 2006 22:21 (seventeen years ago) link

all of which makes me feel smug and self-satisfied about my ongoing refusal to read jonathan franzen.

gypsy mothra (gypsy mothra), Tuesday, 29 August 2006 22:48 (seventeen years ago) link

The review below is not really "blistering" -- more like, bitter and petulant. And it's just a customer review (seemingly written by, what, a 13-year-old? and posted at Taschen's own website). Still, I just found it today and had to share:

This was a rubbish book. dont ever read it. It was the shittiest book ever. TASCHEN, SHOVE IT UP UR ASSHOLE!! :)
(i liked the pictures, they were koolio)
Lara macensy

(The book is Kandinsky, by Ulrike Becks-Malorny.)

Paul in Santa Cruz (Paul in Santa Cruz), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 04:36 (seventeen years ago) link

the times' insistence on referring to everyone as "mr," though kinda charming in the news section, always gives their reviews this faint tinge of old-school condescension, like you're reading some bad review of moby-dick from 1851 or something.

that said, it is kinda OTM in regard to franzen's incredibly overrated peanuts article - total self-absorbed shit. his intro to volume 4 (i think) of the fantagraphics books was actually much better (and shorter).

J.D. (Justyn Dillingham), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 06:41 (seventeen years ago) link

Pain Spotting

Published: August 20, 2006

Every few years, as a reviewer, one encounters a novel whose ineptitudes are so many in number, and so thoroughgoing, that to explain them fully would produce a text that exceeded the novel itself in both length and interest. Faced with such a book, one wishes only to let it slip quietly to the seabed of culture, there to join thousands of other unneeded books in their slow, silent compaction into the limestone of literary history.

When such a novel is by Irvine Welsh, however, its buoyancy is guaranteed. Notice must be taken, reaction given. For Welsh’s cult-hit debut, “Trainspotting” (1993), has sold nearly a million copies, and since its publication he has built an international reputation as the shock-chronicler of late capitalism’s underbelly; specifically the lives of the depressed and dispossessed of his home city, Edinburgh. His fiction has won notoriety for its transgressive episodes of sex, violence and self-abuse, and for its adventures in the Scottish demotic.

Welsh’s extraordinarily bad new novel centers on two characters, Danny Skinner and Brian Kibby, both of whom work for the city of Edinburgh’s restaurant inspection team. Skinner is a hard-drinking, philandering and aggressive man, who we are asked to believe relaxes between bouts of drinking and casual violence by reading Hugh MacDiarmid and watching Fellini films. Kibby, by contrast, is a milksop mother’s boy, who drinks Horlicks before bed, collects model trains, plays computer games and suffers racking Presbyterian guilt about masturbation.

On first meeting Kibby, Skinner conceives a vast and inexplicable hatred for him. In a twist of black-magic realism, it transpires that this hatred manifests itself as a kind of pathological transference. When Skinner gets into a fight, the wounds appear on Kibby’s body the next morning. When Skinner binges on booze or drugs, the toxins flood poisonously through Kibby’s veins. So it is that while Skinner finds himself free to indulge in a merry orgy of self-harm, Kibby begins rapidly to age and degrade. The literary inspiration here, as Welsh is wearyingly keen to underscore, is of course Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” The novel describes Kibby’s struggle to free himself from Skinner’s voodoo influence.

Although it fails at every imaginable level — metaphysical, ethical, technical, thematic — it is at the stylistic level, the level of the sentence, that Welsh’s novel is most wanting. The prose throughout is lazy, cliché-ridden and exhaustingly repetitive. In the novel’s first 80 pages, for instance, we are introduced to characters who have, variously, “sensitive, even womanly” eyes, “penetrating dark brown eyes,” “intense blue eyes,” “busy, big brown eyes,” “bloodshot eyes,” “hard, penetrating eyes,” “big, camel eyes,” “dead, sunken eyes” and “sharp, clear eyes.” By this point, the reader is rubbing his astonished, appalled eyes in disbelief, convinced that some meta-joke must be occurring — that this must surely be bad writing with a higher purpose.

It is not. Even when he is writing about physical sensation, one of his specialities, the clichés multiply and the repetitions repeat themselves. Humiliation “twisted like a knife” in the chest of a character named Kay; 50 pages later, a dagger “seemed to twist deep inside” an anxious Skinner. Early in the novel, Kibby feels a “bolt of fear.” Fifty pages later a realization strikes Kibby’s father like a “stark, bitter bolt.” Nine pages after that, panic strikes Skinner like — what else? — “a bolt of lightning.” Welsh also has an unfortunate fondness for adverbs, such that each verb is consummated by its cliché-making qualifier: a report is “meticulously prepared,” a lover “dozed blissfully,” a person “took his cue gratefully,” someone else “doggedly persevered.”

None of this, it should be made clear, is evidence of the free indirect style at work. Nor is this flattened and hopeless prose mimetic of the flattened and hopeless characters it is describing. Nor is this what George Orwell fondly called good bad writing. This is bad bad writing. There are tautologies (offices that are “unobtrusively tucked away”). There are mixed metaphors (the “bull of a man” whose frame was “going to seed”). There are mistakes — the use of the word “diligently” where “carefully” is meant. And there are unfortunate ambiguities, as when Welsh describes Kibby’s erection as “poking through the material of his trousers.” We must assume either that Welsh means “showing through,” or that Kibby has an unusually sharp phallus.

As well as its teeming clichés, the novel contains curious metaphorical flourishes that range in implication from the banal (“sometimes going outdoors in Scotland could be like stepping into a cold sauna”) to the inexplicable (a pungent bit of flatulence is “as poignantly weeping as a lover’s last farewell”). There are hokey literary asides (Kibby at his desk is described as a “Dickensian figure, sitting there alone, working in the lamplight”) and unsuccessful pastoralisms (“Spring settled cautiously into Edinburgh, as unsure of its tenure as ever”). Welsh cannot even write well about drinking: one of Skinner’s pub crawls is effortfully evoked as “a besotted voyage of drunken camaraderie with friends and sneering antagonisms with foes ... a muddled, timeless passage, a sweating foray through different lands and states of fevered being.”

Irvine Welsh would, it seems, like to think that he has updated Oscar Wilde’s fine novella for the new millennium. But “The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs” possesses neither the lush dreamy strangeness of “Dorian Gray” nor its unsettling black humor. The plot of Welsh’s novel yaws from implausibility to would-be obscenity — its prose is always bereft of insight, and frequently of competence.

Robert Macfarlane is a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of “Mountains of the Mind: How Desolate and Forbidding Heights Were Transformed Into Experiences of Indomitable Spirit.” His new book, “The Wild Places,” will be published next year.

scott seward (scott seward), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 10:15 (seventeen years ago) link

That Franzen book sounds ace!

Øystein (Øystein), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 11:35 (seventeen years ago) link

I like Robert Macfarlane.

JoseMaria (JoseMaria), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 22:47 (seventeen years ago) link

The Corrections is pretty fucking great.

jed_ (jed), Wednesday, 30 August 2006 23:00 (seventeen years ago) link

four months pass...
tough love:

“Imagine my satisfaction,” reads the Scribner publicity office’s form letter that came with an advance copy of this book, “when I found myself immersed in a dark love story that was all at once sensual, moody and elegant.” Imagine my dissatisfaction when I found myself not in the least immersed in a love story to which none of these adjectives apply, not even “dark.” For this is a novel that ends as follows: “He wanted to find answers to other questions, too, some of his own, some of hers, but they would answer those later. Together.” This is a fair sample of Anthony Swofford’s prose in his first novel, “Exit A,” prose that befits a Harlequin romance novel more than functioning as (to quote the publicity office again) “confirmation of Swofford as a major literary talent.”

Do you want more? “They ate in silence. He could ask: Hey, sweetheart, what’s going on?” And: “ ‘What’s the number?’ She dialed the phone and ordered. They went downstairs to wait for the delivery.”

I hate to write reviews like this. I especially hate to disparage the work of someone who, like Swofford, has put his life on the line for the ostensible purpose of preserving my freedoms and civil liberties, such as they are. In the hope of finding something more constructive to say, I decided to read Swofford’s first book, the memoir “Jarhead.”

“Jarhead” deserves its acclaim. The reason it does is made plain right on Page 3, in sentiments of which Hemingway would approve: “What follows is neither true nor false but what I know.” This expert knowledge is precisely what makes the book believable, valuable: “Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss.” Moreover, Swofford takes the trouble to observe and analyze the context of his experiences: “By late September the American troop count in Saudi reaches 150,000 and the price of crude oil has nearly doubled.” From a strictly literary point of view, this last is not an impressive sentence, but it does not need to be; the implied connection between its two statements is important; we Americans owe it to ourselves and our country to decide whether it is valid and, if so, what the implication may demand of us.

“Exit A” deserves no acclaim because it doesn’t convey life vividly or believably. It analyzes nothing. Whatever distinctions and connections it makes remain superficial at best. Swofford’s ability to create character is vastly inferior to his capacity to describe reality as he himself experienced it. He frequently commits the error of trying to amuse us with grotesquerie while simultaneously expecting to engage our empathy. For instance: “General Kindwall sat in his office, constipated and paranoid.” General Kindwall is the heroine’s father. It is his impending death from cancer that will bring about the reconciliation of all parties. (Never mind a few loose ends: “They would answer those later. Together.”) For this wrap-up to be at all effective, we need to feel sorry for Kindwall, but he remains sufficiently constipated and paranoid to make that impossible.

“Exit A” is about a pair of neglected children raised on Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. They come briefly together, separate for a long time and, as has already been revealed, come back together at the end. Severin is a callow football star whose innocence, rendered by pedestrian sentences, makes him dull. Virginia is a privileged half-Japanese girl who gets into crime because she is bored. She seduces him with the aim of employing his athletic body in the strongarm business. He falls in lust with her, and at some hazy point in the book we seem to be expected to call this love. (More immortal prose: “They were lovely breasts. His heart rate climbed. His mouth watered.”) “Exit A,” already crippled by this temporary union between dislikable Virginia and uninteresting Severin, now commits hari-kari by foisting on us a mind-bogglingly implausible stretch of thrillerdom: Virginia becomes part of a North Korean kidnapping ring! Severin has already bowed out. Virginia gets caught and goes to jail. Years go by. Here’s what happens when they meet again: “He removed her shirt. No bra underneath. ‘Small,’ she said, referring to her breasts.”

What baffles me about this lifeless failure of verisimilitude is that “Jarhead” — a triumph of verisimilitude — reveals the following: Swofford lived on an Air Force base in Tachikawa from age 4 to 7, and not long after his enlistment he was on base in Okinawa, where he enjoyed a brief infidelity-romance with a restaurant owner’s daughter named Yumiko. In short, there is no reason why the Japanese scenes of “Exit A” couldn’t have been better.

What makes things all the more peculiar is that parts of the second book are reworkings of the first. For instance, near the beginning of “Exit A,” Virginia entices Severin off base and into an alluringly, intimidatingly alien warren of alleys. They arrive in a preordained tattoo parlor. In “Jarhead,” Swofford, who must have been much younger than Severin, gets lost in just such a labyrinth when he seeks a birthday present for his sister. He wanders into a tattoo parlor where a couple are getting each other’s faces pricked into their chests. The setting is vividly achieved. Swofford judges the man “lucky” in this, because he is ugly and the woman is beautiful. “I didn’t understand the permanence of the shared act.” In “Exit A,” this very permanence becomes vital to the plot when Severin gets Virginia’s Japanese middle name tattooed on his arm, an act that will help destroy a marriage and bring about a future in which Virginia and Severin will answer all questions “later. Together.”

In other places, “Jarhead” gets not so much reworked as recycled. In further evidence I cite the once slender soldier who now scarcely ever exercises, and the tricky heartbreaker named Lisa.

Interesting sentences can in fact be found in “Exit A,” but they are as rare as four-leaf clovers in a field of Astroturf. Here are three of them: “First she heard Severin’s English, the sound of two boards being beaten together in an empty concert hall.” “He thought of his hands as a cave.” “She focused on the road and the traffic, a puzzle made of pavement and rolling metal.” The three-page prologue and parts of a longish episode about an adulterous affair show signs of life. But nowhere do we meet with the grimly powerful aphorisms found in “Jarhead” — for instance, the assertion that “through profanity and disgrace” the grunt “has communicated the truth of his being.”

It is only my admiration for “Jarhead” that impels me to express my disappointment in “Exit A” so bluntly. I hope and believe that Swofford, who has many books ahead of him if he chooses to write them, can achieve true greatness on a future occasion.

William T. Vollmann’s new book, “Poor People,” will be published in April.

scott seward (scott seward), Saturday, 20 January 2007 01:40 (seventeen years ago) link

Breaking news: Jonathan Franzen ia an ass.

Thank you Michiko for your groundbreaking conclusion

silence dogood (catcher), Saturday, 20 January 2007 01:51 (seventeen years ago) link

Has Mailer stuck around too long? Norman, you're not gonna win the Nobel. Look at what the Times says about his new book.

silence dogood (catcher), Saturday, 20 January 2007 04:39 (seventeen years ago) link

she makes it sound pretty crazy! sounds like a good movie. these lines are something else, that's for sure:

As he puts it: “As a devil, I am obliged to live intimately with excrement in all its forms, physical and mental. I know the emotional waste of ugly and disappointing events, the sour indwelling poison of unjust punishment, the corrosion of impotent thoughts, and, of course, I also have to engage caca itself.”

scott seward (scott seward), Saturday, 20 January 2007 04:56 (seventeen years ago) link

he is really old...

scott seward (scott seward), Saturday, 20 January 2007 04:56 (seventeen years ago) link

hahaha Mailer's always been crazy! and I doubt he gives a flying fuck abpyt the nobel prize. anyway he made some threatening/racist comments re: Michiko Kakutani after his last few NYT reviews so it's "intersting" to see Janet M reviewed this one. for a certain generation of critic, Mailer is like Martin Amis -- a stationary target or so they seem to think.

lovebug 2.0 (lovebug starski), Saturday, 20 January 2007 11:44 (seventeen years ago) link

I do agree that Mailer is a stationary target. He's built a career from being contrary, and that gets old after 30-40 years. But if you doubt his obsession with the Nobel, read the opening scene of "Prisoner of Sex".

silence dogood (catcher), Saturday, 20 January 2007 15:59 (seventeen years ago) link

fourteen years pass...

holy shit this is a murder

— Julia Carrie Wong (@juliacarriew) January 1, 2022

mookieproof, Sunday, 2 January 2022 02:26 (two years ago) link

ILX posting style fifteen years ago: a blistering review is quoted in full.

ILX posting style today: a six word tweet referencing a blistering review.

more difficult than I look (Aimless), Sunday, 2 January 2022 03:38 (two years ago) link

some things, however, never change

mookieproof, Sunday, 2 January 2022 03:44 (two years ago) link

C’est toujours la même rengaine.

A Little Bit Meme, a Little Bit URL (James Redd and the Blecchs), Sunday, 2 January 2022 03:46 (two years ago) link

one year passes...

among the worst book reviews i've ever seen:


Galeano (The Memory of Fire Trilogy, etc.) has set to paper an astonishingly straight-faced indictment of yanqui capitalism that—for all its freshness and wit—could well have been freeze-dried at about the time of Che Guevara's assassination.

The author views the world as essentially a matter of conflict between North and South, rich and poor, First World and Third World, big business and the small guy, and man against nature. Big business pollutes the Third World, uses their cheap labor, and sells them Big Macs, unleashing its power (and power is everything to Galeano) on the poor and voiceless. Galeano sees the US as heavy-handed and heavily armed—using its might to quell any uprising it doesn't like and to impose any government it prefers. The North he holds responsible for most social injustices—“free trade" being his euphemism for the slave trade. He also believes that whites were responsible for the annihilation of Jews, Gypsies, blacks, and gays during the Holocaust. Hitler, he points out, sterilized Gypsies—not very different, he believes, from the sterilizations performed in America during the 1930s on criminals, blacks, and alcoholics. Yet Americans, he believes, feel inexplicably superior. Blacks have been treated poorly in both the northern and southern hemispheres; dark-skinned black or Indian Brazilians form an underclass, rarely seen in the media or at universities. The author writes of the Argentine death squads, and he sees drug trafficking as a plot of the banks and gun manufacturers: "An illegal industry of death thus serves the legal industry of death." Galeano brings an almost Manichean dualism to his disquisitions on stock markets, capitalism, unemployment, nuclear arms—-and much, much more.

Old-time agitprop from south of the border.

show me the lie, asshole

mookieproof, Friday, 21 July 2023 03:04 (eleven months ago) link

Did unperson write this?

xyzzzz__, Friday, 21 July 2023 22:12 (eleven months ago) link

eleven months pass...

Really liked how she reads from her POV and just has a go at breaking it down. Makes me want to read more Cusk, any other reviews make her sound boring

xyzzzz__, Saturday, 29 June 2024 07:03 (two weeks ago) link

That is a good one. I'd like to read the linked pieces by cusk though the brexit one is paywalled and may destroy my respect for her. I can't say I want to read the book in question even ignoring the weird if true gender politics, I didn't like her last one (the second place) all that much.

ledge, Saturday, 29 June 2024 07:13 (two weeks ago) link

the NYT cusk review was pretty brutal. for the new book.

scott seward, Saturday, 29 June 2024 18:20 (two weeks ago) link

"The art talk that consumes this novel is leaden. It is the way you might begin to speak if you were raised solely in the Tate and the Whitney and had never eaten a hot dog. Watching trees fall makes one artist reconsider the “question of verticality.” Certain paintings are shocking because they do not traffic in the “moral barter of representation.” Homeless people are “reproaches to subjectivity.” One searches for signs that Cusk is writing satire, but there are none."

scott seward, Saturday, 29 June 2024 18:22 (two weeks ago) link

That so many people are homeless is certainly a reproach, but not to that

Guayaquil (eephus!), Saturday, 29 June 2024 20:37 (two weeks ago) link

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