Drowning in Alien Bric-a-Brac

Tim Parks has some interesting thoughts on why Jonathan Franzan is so popular in Europe:

Franzen … could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after [reading Swiss author Peter] Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American. While Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on, all described with a mixture of irony and disdain, an assumption of superiority and distance, that I immediately found myself uncomfortable with.

***

For the American reader there is the pleasure of recognizing the interiors Franzen so meticulously describes. Not so for the Italian, or German, or Frenchman, who simply struggles through lists of alien bric-a-brac. We might say that if the Swiss Stamm, to attract an international public, has been obliged to write about everyman for everyone everywhere, Franzen, thanks to the size of America’s internal market, but also to the huge pull the country exercises on the world’s imagination, can write about Americans for Americans (which is no doubt as it should be) and nevertheless expect to be read worldwide.

…It’s one thing for the Americans to hype and canonize one of their favorite authors, but why do the Europeans buy into it? Ever anxious that they need to understand America, fascinated by its glamor and power, Europeans are perhaps attracted to those American novels that explain everything: Roth’s American Pastoral, DeLillo’s Underworld. More than a novel by an American they want The Great American Novel. But of course Europeans also resent American world hegemony and feel (still and no doubt wrongly) superior culturally.

Freedom has this characteristic: Franzen appears to get all his energy, all his identity, from simultaneously evoking and disdaining America, explaining it (its gaucheness mostly) and rejecting it; his stories invariably offer characters engaging in the American world, finding themselves tainted and debased by it, then at last coming to their Franzenesque “corrected” senses and withdrawing from it. Blinded by this or that ambition, they come to grief because they lack knowledge, they lack awareness. Thus the importance of so much information. Unlike his characters, Franzen knows everything, is aware of everything, and aware above all that redemption lies in withdrawal from the American public scene. What message could be more welcome to Europeans? The more you know about America, which we need to do, the more you turn away from it, which we enjoy.

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