Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Kushner (Rachel, that is) on Franzen


Really good, serious novelists seldom get featured in the media — unless, of course, they’ve managed to fabricate some level of celebrity for themselves. We’re talking Jonathan Franzen here, not Rachel Kushner. Kushner wrote one of my favorite novels of 2013, called The Flamethrowers, and I believe she should have more notoriety than she has in popular culture.

Lucky for her, the Times assigned her a story on Jonathan Franzen, to push his new novel, Purity. They’re a good match. Like minds.

I just read the piece and I’m afraid that the pair don’t come off as very accessible or even that interesting. There’s a certain kind of posing going on. They speak academic-ese, dropping names of the erudite like the rest of us mention Kardashians. They knew David Foster Wallace. You get the feeling that if you found yourself in their presence they’d find you pathetically uninformed and poorly read. (Probably true for me!)

But they’re among a small group of the best writers we have today — the ones who’ll be remembered a hundred years from now. Someone should really be coaching them on how to relate to humans.

I’m sure I’ll read Purity one of these days. And Kushner’s next book. I’ll probably admit that they’re both superb, but I’ll wish that they had personas that are the least bit appealing, that they came off as people I’d like to know.

A lot of our highbrows of the past were able to pull that off with style.

13 comments on “Kushner (Rachel, that is) on Franzen

  1. kingmidget
    October 16, 2015

    There is definitely an element of the literary culture that is beyond snobbish. Much like any other culture. But it does seem particularly bad with the writing elite, doesn’t it?

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 16, 2015

      Yeah. Sometimes it borders on parody. I think of some old Monty Python bits with tweedy professors…

      • kingmidget
        October 16, 2015

        Before I go further on this, do you have an MFA (Master of Fine Arts)?

      • Kevin Brennan
        October 16, 2015

        Nope. Of course, I had no idea back in my youth that the MFA was going to become the price of admission for a literary career…

      • kingmidget
        October 16, 2015

        I just used Google to confirm my thought. Sadly, Franzen does not have an MFA so my theory is all shot to hell now. But what I was going to say is that the MFA universe seems particularly susceptible to snobbish characteristics.

      • Kevin Brennan
        October 16, 2015

        Funny, I assumed he got an MFA at Swarthmore, but I guess that was undergrad.

        I went to college in the neighborhood where he grew up (Webster Groves, MO), so I’d like to think we share some kind of cosmic vibe…

  2. 1WriteWay
    October 18, 2015

    Hmmm … I just read the piece and it seemed very, I don’t know, stream of consciousness?? I haven’t read either Franzen or Kushner so I’m definitely not in their milieu. But who knows if their conversations really were so lofty. Kushner makes it seem that way, but I can’t help but feel she’s condensing hours of conversation into a Twitter feed. Too bad because I agree with you that they don’t come off as accessible or interesting. The part about the recent murder of Franzen’s cousin: that’s just weird the way Kushner writes about the exchange. It reminds me of an interview I heard on West Coast Live with Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Perhaps because I was listening to it on my iPod and not there in person, the banter between the two of them seemed very forced and very unfunny, especially the more they tried to be funny. At best, it seemed like every comment was an inside joke that even the host, Sedge Thomson, wasn’t in on. Maybe Kushner was just trying too hard to be interesting and accessible. In any case, the essay was a dud.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 18, 2015

      Oh God, I don’t even have to listen to the Smith/Eggers thing to know how chilling it must be! Why can’t intellectuals have a discussion that doesn’t reinforce everything regular people think about “eggheads”? There must be a way to talk about big ideas without sounding like William F. Buckley Meets That Guy From The Big Bang Theory.

      To me the secret has to be humor. If you’re a highbrow, you must be smart enough to take off one costume and put on another. In public, you can be an affable card who’s read a lot, while in private you can be the academic who knows 19 languages and once had dinner with Derrida.

      That’s why I wonder: howcome nobody’s coaching these people?!

      • 1WriteWay
        October 23, 2015

        The essay may be one of the best examples of what happens when you write only for yourself and not for your audience … and when you don’t know who your audience is. Surely, there had to be an editor for this.

      • Kevin Brennan
        October 23, 2015

        It’d take a pretty ballsy editor to nudge those two into accessibility!

      • 1WriteWay
        October 23, 2015

        lol 😜

  3. Chuck Dickens
    October 30, 2015

    Accessible is not the word I would use. Narcissistic is more apt.

    paragraph 1:

    Rachel Kushner tells us her thoughts about Franzen asking her if she wanted to see the Redwoods.

    paragraph 2:

    Rachel Kushner recounts an earlier social visit to Franzen. The word “I” appears 17 times in this paragraph. She describes in detail how she read “Purity”. There is zero information about Franzen himself.

    paragraph 3:

    Rachel Kushner explains that she met him years earlier; that she felt warmth toward him, that she and “Jon” (her friend but not close friend), have similar traits.

    paragraph 4:

    Rachel Kushner explains that she wanted Jon to see some cabins, but he wanted to go birding, which Rachel Kushner thought was not going to be a good idea.

    paragraph 5:

    Rachel Kushner explains that she went to various places with Jon. Apparently they talked about something but the substance of the talk is not related, nor are Jon’s reactions to the places they saw.

    paragraph 6:

    Rachel Kushner recounts the time Rachel Kushner met a friend of Jon’s and how she felt.

    paragraph 7:

    Rachel Kushner asks Jon a question and relates his answer. No word about how she felt.

    paragraph 8:

    Rachel Kushner relates a short conversation the two of them had about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Interestingly, Rachel Kushner had as many ideas as Jon did.

    paragraph 9:

    Rachel Kushner mentions that she and Jon talked of East Germany. She tells us her thoughts about it and how someone once spoke to her about East Germany’s Trabant motorcar. Then for some reason she quotes something that Jon said, and then switches back to normal mode, telling us her feelings about a scene in Purity.

    paragraph 10:

    Rachel Kushner and Jon discuss Purity. For every idea of Jon’s there is an idea of Kushner’s. The paragraph ends with Kushner’s low opinion of TED talks, of which she has never seen one.

    Paragraph 11:

    This starts with Franzen talking about Snowden. After relating Franzen’s opinions, Rachel Kushner weighs in on her thoughts about the Iraq war and Snowden – perhaps the war would not have happened if Snowden had arrived earlier. But there is no word on Franzen’s thought on this idea, because as Rachel Kushner tells us “Jon and I didn’t take this path”. But Rachel Kushner saw no reason to leave it out of an article about Jonathan Franzen because. Well, because.

    paragraph 12:

    Rachel Kushner and Jon plunge into Big Data and Franzen expresses some ideas. Rachel Kushner had some ideas too – none of her ideas go unexpressed in this article about someone who is not her – but she decided she would wait until morning when Jonathan would be less tired.

    paragraphs 13 – 15:

    Getting deep now. We learn that Rachel Kushner had coffee and toast for breakfast, then there is a serious section about Jon’s ne’er do well cousin who died. The article ends with Rachel Kushner’s opinion of Franzen’s description of his cousin’s death. She liked it.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 31, 2015

      I love this, Chuck. Thanks for parsing that piece of pabulum in a way I never considered. Something tells me that a Franzen piece about Kushner might have read the same way, only backwards.

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2015 by in Writing and tagged , , , .
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