Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Brownstein on Franzen & Goodman

This Gabriel Brownstein essay, a side-by-side comparison of recent novels by Jonathan Franzen and Allegra Goodman, gets it exactly right. I have read only parts of Freedom and none of The Cookbook Collector, but Brownstein's evenhanded discussion matches exactly my feelings about Franzen in general, and the contrast with Goodman matches the one I see between Franzen's memoir The Discomfort Zone and Kathleen Finneran's less-known masterpiece The Tender Land.

The essay is well worth reading in its entirety, but here Brownstein sums up his point:

Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.

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