Franzen blows a joke

Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself.  (Not without reason.  And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.)

Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake in one place:

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical:  “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.”  Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy.  That would have been a good nod to Wallace.  And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.

Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude.  This part didn’t sway me.  Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it.  Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.

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4 thoughts on “Franzen blows a joke

  1. AS says:

    “And if you haven’t read it, then maybe do that instead of continuing on with this somewhat small-minded blog post.”

    Took your advice. Well, not quite, but I headed off to check it out after reading your post. That was a great essay, thanks for sharing.

  2. Carl says:

    I may be too much of a DFW fan, and I also suffer from Major Depression, but I found Franzen to be a petty, vindictive man in that passage, using that same school as his platform. Franzen has demonstrated repeatedly that not only does he have no sense of what the implications of suffering from depression are, but he has proven himself to be a damned awful “friend.”

    DFW worked hard NOT to have an unreflective desire to achieve, and I believe that it’s Franzen who has this problem as a disease, himself. His last novel is a junk piece of pop fiction written in order to achieve great popularity. At least DFW was principled, practiced awareness, and didn’t write junk to achieve popularity. Franzen should quit writing, quit speaking, and stick with the bird watching. The last activity is more suitable for his level of intelligence.

  3. Paula says:

    It seems that this latest round of anti-Franzenism is coming from the DFW fans. Guess it just kills them that DFW’s career didn’t turn out like Franzen’s. And they have to fault Franzen in some way. People are such a bunch of fucking shits.

  4. JSE says:

    The official position of this blog is pro-Franzen and pro-Wallace. I’ve recently become aware that this is considered slightly dissonant, like being pro-Packers and pro-Vikings, which, by the way, is another official Quomodocumque stance. So be it.

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