Franzen’s Ugly Americans Abroad

Jonathan Franzen and Peter Stamm.jpg

© Stefan Kubli

Jonathan Franzen and Peter Stamm

I’m English and live in Italy. During March, within two or three days of each other, I received: from The New York Review, four novels by the Swiss author Peter Stamm; from the Italian newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, in English and Italian; and from a New York publisher, a first novel, Funeral for a Dog, by the young German writer Thomas Pletzinger. The last was accompanied by some promotional puff that begins: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.”

What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.

Peter Stamm, as I discuss in my review of his Seven Years, which will run in a forthcoming issue of The New York Review, rises to this challenge with great ingenuity. He writes in the leanest prose imaginable, telling stories about phobic characters in love with routine, in need of protection, but simultaneously anxious that life might be passing them by; they yearn for life and are afraid of it, and the more they yearn the more they are afraid. Stamm’s genius is to align his spare prose with the psychology of people who fear richness and density; that way he creates a style that’s both ‘literary’ and absolutely translatable:

Andreas loved the empty mornings when he would stand by the window with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and stare down at the small, tidy courtyard, and think about nothing except what was there in front of him: a small rectangular bed in the middle of the courtyard, planted with ivy with a tree in it, that put out a few thin branches, pruned to fit the small space that was available.

If you didn’t know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish. Certainly he never tells you anything about Switzerland, or the other countries where his books are set. Whenever one of his main characters is asked, while abroad, about his or her home country, the wry Stamm has them shrug and answer that they don’t really have anything to say.

Franzen is the opposite; he could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after 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.

Lists abound: to describe the meanness of the protagonist, Patty’s grandparents, we are given a list of the “insulting gifts” they bring at Christmas:

Joyce famously one year received two much used dish towels. Ray typically got one of those big art books from the Barnes & Noble bargain table, sometimes with a $3.99 sticker still on it. The kids got little pieces of plastic Asian-made crap: tiny travel alarm clocks that didn’t work, coin purses stamped with the name of a New Jersey insurance agency, frightening crude Chinese finger puppets, assorted swizzle sticks.

Every character trait, every room, every neighborhood, is good for a list, as if Franzen himself were eager to overwhelm us with gifts of dubious taste:

By summer’s end, Blake had nearly finished work on the great-room and was outfitting it with such Blakean gear as PlayStation, Foosball, a refrigerated beer keg, a large-screen TV, an air-hockey table, a stained-glass Vikings chandelier, and mechanized recliners.

Often it feels like the characters only exist as an alibi for what is really a journalistic and encyclopedic endeavor to list everything American. Where it’s not objects it’s behavior patterns:

In the days after 9/11, everything suddenly seemed extremely stupid to Joey. It was stupid that a “Vigil of Concern” was held for no conceivable practical reason, it was stupid that people kept watching the same disaster footage over and over, it was stupid that the Chi Phi boys hung a banner of “support” from their house, it was stupid that the football game against Penn State was canceled, it was stupid that so many kids left Grounds to be with their families (and it was stupid that everybody at Virginia said “Grounds” instead of “campus”).

It’s interesting that in this passage the Italian translator has to leave words like “football” (as opposed to soccer), then “Grounds,” and “campus,” in English. This alerts us to a larger problem with translating Franzen; these are not just lists of American things and things American people do, but also—and crucially—of the very words Americans use. Italian has no word for Foosball, nor does it have either the object or the denomination “mechanized recliners,” so that the translator is obliged to explain (and the reader still won’t be able to picture this aberration in all its ugliness).


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.

Parks-Ugly Americans.jpg

© Peter Menzel/

Shannon Runyon, 17, with all her belongings in the front yard of her house, Des Moines, Iowa, 1999

Aside from the recognition factor—this is America—are there other pleasures to be had from Franzen, pleasures available to the foreigner reading in translation? I knew before opening it, of course, that Freedom was “an important novel” if only because The Guardian had dedicated to it an article on its homepage (on which my browser opens). Even before he had read the book, the Guardian writer remarked that Franzen was probably the only novelist alive able to revive our belief in the literary novel. Traveling in Holland the week the English edition was published, I saw that Amsterdam’s main international bookshop had dedicated their entire window to it.

At a loss to understand this enthusiasm (I found the novel hard going), I checked out the New York Times Book Review where Sam Tanenhaus canonizes the novel in his first sentence; it is “a masterpiece of American fiction.” Interesting here is the word “American.” To be a masterpiece of American fiction is to have hit the top. “A masterpiece of Swiss fiction” does not have the same ring, and if, say, a work by Pamuk is declared a masterpiece it will not be “a masterpiece of Turkish fiction.” Tanenhaus then quickly explains Franzen’s achievement, which is to gather up “every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.” He goes on:

Franzen knows that college freshmen are today called “first years,” like tender shoots in an overplanted garden; that a high-minded mom, however ruthless in her judgments of her neighbors’ ethical lapses, will condemn them with no epithet harsher than “weird”; that reckless drivers who barrel across lanes are “almost always youngish men for whom the use of blinkers was apparently an affront to their masculinity.”

Is it really such an achievement to know that “freshmen” are called “first years” (as in most places in the world for that matter)? The plot is described as “intricately ordered” and Franzen’s one prominent formal device (having the main character Patty relate much of the book as a third-person autobiography on the prompting of her therapist) as “ingenious.” Neither is true. The plot is a complete pig’s ear—to use a very English if not American expression—and is best grasped by checking out John Crace’s hilarious Digested Read, again in The Guardian. As for the voice, the supposedly unsophisticated jock Patty turns out to have a style that is undistinguishable from that of the extremely sophisticated Franzen; it is never clear what the story gains from pretending that she is telling it. Rather, the move undermines the novel’s credibility.

But Freedom’s failings are interesting in so far as they deepen the mystery of the book’s international success. 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.


A last remark. I see that a number of reviews of Freedom take swipes at David Shields who, in Reality Hunger, had remarked that he couldn’t read a “big blockbuster novel” of the Franzen variety “if his life depended on it.” How can he criticize a book without reading it, complains Charles Baxter in the New York Review? Actually Shields admits that Franzen’s “might be a ‘good’ novel or it might be a ‘bad’ novel,” but that “something has happened to [his] imagination” such that he simply can’t find a desire to read such books any more. It seems fair enough, maybe even important, to report such a shift in sensibility. He is talking about himself, not about Franzen. However, I believe there is something more behind this.

After the success of the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, other Colombian authors—indeed Central and South American novelists in general—began to complain that the world now expected only a García Márquez kind of fiction from Latin America, only a fabling, cartoonesque, magical-realist description of their far from magical reality (in 1996 the anthology McOndo deliberately offered an alternative Latin America to that of García Marquez’s Macondo in what amounted to a manifesto against magical realism). There were also Indian authors who felt the same about the image Rushdie had created for India in Midnight’s Children. Well, James Wood writes to me from Berlin and remarks that “Here in Germany, Franzen’s the only American novelist people talk about.” That is, Franzen is establishing a picture of a dysfunctional America that Europeans feel happy with. With Franzen they can “do” America and have done with it.

Such are the sophistications of the global literary scene.

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