Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Big American Books

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I’ve just read two chunksters by two American master storytellers. In the one corner, weighing in 562 pages is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and lolling in the other is Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which comes in at a massive 880 pages. Freedom is a literary darling, feted by The Guardian as ‘the novel of the century’, by the NY Times as a ‘masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil’ and by The Economist as having ‘the sweep of a modern Paradise Lost’. Under the Dome has also received glowing reviews. The Sunday Times says it is ‘a remarkable achievement’; crime novelist Lee Child says ‘Seven words; the best yet from the best ever. America’s greatest living novelist delivers his masterpiece’ while the Irish Times says it is ‘utterly compelling’.

While I think attempts to define people as ‘the greatest living novelists’ or novels as ‘the novel of the century’ are sophistic, it was an interesting experience reading the two back-to-back. Franzen’s book is intimate, focusing on a love triangle that breaks a family apart. It is nuanced, thoughtful and mines deep into the workings of its three main characters. You can open any page and find a quotable paragraph that reveals Franzen’s mind analytically at work. Here is a random example:

Katz’s susceptibility to women over thirty-five was a source of some embarrassment. It felt sad and little sick in the way it seemed to reference his own lunatic and absent mother, but there was no altering the basic wiring of his brain. The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn’t fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty; neuro-mechanistic, death-flavored.

Paragraphs like these are archetypal Franzen; with long and winding sentences using multiple clauses, the fascinating mix of everyday language (‘coke’, ‘kiddies’) and academic (‘neuro-mechanistic’, ‘reference’) and the self-torture as each character flays him or herself for our reading pleasure.

The novel starts and ends with neighbours; people on the outside looking in and judging his protagonists as they muddle along in their twenty-year relationship, getting things right and getting things spectacularly wrong. He invites the reader to judge them too and it is tempting: Katz, of the above paragraph, is an aging rocker, juvenile in his predilections; his friend Walter is a goody-two-shoes who gets his comeuppance by being too innocent and trusting, and his wife Patty is emotionally scattered and needy, loving Walter, lusting Katz and playing out all these emotions dangerously in her relationship with her son Joey.

Here are two neighbours contemplating the Berglands in the early pages of the novel:

Merrie Paulsen wasn’t entertained by Patty’s storytelling. Late in the evening, loading the dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults – his own mother seemed to suffer from the same confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty’s stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job it was to be cute?

“I wonder if she’s actually in love with Walter, or not,” Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. “Physically, I mean.”

“The subtext is always ‘My son is extraordinary,'” Merrie said. “She’s always complaining about the length of his attention span.”

This neighbourly bitching frames the question the novel seeks to answer: is Patty in love with Walter physically? It also points to Franzen’s great theme of sub-text; how people say one thing, mean another and do something entirely different. He is fascinated by what drives people to make their choices and we watch in agony under his microscope as Patty, Walter and Katz do just that.

King’s Under the Dome also puts people under the microscope, but in his case it is a whole town. One autumn morning, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Food, water and electricity run short and the rules on which a quiet, decent town is built begin to shift and mutate. The Times appropriately said it is ‘something of an American Lord of the Flies’ and the reader senses that overpowering creepy logic that things are going to go horribly and violently wrong.

Under the Dome is a page-turner of the finest order and it gallops along at a breathless pace. But King is not called a master storyteller for nothing; while chasing his plot he also builds an array of characters whom the reader either loves and roots for or loathes and hopes for their comeuppance. He constructs a world so compelling  that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.

Novice writers need to study King’s dialogue. He could write an entire book just of dialogue, just so taut and snappy it is. Here’s a brief scene:

‘Cool, Mrs McClatchey,’ Benny said. He raised one hand. ‘Give me five, mother of my soul brother.’

Smiling wanly, still holding the picture of her husband, Claire McClatchey slapped Benny five. Then she said, ‘At least the town common’s a safe place.’ She paused to consider that, frowning slightly. ‘I hope so, anyway, but who really knows.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Norrie said. ‘I’ll watch out for them.’

‘Just promise me that if you do find something, you’ll let the experts handle things,’ Claire said.

Mom, Joe thought, I think maybe we’re the experts. But he didn’t say it. He knew it would bum her out even more.

‘Word up,’ Benny said, and held his hand up again. ‘Five more, o mother of my -‘

This time she kept both hands on the picture. ‘I love you, Benny, but sometimes you tire me out.’

He smiled sadly. ‘My mom says the exact same thing.’

Stephen King is more than a master craftsman; he is a world-builder. Chester Mills and its inhabitants take up residence in the reader’s mind, showing us how humankind responds when things fall apart. King takes a grand theme and miniaturises it for his readers. Franzen miniaturises his even further, down to a world of three.

As a reader and a writer, I’m fascinated by both exceptional genre fiction like King’s and by literary fiction like Franzen’s. I know there are many readers out there who would choose one over the other, calling genre fiction prescriptive and literary fiction pretentious and that is their prerogative. I don’t see it as a literary versus genre debate. There is no duking it out. The reading world is big enough for all kinds of writing and I’m never happier than when I’m observing sheer writing talent in action.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

19 thoughts on “Big American Books

  1. NDR Kultur is serialising the Franzen last week and this, and I’m enjoying it (despite the translation – though Franzen has been on tour here and does apparently speak at least some German). I have a terrible track record with Big American Books, and I didn’t particularly like The Corrections, so this has come as a surprise. Will be interested to see what happens. (Am lucky, as this is the last week for a while that I’ll be home 8:30-9am and able to listen to the radio!)

  2. Thank you for a lovely review! You are such a pro. You almost even make me want to read the S.K book. But I’m a scardey-cat..

  3. Great reviews and although I’ve never read a King novel in my life and never thought I wanted to (only because I am a wimp and don’t like scary books) you do make it tempting. Only one thing, though – don’t hate me, but I’m not keen on the passage of dialogue you quote from the King book. It’s too staccato and doesn’t quite sell its usefulness to me – I could imagine reading that so fast I’d almost be skipping it and feeling quite sure I hadn’t really missed anything. As in all things, dialogue is a question of personal taste, I don’t doubt! But great to see two masters of the craft coming up with books that delight you.

  4. Well said, Charlotte. You write great reviews.

  5. Great reviews Charlotte! Both are on my tbr list. I remember back in high school I had this writing teacher who would always dismiss Stephen King as a good storyteller but a bad writer and I remember thinking, I wouldn’t mind being a bad writer if it meant I wrote like Stephen King! And thanks for the excerpts from Franzen’s book…it’s been intimidating me but I do plan to eventually read it.

  6. For a guy who says the road to hell is paved with adverbs, King used a lot of them in that short little excerpt. I wonder if his feet are burning.

  7. “The reading world is big enough for all kinds of writing and I’m never happier than when I’m observing sheer writing talent in action.”

    Amen.

  8. Ah, thank you for this lovely review of these two books. I admire that you can read two such long books back-to-back!

    Lately I’ve been hankering for a good, long book to read. I read some excerpts from Frazen’s and think I must have some sort of a reading disability when it comes to modern fiction: I usually don’t like very much of it. I can devour tons of nonfiction, but I am picky about my non-fiction. I wasn’t much attracted to Frazen’s book, but perhaps I’ll borrow it from the library and give him a chance.

    King, on the other hand, I will try. He’s one of my guilty sins, as normally I don’t care for that genre–but King was the first author whose book I remember not being able to put down. It’s just delicious, having a page-turner to read. And I agree about his dialogue. He’s very good with that.

  9. I really enjoyed this post, Charlotte – I’ve been wondering about the Franzen (I’m still yet to read The Corrections, in fact), and King, well, On Writing is one of my favourite books on the craft. I have never recovered from reading Misery in my teens, so I’ve not read enough of the prolific Mr. King by a long shot, but I completely agree with you that these categories are unhelpful and misleading, and all that matters is great writing.

  10. Writing both genre and literary (YA) fiction I love both. And it’s interesting to see the great American novels next to each other🙂

    Also, hi, fellow Crusader! Very nice to meet you🙂

  11. Hello from a fellow Crusader who has already been through and ransacked your site for its best recipes. Never can resist a recipe which is the recommended favourite of a committed cook.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your last few posts – about your writing process, revisions, and path to an agent. I’ve also just signed with an agent, but it doesn’t mean the learning process – or the self-doubt – are at an end. It just seems to be the beginning of a new learning curve!

    Best of luck with your revisions, and hopefully I’ll get some work done on mine too, between thoughts of chocolate and dreams of lemon drizzle cake.
    😉

  12. Charlotte, you make these books sound utterly sellable. What a delightful, professional review. Different class. Thank you for a great read.

  13. I just wanted to stop by to say hello. I’ve signed up for the Writers Platform Crusade today

  14. I jut finished Franzen’s Freedom. I must say I enjoyed it. The characters were interesting and well-formed. But perhaps I went into it with too many high expectations. That’s always the danger when you’re reading a book that is supposedly ‘the book of the decade’.

    i was ultimately underwhelmed and felt like the book had too much of a political and environmental agenda for me, i’m not crazy about being preached at. But that’s just me.

    Straight after I read an unknown book, by an unknown debut author, named George Hagen, called The Laments. (I bought it new for a pound in a charity shop.)

    It’s a standard family saga, coming in at a normal 300 pages, and i must say, I preferred it.

  15. Great review, both entertaining and intelligent. I admire how you approach both books with the same critical rigour and can see the validity of each type of literature. And I love your boxing metaphor!

  16. Stephen King is incredibly good at creating worlds, like you said. I don’t know if you have ever read the Gunslinger series that he wrote, or The Talisman, written with Peter Straub. The imagination of the man in conjunction with his talent for dialogue is incredible. I read The Talisman when I was about 14 and I still have dreams set in that world! Weird!

    I sometimes get sick of literary fiction, although most of the time I really like it. There is only so much agonising and, as my beloved puts it, being up one’s own a** that a person can take, so after a while I retreat into science fiction & fantasy where the dilemmas of life are not quite as close to home as those in the literary fiction field.

    What I wish is that someone could take the best of both and combine them in one incredible book.

  17. Hi Charlotte,
    I began my Stephen King journey as a terrified 15 year old reading Salem’s lot with a torch under the covers at night…

    I read Under the Dome during my Summer sojourn to a Vulcanic spanish island… lugged that ‘hardcover’ tomb with me all there way there and then looked like a complete nutter reading it by the pool… but I couldn’t put it down. Left it for ‘the man’ who need to stay down a few days long and he managed to work a full day and then knocked the book off over 4 nights (not much sleeping, I suspect). I am not sure there is a single moment in that book where I lost interest. And at the end I took a BIG breath out….

    Have been eyeing off the Franzen book.. perhaps over the Xmas hols.

  18. I’m in the process of reading the Franzen book right now. I’m about 2/3 of the way through it, and I alternate intense interest with complete boredom. Apparently the interest is winning as I have not quit reading it. Personally, I love the language but I also feel that the story would flow better without so many darned details.

    I also wonder how you determined that the story was about the love triangle, because I have been feeling more that the story was about Joey and how his parents psychological inadequacies affected his life. But I haven’t finished the book yet, either.

    As far as Stephen King goes, I suppose he may be a great writer. I don’t know, because I stopped reading his books when I found myself unable to wade through “Christine.” I’m not a fan of horror and fright novels, I don’t feel the need to traumatize myself reading fictional accounts of boogeymen and psychic phenomena. Maybe King has changed in the past twenty years, but I was so put off by “Carrie” that I haven’t bothered with anything else — my attempt at “Christine” was half hearted at best. Personally, I think there is enough scary stuff out there (oil spills? environmental catastrophes anyone?) that I don’t need something un-real to frighten me.

    And while we are at it, why have the mystery writers of the world become so infatuated with serial killers? I am sick to death of starting what I am hoping will be a fine mystery and discovering that it is another writer delving into the morass of the sick mind of a serial murder.

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