How to read a Jonathan Franzen novel, stage by stage

Characters are being described in detail over the course of several pages. You can’t quite picture their faces, but you feel as if you definitely empathise with the overwhelming emotions they are experiencing as they perform small and mundane household tasks. As they watch a kettle come to the boil (800 words) you feel your face settle into an expression of restrained despair.

A character in the book feels very uncomfortable with their expensive, liberal arts college education. They take a horrible job to feel better about it.

You quite enjoy a scene tinged with humour, centring around two old people performing a mundane household task (something like cleaning a bath or replacing a tyre on a car). The scene is witnessed blankly and unemotionally by the younger person with the expensive liberal arts college education, who is picturing having sex with someone inappropriate. By the end of the scene, at least one character will have privately and violently pictured causing serious physical harm to one of the other characters. You check your emotions and find that you don’t really care.

There is an excellent, soul-wrenching passage examining some emotions experienced by a character having a solitary bowel movement.

Your partner interrupts your reading to ask if you’d like a cup of tea. You say ‘no’ and stare at their retreating back, fighting the urge to scream after them ‘Hold me. Never leave me alone again.’

You skim over lots of pages of Franzen’s explorations on a theme you don’t feel intellectually up to engaging with him over, such as gentrification, race politics of small-town America, or capitalism.

You find yourself giggling at a cruelly invoked European/nouveau riche stereotypical character. Then the main character notices the blood pulsing through a vein on the stereotype’s head and thinks about another character back home who is dying of cancer, and you resume your expression of restrained despair.

A character makes a lot of money in a somewhat improbable plotline that seems like it could have been conceived while Franzen was stoned and reading Reader’s Digest. The plotline sheds a stark light on the cruel absurdities of capitalism.

Female emotions about sex, love and marriage are described really well, but you’re not sure Franzen really likes doing it. Also you suspect that he might have written in more descriptions of boobs and fannies, but then deleted them in favour of descriptions of necks or hair, so as not to seem crass.

You put the book down and go to clean your teeth. As you squeeze the toothpaste from the tube, you picture all the empty, used toothpaste tubes you’ve ever used, scattered around the world like a trail of desolate dead animals. Staring into your own eyes in the mirror is like staring into the face of someone you’ve just met and find unattractive. The toothpaste you spit has a trace of pink blood in it and you want to write a poem about it.

You are 77% of the way through the book. A description of a married couple’s argument has been underway for 13 pages. You feel like making toast, but you persevere until the argument concludes with some unpleasantly clinical sex. Then you make toast while thinking about the fact that you and everyone you love will one day die.

You realised you missed an important plot point in the pages with all the intellectual musings about capitalism and have to go back and double check it. You aren’t entirely sure you have it together in your mind, but carry on regardless, like someone supermarket shopping with the flu who can’t remember if they brought their wallet and is too exhausted to check.

A main character dies in a horrible accident which is described in bone-cracking detail. Your partner comes into the room while you are reading and comments that your face looks like an arse right now. An actual arse.

Franzen is describing at length a character taking joy in an activity that you suspect neither you nor he actually understands or finds enjoyable, such as electrical engineering or weightlifting. You think that he’s done quite a good job at invoking this particular sensation, but you’ve no way of knowing, so you nod gravely and move on.

A character has just taken some mood-enhancing drugs. Dust motes are visible in some sunlight and/or someone has an enormous and painful erection, making them recall a sexual experience from when they were younger and happier than where they are now, rotting in this awful suburban wasteland full of old people ineptly performing household chores.

Small physical injuries happen in gruesome detail.

Snot and/or semen cools gently and hardens to a crust.

A character contemplates suicide but is interrupted by a second character, who is described as either poor or stupid or both, doing something innocuous and wryly amusing, like trying to sell the first character roller-blades.

The climax of the book happens and it’s all really confusing, but with not as much shouting as you’d expect. Someone stares for a long time at something not very interesting (like a tablecloth or a plastic door handle) and listens to other people having measured conversations about trauma or abuse. A character unveils some critical knowledge about another character that is the awful truth at the heart of the family at the centre of the novel. Nothing much happens after that.

Characters get on with their lives in a perfunctory, summary way. Both you and Franzen have lost interest in all of them and wish they would f**k off.

The book ends with a pithy and miserable sentence that makes you read the last page back to make sure the sentence didn’t contain more import and meaning than you initially thought. Your first reading was correct: it was just pithy and miserable.

Potato chips would definitely be good right about now.

 

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