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. Continue reading

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