Thursday, February 23, 2012

Franzen on Frame

The following passage in which Jonathan Franzen quotes from Janet Frame's novel Faces in the Water, appears in Franzen's Harper's Essay 'Why Bother?' collected in How To be Alone: Essays (Fourth Estate, London 2002, pp83-84):

Flying back from Palo Alto in an enforced transition zone crewed by the employee-owners of TWA, I declined the headphones for The Brady Bunch Movie and a special one-hour segment of E! but found myself watching anyway. Without sound, the segment of E! became an exposé of the hydraulics of insincere smiles. It brought me an epiphany of authenticity, made me hunger for the unforced emotion of a literature that wasn't trying to sell me anything. I had open in my lap Janet Frame's novel of a mental hospital, Faces in the Water: uningratiating but strangely pertinent sentences on which my eyes would not stick until, after two and a half hours, the silent screen in front of me finally went blank.

Poor Noeline, who was waiting for Dr. Howell to propose to her although the only words he had ever spoken to her were How are you? Do you know where you are? Do you know why you are here? - phrases which ordinarily would be hard to interpret as evidence of affection. But when you are sick you find in yourself a new field of perception where you make a harvest of interpretations which then provides you with your daily bread, your only food. So that when Dr. Howell finally married the occupational therapist, Noeline was taken to the disturbed ward.

Expecting a novel to bear the whole weight of our whole disturbed society - to help solve our contemporary problems - seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn't this enough? Isn't it a lot?

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