Book by Jonathan Franzen

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

The good thing about writing an annotation is that you can put aside the noise of whether a book is well-reviewed or not and whatever controversy is surrounding it and just get down to the nuts and bolts of craft. Although I must note that I was surprised that their was so much controversy about this book (outside of the Weiner/Franzen personality clash); it was neither a work of genius nor all that terrible. I suppose it’s proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Jonathan Franzen did some interesting stuff in Freedom and, conversely, could have used a machete to cut out other stuff. But there you go.

The book is an in-depth look at various involved characters’ progress from different points of view. I always find it interesting when these points of view bounce off of each other, or provide us with new insight when we’ve established our ideas from reading one point of view. Franzen does this well by opening the book summarizing the life of the Berglund family from the opinionated and breathless point of view of their neighbor. This gives the reader a broad overview of what’s going to happen, so that when we dip in and out of other characters’ points of view, we recognize where we are in the story. It is a clever device to keep in mind.

We then are given Patty Berglund’s point of view in a journal that she keeps for her therapist: in third person.  We are introduced to the love triangle of Patty, her husband Walter and his roommate/best friend rocker Richard Katz. This triangle is told to us in layers from each of its three points of view, giving us new insight into it as each person’s story unfolds. It is a clever investigation of how differently people are wired and how three people can all look at one affair from his/her own self-informed completely skewed perspective.

Each of these characters’ voices is engaging and absorbing. The book, despite its five hundred plus page length keeps a pace going for a good several hundred pages. It’s a solid example of how keeping each voice close and real can keep the reader aligned with even the most unappealing characters. Franzen’s characters are so real and so detailed that you do feel as if you’re on a long car trip with people you just met and don’t necessarily like. Franzen has a problem with women I just can’t put my finger on. It’s like listening to a serial killer talk about a cocktail party–something is essentially missing. I reached the end of the novel assured I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of these people again, but I reached the end of the novel and that’s something.

Franzen manages to create tension around certain incidents in these people’s lives. We know that Patty is going to marry Walter and their courtship is so clumsy and simply wrong-headed in places that the tension of “how the hell do these two end up together?” keeps us through the rocky ups and downs of their relationship.  We know that Richard has an enormous impact on their lives, so his self-absorbed meanderings are fascinating as he careens dangerously in and out of their lives. He’s a rock star celebrity who is vacuous and doesn’t think about life as a whole, but as a series of bad choices that weren’t his fault. Again, the voice, albeit close, third, is strong and Richard’s day to day decisions from not sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend to sleeping with his best friend’s wife, from fixing roofs to trying to sleep with high school aged girls are mesmerizing. Franzen refers to Richard by his first name in any other character’s perspective on him, but when we are in Richard’s point of view, the character is referred to by his last name, Katz. This was an interesting way of not only differentiating points of view, but of distancing Richard from his own emotions, demonstrating his lack of contact with his own life. A clever tool I hope to steal at some point.

The writing itself did not dazzle, the way such front-runners in lists and contests do. There was no sentence-to-sentence exquisiteness going on, but Franzen’s powers of observation are keen and there is beauty in a few of his smaller moments of human observation, “She smelled like cigarettes, and she had a heartrending way of eating her slice of chocolate-mousse cake, parceling out each small bite for intensive savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day.” (278)

Unfortunately Franzen has a political axe to grind. When Walter gets involved in mountaintop removal and population control, Franzen gets bogged down in the details and we are left with page up on page of proselytizing at the hands of Walter and his supposedly alluring assistant, Lalitha. It was difficult to feel attracted or sympathetic to Lalitha, as she comes off as a politicized talking head, thus making a dramatic turn later (not wishing to spoil that turn I’ll leave it there) lack resonance. The idea of removing a mountaintop to save a bird and that coal is better than petroleum is interesting for a one page article, but begins to grate when put in exhausting detail in the middle of what had felt like a very human drama. Franzen could have pruned down this point of view to maybe two pages in Walter’s life and remained reliant upon the character’s actions and poor choices, which were the motivating factors of the book. On top of this, he gives us Joey, the self-absorbed college-age son of Walter and his bum deal selling faulty truck parts to the American army in Iraq. Franzen squishes documentary and commentary into a story that had been doing just fine being told by characters. There is this urgent push to make the book something BIGGER than a close up long-term portrait of a family. It is there that he lost me. About the time Walter and Lalitha are trying to sell Richard on their warbler scheme, the book became a slog for its last two hundred pages.

But the story overall, the fact that family is not always what we hope it to be at the beginning that the very definition of a family may change several times in its lifetime–this is a useful aspect of human beings worth pursuing. As I move forward with my novel, which takes place over a span of time and through a few mutations of a single family, I am heartened that such a large story can be contained between two covers without becoming epic. And given an editor brave enough to face up to Mr. Franzen, this book may have become something worth all of the fuss. But my opinion doesn’t matter here, just the look at craft.

The Genesis of Shannara: Armageddon’s Children

book by Terry Brooks

annotation by Philip Barragán

As a writer it is important to know your audience. And after eighteen books on his mythical world of Shannara and more on other fictional lands, Terry Brooks knows what his loyal readers want to read. Unfortunately, Brooks does not utilize the skill of writer who has written over two dozen novels nor does he attempt to capture the interest in a new reader with  good literature.

Brooks begins with a smart premise of a post-apocalyptic world and the various creatures that inhabit this world. He tells the story to the reader without allowing the reader the chance to observe the world. To his credit, Brooks has given extraordinary thought to every detail  and insists on telling the reader everything he/she should know. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of detail (read: excessive data download) that Brooks keeps the reader from getting to know the characters. The author places himself between the character and the reader throughout the entire novel. The reader is made acutely aware that the author is guarding his characters and will not allow the reader to get to know the inner thoughts about each character. Additionally, Brooks introduces dozens of characters in epic proportion and creates three storylines that prevents the reader from following each one comfortably. The author gets caught-up in flooding the reader with details from each storyline that we completely forget about the other characters.

As for simple writing rules, Brooks speaks from multiple characters in third-person close within one paragraph, line to line. As a completely omniscient and distant narrator, everything is known and told to the reader. There is no effort to be made by the reader to figure anything out. Brooks explains everything in great detail, overwriting each paragraph and each storyline.

Characters are cliché without any effort to make each one unique. There were several instances where Brooks contradicts the nature of the character in the sentence following a statement. It seems as if there was no editing for consistency in the storyline. One example is his explanation of the elves caring for a tree that needs their human touch to help it grow. However, in the following paragraph, Brooks states that the elves are not human beings.

Within the first half of the book, Brooks invokes Huxley’s title as if to summon the spirit of good speculative fiction: “It was a brave new world for this crew…” Brooks is not successful in his endeavor.

I would hope that a prolific writer would improve on his or her style after a dozen novels. I would hope that a fellow writer might make a suggestion on how to improve one’s writing. I find it hard to believe that a writer would not be interested in improving one’s skill unless his editor tells him to continue writing just like his first book. Why change what works, or sells? If this is true, I can see a lonely muse locked away and crying as it bangs its head against the cellar wall, screaming to be heard.

All Families Are Psychotic

book by Douglas Coupland

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Coupland has written an occasionally entertaining, somewhat unsatisfying book that takes satire to dizzying heights. However, the characters do not have distinctive voices, the narrative point of view is inconsistent and although fun in places, became more of a negative example of a plot-driven book containing so many coincidences that it felt like a string of incidents rather than a story.

If the author had concentrated on the Wade character, having him live up to his name by wading in to the lives of his dysfunctional family, it would have improved the book. Far fetched doesn’t begin to describe it. The main problem I had with the book is that I didn’t believe any of the premises, beginning with a one handed astronaut. Tom Robbins would be able to pull this off but this reads more like warmed over Robbins with some interesting descriptions and pop culture references. I revisited Robbins to try to pinpoint the difference and found that style and voice are the likely culprits. Robbins uses a series of declarative sentences to comment on our culture such as, “The brown paper bag is the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature.” He then follows it up with a very long sentence in the lyric register that begins, “Crumpled into a wad of wrinkles, like the fossilized brain of a dryad…” Coupland is a talented writer, capable of striking descriptions, “his face stressed and lined as a trussed-up pork roast,” but he also falls into using pastiches of imagery and there’s nothing that reinforces either earlier images or the theme. For example, he refers to Sarah as “a tiny fern among her two sequoia brothers – even with Bryan younger than her – but she was definitely the one running the show.”  There must be a more effective metaphor to get that point across. It might have worked if he was writing about a forest ranger or if ferns secretly dominated sequoias. Coupland also describes some of the families of astronauts, “They’re practically astronauts themselves – shoes buffed like mirrors; too many teeth; half of them are military and talk in barking Navy SEALs voices.” Yes, it’s clever, the play on barking seals, if he was discussing drill sergeants, not here.

I grew up with a man who became a real life astronaut, following a similar path to that of Sarah, the scientist astronaut in the book. Very little of her action or dialogue rings true, let alone her being cleared as an astronaut with one hand. If an author is going to create this kind of alternate reality where there are one-handed astronauts, he’d better be able to convince the reader why it is possible in that world. Robbins, Vonnegut, and John Irving were all successful at that kind of warping of reality to make a point. Part of it was establishing a consistent absurd tone, authority in their noun usage; the similes and metaphors used meant something to the larger work, and they didn’t write out of snark.

Coupland doesn’t quite get the character of the mother right and she’s a tent pole character for the book. She finds a talent for organizing group discussions late in life, but he’s already painted her as a well-organized mother with grown children. She was established as involved in their lives growing up and this so-called talent would not have come as a surprise.

Coupland strikes me as thinking up interesting situations, then cramming his characters into them. HIV, AIDS, and I know! let’s have a bullet go through one and infect another and just to really twist it, make it mother and son. There isn’t a strong enough world created for me to accept such things as anything other than artifice in the service of convoluted plot. Disappointing for a book with promise from a talented writer.