…although the narrator of Freedom tells us on the first page, “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds,” one need read only that the local school “sucked” and that Patty was “very into” her teenage son, who in turn was “fucking” the girl next door, to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter. The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language is a world in which nothing important can happen. Madame Bovary’s marriage sucked, Heathcliff was into Catherine: these words fail the context not just because they are of our own time. There is no import in things that “suck,” no drama in someone’s being “into” someone else. As for the F word, Anthony Burgess once criticized the notion that to use it in matter-of-fact prose is to hark back to “a golden age of Anglo-Saxon candour”; the word was taboo from the start, because it stands for brutal or at best impersonal sex. “A man can fuck a whore but, unless his wife is a whore, he cannot fuck his wife … There is no love in it.” A writer like Franzen, who describes two lovers as “fucking,” trivializes their relationship accordingly. The result is boredom.
Here are three very good sentences:
Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.)
Perhaps he can learn a lesson from Freedom: write a long book about mediocrities, and in their language to boot, and they will drag you down to their level.
I thank The Browser for the pointer.
Addendum: Andrew Gelman comments.