Afraid of the World

A great review of Jonathan Franzen’s new translation of Karl Kraus.

‘The Kraus Project’ Is Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Work

By Kraus Project

When the next Alfred Kazin arrives to chronicle this era in American fiction, an era that I suspect will be seen to stretch roughly from 1990 to 2130, he or she is likely to puzzle long and hard over how Jonathan Franzen could loom so tall in his novels yet seem so shriveled in his nonfiction.

Whether he’s writing about birding, reading, media, the Internet, the American novel, his past as an angry young man or his present as a misanthrope trying to learn to relax the tendons in his neck, Mr. Franzen lumbers rather than strides. In part, this is because he’s a solipsist and a declinist, a neo-Luddite in inclination if not in name, and things are habitually going to hell all around him.

I live for misanthropes, but, unlike the matchless ones, Mr. Franzen derives (and delivers) little pleasure from the cherry bombs he lights and rolls toward your ankles. Perhaps he is smiling inwardly. As he observed in“Freedom,” his excellent recent novel, “There is, after all, a kind of happiness in unhappiness, if it’s the right unhappiness.”

Mr. Franzen’s new book, “The Kraus Project,” is a hybrid beast. Partly, it’s a work of scholarship. The author offers his translations of a series of essays by the largely forgotten Viennese journalist and satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936).

You sense immediately why Kraus’s essays resonate with Mr. Franzen. These men share similar obsessions, notably in regard to the soul-draining natures of mass media, high tech, consumer capitalism and hack writing. Kraus was a famously tortured stylist, and most of his prose in this book is dead on arrival. Time and translation have rendered it opaque and fusty, if sometimes memorably splenetic. (“Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola in place of the dependable monotony of cream cheese!”) Mr. Franzen’s footnotes are speckled with comments like, “This sentence is very funny in German.”

Mr. Franzen annotates Kraus’s fulminations in a series of extended footnotes. There is supplementary commentary by Paul Reitter, a Kraus scholar, and Daniel Kehlmann, a young Austrian novelist. These footnotes come to seem like this volume’s reason for being.

“The Kraus Project” comes to life almost entirely in its notes, because so many of them are autobiographical. Mr. Franzen was a Fulbright scholar in Germany during the early 1980s, and he later spent more time in the country. He dilates upon his years there, and about things like his failed first marriage, his struggles to find his voice as a writer and his agonies over thwarted opportunities to sleep with certain fantastic women.

A great deal of this personal material is soulful, counterintuitive, revealing. When he discovered that his fiancée, in his absence, slept with a man he’d known at college, for example, Mr. Franzen admits: “If anything, I felt proud of her. Her infidelity wasn’t nice, but I was in flight from the niceness of the Midwestern place I’d come from. Her infidelity made her interesting.”

The hitch, in “The Kraus Project,” is that it is more often a disheveled and talky assault on everything the author sees when he opens his laptop or clicks on a television, including, but not limited to, Facebook, smartphones, “the high-school-cafeteria social scene of Gawker takedowns and Twitter popularity contests,” the hipness of Apple products, reality TV, Fox News, Amazon, even the “recent tabloidization” of the AOL home page.

His overarching points are valuable and well made. He’s among those people, and I am sometimes among them, “who have brooded over books like Sherry Turkle’s ‘Alone Together’ and are wrestling with apocalyptic doubts” and wondering whether our “insane cultural moment will spell the end of an essential part of us.”

But this book’s series of drive-by pea shootings (he pings Salman Rushdie for condescending to tweet) are beneath him. Mr. Franzen’s whole mode of being — the way he mostly runs silent and deep, issuing a novel every 10 years or so, refusing to embrace social media — was already his most incisive possible rebuke to the way he suspects so many of us live now.

To watch him lean down and mess with Gawker, or with Twitterati, is like watching a hedgehog stop to lecture a field full of foxes — Why, you’re living all wrong, you slinky omnivores — and being eaten in the process, his ribs used as toothpicks. (Mr. Franzen took a predictable beating online after portions of this book were printed in The Guardian under the miserablist headline, “What’s Wrong With the Modern World.”)

The author admits to “feelings of dread and, yes, envy, when I see books being routed by electronics in the sexiness contest,” a line that explains so many of the sentences here.

The footnotes push Kraus’s thoughts to the tiptop of the page, as if they were only a groove placed there for Mr. Franzen to rap over. The list of targets widens.

He bemoans “the denaturization of the planet and the sterilization of its oceans.” He worries about sharks’ fins and elephants’ ivory. He damns “the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sand byproducts” and “the leveling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot.” His apocalypse is now.

Carrying such weight would make anyone’s shoulders droop. Outside of his fiction, Mr. Franzen is not an especially adept or nuanced social critic. Others have already written more incisively, for example, about the moral and intellectual hazards of our online obsessions. Mr. Franzen’s fumbling, his biting off more than he can reasonably chew, makes you turn against him even when you agree with him.

Mr. Franzen appears to want us to live solely among high clouds, serious books, great thoughts. One problem with dwelling in such an aerie, as the poet Kay Ryan explained in a poem helpfully titled “Great Thoughts,” is as follows:

Great thoughts
do not nourish
small thoughts
as parents do children.

Like the eucalyptus,
they make the soil
beneath them barren.

Standing in a
grove of them
is hideous.

The technophobe aspect of “The Kraus Project,” Mr. Franzen’s inability to trust the rest of humanity to live between high and low, put me in mind of something Clive James said about an earlier technology that was going to kill literacy and ruin everything else.

“Anyone afraid of what he thinks television does to the world,” Mr. James commented, “is probably just afraid of the world.”

You Can’t Handle the Truth!


In true Fight Club spirit, Bill returns a stinging blow to Matt (and his petty name calling with ‘Liar, Liar’) with a selection for our next bout of
Chuck Palahniuk’s Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories.

You see, Matt only reads non-fiction because he thinks it “true” and grounded in “reality” and he regards fiction with suspicion and mistrust (is Holden Caufield less believable because Salinger was phony in letters written when he was 22?).

In search of this elusive “truth,” Matt is gullible enough to believe that non-fiction writers are telling him the whole truth and not distorting reality through some usually unstated bias, by what they’ve chosen to include, or perhaps more importantly, left out in the telling.

In his essay “Dear Mr. Levin,” Palahniuk compliments Ira Levin (author of many books and plays including Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives) on his ability “to take some of the thorniest issues in our culture and charm us into facing a problem.” Mr. Levin has created durable fables that help society deal with our demons. If you want a sterile recitation of fact, read an academic journal. But, what we’re talking about is truth. And,  no form of writing gets close to  pure truth like a well told story.

Thoreau said: “writing may be either the record of a deed or a deed. It is nobler when it is a deed.”

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire?

So Newsweek published an article on 9 letters that the Morgan Library recently acquired from a 22-year-old J.D. Salinger.  Salinger had written the letters to a 17-year-old fan from Toronto, Marjorie Sheard. The article notes how Salinger had fibbed in these letters, perhaps in an attempt to woo the young girl.

And there in lies the rub. With fiction and the fiction writer you are never quite certain of what is truth and what is a lie. Whether the author is trying to woo a young lass or a middle age pugilist, a lie is still a lie.

Here is the link to the Newsweek article:

75 Books Every Man Should Read

Judge Smails: “How do you measure yourself with other golfers?” Ty Webb: “by height.”

I’m a sucker for lists of the “greatest books ever written” if only as a narcissistic measure of how well read I am. This time it’s men’s magazine Esquire with the admonition: “75 books every man should read.” So, now I feel half as well read as I thought I was and my manhood has been challenged.

But, with the honest introduction: “an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published,” I had to take a look.

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver
  • Collected Stories of John Cheever
  • Deliverance, by James Dickey
  • The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
  • Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
  • The Good War, by Studs Terkel
  • American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
  • A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
  • The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
  • A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter
  • The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
  • Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
  • A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee
  • Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson
  • Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
  • Dubliners, by James Joyce
  • Rabbit, Run, by John Updike
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
  • Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
  • Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison
  • Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
  • The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer
  • The Professional, by W.C. Heinz
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Dispatches, by Michael Herr
  • Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
  • Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
  • As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
  • The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
  • Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
  • All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
  • Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron
  • A Fan’s Notes, by Frederick Exley
  • Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
  • Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
  • Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
  • Affliction, by Russell Banks
  • This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff
  • Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin
  • The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow
  • Women, by Charles Bukowski
  • Going Native, by Stephen Wright
  • Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarre
  • The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Shining, by Stephen King
  • Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
  • Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
  • Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie
  • Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges
  • The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe
  • The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
  • American Tabloid, by James Ellroy
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley
  • What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer
  • The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell
  • Native Son, by Richard Wright
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans
  • Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Great Bridge, by David McCullough
  • The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac
  • Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Underworld, by Don DeLillo
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

What say you, fair reader? As a Fight Club pugilist, I noticed that there isn’t a non-fiction title in the bunch (see cockamamie Rules of Fight Club). So, not only are we a sissy book club, we’re not even reading manly books. After feeling emasculated, I clicked over to Esquire’s photos of Leryn Franco champion javelin thrower from Paraguay, and forgot all about it.


The World Until Yesterday and Existential Boredom

Fight Club has long been a fan of both Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea. Seven years ago, Diamond’s “Collapse” was our inaugural bout and later we read “Lost in Shangri-La” by Mitchell Zuckoff about a WWII plane crash in a remote valley of Papua New Guinea and first (or nearly first) contact with native tribes there.

In Diamond’s latest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” he argues that we can learn lessons from these tribal cultures such as better child-rearing, better treatment of the elderly, and how to avoid $300/hour lawyers. Diamond tells us “loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies…people spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” In other words, traditional societies, to the extent they still exist, know how to take care of each other.

Despite our warring 20th Century, a conflict-ridden first decade of the 21st Century, and America’s ridiculous number of guns, our society today is, in fact, less violent than tribal cultures. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany in WWI and WWII) are only a third of the death rates of tribal societies. Looking more broadly, Diamond shows us that modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies due to sustained conflict between clans.

Besides having lower body counts than traditional societies, another thing we moderns have going for us is that we generally live longer (watch Stephen Colbert chide Diamond on this point). According to Wikipedia, the average life expectancy in the world today is 68. In the US, it’s 78 (putting us 40th in the world) and in Papua New Guinea it’s 62 (153rd). But, average life expectancy within tribal settings tends to be less than 30, primarily due to high levels of infant and child mortality. As a result, only about 3% of tribal villages are over 65 (Other Ways of Growing Old). In contrast, 13.3% of Americans are 65 and older (2010 Census).

In perhaps one of the best arguments for living in a tribal society, Diamond tells us, is that people generally aren’t bored. This harkens back to our last Fight Club bout “America’s Best Essays of 2012” and Joseph Epstein’s wonderful essay on the current state of boredom in our culture, “Duh Boring.” Epstein observes: “Boredom is often less pervasive in simpler cultures. One hears little of boredom among the pygmies or the Trobriand Islanders, whose energies are taken up with the problems of mere existence.” He even postulates that the very reason for war in our modern society is the boredom in peace time armies. He quotes Lars Svendsen, the Norwegian author of “A Philosophy of Boredom,” as saying boredom is the major spiritual problem of our day.

So, maybe our problem is that we have too many bored retirees.

Fight Club – Splinter Cell

After 7 years of unrelenting non-fiction, several brave pugilists have rebelled and created a Splinter Cell where we can finally read and discuss fiction without being heckled about some subjective, and rather limited, definition of “truth” or “reality.”
This weekend Dave hosted Fight Club at his family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin, and while the nominal Fight Club selection was “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, the main attraction was “Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov. And, while the discussion of “Born to Run” degenerated into actually throwing the book (Matt) and spilling a glass of perfectly good Irish whiskey, the discussion of “Caves of Steel” was a civilized discussion of science fiction (particularly in the 1950s), the role of technology and automation in our lives, gender roles in the 1950s, and the dystopian nature of science fiction today.
As if to underscore how great “Caves of Steel” and Isaac Asimov are for Fight Club, rather Fight Club – Splinter Cell, Dan found this great interview with Asimov and Bill Moyers. In one part of the interview Asimov articulates what could be the manifesto for Fight Club, rather Fight Club – Splinter Cell:
MOYERS: Learning really excites you, doesn’t it?

ASIMOV: Just yesterday I read about the invention of hay in Freeman Dyson’s new book. The thought that occurred to me was, “Why is it I never thought of this? How is it I never knew about this? What made me think that hay existed from the first day of creation?”

MOYERS: What is exciting about that?

ASIMOV: I think it’s the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.

Yes, you caught me… I admit that I was two-timing Broken Spines…

As Gen. David Petraeus has demonstrated for us this last week, even a rock of moral authority can fall from grace.  I know my various interests and activities have kept me from posting on Broken Spines in quite awhile but I felt I need to come back to defend my honor.  There are allegations out there that I have been two-timing by first blog… Broken Spines.  Well, I am here to set the record straight… those allegations are true.  In a moment of weakness, I built a WordPress blog (A Citizen’s Primer) more than five years ago with the intent of recruiting some of my fellow Pugilists to join me to:

“document our positions, ideas, and conclusion on today’s complex political topics.  Why us?  Why not… we feel that we a relatively informed individuals and that when we are able to break down complex topics that are swirling in the political ether we can come up with some plausible solutions that make sense.  We are not claiming to be experts but we do work hard to stay informed on political topics – reading books, magazines, & blogs – watching movies & documentaries – and discussing the issues with friends, family, & colleagues.”

Well, five long years has gone by without a single post until yesterday.  I decided to dust off the cover and share an editorial that I had originally submitted to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  The post was based on my personal frustration with the Republican Party for sitting on their hands over the last two years without one iota of progress or one hint of compromise.  My article was titled “As Minnesota goes, so goes the nation? We need to move beyond a political zero sum game” and it includes ideas for both Minnesota and National Republicans and Democrats to move forward after the election.  Well, there I’ve said it.  Now let the accusations begin, or perhaps… thou who are amongst you who have not sinned shall cast the first stone?

Congratulations Dan O!

Dan O wins the 2010-2012 Biennium Friendly Pipe award for his selectionsImage of Master Switch by Tim Wu and Boomerang by Michael Lewis

RIP Ray Bradbury

“It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.”

– Dandelion Wine

Dynamic Surfaces – Cool!


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