The Anguish of the Malcontents
From the Scrapbook
Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By SCRAPBOOK
The Scrapbook is not ordinarily in the business of transcription, but a recent interview with novelist Jonathan Franzen—seen on the website of the Guardian newspaper in London—prompts us to reproduce one passage in full.
Franzen is the 51-year-old writer/activist who gained some celebrity a decade ago when one of his books was chosen to be an Oprah Winfrey “book club” selection, and Franzen responded by publicly disparaging her taste in literature, and worrying that his status in what he called “the high-art literary tradition” might alienate Oprah fans.
It is no small accomplishment to make Oprah Winfrey seem sensible and gracious, but Jonathan Franzen managed to do it. In the Guardian interview, however, he succeeds, against all odds, in making himself appear even less appetizing than in the Oprah episode. Sporting a few days’ growth of beard, a self-consciously soft, condescending tone of voice, and the kind of ragged wardrobe that fairly screams “high-art literary tradition,” Franzen discusses his homeland from the vantage point of a foreign capital and manages, in a handful of sentences, to personify the smug, disdainful branch of alienated American intellectuals.
His interlocutor, a Pakistani-born filmmaker named Sarfraz Manzoor, introduces the subject of American belligerence and hypocrisy about “freedom.”
At this point, Manzoor asks Franzen if he is more “comfortable” in America these days. Franzen visibly flinches, and snickers:
To be sure, this is boilerplate to anyone who has spent quality time on an Ivy League campus, or is a steady reader of, say, DailyKos or the New Republic or Huffington Post.
But what intrigues The Scrapbook is the fact that Franzen stopped by the White House this past week for a “delightful” chat with President Obama. The subject of their private meeting, of course, was not disclosed; but we would guess that there was discussion of America’s status as a “rogue state,” the “childish” nature of our notions of freedom, the “malcontents” who settled this continent, the “screwed-up . . . unworkable system” that elected Barack Obama—and the “dull throbbing anxiety” that people like Jonathan Franzen (and the president?) must now be experiencing about democracy.
One more happy consequence of this election is that President Obama, presumably, will discard his irritating metaphor about the economy being driven into a ditch, with Republicans at the wheel—who must now be content with riding in the back seat while Democrats do the hard work of pulling the car out of the ditch. And so on, and on, seemingly ad infinitum.
In the president’s defense, The Scrapbook is willing to concede that, as metaphors go, we’ve heard worse (even if we recognize its premise is faulty) and it was probably effective the first or second time Obama used it. But after month upon month of relentless repetition—talk about driving something into the ground!—it is The Scrapbook’s sincere hope that this particular rhetorical tic will be consigned to the scrapyard, or join the cash for clunkers program, or whatever.
Recent Blog Posts