Jonathan Franzen makes it deceptively easy to criticize Jonathan Franzen. Yes, he sounds like a boob when he talks about himself, but that’s not really what’s wrong with him, or not really what’s wrong with his writing, if you are one of the people who has the feeling that there is something wrong with his writing. This feeling is deeply subjective and hard to express, a sort of literary Uncanny Valley effect, but if you sense it, you sense it—and, luckily for those of us who do, so does Grantland’s Brian Phillips. Of Franzen’s novels, and their “weird, spiraling cluelessness,” Phillips writes:
They are full of people who talk and act exactly as you imagine such people would talk and act in real life; everyone in them is forever buying the right brand of granola bar or having believable thoughts about their mother or fantasizing in a particularly characteristic way about fucking on a hotel-room air conditioner. And yet they don’t feel like real life. They feel like real life irritably recreated from a spreadsheet, by someone who is a genius at reading spreadsheets. Whether a novel ought to feel like real life is of course a separate question. Many novels that I love don’t, but those novels aren’t trying to, and as far as I can tell, Franzen’s are.
There is more (including a particularly ruthless aside in a footnote). “It’s possible that I am simply wrong, that my own equipment for measuring life is faulty,” Phillips allows. Nope, it’s not just you.