Sunday, September 12, 2010

Warming Up to the Bestsellers

    For a few weeks now I've been telling myself that I will buy Jonathan Frazen's new book Freedom when it came out. Before all the hype about this book I didn't know who Frazen was, but that doesn't mean anything. I don't know who half the well-known people are. Then he started showing up. First, on the cover of Time magazine sometime in July, while I was at the airport. The profile story focused on this latest novel of his, how he went about it and how he is the current great American novelist. There he was again in a New York Times article about his long-awaited novel -- it's been something like 12 years since his last novel -- and how booksellers and publishers couldn't wait for it to come out, and how it has all the makings of a No. 1 bestseller. I just gotta read it.

    At the same time, I've been doing something else. Without planning, everytime I wonder into a Barnes & Noble I end  up finding my way to Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, opening it to any random page, and reading until I get interrupted by my kid and her friends. Earlier this summer I told a friend that I "hate" Gilbert because...I don't want to say it...because she has a lot of what I'd like to have. First she had a paid trip to go travel for a year and put herself back together. It worked. She healed herself beautifully. The book she wrote about her journey (she had a contract for the book before she embarked on the trip) became a huge success, was translated into a gazillion languages and turned into a movie. (I saw it twice, which was maybe half a time too many, but the timing worked given my program that day.) In her journey, she found a soul mate, married him, went on a second journey with him and got to write another book about that, titled Committed. For her, it's eat, pray, love...write, publish, earn big!
    All well merited, I will add.
    Before the movie came out and without reading the book, I had relegated it to a category somewhere between fluffy exploration and entertaining chick lit. Last night I found myself in the store, peeking. I decided I couldn't read the whole thing furtively, so I dished about $15, took it home and delved into it more. Entertaining it is, but it has all the fluffiness of a juicy filet mignon.
    Reading her I feel delivered with an honest, intelligent, informed, elucidating account of a journey that is one sole woman's journey, but for the telling, she takes in so much of the world and history and other people's experiences, that it becomes more, much more.

    Gilbert is a well-read author whose musings and insights incorporate a wealth of knowledge from others. For example, I already knew Italy was a sensuous place full of beauty, history and good food. But I didn't know Italian author Luigi Barzine, who wrote something called The Italians in 1964, in which he explained Italy to everybody else. I won't get into what he said here, because it would make this posting too long, but I will tell you that it makes so much sense in understanding Italy and Italians. (It's in page 114 of Eat Pray Love's paperback edition.) So I learned something not only about Italy, but also about humanity. She has plenty of literary and historical inserts like that throughout her story, her search, her struggle and her resolution. In the end, it's the journey of one person with lessons that are universal.
   Which brings me back to Frazen and his Freedom. So I'm at the bookstore, I have it in my hand, the hardcover (it's not on paperback yet), some 600 pages. I look at it. I remember from Time's profile piece how he writes in complete solitude, on a bare desk, without even the Internet, and has been at that year after year for more than a decade, one of his few distractions that of watching birds. I remember reviews to the effect of how Freedom is a piercing look at our middle class existence and how that existence doesn't really makes us freer or better at making choices, but not choices as in what flavor to choose, no, choices and freedom in the existential sense, and I already feel my soul 100 pounds heavier.  I remember also learning from the profile  that fellow writer, David Foster Wallace, his buddy, committed suicide in his forties, after he had published Infinite Jest, which also had huge success. I open the tome in my hand and I read lines that are..I don't know how to describe's prose that I'm not ready for, it's intimidating in some way.
   I had heard Frazen himself the night before in a National Public Radio interview, and he sounded amicable and light and he expressed regret that his novel could result depressing, and made himself responsible as a writer if readers fail to see the change his characters undergo in the story, a change I now presume is redeeming. I liked the way the guy came across.
   So, Jonathan, here's where I am: I will read you, I want to, I have a feeling your stuff is good, and not just because of the hype. But I'm not ready yet. I'm getting there. I'll get there. For whatever it's worth, know that nothing I've read about your path to success has made me "hate" you. And Elizabeth, I'm beginning to absolutely love you.


  1. Alina, maybe you should ease into it with Franzen's "The Corrections." It's pretty depressing too, but as far as I know, no one has committed suicide after reading it. There was huge controversy when it came out because Oprah wanted to put it in her book club and Franzen refused. I kinda respected him for that.

  2. Thanks for the reassurance about the Corrections, good to know! I'll tackle Freedom though -- might as well be with the trend -- and if I like it, I'll read Corrections. I read about the Oprah incident too, but read that he said his "refusal" was taken out of context.