Is Ann Patchett the female Jonathan Franzen?
In some respects, Jonathan Franzen and Ann Patchett seem separated at birth – except for all the ways in which they are polar opposites.
TIME Magazine canonized him with the corny halo of Great American Novelist. He loathes Twitter and Facebook and spits on e-books. Is childless by choice. Waxes passionate about endangered species (songbirds like the Cerulean Warbler). Was devastated by the loss of a beloved friend and fellow writer to suicide. Has strong if owlishly unfashionable opinions on the way we live now. (“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”). And was scathing about literary taste-makers who didn’t get his work. (“Michiko Kakutani is a national embarrassment.”)
TIME Magazine has nominated her to its list of most-influential persons. She finds Twitter distasteful and hasn’t watched television in years. Is childless by choice. Waxes passionate about a different endangered species (independent bookstores in Nashville, Tenn.). Was devastated by the loss of her closest friend and fellow writer to a heroin overdose. Has firm opinions on the way we live now, whether it is the sexual revolution (“You can have my birth-control pills when you pry them out of my cold, dead hands”) or children playing Angry Birds on iPads (“a terrible idea”). And was scathing about sub-literate suburbanites who didn't get her work. ("If stories about girls who are disfigured by cancer, humiliated by strangers, and turn to sex and drugs to escape from their enormous pain are too disgusting, too pornographic, then I have to tell you, friends, the Holocaust is off-limits. The Russian Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, the war in Vietnam, the Crusades.”)
Crucially, both are envied purveyors of literary "masstige" – a marketing mash-up of “mass” and “prestige” to tag gourmet but fast-moving consumer goods, or in this case, serious literary novels that are thumping best-sellers. Success – the operatic, breakthrough sort of success that they now command – came late in their writing lives, and, co-incidentally, in the same year, 2001. His first two novels – "The Twenty-Seventh City" and "Strong Motion" – had no foretaste of the electrical blitz that was to be unleashed by "The Corrections." And her first three – "The Patron Saint of Liars," "Taft," and "The Magician’s Assistant," and – got only a drizzle of attention compared to the sensational "Bel Canto." “Before Bel Canto,” wrote John Updike in the New Yorker, “she had been admired but obscure, a veteran of academic postings and the grant wars.”
And – we’ll stop now, but this is important – both admire Henry Green, the now forgotten but once acclaimed English novelist referred to as “the writer’s writer’s writer,” whose "Loving," an Irish upstairs/English downstairs story, was featured by TIME on its list of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”
Also – we can’t possibly leave this out – for years now, each has had to deal with a quasi-comic albatross. His is called Oprah, hers is called being childless by choice. Being constantly chivvied for not reproducing can be infuriating, but it’s a minor irritant compared to “the tsunami of hydrochloric acid” that washed over him for belittling Oprah as low church of literary taste. (Not that TIME, with its arbitrary lists and cover stories is exactly high church, but we’ll leave that battle for later). Their respective albatrosses, however, are non-transferable. She has no problem writing for Oprah's magazine, and he, though occasionally asked about not having kids, gets off lightly. He once related how he told his editor at the New Yorker that he was seriously thinking about adopting some Iraqi war orphans. Horrified, the editor, “took two toothpicks from the bar and made the sign of the cross and waved it slowly in front of me as if warding off an evil spirit. And he sensibly pointed out that there are more people in the world who can make good parents than can write good books.” Imagine any woman getting away with that.
As the unflinching and anxious diarist of the American un-Pastoral, Franzen carefully builds enormous Midwestern family novels around a solidly neurotic moral center. More than any other novelist today, he hears clearly the alarm bells of unease jangling over tree-shaded, stucco-clad Americana. Like Walt Whitman, his pen covers continents of subjects – the environment, the family, America’s role in the world, phony liberal pieties, the consumer economy, Capitalism, pharmaceutical skullduggery, social pathology, and love. Like Whitman, he speaks at every hazard.
As someone who is Catholic, believes deeply in the fundamental goodness of the human race and the ties of community, and whose roles models are “childless nuns with their vocations,” Patchett explores emotionally complex human relationships with depth, wit, and beauty. Lyrical, and with a profoundly moral core, her novels view the darkling world through the healing optic of optimism. It’s not that the battered environment or the fertility-industrial complex or corporate empires are absent from her works. They are there as the background against which intensely challenging power relationships – between captors and captives, teacher and student, father and sons – play out.
If the word ‘dysfunctional’ crops up in every Franzen review, "redemptive" is the word that Patchett is stuck with. To caricature them, he is Cassandra to her Pollyanna. Quite appropriate, for the assured new owner of the Parnassus bookstore who said, “I may be opening an ice-shop at the dawn of Frigidaire, but that’s not going to stop me.”
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist.