The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen

best-american-essays-2016Jonathan Franzen, much like Cheryl Strayed, has a vision of the essay as an expulsion of the ‘I’.

I am telling a story about my family.
I am telling a story about my job.
I am telling a story about my sexuality or race.

Franzen further specifies he is looking for ‘intensity’ and ‘risk’, and indeed some of these essays are gripping in their intensity. But, like 2013, it gets repetitive. I like to see essays that explore little-known topics or examine some social phenomena or world events. There’s only so many essays you can read On My Shitty Parents before they all run together. The latter essays suffer this fate. There’s one in the last third where a woman is writing both about the mating habits of salamanders and her attempt to adopt a child. At that point, I was basically like “I don’t care about your familial drama, tell me about the salamanders!”

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

Girl by Alexander Chee: Chee details his application of makeup, wig, gown in preparation for the Castro Halloween parade. It’s the best description on the appeal of dressing in drag I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful. Also another reminder of how wondrous the Halloween Parade apparently was, making me further bitter about moving to San Francisco after it was canned.

My Heart Lies between “The Fleet” and “All the Ships” by Ella Harrison: Harrison is translating ancient Greek, a language no one speaks, into English, a massive undertaking that only a very few select specialists will even be able to interpret. Mostly, it’s a dazzling reflection on language. The disparate connotations and metaphors and etymological poetry that make one word very similar or different to another, each in a separate language and spoken thousands of years apart. While still centered around Harrison’s personal experience, this is one of the least “All about me” essays in the collection. The euphoria Harrison embraces while translating is merely dipping her toes into the greater human lingual ocean.

Sexual Paranoia by Laura Kipnis: This essay is the best example of Franzen’s point on writerly risk. Kipnis is a college professor protesting the overly harsh restrictions and punishments placed on college professors having affairs with students. Not exactly a popular opinion, especially when one is part of the establishment itself. My initial reaction to this was baffled skepticism — why defend behavior that is largely old married white men abusing their social status? Kipnis’ point is two fold. One: Adult relationships are messy and you’ll learn this sooner or later (this one isn’t entirely convincing). And two: by casting professors as potentially dangerous predators, you engineer a situation of infantilized, defenseless students and tyrannical, imposing professors. The narrative established behind the restrictions becomes real in a way that it wouldn’t without them. In other words: students are taught to fear their teachers.

Bastards by Lee Martin: Of the family drama essays, this one is the best. Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident and his inability to work dragged the family around Illinois. A father’s anger. A mother’s kindness. Sounds trite, but this is very well written. It took me right inside this shadowy, anger-ridden house. Oppressive.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

ThecorrectionscvrThe great triumph of this novel: Franzen takes a family of reprehensible goons, who do little more than hurt each other or themselves or anyone who has the misfortune of being around them, and makes them both compelling and sort of sympathetic. Everyone is awkward. Everyone is lost. By the end, I wanted them all to succeed.

The Lamberts

Alfred and Enid, the progenitors of the Lambert clan, seem never to have had a happy marriage. Even its inception was dubious. Enid, your midwestern mom obsessed with maximizing status and minimizing shame, could have been satisfied if Alfred had acted differently, perhaps shown some actual physical love and affection or exploited the easily exploited stock market. But Alfred was never that person. A consummate workaholic, he spent the prime of his life working at a railroad, baffled by people who took unpaid coffee breaks, who used phrases like ‘take it easy’, who yearned for sexual intimacy. Now, in their elder years, Alfred has Parkinson’s disease and is largely unable to take care of himself. Enid is as miserable and nagging as ever, convinced Alfred needs merely to try and many of his physical woes will disappear.

Oldest son Gary, who is probably the biggest prick of the lot, ties his existence to being more successful than average people, especially average midwesterners. He fled to Philadelphia to work in finance and marry a pilates-bodied blonde woman and beget 3 children. Gary is a condescending tightwad. He has little-to-no relationship with his children. He’s clinically depressed and the only way his viewpoint even works is that he has such a heinous, manipulative wife that portions of Gary’s chapters actually turn my stomach and give me no choice but to side with him. He has the least satisfying character arc, and I’m not totally sure he adds that much to the novel.

Youngest daughter Denise, an ultra-perfectionist chef, will probably try and sleep with your husband, or your wife, while maintaining the fiction that if she does not make the first move, she is being totally honorable and not responsible for the fallout. Clearly the marriage egg timer was up and it was gonna happen anyway. She has an ironclad set of defenses that govern her relationships with family, generally involving not getting too close whilst desperately wanting to. Denise also has absolutely no idea what she really wants, which is the crux of her character arc. Honestly, this I-Don’t-Actually-Know-What-I-Want problem is characteristic of all the Lamberts but the rest of the family have some fictive ideal that they at least think they want.

The middle child Chip is obsessed with the corruption and moral vacuity of capitalism, while also being head-over-heels immersed in it (much of his plot involves money). He laments objectification of women in media, especially after his sister poses in a magazine to promote her restaurant, and then flips through a Victoria’s Secret magazine to get off. Hypocrisy defines him. And he knows it. After losing his job at a university for sleeping with a student and then failing to write a decent avant-garde screenplay, Chip finds himself amongst Lithuathian gangsters, writing internet copy for their e-scams. He kind of skews golden child a bit, having the happiest emotional arc in the book. His major philosophical conflicts feel like an author-insert of Franzen’s own internal turmoil.

The story lives in in the late 90s, a time of American excess that feels fantastical by today’s standards. Enid feels like everyone around her is getting rich and it’s her life’s great frustration that Alfred wasn’t up to the task of making them the same. Everyone is investing in something. Finance seminars on cruise boats.The goblet of public confidence is overflowing and splashing on the floor. While all of this is building up to the rdecline that begins around the time of The Corrections publication (2001), the tone/time feels alien to someone like myself who was too young to interpret business/finance as it was happening.

Franzen is a pretty slick writer. All of the Lamberts are realized splendidly and his clever metaphors only occasionally fall flat. The writing, tone, and pacing are consistent the whole way through and I found it the sort of book I could open on a holiday flight and read straight through. It’s funny, but not that funny. And it probably could have been cut like 30-50 pages. Like the family it encapsulates, it’s often awkward. I am glad I read it.