Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is partly set in Santa Cruz, a Californian town 70 miles south of San Francisco, where the novelist lives with his partner, Kathy. Their house is in the U-bend of a crescent, on the edge of a suburban housing estate, overlooking a wooded conservation area to the Pacific Ocean beyond. It is, for one of America’s foremost literary novelists, a modest property, overlooked on three sides by neighbours in a way that, say, Philip Roth’s grand pile in Connecticut is not. However, it affords good views from the deck (the novelist is an avid birdwatcher) and the low overheads that permit Franzen to let five years go by without delivering a novel. “I’m not used to talking about this book,” he says of Purity, which, like his preceding two novels, is a 600-page doorstopper. There is a long, Franzonian pause: “I’m trying to figure out how much I should say and how much I should not say.”
Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people'
That question, as central to the writing as to the publicising of the novel, is one that Franzen has frequently struggled to answer. At 55, he has the earnest, slightly puggish look of a younger man, and the occasional intemperance of one, too. On a refresher driving test he took recently, the novelist scored high on the scale for susceptibility to road rage. (“There are 11 things that are warning signs of road rage, and I had, like, nine of them.”) His fame has as much to do with the fights he has picked – or has had foisted upon him – as with the quality of his fiction; Franzen riles people in a way that is unusual, and perhaps reassuring for a novelist, given the endless debate about the relevance of that role. He has attracted the scorn, over the years, of users of social media, environmentalists, certain stripes of feminist critic, lesser novelists, the lead book reviewer of the New York Times and fans of Oprah Winfrey.
Franzen says he is “hurt” and “ashamed” to be the target of such ire, but he is also unrepentant. No sooner has one controversy died down than another pops up in its place, most recently in the wake of a long piece he wrote in the New Yorker in April, suggesting that, contrary to research published by the bird charity the National Audubon Society, climate change was not the greatest threat to avian welfare – it was more immediate dangers such as hunting and collision with glass. The society accused him of “intellectual dishonesty”, and its members attacked him online, an unpleasant, but also, perhaps, a bleakly satisfying experience: the incident foreshadowed the themes of Franzen’s new novel.
'I was cripplingly ashamed of The Corrections. I was embarrassed to still care about family'
Purity is the story of Pip, a girl in her early 20s, and a Julian Assange-type character called Andreas Wolf, who runs a rival organisation to Wikileaks called the Sunlight Project. Internet culture is, in some ways, perfect fodder for Franzen, who is never stronger than when calling out the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us – a gap wherein so much of online life now resides. But it is also an odd fit; a novel about technology by someone who avowedly doesn’t like using it. Many years ago, Franzen spoke about jamming the USB port on his computer in order to get stuff done, and more recently scolded Salman Rushdie for wasting time on Twitter. This distaste is in part aesthetic – the very brevity of Twitter offends Franzen – and partly a reaction against what he calls the “totalitarianism” of online culture, wherein retribution by the mob can be vast, swift and violently misinformed.
The irony of all this is that Franzen, a white male novelist frequently accused of elitism, is, in this scenario, something of an underdog, the nerd repeatedly beaten up by the cool kids online – although he identifies the real villain of the piece as the internet itself, which he compares in Purity to communist East Germany. “You can’t not have a relation to, in the case of East Germany, the socialism of the state,” Franzen says. “In the case of the internet, you can ignore it, or you can abet it. Either way, you are in a relation to it. And that’s what’s totalitarian.”
As for social media, “it feels like a protection racket. Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations.” There is a long pause. “Why would I want to feed that machine?”
Reading Jonathan Franzen on form is like watching a baseball star toss a ball, knowing that behind the casual gesture is a virtuoso talent and 10,000 hours of practice. Franzen’s prose is deadpan, unexcitable, almost aggressively rational, made up of long, finely planed sentences that quiver with the sarcasm that is at the root of his comedy. Unlike his friend, the late David Foster Wallace, he has never been fashionable – he isn’t avant-garde and takes everything too seriously for the postmodern style. Neither does he fall easily into a literary rat pack. “I look at McEwan and Amis and Hitchens,” he says. “They seemed like a pack. And I don’t think that’s how it works so much here [in the US]. It’s not a generational divide. At least in my experience, what separates people into packs is not age, it’s taste.” He allies himself with writer friends such as Paula Fox, Don DeLillo, David Means and Jeffrey Eugenides. “[Jonathan Safran] Foer,” he says, “I’m friendly with him. And even if I’ve never met the person – I met Edward St Aubyn once, at a reading, but he’s part of the pack. Dead people can be part of the pack.”
These friends are also “loving competitors”, and for a long time Franzen felt angry at his relative lack of progress. At the age of 40, having spent a decade writing two novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, both of which were well-reviewed and little-sold, he resigned himself to a certain amount of cultural irrelevance, which he attributed not to any failing in himself, but to a failing in the culture. He was, he says, experiencing a “disillusionment” with the American reading public, the kind of grandiose attitude that the reviewer Michiko Kakutani was perhaps trying to puncture when she called him a “jackass” in the New York Times. Franzen, smiling, allows that he may at times have been a little insufferable. (Inevitably, he fought back and called Kakutani “tone deaf and humourless”.) “You adopt a certain attitude when you feel like you have something that’s not appreciated. You have to generate some sense of bigness on your own; that’s an insufferable activity.”
It is important here to note Franzen’s Midwestern background – he was raised in a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, a part of the US with a regional identity strongly rooted in humility, so Franzen’s arrogance is in some ways a performance. Once he achieved success, he says, “I could revert to my native Midwestern modesty.”
His shyness is not to be overlooked, either. Franzen is pained and baffled when he hears himself described as misanthropic. “I don’t dislike people; I love people,” he says to me at one point, and there is a line in Purity, applied to a character called Anabel, that could be the author addressing himself: “She kept alienating people with her moral absolutism and her sense of superiority, which is so often the secret heart of shyness.”
Everything changed with The Corrections, Franzen’s novel of the family Lambert: Enid and Alfred, the warring old couple, and their three dysfunctional adult children. The fictional family bore strong similarities to Franzen’s own, his father a railway engineer, his mother a housewife, although, he says, as “writing becomes more autobiographical, the less it hews to actual lived experience. The text takes on meaning when you start to depart from experience. Because then it starts to tap into the writer’s nature.”
Franzen had no great hopes for The Corrections. “I thought I would write for a small audience. And had put all the stuff that was really shameful to me... it’s hard to conceive of now, that I was ashamed of writing a book, deeply ashamed, cripplingly ashamed of writing a book that turned on a mother’s wish to have the family together for Christmas.”
Because you felt it was too small a canvas?
“It was small, and I was embarrassed to have come from the innocent Midwest. And I was embarrassed to still care about family. And there were many other things. Chip’s freakishness, that drew to some extent from my own sense of freakishness. You explore the shameful things for people who… that’s what they go to fiction for. That’s why they’re reading Kafka, or Dostoevsky. But that’s a small audience.”
'There is no way to make myself not male. There is a sense there is nothing I can really do, except die – or retire'
John Updike and to some extent Philip Roth had, for decades, been writing novels with domestic settings that hadn’t stopped them being taken seriously, but Franzen couldn’t conceive of Enid and Alfred winning him the same kind of respect. They were too weird, too pitiful, too specific to his own family and his disastrous adolescence (a period Franzen revisits in his essay Then Joy Breaks Through, in which, memorably, he goes to church camp and on the way does everything he can to avoid being consigned to the car of Social Death).
“And to discover that these things that I thought were freakish parts of my history and my personality – people were saying, ‘Oh, someone’s writing about me! And this is my family.’ I thought, oh my God, I’ve been so embarrassed my whole life about my family. And here people are telling me that they recognise it. I felt deeply grateful, but I also realised that my contempt for the non-hardcore readers – the softer core readers... not contempt, but my writing them off, had been premature. In fact, there was a whole lot more people looking for a certain kind of novelistic experience than I had any idea.”
The Corrections, which was published in 2001, when Franzen was 42, sold more than three million copies. “It was simply no longer appropriate to be angry.”
Good relationships make for boring novels. For the last 13 years, Franzen has lived with Kathryn Chetkovich, a writer and editor whom he persuaded to move in with him four months after The Corrections came out, and with whom, says Franzen, “I’m never bored.” As an editor, Chetkovich mostly works with social scientists. “She helps them think better. She knows a lot of stuff. And it’s hard to get away with a specious argument in her presence. I don’t think I could live with someone that I didn’t have an intellectual friendship with. Maybe a dog.”
Against this background of domestic harmony – halfway through the interview, Franzen gets a call from the garage, informing him that Chetkovich’s long-awaited VW Golf has arrived, and he is buoyantly excited for her – the novelist revisits, in his fiction, terrible relationships of the past. For 14 years, from his early 20s onwards, he was married to another writer, Valerie Cornell. With all the caveats about autobiography in place, elements of the experience clearly inform parts of Purity. While sections of the new novel (and Franzen’s previous one, Freedom) read like an intellectual exercise, the car crash of Tom and Anabel’s marriage is straightforwardly brilliant, captivating, unbearable.
“A little bit funny?” he says, anxiously.
It struck Franzen that no one had really done “the entire slow-motion train wreck in all its brutality”. He is terrific at arguments – that terrible, slow suck into someone else’s version of reality, wherein, as Tom says, “every utterance of hers gave me multiple options for response, each of which would prompt a different utterance, to which, again, I would have multiple options in responding, and I knew how quickly I could be led eight or ten steps out on to some dangerous tree branch and what a despair-inducingly slow job it was to retrace my steps back up the branch to a neutral starting point”.
The fact that Anabel is a feminist so warped and fanatical that she forces Tom to, for example, atone for his maleness by sitting down on the toilet to pee, will be received by Franzen’s feminist critics as an aggressive act, a deliberate ridiculing of the cause, which he concedes is somewhat the case. “There’s a certain degree of glee in putting that stuff in the book. Because I know that if you are hostile, you will find ammunition. I wrote this deliriously praising celebration of Edith Wharton. People managed to find a way to make it sound like I was hating on Edith Wharton. So why not just let it all rip and: have fun with that, guys.” (Criticism of the Wharton essay rounded on Franzen’s observation that Wharton “wasn’t pretty”, something he suggested, not unreasonably, fed into her fictional disquisitions on the complicated currency of female beauty.)
“I’m not a sexist,” he says. “I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section is that he’s really trying to not be male.” His ex-wife did not try to get him to pee sitting down. But “there’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again”.
Dying wouldn’t help, I suggest: then he would be a dead white male novelist, a category even more problematic than a living one. “Yes, even worse. So I was attracted to a story of someone trying to do reparations. And trying really hard and really sincerely, and lovingly, and finally not being able to. The comedy of that.”
He has written some great female characters – Enid Lambert; Patty Berglund; in Purity, Tom’s mother Clelia, her name a nod to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse Of Parma – these hard, awkward, embarrassing women who turn out to have been heroes. Franzen’s real crime, one suspects, is not one of content, but of presentation; his propensity for feeling hard done by doesn’t play well with those who face greater barriers just to get to the start line. “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book,” tweeted the US novelist Jodi Picoult when Freedom was published in 2010. “Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.” The novelist Jennifer Weiner made similar remarks, to which Franzen replied, earlier this year, that she was “freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias in the canon” to promote her novels.
'I didn't scream when Oprah called me. I said, "Oh, hey." And she didn't know what to do with that'
But there is also something courageous in Franzen’s willingness to step up to the fight. It takes nerve, these days, to criticise social media, as it does to piss off Oprah, as the novelist famously did in 2001. In the essay Franzen wrote after the incident, he cleared up a lot of the misconceptions, namely that he turned down Oprah when she invited him to be on her show. In fact, she disinvited Franzen after he made some equivocal remarks about being on the show during publicity and was a brat when the crew came to St Louis to film background. (“This is so bogus!” he exclaimed, when they asked him to stand in front of an old haunt and look soppy.)
“It was a tragic misunderstanding,” Franzen says. “I blame myself, because I said things that were stupid. And hurt a number of people.” There is a pause, during which one feels Franzen leaning inexorably, and rather endearingly, in a direction that can do him no good. “I also blame Oprah,” he says. “Because, from our very first conversation, it was clear we were not speaking the same language. I didn’t scream when she called me. I said, ‘Oh, hey.’ And was trying to talk like a media professional to a media professional. And she didn’t know what to do with that.”
She treated him like a competition winner?
“Oh, totally. Yes. And what is the one thing a competition winner has to do? They have to show abject gratitude. And I was, like, well, I don’t think you’d be doing this if it weren’t good for you, too. So let’s work together. And the answer was no. So I blame her, too.”
She couldn’t break persona for him?
“That’s the thing. And I think the fact that I was a white guy made that harder. And I think she was sensitive to any suggestion that I might be dissing her. And, of course, then I did diss her. But not before I’d had that experience.”
Towards the end of 2006, Franzen started to feel a certain lack in his life. He was approaching his late 40s, he was immensely successful, well remunerated and in a good relationship. The thing that he lacked was access to young people.
“I had a brief period of questioning whether I should perhaps adopt a child,” he says. “And my New Yorker editor, Henry Finder, was horrified by the notion. We were in a bar. He picked up a pair of toothpicks and made the sign of the cross and held it in front of him and said, ‘Please don’t do that.’ And then he paused and said, ‘But maybe we can rent you some young people.’”
For a year, Franzen checked in regularly with a group of new graduates from Berkeley, who were part of a semi-longitudinal study into kids who’d just graduated from college, eventually writing a piece for the New Yorker about the experience, out of which, many years later, Pip, the 20-something heroine of Purity, was born. Pip is smart, funny, awkward, all the things Franzen likes in a person. “I knew her. She was easy.”
Did hanging out with the young people nix his desire to have a baby?
“Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks. And was finally killed by Henry’s response. He made a persuasive case for why that was a bad idea. The main thing it did … one of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me. And part of what journalism is for me is spending time with people who I dislike as a class. But I became very fond of them, and what it did was it cured me of my anger at young people.”
The anger moved on to new targets, the greatest of which, of course, was the internet. There is a danger for Franzen, that an author who is not a native user of the internet will be exposed in the way in which he writes about it, and there are a few false notes in Purity; an off use of the term “going viral”, a tin-eared reference to Jeff Bezos, and the overwrought phrase “moused and clicked” to describe the activity of industrious interns at their desks.
Cannily, given how much of the storyline he is made to shoulder, the Andreas Wolf character is positioned as a pre-internet creature, born and raised in communist East Germany, with a commensurate understanding of how systems that claim to liberate human potential can actually constrain it. The apex of the book is an extraordinary rant Wolf goes on against what he calls the New Regime – coincidentally, an echo of remarks made by Assange himself in his 2012 book of essays, in which the Wikileaks founder warned that the internet could be turned into a “dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism”.
Assange was mainly talking about surveillance technologies. In Purity, Franzen’s critique is much broader. “Smart people were actually far more terrified of the New Regime than of what the regime had persuaded less-smart people to be afraid of, the NSA, the CIA,” rages Wolf in the novel. “It was straight from the totalitarian playbook, disavowing your own methods of terror by imputing them to your enemy and presenting yourself as the only defense against them – and most of the would-be Snowdens kept their mouth shut.”
Who is the Stasi, in the East German analogy?
'It becomes very hard to be creative, because you're worried about what you might be called, and whether it's fair'
“Technology itself is the Stasi. Technology is the genie out of the bottle. And the Stasi didn’t actually need to do that much. It didn’t arrest that many people. Even with all its resources, it couldn’t do that many full operations. So it counted on people censoring themselves. And controlling their own behaviour for fear of the Stasi, without their needing to lift a finger.”
image courtesy of the awl
Chris Kraus’d lovers Fiona Duncan and Sarah Nicole Prickett were on Twitter, debating the latest instance of an old man yelling at iCloud — a 5,000-word screed against Apple, Amazon, Twitter, smartphones, self-promotion, Jennifer Weiner, poor people, young people, elderly German women, and “the ‘dehumanisation’ of a wedding” — when one of us, doesn’t matter who, decided we should cunt up the text, replacing every quoting of and reference to Karl Kraus with, well, see below.
“The only way I’d gotten any meetings in Rotterdam or the Cinemarket two years before had been by getting drunk and flirting with an ex-philosopher turned producer by telling him I was the grand-niece of the satirist Karl Kraus.”
– Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia
ChrisKraus was an American stripper and a central figure in fin-de-siecle New York‘s famously rich life of the mind. From the late 80s on , she edited and published the influential Semiotext(e) series Native Agents; she is also an author. Although Kraus would probably have hated academic journals, Semiotext(e) was like a journal that everybody who mattered in the American-speaking world, from Acker to Baudrillard to Rosalind Krauss, found it necessary to read and have an attitude toward. Kraus was especially well known for her aphorisms – for example, “Reading delivers on the promise that sex raises but hardly ever can fulfill” – and at the height of her popularity she drew thousands to her public readings.
The thing about Kraus is that she is very hard to follow on a first reading – deliberately hard. She was the scourge of traditional narrative, and to her cult-like followers herplain and visceral style formed an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out. Kraus herself remarked of the playwright Bertolt Brecht, before attacking him: “Narrative, the great narcotic.” If you read Kraus’s sentences more than once, you’ll find that they have a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.
Here, for example, is the seventh paragraph of her essay “Bad Nostalgia.”
“Nostalgia implies the irrecoverable. The act of remembering, rather than recover the lost to consciousness, serves only to activate the longing to return … The act of memory itself and the quality of the remembrance of the past brings no satisfaction or joy. It serves only as a springboard to the state of feeling desired: a time when one was content, happy, fulfilled, satiated. The emphasis is on the self, and on a desired image of oneself. The people and place in the memory are stilted, frozen in history and in relationship to the self, which has been—which has been—which has been lost.”
First footnote: Kraus’s suspicion of the “act of memory” in France and Italy still has merit. Her contention here – that walking down a street in Paris or Rome is a desired image of oneself – is confirmed by the ongoing popularity of France and Italy as vacation destinations and by the “envy me” tone of American Francophiles and Italophiles announcing their travel plans. If you say you’re taking a trip to New York, you’d better be able to explain what specifically you’re planning to do there, or else people will wonder why you’re not going someplace where life is beautiful. Even now, New York insists on content over form. If the concept of coolness had existed in Kraus’s time, she might have said that New York is uncool.
This suggests a more contemporary version of Kraus’s dichotomy: Mac versus PC. Isn’t the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn’t even matter what you’re creating on your Mac Air. Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of American life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of DOS operating systems and early Windows.
Jonathan Franzen: “Anger descended on me so near in time to when I fell in love with Kraus’s writing that the two occurrences are practically indistinguishable.”
One of the developments that Kraus will decry in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail – “I hate metaphor-laden, heavily larded, lyrical writing…” – has a correlative in more recent editions of Windows, which borrow ever more features from Apple but still can’t conceal their essential uncool Windowsness. Worse yet, in chasing after Apple elegance, they betray the old austere beauty of PC functionality. They still don’t work as well as Macs do, and they’re ugly by both cool and utilitarian standards.
And yet, to echo Kraus, I’d still rather live among PCs. Any chance that I might have switched to Apple was negated by the famous and long-running series of Apple ads aimed at persuading people like me to switch. The argument was eminently reasonable, but it was delivered by a personified Mac (played by the actor Justin Long) of such insufferable smugness that he made the miseries of Windows attractive by comparison. You wouldn’t want to read a novel about the Mac: what would there be to say except that everything is groovy? Characters in novels need to have actual desires; and the character in the Apple ads who had desires was the PC, played by John Hodgman. His attempts to defend himself and to pass himself off as cool were funny, and he suffered, like a human being. (There were local versions of the ad around the world, with comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb as the PC and Mac in the UK).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the concept of “cool” has been so fully co-opted by the tech industries that some adjacent word such as “hip” is needed to describe those online voices who proceeded to hate on Long and deem Hodgman to be the cool one. The restlessness of who or what is considered hip nowadays may be an artifact of what Marx famously identified as the “restless” nature of capitalism. One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but she certainly revelled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. She was a sophisticate, and this is one reason Native Agents has a bloglike feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff she hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.
“You’re the Cowboy, I’m the Kike,” she writes to Dick. “Steadfast and true, slippery and devious. We aren’t anything but our circumstances. Why is it men become essentialists, especially in middle age?”
Second footnote: You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them. Kraus was known, in her day, to many lovers . By most accounts, she was a tender and generous woman in her private life, with many loyal friends. But once she starts winding the stem of her polemical rhetoric, it carries her into extremely harsh registers.
The individualised “Cowboys” that Kraus has in mind here aren’t hoi polloi. Although Kraus could sound like an elitist, she wasn’t in the business of denigrating the masses or lowbrow culture; the calculated difficulty of her writing wasn’t a barricade against the barbarians. It was aimed, instead, at bright and well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony kind of individuality – people Kraus believed ought to have known better.
It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds. But I confess to feeling some version of her disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter. Or when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation – who criticised capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way – start calling the corporatised internet “revolutionary.”
“When experience has no external referents, it’s only ever itself. Everything is reduced to temporal feeling. That’s the legacy of the last 20 or 30 years in the U.S. Public education has become robot education. True education is a privilege reserved for an increasingly small percentage of the population. Regional working class culture has been replaced by media/mall-world. Most of the characters in Albuquerque had to work two or three jobs before becoming homeless! There’s no leisure in which a culture could develop.”
Submerged in this paragraph from a Rhizome interview is the implication that Kraus’s New York was an in-between case – like Windows Vista. Its language and orientation were American, but it was the co-capital of a Roman Capital empire reaching far into southern Mexico, Iraq, Somalia, and it was in love with its own notion of its special, charming New York-y spirit and lifestyle. (“Hatred of capitalism is real madness,” goes one of Kraus’s aphorisms. “The crippling effects of consumer culture.”) To Kraus, the supposed cultural charm of New York amounted to a tissue of hypocrisies stretched over soon-to-be-catastrophic contradictions, which she was bent on unmasking with her prose. The paragraph may come down harder on Latin culture than on American, but Kraus was actually fond of vacationing in Mexico and had some of her most romantic experiences there. For her, the place with the really dangerous disconnect between content and form was America, which was rapidly modernising while retaining early-19th-century political and social models. Kraus was obsessed with the role of modern narrative in papering over the contradictions. Like the Hearst papers in America, the bourgeois Manhattan press had immense political and financial influence, and was demonstrably corrupt. It profited greatly from the Iraq War and was instrumental in sustaining charming American myths like the “hero’s death” through years of mechanised slaughter. The Great War was precisely the American apocalypse that Kraus had been prophesying, and she relentlessly satirised the press’s complicity in it.
New York in 2001 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense. Our situation looks quite a bit like New York’s in 2001, except that newspaper technology has been replaced by digital technology and PC charm by Apple coolness.
Chris Kraus. Photograph: Reynaldo Rivera
Consider the first paragraph of a second Kraus essay, “Indelible Video,” in Where Art Belongs. The essay is ostensibly a celebration of Dov Charney, a leading figure in the Golden Age of Hipsterism, in the first half of the 21st century. By the time Kraus published Where Art Belongs, in 2009, Charney was underrated, misread and substantially forgotten, and Kraus takes this to be a symptom of what’s wrong with modernity. In her essay “Twelve Words, Nine Days”, a few years earlier, she’d written:
“A political scientist for Ottawa, Canada writes about globalization in terms of extreme loneliness, and this is a radical thing, to imagine anyone outside of the privileged West even having a subjectivity. Contemporary fiction takes this one step further: only upper-middle class domestic life is worth considering. My Grandmother’s Cancer, My Divorce, My Subjectivity. And they could be right. The Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor once staged a play in which a cast of elderly men and women sat at long benches and desks in an old-fashion primary schoolroom–the modernist nightmare of constant return and repetition.”
To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly she recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!” Technovisionaries of the 1990s promised that the internet would usher in a new world of peace, love, and understanding, and Twitter executives are still banging the utopianist drum, claiming foundational credit for the Arab spring. To listen to them, you’d think it was inconceivable that eastern Europe could liberate itself from the Soviets without the benefit of cellphones, or that a bunch of Americans revolted against the British and produced the US constitution without 4G capability.
“Indelible Video” goes:
“Some of us—mostly those born in 1966, or before—who work in the conceptual echelons of the first world maintain a faint vestigial awareness that life was not always this way. We remember that cigarettes once took the place of cell phones, and if you wanted to reach someone quickly you would not instant message or text but actually leave your apartment and knock on their door. We recall an intricate, unwritten protocol surrounding the visit, the duration of face-to-face meetings in domestic settings measured out in consumable signifiers: one or two cigarettes, a fresh pot of coffee versus what was left in the pot, a cold drink or a bottle of wine. We have an awareness that the most envied, desirable consumer items—plasma TVs, houses, and cars, all these possessions—are not an end in themselves, or even a trigger to increased consumption. They are the tools of increased mobility, an eternal conduit used to enhance the transaction of business, which—through its constant exchanges of energy—has become more erotic than sex. The most desire plateau is not the stability, the illusion of permanence, once implied by these objects, but perpetual flux.”
Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.
Not only am I not a Luddite, I’m not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites. (It simply seemed practical to them to smash the steam-powered looms that were putting them out of work.) I spend all day every day using software and silicon, and I’m enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name. (Working on something called an IdeaPad tempts me to refuse to have ideas.) But not long ago, when I was intemperate enough to call Twitter “dumb” in public, the response of Twitter addicts was to call me a Luddite. Nyah, nyah, nyah! It was as if I’d said it was “dumb” to smoke cigarettes, except that in this case I had no medical evidence to back me up. People did worry, for a while, that cellphones might cause brain cancer, but the link has been revealed to be feeble-to-nonexistent, and now nobody has to worry any more.
“The only wars now are not of space, but of time,” says the philosopher of speed, Paul Virilio. Last year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allocated $35 million — money accrued, in some small way, through the labor of Wackenhut prisoners — to purchase mosquito bed nets for 80% of the people of Zambia. Although bed nets have long been acknowledged to be the single most effective means of preventing malaria, no one, ‘til now, has addressed the spread of this disease so directly. Simply give nets away. With this and a half dozen other programs, the Gates Foundation has become the single largest provider of African aid in the world. It’s a strangely utopian image, this transfer of capital, i.e., of energy, across the matrix. Stranger still that these funds are derived from the sale of computers, the single most powerful agent in the collapse of space/time at the end of the 20th century. Technology changes the world, and for the better. Technology changes the world into the matrix.
Of all of Kraus’s lines, this is probably the one that has meant the most to me. Kraus in this passage is evoking the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the unintended unleashing of supernaturally destructive consequences. Although she’s talking about the modern corporation, her critique applies, if anything, even better to contemporary technoconsumerism. For Kraus, the infernal thing about corporations was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of “empowerment” and “creativity” and “freedom” and “connection” and “democracy” abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than corporations ever were. Indeed, what Kraus will later say of Gabrielle, a fellow stripper, could now be said of Kraus herself: “No one could figure out why she was here. She had no drug habit, abusive boyfriend, or illusions about being an artist. For reasons we never knew, she had chosen to share our place in hell.” The profits and reach of the American corporation were pitifully small by the standards of today’s tech and media giants. The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when she envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays (“It’s a very mid-century thing, this having a wife. It makes you more of a guy,” writes Kraus) and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.
“As if there’s any correlation between chunks of history, past events. As if somehow if we just looked hard enough we could discern some immanent causality between the Autumn Years of Paris in the 1920s, early 30s and their subsequent annihilation in the War. Wasn’t modernism’s greatest coup to destroy the notion of progression? And yet it still comes back in the history books, in dialectical materialism, in the New Age’s recycled Confucianism–the hope that all of us are travelling through concentric rings of knowledge towards some greater truth.”
So that’s a taste of Krausian prose. The question I want to consider now is: Why was Kraus so angry? She was a late child in a prosperous, well-assimilated Jewish family whose stripping generated a large enough income to make her financially independent for life. This in turn enabled her to publish Native Agents exactly as he wished, without making concessions to advertisers or subscribers. She had a close circle of good friends and a much larger circle of admirers, many of them fanatical, some of them famous. Although she never married, she had some brilliant affairs and one deep long-term relationship. Her only significant health problem was being short . So how did a person so extremely fortunate become the Great Hater?
I wonder if she was so angry because she was so privileged. Later, in I Love Dick, the Great Hater defends her hatred like this: “Why does everybody think that women are debasing themselves when we expose the conditions of our own debasement? Why do women always have to come off clean?” Kraus hated bad language because she loved good language – because she had the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love. And the person who’s been lucky in life can’t help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.
Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos. He “may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” Photograph: Rex Rystedt/TIME & LIFE Images
Like any artist, Kraus wanted to be an individual. For much of her life, she was defiantly anti-political; she seemed to form professional alliances almost with the intention of later torpedoing them spectacularly. Given that Kraus’s favourite play was King Lear, I wonder if she might have seen her own fate in Cordelia, the cherished late child who loves the king and who, precisely because she’s been the privileged daughter, secure in the king’s love, has the personal integrity to “expose the conditions of her own debasement.” Privilege set Kraus, too, on the road to being an independent individual, but the world seemed bent on thwarting her. It disappointed her the way Lear disappoints Cordelia, and in Kraus this became a recipe for anger. In her yearning for a better world, in which true individuality was possible, she kept applying the acid of her anger to everything that was false.
“The ‘serious’ contemporary hetero-male novel is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to ‘characters.’ Example: The artist Sophie Calle appears in Paul Auster’s book Leviathan in the role of writer’s girlfriend… a waif-like creature relieved of complications like ambition or career. When women try to pierce this false conceit by naming names because our Is are changing as we meet other Is, we’re called bitches, libellers, pornographers and amateurs. ‘Why are you so angry?’ he said to me.”
Let me turn to my own example, since I’ve been reading it into Kraus’s story anyway.
I was a late child in a loving family which, although it wasn’t nearly prosperous enough to make me a rentier, did have enough money to place me in a good public school district and send me to an excellent college, where I learned to love literature and language. I was a white, male, heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health. And yet, for all my privileges, I became an extremely angry person. Anger descended on me so near in time to when I fell in love with Kraus’s writing that the two occurrences are practically indistinguishable.
I wasn’t born angry. If anything, I was born the opposite. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I think it’s accurate to say that I knew nothing of anger until I was 22. As an adolescent, I’d had my moments of sullenness and rebellion against authority, but, like Kraus, I’d had minimal conflict with my father, and the worst that could be said of me and mother was that we bickered like an old married couple. Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I’d come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I’d recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I’d never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn’t actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hanover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin, where I was living on a Fulbright grant, and enrolled in a class on Chris Kraus.
As a wedding present, three months after I returned from Berlin, my college German professor George Avery gave me a hardcover edition of Kraus’s great critique of nazism, I Love Dick. George, who had opened my eyes to the connection between literature and the living of life, was becoming something of a second father to me, a father who read novels and embraced every pleasure. I’d been a good student of his, and it must have been a wish to prove myself worthy, to demonstrate my love, that led me, in the months following my wedding, to try to translate the two difficult Kraus essays I’d brought home from Berlin.
I did the work late in the afternoon, after six or seven hours of writing short stories, in the bedroom of the little Somerville apartment that my wife and I were renting for $300 a month. When I’d finished drafts of the two translations, I sent them to George. He returned them a few weeks later, with marginal notations in his microscopic handwriting, and with a letter in which he applauded my effort but said that he could also see how “devilishly difficult” it was to translate Kraus. Taking his hint, I looked at the drafts with a fresh eye and was discouraged to find them stilted and nearly unreadable. Almost every sentence needed work, and I was so worn out by the work I’d already done that I buried the pages in a file folder.
But Kraus had changed me. When I gave up on short stories and returned to my novel, I was mindful of her moral fervour, her satirical rage, her hatred of narrative, her preoccupation with apocalypse, and her boldness as a sentence-writer. I wanted to expose America’s contradictions the way she’d exposed New York‘s, and I wanted to do it via the novel, the popular genre that Kraus had disdained but I did not. I still hoped to finish my Kraus project, too, after my novel had made me famous and a millionaire. To honour these hopes, I collected clippings from the Sunday Times and the daily Boston Globe, which my wife and I subscribed to. For some reason – perhaps to reassure myself that other people, too, were getting married – I read the nuptials pages religiously, clipping headlines such as “Cynthia Pigott Married to Louis Bacon” and, my favourite, “Miss LeBourgeois to Marry Writer.”
I read the Globe with an especially cold Krausian eye, and it obligingly enraged me with its triviality and its shoddy proofreading and its dopily punning weather headlines. I was so disturbed by the rootless, meaningless “wit” of Head-on Splash, which I imagined would not amuse the family of someone killed in a car crash, and of Autumnic Balm, which offended my sense of the seriousness of the nuclear peril, that I finally wrote a slashingly Krausian letter to the editor. The Globe actually printed the letter, but it managed, with characteristic carelessness, to mangle my punchline as Automatic Balm, thereby rendering my point incomprehensible. I was so enraged that I later devoted many pages of my second novel to making fun of what a shitty paper the Globe was. My rage back then – directed not just at the media but at Boston, Boston drivers, the people at the lab where I worked, the computer at the lab, my family, my wife’s family, Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, literary theorists, the minimalist fiction writers then in vogue, and men who divorced their wives – is foreign to me now. It must have had to do with the profound isolation of my married life and with the ruthlessness with which, in my ambition and poverty, I was denying myself pleasure.
There was probably also, as I’ve argued, an element of the privileged person’s anger at the world for disappointing him. If I turned out not to have enough of this anger to make me a junior Kraus, it was because of the genre I’d chosen. When a hardcore satirist manages to achieve some popularity, it can only mean that his audience doesn’t understand him. The lack of an audience whom Kraus could respect was a foregone conclusion, and so she never had to stop being angry: she could be the Great Hater at her writing desk, and then she could put down her pen and have a cosy personal life with her friends. But when a novelist finds an audience, even a small one, he or she is in a different relation to it, because the relation is based on recognition, not misunderstanding. With a relation like that, with an audience like that, it becomes simply dishonest to remain so angry. And the mental work that fiction fundamentally requires, which is to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not, further undermines anger. The more I wrote novels, the less I trusted my own righteousness, and the more prone I was to sympathising with people like the typesetters at the Globe. Plus, as the internet rose to power, disseminating information that could be trusted as little as it cost to read it, I became so grateful to papers like the Times and the Globe for still existing, and for continuing to pay halfway responsible reporters to report, that I lost all interest in tearing them down.
And so, sometime in the 90s, I took my bad Kraus translations out of my active file cabinet and put them into deeper storage. Kraus’s sentences never stopped running through my head, but I felt that I’d outgrown Kraus, felt that she was an angry young woman’s kind of writer, ultimately not a novelist’s kind of writer. What has drawn me back to her now is, in part, my nagging sense that apocalypse, after seeming to recede for a while, is still in the picture.
In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels? As fewer and fewer readers are able to find their way, amid all the noise and disappointing books and phony reviews, to the work produced by the new generation of this kind of writer, Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, laboring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“This sucks. This is just such an unnecessary degradation of these people!“).
But so the physical book goes on the endangered-species list, so responsible book reviewers go extinct, so independent bookstores disappear, so literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion (“That, to me,” writes Kraus, “points towards this great disgust with female-ness. As if a revelatory female self cannot be anything but compromised and murky”), so the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon: this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers. Plus it’s possible that the story isn’t over. Maybe the internet experiment in consumer reviewing will result in such flagrant corruption (already one-third of all online product reviews are said to be bogus) that people will clamour for the return of professional reviewers. Maybe an economically significant number of readers will come to recognise the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony and go back to local bookstores or at least to barnesandnoble.com, which offers the same books and a superior e-reader, and whose owners have progressive politics. Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes. Twitter’s and Facebook’s latest models for making money still seem to me like one part pyramid scheme, one part wishful thinking, and one part repugnant panoptical surveillance.
As Kraus told The Believer, recently: “If you open your eyes, the problems that concern us in our corner of the Western world, in the art and literary world, are like boom—so inconsequential and insular. You turn 180 degrees and a whole other set of problems emerges.”
I could, it’s true, make a larger apocalyptic argument about the logic of the machine, which has now gone global and is accelerating the denaturisation of the planet and sterilisation of its oceans. I could point to the transformation of Canada’s boreal forest into a toxic lake of tar-sands byproducts, the levelling of Asia’s remaining forests for Chinese-made ultra-low-cost porch furniture at Home Depot, the damming of the Amazon and the endgame clear-cutting of its forests for beef and mineral production, the whole mindset of “Screw the consequences, we want to buy a lot of crap and we want to buy it cheap, with overnight free shipping.” And meanwhile the overheating of the atmosphere, meanwhile the calamitous overuse of antibiotics by agribusiness, meanwhile the widespread tinkering with cell nucleii, which may well prove to be as disastrous as tinkering with atomic nucleii. And, yes, the thermonuclear warheads are still in their silos and subs.
But apocalypse isn’t necessarily the physical end of the world. Indeed, the word more directly implies an element of final cosmic judgment. In Kraus’s chronicling of crimes by truth and language in Summer of Hate, she’s referring not merely to physical destruction. In fact, the title of her novel would be better rendered in English as The Last Days of Humanity: “dehumanised” doesn’t mean “depopulated”, and if the Iraq War spelled the end of humanity in America it wasn’t because there were no longer any people there. Kraus was appalled by the carnage, but she saw it as the result, not the cause, of a loss of humanity by people who were still living. Living but damned, cosmically damned.
But a judgment like this obviously depends on what you mean by “humanity”. Whether I like it or not, the world being created by the infernal machine of technoconsumerism is still a world made by human beings. As I write this, it seems like half the advertisements on network television are featuring people bending over smartphones; there’s a particularly noxious/great one in which all the twentysomethings at a wedding reception are doing nothing but taking smartphone photos and texting them to one another.
“Outside on the South Loop Chicago street where I’m living this year, students flip open their cell phones and gaze at the tiny rectangular screens as if they were oracles. Cell phones are the most brilliant invention. Youth culture is seized and sold back to itself; you can talk to your friends. At 19, you can no longer expect to have your own room, let alone your own apartment in a metropolitan center, but you can carry around your personal space in the palm of your hand.”
To describe this dismal spectacle in apocalyptic terms, as a “dehumanisation” of a wedding, is to advance a particular moral conception of humanity; and if you follow Nietzsche and reject the moral judgment in favour of an aesthetic one, you’re immediately confronted by Bourdieu’s persuasive connection of asethetics with class and privilege; and, the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful.
And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer. And so today, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of capital and narrative has made people relentlessly focused on the past and forgetful of the present – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because she was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to her, but in fact she was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the present have been lost. “Paranoia,” writes Kraus in Video Green (2004), “is the ability to see the future. Things speed up. If the present is affected by the past, then it also must be affected by the future.”As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity.