Jewish World Review Dec. 6, 2004/ 23 Kislev 5765


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Poor, Poor Pitiful Me: Mr. Franzen's Imaginary Friend | Jonathan Franzen's novels have never impressed me much, but his fine essay in the Nov. 29 New Yorker, which combined an appreciation of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" and snippets of his very depressing childhood, once again demonstrated why editor David Remnick is perhaps the country's best today. It's testament to Remnick's skill that a blue-state conservative like myself can ignore the increasingly shrill and paranoid political commentary — only the most imaginative soothsayer can predict what Hendrik Hertzberg and Philip Gourevitch will be accusing George W. Bush of two years from now — and find, amidst the clutter, several articles worth reading every week.

As it happened, Thanksgiving Day was a double-dose of Schulz for me. After the mid-day meal, I retreated to my recliner and meandered through Franzen's piece about "Peanuts" and his dysfunctional family; in the evening my 10-year-old son and I watched 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas, a decidedly more upbeat activity. It's been years since I last saw the seasonal classic, but it was delightful listening to Booker's questions about the show, as he wondered why all the kids were so mean to Charlie Brown and asked if we could get a dog a cool as Snoopy.

Franzen, who was 10 in 1970, the year he focuses on, scrambles some basic facts about that era — Robert McNamara wasn't Defense Secretary then, and his assertion that "This was the era of flower children, not flower adults," is off by a few years — but he's correct that "Peanuts" did have an inexplicably broad following. I was 15 then, a high school hippie who waited for deliveries of nickel bags of grass in the hallway outside my algebra class, but still chuckled with my parents over Schulz's daily cartoon in the Daily News. As he writes, "The strip's square panels were the only square thing about it."

The future novelist, although intelligent and well mannered, sure seems like he was a screwed-up kid: I mean, do you remember anyone who identified with the loser Charlie Brown? Franzen did: "I felt guilty about the little frog [that he'd once dropped into a campfire]. I felt guilty about shunning my mother's hugs when she seemed to need them the most. I felt guilty about the washcloths at the bottom of the stack in the linen closet, the older, thinner washcloths that we seldom used. I felt guilty for preferring my best shooter marbles, a solid-red agate and a solid-yellow agate, my king and my queen, to marbles further down my rigid marble hierarchy. I felt guilty about the board games that I didn't like to play."

Franzen's father apparently wasn't a happy man, tethered to an unfulfilling career, deriving little pleasure from his wife and three sons. His older brother died in a hunting accident as a young man; his niece perished in a card accident. "My father's parents also died in a one-car accident," Franzen continues, "but only after regaling him with prohibitions, demands, and criticisms for fifty years. He never said a harsh word about them. He never said a nice word, either." Obviously, this peculiar ennui rubbed off on the author, who also writes about his immediate family that "[I]t was if the five of us looked around, asked why we should be spending time together, and failed to come up with many good answers."

So Charlie Brown became one of young Franzen's imaginary friends. He doesn't say so, but I'm betting old Blockhead had a lot of company. Franzen goes on to lament the avalanche of commercial lucre that Schulz reaped from his creation — Hallmark cards, tv specials, tchotchkes, etc. — preferring the insecurity portrayed in the "Peanuts" of the 50s and early 60s. Yet: "It's hard to repudiate comic strip, however, when your memories of it are more vivid than your memories of your own life."

Before this New Yorker piece, the last I'd encountered Franzen, who'd always seemed a very obnoxious fellow, was in an Oct. 11 Slate round-up of novelists offering their opinions on the upcoming presidential election. Franzen, like the vast majority surveyed, said he was for the Democrat (although his answer wasn't quite as dopey as Amy Tan's, who said, "I'm voting for Kerry, because I have a brain and so does he.")

Franzen's choice: "Kerry, of course. He's the candidate whose defeat Osama Bin Laden is praying for. I trust him not to pour additional gas on the fires that Bush has set overseas. Also, since he's a Democrat, I trust him to exercise a modicum of fiscal sanity and to show a little compassion for the unlucky. Also, his wife is hot hot hot. She'd be a first lady for the ages."

This rationale is barely more articulate than those of numerous b-list celebrities, say Drew Barrymore that the Kerry campaign recruited to be "ordinary people" for a campaign rally or two, which is surprising since Franzen's talent ostensibly involves thinking. His blind trust that Democrats have a monopoly on "fiscal sanity" is evidence that perhaps he was reading a "Peanuts" anthology during history class as an adolescent.

Nevertheless, it's hard to dump on a guy who confesses, to a large magazine audience, just how weird and disturbing his childhood and hold on reality was. I certainly won't read his next novel — unless a sadistic editor assigns it for review — but also won't think of him in a contemptuous way. Although undoubtedly affluent and famous in his circle of literary friends, Franzen is one of those "unlucky" people who deserves a little compassion.

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It's entirely possible that Jann Wenner, when he conducted a post-election interview ("Why Bush Won," online Nov. 17) for Rolling Stone with pollster Peter Hart, author Ruy Teixeira and the Beltway's consummate wishy-washy lifer, David Gergen, that he was suitably sedated. Just as likely, one supposes, is that the multimillionaires who professed "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!" fealty to John Kerry didn't really care who won on Nov. 2, since they'd still be getting their slice of the American pie.

In any case, Wenner promised a "dispassionate" discussion of the results, and he was true to his word, even given the presence of Teixeira, who, along with John Judis, wrote the wrong, wrong, wrong The Emerging Democratic Majority a few years ago. Hart, who conducts polls for The Wall Street Journal and NBC, had the best anecdote. He recalled: "[Kerry] never connected. I asked people, 'What would it be like to have John Kerry as your next-door neighbor?' You know what they said? "High hedges.'"

Levity aside, the three experts assembled repeated a common fallacy regarding the election, that had 9/11 not occurred, Bush was a guaranteed loser. Gergen claims, "Prior to 9/11, George Bush was on the arc of a difficult presidency. He would have been a one-term president."

Maybe this theory helps salve a psychic wound, but there's zero evidence for its veracity. The terrorist murders three years ago gave Bush an issue — safety — that was key, more than "values," to his victory, but I'd like to see the notes clairvoyant Gergen took on the remainder of Bush's term absent the war on terrorism. As I recall, after achieving one major goal, the tax cut, and helping shepherd a bloated, lousy education bill, Bush was in one of his complacent periods, facing a difficult fall of 2001. And this proves exactly what?

Consider an alternative scenario. Bin Laden's plot is foiled on Sept. 11, and life in the U.S. goes along as expected. The economy, still in recession at that point, recovers far more quickly; airlines, while still hurting financially, aren't crippled by a public too frightened to fly; tourism doesn't drop to zero. No anthrax scares. Maybe al Qaeda pulls off a smaller death caper, either in America or abroad, and Bush, unlike Bill Clinton, responds with force. Meanwhile, chastised by advisers for sleeping on the job, Bush returns from his month-long slumber and lobbies for the legislation in Congress he'd planned for the first term — tort reform, partial privatization of Social Security and another round of tax cuts.

No war in Iraq to mobilize the Anybody But Bush activists. No Patriot Act to whip up the fading "Remember Florida" base of the Democratic Party. It's certain that other crises, whether foreign or domestic, would've throw Bush a curveball, but how he'd have handled them is anybody's guess. The point is this: How can anybody, today, judge what Bush's first term would have accomplished, or not, when he wasn't even in office for a year? Could be he'd be marked a lame duck in 2002 (just as Clinton was in '94); conversely, events might've resulted in an '04 landslide rather than a slim victory.

Nobody, except apparently Gergen, knows. It doesn't really matter, of course, although in future historical tomes about this era, written by liberals, this myth will be presented as fact, and it'll be intellectually dishonest.

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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