Sympathy for Johnny

From the introduction to a recent review of the movie Solaris:

There’s not a single blasted laser battle to be found in “Solaris.”

Despite being produced by James Cameron, who directed the sci-fi classic “Aliens,” the interstellar drama doesn’t feature any slimy creatures or thrilling action, either.

Apart from George Clooney in a space suit, “Solaris” is science-fiction in name only.

Thank goodness the reviewer warns us all about this, so that we’re not fooled in to thinking that Solaris is a science fiction story. With no laser battles, slimy aliens, or thrilling action, how could it be? What is Steven Soderbergh trying to pull? On the other hand, it is my understanding that there is at least one naked space babe in the film, so maybe the movie qualifies as science fiction after all.


So I caught Jonathan Franzen on the radio the other day, plugging his new collection of essays. I wasn’t too impressed with him a year ago, but I figured I’d listen to the entire interview anyway.1 The show began with Franzen expertly dodging the “Oprah question” by affecting a bored, world-weary air and explaining that he had been misquoted. He then spent the next 57 minutes of the interview being generally morose and opining that Lowbrow Consumer Culture Is A Bad Thing, or if not a Bad Thing, then at the very least Incomprehensible to Jonathan Franzen.

Anyway, I had almost forgotten the interview2, when I ran across a review of Franzen’s essays in The New Republic. The following passage is typical:

In “Books in Bed,” a roundup of sexual how-to guides that elicits the coy admission “I have no objection to a nice bra, still less to being invited to remove one” (down, tiger), Franzen again fidgets to set himself slightly apart. “The last thing I want is to be reminded of the vaguely icky fact that across the country millions of other people are having sex,” he writes, horrified by all that humping going on down along the railroad shacks.

By coincidence, in the radio interview Franzen read the very passage that includes these quotes. I can’t transcribe the whole thing, but one thing’s for sure: the reviewer has taken Franzen’s phrase “I have no objection to a nice bra…” totally out of context. As I read the review more carefully, I realized that the entire purpose of the article was to take little snippets from Franzen and follow each one with a snide and irrelevant remark (“down, tiger”). How does the reviewer take Franzen’s “vaguely icky” comment and turn it into “horrified by all that humping”?3 It was one of the laziest pieces of writing I’ve ever seen in TNR’s pages.

Then again, the writing couldn’t have been that lazy. After all, it accomplished the near-impossible: I now have sincere sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. I didn’t believe him earlier, because after all when you say something outrageous, the standard method for spinning your way out of trouble is to say that you were misquoted or taken out of context. But now I’m thinking, hmmm, maybe Franzen was misquoted, maybe he was, in fact, taken out of context. I mean, he’s not someone who I would invite over for Thanksgiving dinner, but still.

1. Well, I do have a good deal of free time these days.

2. It must be the assault of Lowbrow Consumer Culture on my mind, degrading my long-term memory.

3. From the tone, one must assume that this particular TNR literary critic is some kind of railroad-shack-humping veteran.