… and then he disappointed me.
Jonathan Franzen’s (b. 1959) third novel, The Corrections, was surrounded by media frenzy. As a struggling writer of the same generation of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), Franzen apparently used some of his memories to construct the stories behind The Twenty-Seventh City (1998) and Strong Motion (1992). Both novels were the seed needed for the development of The Corrections, which narrates the story of an unhappy Midwestern family. Set on St. Louis, Missouri, his hometown, the novel and its characters proved irresistible for drawing comparisons between Franzen and his kin. The book was published on the eve of 9/11, granting something that gave its prose not only a cathartic but an almost prophetic voice that reflected America’s new and convoluted landscape.
It is difficult to address Franzen and his essay “Meet me in St. Louis” without talking about Oprah Winfrey, Queen of Confessional Television. Winfrey did not resist the allure of The Corrections and nominated it for her Book Club. However, the ‘O’ signature has a price and Franzen, apparently, was not willing to pay it –then, of course, he changed his mind in 2010, but we won’t go there yet. Since Oprah’s Book Club is concerned with quality but also with real-life drama, and since Harpo Productions knows the power of confessional narratives, Franzen, who had to go to Missouri as part of his book tour, was involved in the shooting of a piece of confessional television that he describes as “fundamentally bogus”. Oprah uninvited Franzen to her show: “Meet Me in St. Louis” is his response to her reaction.
By refusing the idea of creating a nostalgic persona that rummages through the streets of his childhood hometown shedding a tear or two for the years bygone, Franzen apparently lost his place in confessional television; however, he reclaimed a place in the confessional writing genre when in “Meet Me in St. Louis” he affirms: “My parents had me late in life, and my most typical experience as a child was to be left to my own devices while adults went to work and had parties. That’s what my New York is” (299). With this first person narrative, Franzen manages to explain why he is an introvert, why he does not wish to remember certain episodes of his life, how he dealt with his parents’ death and why he cannot deal with authority (“One of the reasons I’m a writer is that I have uneasy relations with authority” ). With this short piece of confessional, Franzen reclaimed the right to tell his own story (“My feeling is that this street, my memory of it, is mine; and yet I patently own none of it, not even the footage being shot in my name” ) and to defend his oeuvre, certainly a cathartic experience for him, who after the incident with Oprah was deemed as an intellectual snob. As Stephen J. Burn argues in his book Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism, “Franzen draws on his own life in his novels, and so frequently appeals to his own experience in his nonfiction,” but seldom is he seen as the “I” in his books.
In the collection How to be Alone, Franzen offers 14 essays published between 1994 and 2001 in The New Yorker and Harper’s magazine. Those essays, perhaps, are as shamelessly confessionals as Franzen will get. In them, he writes about his father’s Alzheimer (“My Father’s Brain”), his relationship with his mother, his attitude towards his hometown and Oprah Winfrey (“Meet me in St. Louis”), but he does it under his town terms: the reader will not see his teary eyes, but perhaps their reading might render a Jonathan Franzen who, throughout the detachment of his emotions, is able to create a confessional narrative that aspires to open a dialogue between confessor and listener. Through the dialogue opened by “Meet me in St. Louis,” Franzen, who in Freudian terms, was trying to protect himself during the shooting from external stimuli that might lead to unpleasurable experiences, regained a sense of stability. In an interview with Kevin Canfield, Franzen stated: “That ‘I’ there [in first person] is a rhetorical construction. It’s a version of me. The novels are a version of me. The real private self is a much blurrier and messier and multivalent thing (…) so it’s a constructed self –perhaps in purely factual way a little bit more exposed, but only in that narrow sense.”
“Meet me in St. Louis,” also known as “Ducking out,”whose title makes direct reference to the homonymous film directed by Vincent Minnelli in 1944, is, as stated before, an apology for the Oprah-Franzen affair. It also offers an account of Frazen’s relationship with his hometown, a place that he supposedly wants to leave behind (a rash appears on his skin, a physical reaction that shines a light to the fact that he does not feel comfortable “as I stand in the shadow of an Arch that means nothing to me, the rash has coalesced into flaming, shingles-like band of pain itching around the lower right side of my torso… My rash will fade mysteriously as it blossomed; my sense of dividness will only deepen” ) but, most importantly, it seems that Franzen is trying to say that he is being honest, that writing for him is a complex process that should not be treated with disrespect, that should not be transformed into a television miniseries with his unspeakables as main characters. According to Freud’s theories, Franzen during the shooting was in a state of fright, because he knew that Harpo’s producers were removing painful emotions that he wanted to avoid in order to remain calm. This state of fright is palpable when he talks about his father’s ashes:
We scattered some of his ashes around the tree and installed a small marble marker engraves IN MEMORY OF EARL FRANZEN. I have a feeling that this tree would interest Gregg, and I don’t quite understand my resolve not to tell him about it. Certainly, if I’m protecting my privacy; it’s perverse of me to be annoyed that the crew is lavishing attention on someone else’s children (295).
Last September, Franzen gave several interviews to promote his latest book, Freedom. In one of them, he stated that “much of the work on a novel (…) consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place.” In “Meet me in St. Louis,” Franzen garners a set of “stuck places”: certainly, the seemingly perfect St. Louis of his childhood is among them, as well as his parents, who are part of those “memories that I’ve tried to leave behind me in the house” (301). This piece of personal narrative serves as an unpleasurable experience to grief publicly for the house he will never step in again (“I would never see this room again; a wave of grief rose up in me” ), and it is an apology for the convoluted media affair that affected his private life.
However, since “Meet me in St. Louis” exposes what was done to him, we could also argue that it can be seen as revenge: like the child in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Franzen passes on to his readers the disagreeable experience and then regains stability. After all, “art demands a certain amount of detachment (even if this detachment is subordinated to the exigency of communicating something meaningful in the rendering of qualitative elements), artistic activity perhaps accelerates the therapeutic process.”
And with that detachment, Franzen appeared almost 10 years later with Oprah. He seemed comfortable and willing to open up for the audience. Follow the link to his interview and follow the end of the story. What do you think?
 Jonathan Franzen, “Meet me in St. Louis, in How to Be Alone: Essays by Jonathan Franzen (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002), 298. All further references to “Meet me in St. Louis” will only provide the page number in parenthesis after the quotation mark.
 The Corrections is still included as one of the selections of Oprah’s Book Club: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/Complete-List-of-Oprahs-Book-Club-Books/2 (Accessed October 9, 2010).
 Stephen J. Burns, Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (New York: Continuum, 2008), x.
 Kevin Canfield, “An Interview with Fiction Writer Jonathan Franzen,” October 11, 2002, Poets & Writers Online, accessed October 14, 2010, http://www.pw.org/content/interview_fiction_writer_jonathan_franzen
 The essay way published on The Guardian on Saturday 16 March 2002 with the title “Ducking Out”. It can be accessed through: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/mar/16/fiction.features
 The musical set in 1904, in the mist of St. Louis World’s Fair, tells the story of the Smiths, a family that has to move to New York. The film is an idealization of a world bygone, a place inhabited by happy middle class citizens with strong family ties, just like the St. Louis that Harpo Productions wanted Franzen to portray.
 In page 6 of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud defines fright as the “state of expecting danger or preparing for it, it emphasizes the factor of surprise”.
 Jonathan Franzen, “On The Book, The Backlash, His Background,” September 9, 2010. National Public Radio accessed October 4, 2010 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129747555
 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, translated by James Strachery (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1961), 11.
 Judith Harris, Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press), 31.