Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Holiday of Metaphors: The Thanksgiving Thing

I never really noticed before just how dramatic the week surrounding Thanksgiving has become. The Wednesday before is known as "Black Wednesday" in certain circles (those "circles" being, of course, the local bars, pubs, and dives where people hole up in the hopes of drinking themselves into an unconscious stupor so they can prepare to deal as graciously as possible with the family members they don't have to deal with the other 364 days of the year.)

And of course--as we all know by now--the infamous day following the holiday: "Black Friday," the busiest shopping day of the year (or so I'm told). Actually, though, I think the whole notion of "Black Friday" being such a consumer-conscious event is a bit misleading. I think the whole idea of people trampling one another, stampeding down store-aisles, and pushing each other out of the way to be the first to grab the "Hot Buy" of the year can be attributed to at least three competing factors: 1.) we all have pent-up energy brought on by the quantities of food and sleep from the day before, 2.) we're all just basically greedy assholes, and 3.) we'd all rather do anything--even if it means fighting traffic, crowds, headaches, and indigestion--other than sit one more minute in the house with those family members we normally don't have to deal with the other 364 days of the year.

And not to be outdone--now, in this glorious computerized age we find ourselves in--we have what has cleverly come to be called "Cyber Monday," a day supposedly devoted to giving the online shoppers and vendors their due. This is a day presumably when everyone--and I guess we're really supposed to believe everyone--is stealing time at work (if in fact we go in to work at all) to sneak a peek at our favorite online shopping sites. The whole notion behind such a day is ludicrous, but my biggest problem with the day has nothing to do with the philosophical challenges it poses. No, my biggest beef comes with the unfortunate choice of name it has won.

Cyber Monday.

Don't you know the OCDers among us are squriming and fidgeting nervously. There must have been a shortage of crayon boxes on the day that name was created; that's all I can figure. As a result, the brainstorming list for meaningful colors must have been disastrously short. But the most obvious question I have about the whole "Cyber Monday" name-thing goes back to the age-old cliche: Why fix something that ain't broken? Was "Black Monday" already taken?

*[Aside: After trying to build up that joke to a somewhat satisfying climax, I thought I'd actually go online myself and do a little "cyber sleuthing" to see, in fact, if the term "Black Monday" has already been taken. It has. Going all the way back to 1987, actually--the year Pat Cash (who?) and Martina Navratilova won the men's and women's Wimbledon championships, respectively; the year the Edmonton Oilers took home the Stanley Cup; the year in movies that gave us our first (and God knows not last) Predator and Lethal Weapon; the year that U2 gloriously snagged the golden rings with The Joshua Tree--it turns out that was the year the world stock markets took a collective nosedive into the collective toilet. And on a Monday, of all days. Talk about pouring salt on a fresh wound. And hence the name "Black Monday" was born. Which just goes to show, I guess, that one way or another the stock market can always be blamed.]

Which brings me back to my original observation of this holiday we call Thanksgiving existing as some sort of proverbial "island of calm" amidst a flurry of days given over to greed, and selfishness, and avarice, and marketing one-upsmanship. Yes, I know the day's ridiculous mythology of gray-flanneled Pilgrims with tall, rectangular hats and shiny gold buckles on their shoes sharing a feast of corn, and venison, and squash, and turkey, (and liquor) with their new-found red-skinned friends has worn a little thin these days. I know. And I also know that today the holiday we call Thanksgiving is primarily a day given over to football on TV, and food, on TV. But it was no less a prescient mind as Abraham Lincoln's who, in 1863, amidst the danger and drama of the Civil War, first saw the need for establishing a national day like Thanksgiving--this island of a day in which we are reminded to stop for a moment, and to catch our breath, and to look around us and say, "Yeah...okay. This is good. It could be so much worse."

And chances are, the stock market will prove you right anyway. So why not give thanks while you can, I guess? Buy into the myths of the day, and smile, and enjoy the relative "island of calm" while you can (a veritable light in the darkness sandwiched, as it is, between black days--kind of like an Oreo cookie, come to think of it), and sneak yourself another glass of wine to help you deal with those family members whom you wouldn't want to deal with even if you knew how, and let the legendary tryptophan begin to work its magic spell on you...

You're going to need your energy to deal with the days ahead.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Pete Townshend Seemed to Get Wrong About Dying and Growing Old

My kids are Star Wars fans. Now, that may be a fairly innocuous and seemingly unimportant bit of trivia to most, but not to me anyway. To me, I think it's kind of cool. And I have to admit it makes me smile.

Let me back up a bit. Like...oh, I don't know...say 33 years ago, circa 1977, when Star Wars ("Episode IV: A New Hope"...whatever the fuck that meant at the time) first came out. At that time, I was a fairly run-of-the-mill 10-year-old boy. When the original Star Wars movie was released to great confusion and even greater fanfare in May, 1977, I--like most of the country, it seemed--went to see it at the local cinemaplex. And--again, like most of the country at that time, it seemed--I loved it. I had never seen anything quite like it. For its two-hour running time, I was completely immersed and lost in the world of George Lucas' imagination. I bought into the movie and its mythology completely.

In other words, I've been a Star Wars fan since way back. Since the beginning. Back when it was considered cool and hip to be a Star Wars fan.

*[Aside: Okay...okay...maybe I'm getting a little carried away with myself here. After all, I'm not entirely sure that it was ever "cool" or "hip" to declare yourself a Star Wars fan, or to wear your favorite faded T-shirt with the gold Star Wars logo stretched across your ten-year old belly, or to go around quoting such Jedi-inspired koans as "May the force be with you," or to cart your plastic Star Wars "action figures" (read that as "dolls for boys") to and from school, or to swagger with mercinarial indifference whenever you walked anywhere, as if to declare to a world which personally didn't care one way or another that, yes, in fact, you were cooler than the rest because your favorite character in the whole mess was Han Solo (since you were sure--just absolutely positive--that Solo's swagger came from his getting laid at every spaceport he stopped at, and that if you did your best monotone Harrison Ford impersonation--lip curl, blank stare, slight smartass smile turned up at the corner of your mouth--you too could enjoy the same intergalactic wonders) or to...well, get the idea.]

It's not an easy task, really, being a Star Wars afficionado. But in many ways it's probably easier than it used to be, I'm guessing. Back in the day--back when it was just simply "old school Star Wars," without all of the digital trickery of the newer trilogy, and the video games, and the books, and the animated spinoffs--you hung the focus of your adulation on a slim thread of images that were released every three years without the benefit, even, of owning it yet on video to watch (and rewatch ad infinitum) at your own leisure.

But now my daughters have taken up the mantle of watching the films--old and new--and of playing the Lego video games, and of watching the cartoon TV series, The Clone Wars, etc. And I am happy that they seem to enjoy it, and that they like watching the movies, and that they have fun talking about them, and talking to me about them, and asking me questions about the logic of the storyline ("...ummmmm, yeah well, you see..."), and eagerly awaiting my reply as if I were some seasoned sage, ready to dispense my wisdom in hard-won nuggets of convoluted Yoda-speak.

But the simple fact is, as much as I enjoy that they enjoy something like Star Wars, and as much as I enjoy enjoying it with them, it's different for me these days. The whole Star Wars phenomenon, that is. In many ways, I feel like that old saying regarding a ship that has already sailed. There are times I wonder if I've outgrown it--"it" being Star Wars, of course, but also maybe "it" as the whole media-saturated/pop-culture/blockbuster mentality that came into vogue during my youth and has decidedly stayed, evolved, morphed, and become the fulcrum by which the entertainment industry is balanced today. That's not to say that I don't still love the Star Wars films--the Star Wars story, to be more exact, I suppose--because I do still enjoy them and have a great fondness for them. But that "love" and that feeling of "fondness" has maybe shifted somewhat over time. There are times, in fact, when I wonder if I still love them the way I profess. There are times I wonder if I still can love them the same way. Is that even possible after all this time? Do we ever love anything the same way--with the same hot, blind, passionate intensity--for all time? Can we? Is that how we're wired? How do we take into account, then, the fact that change occurs naturally? Obviously there is the passing of time, of course, and the accumulation of years. But change in other ways, too. Ways that perhaps aren't quite so easy to see at first, but are still as much a part of who we are today as are the deepening lines and wrinkles around our eyes whenever we break into a smile.

When I watch the Star Wars films today with my daughters, I have a good time. But I find myself often wondering if I'm having the same kind of good time watching the films now as I used to when watching them as a young boy or even as a young man, twenty years ago. Am I enjoying the movies for the sheer entertainment that they are, or am I now possibly enjoying a "ghost version" of them, in a way? When I sit down on the couch with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn nestled between me and my girls and we turn on Star Wars: Episode IV, does my heart still race and my skin still goosebump at the crashing chords of the opening fanfare, and the iconic STAR WARS emblazoned in gold, rushing headlong away from us, pulling its now-famous "prologue" quickly along with it (just as it pulls its audience into an explosion of plot and action), to disappear forever in the timeless distance of space? Or could it be that nowadays when I watch the films I'm simply enjoying them vicariously? Is the "love" that I feel for the old movies the same kind of "love" that I used to experience back in the old days, or is it instead, now, the transferred love that I feel for my daughters, and for their shared experience of watching the movies and for enjoying them and for having them--now and forever--as a part of their own mythologized youth? When I experience something like Star Wars these days, I wonder, am I simply experiencing my memories of it, reliving--in an imperceptibly dimishing way--my initial enthusiastic love for the memory of it, and for my youth--real or imagined--as being somehow better and more golden than it actually was?

*[Aside: Let me pause for a moment here, if I may, and get a little more specific with my examples. Let's take, for instance, the six movies that make up what is known as the Star Wars Saga (told in their intended order, I guess). As pieces of pop-culture pheonomona, they are collectively and individually timeless. They will outlive us all, probably, with each new generation discovering the films and embracing the story as its own. But as works of art...well...that's another story entirely. As an adult with an adult sensibility, try watching Star Wars (that would be the original one, the circa 1977 one, the "Episode IV" one) with a straight face today and see how long that lasts. You can't do it. When viewed through eyes that have perhaps--over time--grown a bit more cynical and/or critical, the original film is a bit of a mess, to put it nicely. The acting is on-par with a mediocre high school stage production of Our Town. The dialogue is...well, it's by George Lucas. (Enough said, perhaps.) And the logical "holes" in the story's script are large enough to swallow a herd of banthas. But be that as it may, the movie still works--faults and all. (And here's the weird thing, the magical thing, the thing that Lucas seemed to understand intutitively...the original movie works--hell, the entire series of movies works--precisely because of the clunky, schticky, ridiculously amateurish faults. That's part of it. That may be the largest part of it, in fact. It's supposed to be that way, which is obviously not something a ten-year-old is going to pick up on. That comes with time, maybe, and with age, and with the magical special effect of growing older and maybe even a little bit wiser.) Still in all, I have to admit that there is a glowing exception to the whole saga, and that would be in its excellent 5th installment, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. I will always have a special place in my heart for this film and will forever use it to take exception even to my own jaded criticisims of the film series. This movie stands out, in my opinion, as being something a little bit more than its counterparts. This movie--Episode V, as it is known in the canon, or simply as the abbreviated Empire in the lingo of Lucas' faithfully devoted fanbase of nerds --"raised the bar," in many ways, and elevated the series into something more than just a schlocky B-movie enterprise. In the hands of director Irvin Kershner, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds in ways the other films could never quite match in that: 1.) it has an excellent, tightly-woven script that pushes the original story and its characters forward in new and surprising ways, 2.) it has beautiful art direction and cinematography, 3.) it has an intuitive understanding of the classical theatrical function of the Second Act in a Three-Act play--with its darker, shadowed color scheme, its more serious approach to the storyline, and its ballsy, flat-out impressive unwillingness to fade to black with a stereotypical happy Hollywood ending. Quite simply, I think it's brilliant. Even in hindsight. The other films in the series, however...well, despite their each having high moments of their own, I don't think they come off quite so well, I guess. In fact, to be quite honest, if I never see again or hear again an Ewok or Jar-Jar Binks (for the sweet love of God...), that would be fine. I could live with that.]

Of course--as I'm sure you're already aware, but I'll state the obvious anyway--for the purposes of this essay, Star Wars is just a particular example, an extended metaphor, one idea substituting for another. Because my larger question, obviously, is to wonder if we do this all the time. With everything. Do we, in fact, continue to love the things that we held on to so dearly when we were younger--thoughts of home, a favorite pet, a cherished blanket, our revered football team, our first crush, our first broken heart, our lifelong sweetheart, our bride of 60 years--or is it instead this "ghost version" of love that I mentioned earlier, a love for the memory of the love that we used to have?

I don't know the answer to any of this. But just for the sake of argument, I'm going to guess yes. And so what if that's true? What is so wrong with admitting to something like that? Does that automatically mean that our "love" is any less authentic or any less genuine? Or is "love" simply "love?" Does it matter that the destination of that love--the object or idea receiving our love--differs from what we profess or demonstrate? Or is it all, instead, in the intention, in the act of loving itself, in the will to desire and to care for someone or something else simply because we always have, and because we know we should, and because it makes us feel good, comfortable, and complete? Is that maybe--at its heart--what all love is?

Again, I don't know. But so what if it is? So what if we love the memory of love? I would argue that we do it all the time. In a favorite book or a favorite piece of music. And in a favorite old car that we used to own. And in a painting that we once saw hanging on a wall in a gallery in Chicago. And in a meal that we once ate, at a restaurant that we can't forget. And in things--non-tangible, material things, even--like snowy Christmas mornings when we were a kid, a memorable vacation we took when were in high school, a transforming conversation we once fell into at a coffeshop, a college course we took with a professor--now dead--whom we will never forget. Ever.

We do this all the time. And nowhere does it say that we can't call this "love." Even though we've moved on, and grown older, and gathered experiences, and changed, we can still love what we used to love, simply because at one time in our lives we remember having loved it beyond all measure.

I would argue that there is great value in this. I would even go so far as to argue that there is an essential quality to our being human in doing this. We love because we can, not just because we should. And the things we love or profess to love remain objects of our affection long after we feel the initial feeling of "love," primarily because our memories associated with that feeling are so strong and so defining that they pull us deeper in the direction that we were perhaps always meant to go.

Like the image that I mentioned earlier of that "ship that has already passed," it's as if we have a chartered passage on board and are sailing further away from the shore with each year. In one way of thinking--the established "round-earth theory," of course--our ship sinks below the horizon, out of sight for only a while, but never really gone, simply because of the curvature of the earth. And in time--under the obvious strictures of such a theory--our ship's masts will once again rise into view over the opposite horizon, returning from its voyage.

The familiar old adage, in other words: "What is past is prologue." Which is fine, of course. And quite obviously true.

Except what if it isn't? What if it works the other way, in fact? What if the past is simply...the past? What if--after something happens--it is gone, living only in our memory? What if--at the end of it all--our experiences add up to only the collected recollection of our experiences? Does that make our experiences--and our "love" of those experiences--any less important, any less valid, any less real? What if that proverbial ship we are sailing on does not--as is commonly accepted--simply round the earth and dip below the horizon in anticipation of its return, but is, instead, gone once beyond our field of vision, fallen off some disastrous precipice, and never seen from again? What then? Does that ship exist? Did it ever? And was it real? And does it matter?

I find, though--underneath the weight of all the questions and the uncertainties about love and its esoteric and malleable nature within the passage of time--that no matter how complex I try to make the issue, the answers are really pretty simple. All it takes, usually, is a quiet look (a glance, really) at my daughters, and I am reminded all over again that most of the time love is not that hard to figure out. It's pretty obvious, actually. What we loved yesterday we will equally love today, and tomorrow, and for all the days to come. Because that's the way it should be. And because that's the way it is.

"Dad," my daughters asked me again the latest time Star Wars came on, with its familiar opening crash of chords, its glittering starfield, its introductory crawl of confusing backstory. "Why did they start in the middle with all the movies? Why not start at the beginning? Why begin with 'Episode IV?'"

"Sshh..." I said again, sitting down next to them, watching as their smiles grew bigger and their eyes glazed over and they fell under the trance that I remember so well. I pushed the VOL button on the remote control and let the classic opening scenes wash over me. Over all of us. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. "The movie..." I motioned to the beloved images of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio shambling (again) along a glittering, sterile, white corridor, sprawled across my widescreen TV. "...Starting it is."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Essay About Sturgeon Spawn, Cassava Starch, and Drive-Thru

Recently, my 8-year-old daughter--while riding along in contemplative silence in the backseat of the car, her weekend gymnastics practice once again behind her--broke the quiet and asked me what caviar was.

"Well," I began (my mind racing to quickly catch up with her line of thinking and to set aside whatever it was I had settled my mind to think about on the drive home and to concentrate, instead, on the mysterious world of fish roe), "caviar is a food that costs a lot of money," I told her. "It's raw fish eggs, and you eat it on a certain cracker, or sometimes you spread it on bread, or sometimes you can eat it by itself. Only if you do, you're supposed to eat it with a small, wooden spoon. The kind of tiny spoon that you sometimes get with ice cream samples..."

"Caviar is fish eggs?" she asked, getting right to the point--after all--and cutting off my ridiculous soliloquy (which was, more than obviously, an attempt to mask just how little I really knew about caviar).

"Yes, honey. It's fish eggs. Raw fish eggs."

"Ewwwww! That's so gross!"

"Yes, well..."

"That's disgusting! Who would eat raw fish eggs?"

"Well, actually a lot of people, as it turns out. But to be honest, I think most of the time it's probably for show. It's very expensive--good caviar is, anyway--and only people with a lot of money can afford it. So sometimes I think people order caviar at restaurants just to show they can afford it."

She obviously didn't care for my Marxist deconstruction of the class-consciousness permeating something as seemingly innocuous as ordering a dish of raw fish eggs. All she knew was that it sounded absolutely crazy.

"That's crazy," she said.

"Yes, well..."

"What's it taste like?"

It was here I coughed, I believe. "Ummmm...I can't really tell you what it tastes like, hun, because I've never had it. But I've seen it, and I know it looks sort of like a jelly, only with very small eggs in it. Caviar has the texture, in a way, of tapioca pudding."

She softened somewhat. She likes tapioca pudding. "So, it's sort of lumpy like that?"

"Yeah, lumpy...kind of like tapioca." (And as I listened to the sound of my voice droning on and on about something I knew little to nothing about, I realized--with a sinking realization--that if she turned the conversation now to tapioca, I knew even less about that. Just what the fuck is tapioca, anyway?...)

"Caviar still sounds gross," she declared with a sense of finality to the conversation. A satisfactory summing-up--in her 8-year-old mind, anyway--of all that made sense in the world and all that didn't. "Who would eat something like that? That's crazy."

I sighed, and smiled, and had to agree. Then I asked her if she was hungry, following her rigorous morning workout on the balance beam and the uneven bars and the tumbling mat. She paused for just a moment and then realized that, yes, in fact, she was hungry. Oddly enough, too, with all the talk about food I consequently knew nothing about, I had to agree that I was a little hungry also. So I pulled into a drive-thru lane at the nearest McDonald's. (After all, time was of the essence. Who has time these days--particularly following a rigorous gymnastics workout--for something as needlessly time-numbing as the delicate harvesting and consuming of raw fish eggs?) Once at the drive-thru, she ordered a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal (a 6-piece, I believe, since--as it turns out--she was really quite hungry). I ordered a Big Mac for myself, with french fries and a medium Coke. And it was good. In truth, it was very good. Delivered in its recycled, biodegradable cardboard, it was a proletariat feast that would have made even Tolstoy proud, what with its complete denial of the self, its celebration of simplicity, and its renunciation of something as ill-suited as noblesse oblige.

"So, how was that?" I asked her, dabbing with a recycled, biodegradable napkin at a blotch of grease and "special sauce" staining my shirt. "Did you get enough to eat?"

"Yeah," she said, her voice growing quiet again in the backseat. Her stomach now full. Weariness settling in. The lulling comfort of the road taking hold. Her eyes growing heavy. Contentment. A satisfactory summing-up of all that makes sense in the world and all that doesn't. And all under $10. And with time to spare. And with no questions asked.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not the Size of the Book That Matters, It's What You Do With The Book That Counts

Currently, I'm on page 548 of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, which--at last count--comes in at a total of 562 pages. (And even though I've never been accused of being a savant--"idiot" or otherwise--I think I can even do the math on this one enough to know that, at long last, I am nearing the end of the book.)

Franzen, as one of the "young," meteoric writers in the American literary sky at the moment, is seemingly enwrapped in a love/hate relationship with his sudden claim to fame as the supposed spokesperson of his generation. Freedom hit the shelves this past fall with much anticipation following his heralded previous novel, 2001's The Corrections (not to mention that novel's media oversaturation, including--if not, in fact, highlighted by--the author's outright rejection of Oprah Winfrey's nod to include it as one of her Book Club's selections.) The more I read of him, in fact--and notice I said "of him," as a person, much like me, maybe--the more I am convinced that Franzen is a bit of a wingnut. But I don't really care so much about that. After all, I'm not asking to be his friend, I'm just choosing to be a reader of his. I'm simply choosing, as we always do anytime we open a book and turn to page 1 and start at the beginning, to be in the company of someone who is--by all intents and purposes--a complete stranger. And for as long as the book lasts, we are willing and hoping and indeed banking on the fact that the author will prove to be good company. Will, indirectly, be a friend, I suppose.

For at least as many pages as the book holds, anyway.

And if such a hypothetical book holds--oh, let's say 562 pages--then we assume said book's author to "hold" us (metaphorically speaking, of course) for 562 pages. And if not entirely hold us, at least keep us in his/her embrace long enough and meaningfully enough so that when we feel that embrace perhaps start to loosen--like, say, around page 281--we at least trust the author enough or remember enough the hold he/she had on us up to that point that we can feel ourselves hanging on to get us through the times when it's not so easy to make it through to the end.

And maybe that's not so difficult to do if in the world of Raymond Carver's or Amy Hempel's famously minimalist short stories. Or perhaps in the Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Or Albert Camus' Algerian beach of The Stranger. (All of which, of course--in one way or another--can hold you in the course of one sitting.)

But what about the dense, uber-detailed worlds created--for example--by the 19th-century masters of literary Realism--writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Dreiser, James, Dickens? (All of whom, by the way, Franzen can maybe try to dismiss in a typically hip, ironic, postmodern wave of the hand as being influences on him, but he would fail miserably in such an attempt; for after all, what is he writing in his typically hip, ironic, postmodern kind of way but a "19th-century" type of novel for the 21st-century?)

Some stories, as we all know (or should), are better suited for particular formats. The emotional power of George and Lennie's plight would not have been improved had Steinbeck doubled the count of pages in their book. By the same token, the story of the Joads' mythic displaced journey west would not have had the same social and psychological impact had Steinbeck halved their book's page-count. Like Louis Sullivan's famous 20th-century architectural credo, "Form follows function," the literature of any age is shaped--along with the historical and social milieau--solely by the story the writer is trying to tell. That and nothing else.

It is our willingness as readers--or unwillingness, whatever the case may be--to follow a writer wherever he/she takes us. And whether that journey takes 2 pages or 562 pages, it doesn't matter. What matters is the story and its ability to embrace us. That and nothing else.

*[Aside: Let me interrupt myself for a moment here, if I may. Please don't misunderstand me and jump to the conclusion that anything a writer puts down on page--no matter how short or long it may end up being--is all to the service of the best story told. That is most clearly not the case. As evidence, I offer Exhibit A: Stephen King's novel, The Stand. As originally published in 1978, what would eventually turn out to be known as the "edited version" of his novel still weighed in at a whopping 823 pages. Again, I'm not a math whiz by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can push the pencil to see that King's early novel still managed to leave Franzen's Freedom in the dust by an impressive difference of 261 pages. No small feat. But never one to be outdone by another writer (even when that other writer is himself...), King returned to his "edited" apocalyptic opus and rereleased the book 12 years later with nothing less than an extra 330 pages restored to the text, bringing it to a total of 1,153 pages. That's a lot of words. And did all that extra "restored" verbiage illuminate the text? Did it shed light on the original version? Did it improve the story and the characters and the overall "hold" that said story and characters had on readers back in 1978? Of course, each reader can answer that for him/herself. But this reader prefers the earlier version of The Stand. I find it to be much tighter--if an 823-page tome can be called a "tight" narrative--and much more focused and powerful in its overall effect. The restored 1.200-page monstrosity suffers from what much of King's later work also suffers from--a sprawling egomaniacal talent run amok, desperately in need of a stalwart editor brave enough to hit the "DELETE" key and say, "You know what, Stephen...the old adage 'Sometimes less is more' is an old adage for a reason."]

Franzen is a writer of some supposed importance in the early part of the 21st-century. Whether he is deserving of such attention will play out in the years to come, of course. But one thing is certain: as an American novelist practicing an art form which has seen dramatic changes in its accepted form and style over time, Franzen is daring enough to fly in the face of postmodern "less-is-more" conventions. In an age of the quick sound-byte, and "text-novel," and audiobook, and e-reader, Franzen is writing old-fashioned, dense, character-driven, word-laden novels. He is a fiction writer of long fictions. Would his writing be better served if it were shorter? I don't know. But I don't think so. Maybe his next work will be a novella. Or perhaps a play. Or a collection of short stories. Time will tell.

The long and short of it, of course, is that in the end it doesn't matter if a narrative is long or short. What matters is if the story works. What matters is if--by the time you reach the words "THE END" on the story's last page--you feel justifiably rewarded for spending time in the presence of the story's characters and in the hold of an author who--whether you like him/her or not--compels you, in a strange turn of events, to turn back to page 1 and start all over again.