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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Chip off the Bloc: Jonathan Franzen's take on life in the former East Germany

Very long fiction selection from Jonathan Franzen in the current New Yorker, called The Republic of Bad Taste, and it's evidently a chapter, maybe the 1st?, from Franzen's forthcoming novel. If it's representative of the rest of the novel - and I've no doubt that it is, remembering the excellent long excerpt the NYer ran pre-pub from Freedom - then he's got me hooked. The selection in current NYer is set in East Germany in the early 80s, before the fall of the Wall anyway, and cenrtral character is a 20-something dissident who counsels troubled youth and lives sheltered from the Stasi and other authorities in a church basement. The minister calls on him to counsel a 15-year-old girl who's a striking beauty - and of course he falls for her, knowing the relationship can go nowhere. She tells him her troubled story, abuse by a stepfather, and together they plot to kill the abuser - which (spoiler ... ) they manage to accomplish. He expects them both to be arrested but nobody ever comes for him, leading him to think of many possible explanations, none good. The world is spinning around him and as the Eastern bloc countries are about to fall he joins a rally where he sees the young woman, much changed. She says they can't see each other again, without much explanation - but we know that this is only the beginning. Franzen as usual is excellent at plotting, at development of complex and surprising characters, and at evocation of mood and place. I have to say I started reading this w/ much skepticism - what the hell does he know about life in E Germany? - but he won me over and I found the whole piece quite credible and engaging. As I've posted recently, it's interesting and maybe a little depressing how several East bloc writers who were so astonishingly good when they wrote surreptitiously and at great risk about the horror and oppression of living in a Soviet state have become far less interesting writing in freedom - sometimes in their home country (thinking of Konrad), sometimes in the decadent West (thinking of Kundera). Are there great writers today telling about life in the former Soviet states? Or reflecting on life under East block domination? Maybe they've left that to filmmakers (thinking of the great The Lives of Others) - or to writers from the West (thinking of Arthur Phillips - and now of Franzen).

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