J-Franz Trails After Vidal;Ben Marcus Could’ve Guessed!

By Neal Comment

Last February, Gore Vidal popped up in the New York Times Book Review with an appreciation of James Purdy, which included a lengthy plot synopsis of the 1967 novel Eustace Chisholm and the Works–occasioned by the republication of that book (and a few other Purdy works) by Carroll & Graf. This week, as the judge for the Mercantile Library’s Clifton Fadiman Medal, given annually “to recognize a work of fiction by a living American author who deserves recognition and a wider readership,” Jonathan Franzen selected Eustace Chisholm.*

Like the Max Perkins Award (mentioned earlier today), this prize is part of the Mercantile Library’s big fall launch for its Center for Fiction. As executive director Noreen Tomassi puts it, “At a time when high-quality fiction is facing hard times, it is our intent to create the same energy and support network for fiction as those tireless advocates of poetry were able to develop in support of poetry” two decades ago. If Ben Marcus hears that, he’s probably going to be grinding his teeth more than a little bit–as I noted a few weeks back, Marcus thinks Franzen’s one of the worst possible candidates to play spokesman for literary culture and has devoted a lengthy, pointed Harper’s essay (partially online) to explaining why. In it, he describes Franzen indirectly as

“…the writer willing to sell short the aims of literature, to serve as its fuming, unwanted ambassador, to apologize for its excesses or near misses, its blind alleys, to insult the reading public with film-ready versions of reality and experience and inner sensations, scenes flying jauntily by under the banner of realism, which lately grants it full critical immunity.”

Considering that, as Marcus elaborates, Franzen finds James Joyce and William Gaddis overly “difficult,” it’ll be interesting to see if readers can figure out what he admires about Eustace Chisholm. The Mercantile’s press release does offer the tantalizing hint that Purdy’s fiction “reflects his obsession with exploitation and abuse of innocents, disjunctions within ordinary families, loneliness, and the mid-century’s subculture of homosexuality, sexual experimentation and depravity.” Apart from the “mid-century” tag, you could say that sounds like The Corrections, at least in a general sense…

Mind you, in the interest of disclosure, I’m not criticizing the selection by any means, nor would I be in much of a position to do so, since I was recently part of the litblog co-op trying to “draw attention to the best of contemporary fiction…in a flooded marketplace,” and we just picked an author who’d been profiled in the Times, too–deservedly so, I’d say.