Is Tao Lin's Jonathan Franzen Parody the Year's Best Satire?

Posted by Patrick James


A recent Time issue hailed Freedom author Jonathan Franzen as the "Great American Novelist" in a gushing portrait. Here's the introduction:

A raft of sea otters are at play in a narrow estuary at Moss Landing, near Santa Cruz, Calif. There are 41 of them, says a guy in a baseball cap. He counted. They dive and surface and float around on their backs with their little paws poking up out of the water, munching sea urchins or thinking about munching sea urchins.

The humans admiring them from the shore don't make them self-conscious. Otters are congenitally happy beasts. They don't worry about their future, even though they're legally a threatened species and their little estuary is literally in the shadow of the massive 500-ft. stacks of a power plant.

One of the humans admiring them is Jonathan Franzen. Franzen is a member of another perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist. But he's not as cool about it as the otters. He's uneasy. He's a physically solid guy, 6 ft. 2 in., with significant shoulders, but his posture is not so much hunched as flinched. At 50 (he turns 51 on Aug. 17), Franzen is pleasantly boyish-looking, with permanently tousled hair. But his hair is now heavily salted, and there are crow's-feet behind his thick-framed nerd glasses.

Here's what ran in The Stranger (which, amusingly, was written by Lin, himself):

A mound of hamsters are asleep in a 20-gallon fish tank at Petco in Manhattan's Union Square. There are seven of them, says a nonexistent woman in a baseball cap. She counted. They lie in an age-/gender-/relation-indiscriminate mass, purling and naked, that would seem troubling to nightmarish if they were humans. But the humans perceiving them seem unperturbed, even meditative—influenced, perhaps, by the deduction- resistant, congenitally paradoxical nature of hamsters: cute yet vaguely unsympathetic, robotlike yet almost defaultedly anthropomorphized, named and loved and fed daily yet disposable and easily replaced. One considers a hamster's future idly, without self-consciousness or emotion, calmed by one's apparent disinterest in abstracting, interpreting, or distorting what it means to be a creature utilized existentially in the appeasement of small children before being flushed down a heavily scented toilet or accidentally vacuumed alive, leaving in the cleaning maid only an indistinct sensation of disquiet.

One of the humans perceiving the hamster pile is Tao Lin, a member of another species likely to manifest mysterious discomfort in a person who is vacuuming: the American literary novelist.

"Just kidding," as Lin might say. He will never be vacuumed alive, and he prefers to view himself not as a "novelist" or a "serious novelist" or a "great American novelist" but as a "human"—or, in his stricter moments, "organism" or "thing." He's a physically tenebrous guy, 5 ft., 7 in., with straight posture and a slightly zombielike expression one imagines to be the result of an imperceptibly rapid deviation, like a wave-particle model, between "almost crying" and "almost asleep." At 27 (he turns 28 on July 2), he is unnaturally socially anxious, with permanently self-cut hair. About which someone once asked, on Gmail chat, "is your mullet on purpose, or did it just happen that way," to which Lin responded, "i think it just happened... do I really have a mullet though, i don't think i do," even though a quick search of Lin's Flickr account reveals that he does have a mullet and that he's aware of it (one photo is titled "reduced mullet" and two others are titled simply "mullet").

We'll be discussing the first half of Freedom tomorrow. If you're reading along, check it out. And remember that if you want to enter our book review contest, you have two weeks to finish the novel and send us your 200-word critiques.