A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my 51-year-old Ego with a much more powerful Post-Dave Died of Boredom Hubris. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far my haughtiness had advanced in three years. But it wasn’t enough to have been on the cover of Time Magazine. Because I had been wrongfully denied every major award (Pulitzer, National Book Award, NBCC) for my latest novel, it became necessarily to diminish my friend’s vastly superior talent by writing a self-serving essay about him in The New Yorker and by delivering a commencement speech here at Kenyon — the very same locale that my friend had delivered a poignant and deeply humanist speech six years earlier.
I was infatuated with my new device. My Hubris was so big that I knew I wouldn’t die from boredom. I could undermine anyone I wanted — the women whose love for writing (and reading) I had destroyed; my troubled writer friend who had committed suicide; even the very audience I speak before now. After all, you’ll believe just about everything I have to say without question. Yet like Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, you all make me want to be young and miserable again. I’d been similarly infatuated with the old device, of course. I’d authored a volume of essays called How to Be Alone, in which I wrote, without irony, “What I really want from a sidewalk is that people see me and let themselves be seen, but even this modest ideal is thwarted by cell-phone users and their unwelcome privacy. They say things like, ‘Should we have couscous with that?’ and ‘I’m on my way to Blockbuster.'” The nerve of these troglodytes! Why didn’t they look up from their cell phones and bask in my Franzenness? Toward the end of its run, I had some doubts about my Ego’s efficacy (and that’s Ego, not Egan; if I catch you with a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad in your hands, I will write a 3,000 word essay about how much I despise you), until I’d finally had to admit that I’d outgrown the relationship. I now required levels of pomposity and navel gazing that rivaled the size of a massive continent on an undiscovered planet, but that general readers might interpret as meaningful.
Do I need to point out that my relationship with humanity was entirely one-sided? That I don’t really give a flying fuck about whether anything I say may be wrong or misguided or inconsiderate or socially clueless or needlessly reductionist (especially since I’m essentially cannibalizing the best bits from Dave’s 2005 speech)? Let me point it out anyway.
Let me further point out how the word “sexy” is almost never used to describe late-model Franzen androids; and how the extremely selfish things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling people to believe that superficial speeches such as this one possess profound insight into The Way We Live (the way I had once looked to Paula Fox’s fiction as how-to manuals) — would have looked to everyday people like the actions of a self-serving and inconsiderate asshole finding himself at the opposing end of a fist were he to say such words and pull such shit in a bar.
Let me toss out the idea that I would not be here, and I would not have sold as many books as I have, were it not for the very vagaries of the media system and the markets I detest. But I will condemn these anyway, even though an adorable video of a cat mother hugging her baby — “liked” by more than 100,000 people in a mere two days — willfully demonstrates that people are willing to feel something online outside the capitalist nexus.
It may seem a bit hypocritical and short-sighted for me to suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love. But I saw this movie Catfish the other night and needed to cleanse myself the next morning with a hearty dose of birdwatching, a hobby I valued above all else because it attracted so many people with Asperger’s and everyone had the decency not to talk. Anwway, techno-consumerism represents everything I loathe about the Internet, and I feel far too comfortable cleaving to my inflexibly prejudicial perceptions to change my mind.
You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. But I won’t listen to them. Because the only thing I care about are my examples.
I will also complain about Facebook, despite the fact that if you wanted to read my last New Yorker essay you were forced to become “a fan” of The New Yorker. Perhaps my limitless enmity for Facebook has something to do with this. But I shall not be transparent with you. It is clear that you did not love The New Yorker or me. You heard that this piece was making the rounds, became a fan because it was the only option outside of rightfully coughing up the subscription or newsstand money, and I learned later that some of you hated it. I now declare you all soulless consumer scum.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely great number of people who will buy our books. Even some of the happy little people who watch Oprah and who I now can’t slander because I decided to appear on her show and because I enjoy taking the money. The prospect of pain is generally compensated by that of financial gain. It’s best to avoid a serious consideration of these morally conflicted issues (I am, after all, a passive aggressive) and seek out illusory targets. Besides, don’t false dichotomies go over well before a college crowd?
When I was in college, I was angry and I remained angry. But then a funny thing happened. Somebody told me that people wouldn’t listen to me if I was angry. So I pretended not to be angry and strive now to be thoughtful, even though thinking about my speech for about five minutes will reveal the sad deficiencies under the hood. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and fear only increased when I discovered wild birds. I learned to pretend that I didn’t feel this way about people. I fooled myself into thinking that people only relate to each other in terms of competition, even though I’m telling you from the dais that it’s all about love. And it became easier to live with my anger and pain and fear because I shifted the burden to lower life forms rather than live with feeble souls who talked on their cell phones on the sidewalk. I am Jonathan Franzen. I shouldn’t have to live with anybody other than an extremely limited set fulfilling my ridiculous and entirely unreasonable criteria for Being a Good Human. On this point, I am worse than Woody Allen.
When you stay in your room in the Upper East Side, as I did for many years, you eventually write speeches such as this one. And when you put yourself in front of real people, there’s a very real danger that you think you know what you’re talking about.
And who knows what might happen to you then?
P.S. Please buy my books. And whatever you do, don’t click the “Like” button below this adaptation from a commencement speech. It is important to understand that some actions are consumerist and cowardly, and some are not when they benefit me.