the elephant and the termite


Yet the two writers actually have a good deal in common. Both collections include “special interest” essays. In Franzen’s case, two thirty-pagers on avian ecology in Europe and China – dense, serious pieces lacking the lovely descriptive touches he can bring to shorter offerings. In Lethem’s case, there is a lot about superheroes, including an essay that finds, in the Batman film The Dark Knight, echoes of “a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction, and cultivated grievance”. Fundamentally, the two share a belief in the healing power of fiction. “Love” is an important word in their critical vocabularies, as in: “What counts is what freedom you [as a writer] can taste, and what love you can offer, from inside the role you’ve been handed” (Lethem); “The curious thing about David [Foster Wallace]’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it” (Franzen). Both writers have a tendency to the Messianic. “Fiction is my religion”, Franzen tells us. He doesn’t think it can save the world, but “there is some reasonable chance . . . that it could save your soul”. Lethem, in his bold essay on James Wood, frames their respective relationships to literature with a religious metaphor: “About books I’m Quakerish, believing every creature eligible to commune face-to-face with the Light; he’s a high priest, handing down sacred mysteries”.

more from Claire Lowdon at the TLS here.