Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Leviathan | Fiction | An Exclusive Story By Jonathan Franzen, 'The Intonement'

Editor’s Note: This arrived on my desk this morning, delivered by first-class post. The signature and accompanying letter claim that it is the God’s-truth confession of the celebrated author and wearer of glasses, Jonathan Franzen. As to its veracity, I dare not pass judgement, for it may well be a prank by some mischievous ex-student, most likely of little literary worth themselves and arrogant enough to believe their hoax will not be uncovered – but its contents, and its serious theme, lead me to speculate that this may well be another work of classic fiction written by a novelist who has delivered no less than two ‘Great American Novels’ (if I may be so bold as to use Mr Franzen’s own words) according to our most hallowed arbiter of such things; that is, Wikipedia. And so, without further ado, I present An Intonement, (and this very Franzenian title goes some way towards convincing me that this story is no forgery.) Enjoy; and be certain to remember this moment so that, in centuries to come, you may tell your astrograndchildren where you were when you first read it.


“If you should write a fable for little fishes, you would make them speak like great whales.”

Goldsmith to Johnson.

...according to ‘Moby Dick’.

Call me Franzen. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely - having a serious-looking pair of spectacles, and nothing in particular to interest me in reality, I thought would write about a bit and, perhaps, catch, kill and consume the Great American Novel. Whenever I find myself bemoaning the state of literature, whenever I find myself wishing to take a circle-saw to every bookshop table holding the latest Dan Brown novel, I feel a certain instinctual urge to hunt and trap the Great American Novel. Every male novelist, some time or other, cherishes very nearly that same feeling.

Our captain’s name was Roth; a bitter, stern, aging man who I felt must surely be past his prime, for he would stand at the prow of our little coracle and write out novel after novel in which a facsimile of the author has a lot of sex with frumpy young women. And yet in sailors’ circles, these were hailed as great literature, so I was not sure how much I should believe in my own inclination. The first mate, a dour man by the name of Updike, I found in closer spirits to myself, forever mumbling about the American family and wishing to cast a ‘wry’ eye over the idiosyncracies of the act of love-making. There were others, too – as many as there are novels in the sea.

Artist's impression.

“Avast, ye dogs,” Roth snapped, getting to his feet. “Bellow, sit up straight! Pynchon, get that gum out of yer hair! I’ve set our course; the white whale awaits.”

Grim, decided expressions, all around our ship of fools.

“What’s the catch, cap’n?” someone shouted. “Huck Finn? Catcher in the Rye? To Kill a Mockingbird?”

“Nay,” Roth replied. “They be novels for schoolchildren. Adolescent; pregnant with possibility, but not a full-grown, behemoth of a novel.”

There was a thoughtful silence.

“I hear fishin’s been good in Latin America recently,” Bellow suggested. “Still counts as America, technically speaking. What say we harpoon us a big fat Garcia Marquez? Or a Bolano, if we’re not feeling too picky.”

“Nay, thou belly-acher!” Roth shouted, clouting him over the head with one of his extremely slim recent publications. “Thou knowest that it is not the same thing.”

I suggested my own book, Freedom, as a Great American Novel. The bottle-nosed critics that liked to follow our coracle about instantly popped their heads out of the water and began to bray applause; the other novelists, however, ignored it.

“Our prize is Moby Dick,” Roth told us.


“You know,” Updike said, scratching his nose, “It is interesting that so many of the Great American Novels are adolescent in nature; how many of them deal in some way with desire and with the urge to push oneself further and further that could be said to embody the founding principle of the USA. Some of them embrace this spirit wholeheartedly, but many more are directly concerned with the consequences of that desire. Great Gatsby, The Old Man and The Sea, Moby Dick itself, Death of a Salesman, Citizen Kane-”

“They’re not novels.”


“In fact,” Updike continued, “doesn’t Moby Dick take itself with such light-heartedness that to pursue it in such a serious, state-of-the-nation manner (little matter that only a small section of the narrative actually takes place on American soil) does it an injustice, and mistakes the nature of the Great American Novel, which cannot desire to be a Great American Novel and hope to become one, without at least examining the nature of its own desire.”

“That’s some Jedi shit right there,” said Saul Bellow.

Literary experts speculate that the naked man may be Ernest Hemingway.

We ruminated on this for some time.

“Truly,” I said, speaking for the first time, “Moby Dick is the only Great American Novel. Some of our most treasured books deal with social issues; some are tragic, some whimsical. Some of them, over perhaps the last fifty years, have clearly had no potential legacy, but have been worked up anyway by a critical consensus desperate for this peculiar thing, this Great American Novel, which only ever came about from a colonial identity crisis and a desire to replicate the literary successes of Great Britain. But great literature is not duplication. Moby Dick is only so memorable because it cannot be so clearly defined. Moby Dick is not a novel; it is everything.”

And the enormous whale burst up through the water, its jaws surrounding us on all sides, hurling us up into the air, scattering we damned fools, we novelists, in all directions.

I was lucky; bouncing off the slick final chapters of Moby Dick, I fell into the ocean at one side of the carnage. Many of my shipmates simply dropped back into the creature’s gargantuan mouth. I caught a glimpse of Captain Roth, stabbing ferociously at the whale’s hide with a harpoon, his legs pinioned against it, roaring,

“Give me that Nobel Prize, you sons of bitches!”

And then he, too, was dragged below the surface.

On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the Beat poets, who’d been hoping for a bite or two out of a Great American Novel themselves, though mostly this was related to a severe case of the munchies.


As told to Jon Ware.

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