Below is the first draft of Jonathan Franzen’s much-discussed recent essay in The Guardian. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the final version before reading the first draft.
Jonathan Franzen: What’s Wrong with the Modern World
Klaus Kinski was a German actor and a central figure in mid- to late-twentieth century cinema. Although he probably would have hated the Internet, Kinski is quite popular in that space today, more than twenty years after his death. If you perform a Google search for Klaus Kinski, you get many pages of results.
Kinski was prescient. If you read his sentences more than once, you’ll find that they have a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment.
“Words. Words today block meanings. Words are losing their value these days. People don’t communicate what they mean. If someone tells me ‘This coffee is genius,’ what does that mean? This is shit. If this coffee is genius, then what does ‘genius’ mean anymore? I don’t believe in words anymore. ‘Have a coke and a smile.’ I have a coke and it hurts my stomach. I become sick.”
(Footnote: I’m reminded of how I felt upon being informed that The Corrections had been selected by Oprah’s Book Club.)
Kinski’s discussion of the popular beverages of his day and the devaluation of words provides insight not only into the devaluation of words via our current arms race of Silicon Valley hyperbole, but also into the popular beverages of our day.
Beginning sometime in the 1980s, a young man who had worked up a thirst playing touch football or hating everything about a world that had granted him privilege and comforton an historic scale had but two options to quench his thirst: Sunny D, and the purple stuff.
Sunny D (the D is for “Delight” and not “Destruction of literary culture” but thanks anyway, Mr. Bezos) was the “cool” drink. In the commercials, the athletic, eternally cheerful adolescents—always wearing bright, solid-colored clothing, as if to deny the dark heart of our present condition—shove aside not just the purple stuff but also the orange juice whence Sunny D came.
In her wisdom, in anticipation of collective teenage thirst, the mother of the house has stocked the refrigerator with Sunny D. But she has also purchased the purple stuff. Why? We never hear her talk. Does anyone even realize she’s German? And why didn’t I have sex with her, when I had the chance, in Munich? I was so angry about my decision, I almost threw an old German lady in front of a train. Fahrvergnugen, you old hag.
-Telegraph to Frederico Fellini
The purple stuff was my poison, even as a young man. Once, when I was in my 20s, I invited my friends to play football at a nearby park. Afterward, I brought them to my apartment. The refrigerator contained a bottle of Sunny D and a bottle of purple stuff. I opened the former in front of them and poured it down the drain, every last drop.
Imagine my disappointment at learning that Salman Rushdie owns a microwave.
“The jungle is life itself. A thousand times more alive than anything you’ve ever seen. We didn’t go there to be a part of it. We invaded it. We shaved the jungle and made a stinking camp in the middle of it. Radios blaring. It was disgusting.”
Of course, Sunny D is nothing like the healthy, natural product its commercials suggest. It is a soft drink, made orange by high doses of added coloring. In 1999, in a case of life imitating Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a young girl in Great Britain turned orange after drinking too much Sunny D.
Meanwhile, the purple stuff has since been co-opted by rappers from Houston, who make it from cough syrup and soda. I don’t care for their music or their dental jewelry or their brightly painted cars, but their beverage suits me nicely. When I review my work at the end of the week and invariably hate myself and the society about which I write, I find the codeine a welcome anodyne.
My life is the Falling Down of American letters.
“The German government writes me that it has awarded me the supreme distinction for an actor: the Gold Film Ribbon. What gall! Who gave those shitheads the right to award me anything? Did it never occur to them that there might be somebody who doesn’t want their shit? What filthy arrogance to award me - me, of all people! - a prize! What does this prize mean, anyway? Is it a reward? For what? For my pains, sufferings, despair, tears? A prize for every hell, every dying, every resurrection? Prizes for death and life? Prizes for passion, for hate and love? And how did you shitheads intend to hand me the prize? As a gift? As a favour, like those tasteless hosts that the pope distributes like fast food? I’ll kick you! Or do I come submissive, whimpering? I’ll kick you again!”
I am reminded again of Oprah. Her confounded Book Club. The Tupperware Party vulgarity of it all.
I should have bedded her when I had the chance.