Swans Commentary » swans.com February 28, 2011  



Jonathan Franzen's Great American Doorstop


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Franzen, Jonathan: Freedom, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan conglomerate), NYC, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-312-600-84-6, 576 pages.


"I've never liked big books, so I don't see why I should try to write them. Unless you're Tolstoy most of the "great books" of the world should have been cut in half. [...] I have written four bad pages and will reduce them to a single line."
—Bruce Chatwin, Under the Sun, the letters of Bruce Chatwin

"And now you're middle-class too, and I want to welcome you all, because it's a wonderful thing, our American middle-class. It's the mainstay of economies all around the globe."
Freedom, page 483

"Only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time." —Norman Mailer, The Prisoner of Sex


(Swans - February 28, 2011)   Novel readers who passed newsstands did a double-take on August 23, 2010. Novelist Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time. He looked more creation-ravaged than Hemingway had on Life in 1952. The author of The Old Man and the Sea had simply sized us up as not good enough for his team. In 1978, Mario Puzo with his cigar and dyspepsia didn't even deign to look us in the eye from the cover of Time. The Godfather's father was Old Nick to Franzen's Christ in Gethsemane.

In which lies a story, a public relations story. Franzen began his campaign to get himself on the cover of Time with a Harper's article of April 1996. He called it Perchance to Dream and gave us the stale news that TV and the Internet had rapt our attention from the "literary" novel. Franzen made Time magazine a gauge of this decline. It no longer put big literary guns on its cover.

The novelist preferred to forget that cultural historians had been explaining for seventy-five years why the capacious 19th century novel could no longer be central to national cultures. The means of reproduction and delivery had changed. The same shift in technology had reduced Time from being the arbiter of American life in the 1940s and 1950s to being just another struggling newsmagazine hemorrhaging circulation. (Life's lingering death came in 2000.) But Time was still the land of rainbow's end for Franzen and he fawned in Harper's to make its cover.

Less naïve than foxy, our novelist announced that he was going to change America's reading habits by writing a "big, social novel." We were given notice to be on the qui vive for this change in the direction of US writing. We could also put in our advanced orders at bookshops.

But readers with a nose could smell the old con game of the Great American Novel on the breeze. Franzen and his publishers soon had the hot-air turbo blowing hype full-time. They understood Americans and perorated on the fact that Franzen spent six years in solitary on his new "literary" novel. Years (like time) being money, the investment had to vouchsafe a masterpiece. (Masterpiece was their synonym for bestseller.) When the 568-page The Corrections appeared in 2001, the stage had been set.

If, as writing goes, The Corrections was not ambitious, but merely long, the PR story to peddle it aimed at the stars. Franzen gave full-voice to the literary-quality riff. He refused to appear on Oprah Winfrey's book-tease show. Her "corporate logo" would drive off serious readers, he said. Apparently he didn't consider his publishers to be an international conglomerate with a corporate logo as arrogant and parasitical as any. (Oprah would without fuss enroll his next novel in her Book Club.) The controversy was good for sales and created the impression that The Corrections was something special, "real literature," and not just another endless family saga sprinkled with middle-class angst.

Franzen nonetheless met success with a tantrum. Before thick-volume enlightenment had hit him he'd written a couple of art-house novels that few read. Now he wanted The Corrections to do more than sell big. He wanted it to install him as tastemaker to the nation. The public had swooned when Dickens's Little Dorrit was undone by a Ponzi scheme. Balzac's fans spoke of his character Rastignac as a living person. But as soon as someone else's PR blah started, the United States of non-readers forgot the squabbling family of The Corrections. Franzen displayed a pout of disenchantment and set to splitting hairs. He insisted that he'd written a "traditional" novel, but not all that traditional.

In 2010 the same clanking PR machine has been wheeled out for Freedom. Time happily fell in line. Hadn't it placed The Corrections on its list of the 100 best English-language novels and granted Franzen a profile in 2006? On publication the news magazine offered that bathetic photo with a starry-eyed caption, "Great American Novelist." If Franzen wanted to ride to glory on the Victorian novel, Time had nothing against reversing history and dwindling circulation figures. It would go along with the make-believe that we were still back in 1945 when Time-Life decided what was what for the nation and its cover photographs meant immortality.

This time around the martyr of the pen spent ten years on his own "in a room" concocting a second family saga. (It's as if "non-literary" writers never work alone but in crowded elevators or in the thunder of discos.) In Freedom the American middle classes are still coasting along in their gas-guzzling angst wagons, much more concerned than we are with who sleeps with whom and who is a perfect or imperfect suburban parent.

But this is a book review. Let's outdo Bruce Chatwin's magic of reducing four bad pages to one line. Let's go directly to what Franzen's characters would call the bottom line. What do the 576 pages of Freedom amount to?

Patty, a main character, goes to university in Minnesota on a basketball scholarship. She was glad to get away from her wealthy East Coast professional family. (Contrast between the East and Midwest always looms large for Franzen.) Patty felt different from her siblings and unappreciated by her parents. She's a think-no-evil girl, naïve, and fixed on sports. Walter, whom she will marry, is a local boy who has had to work hard to get himself through college. Ambitious, something of an intellectual, he ends up with a law degree. He's bent on saving the planet and works in a nature conservancy.

The good girl and the do-gooder set to work gentrifying their part of inner Saint Paul. Patty's a stay-at-home mother who passes the time left after nosing around the neighborhood by being scrupulously fair to everyone. She attempts to be the ideal mom, unlike hers who, she feels, neglected her. Her intention, not surprisingly, goes awry. She dotes too much on her son Joey, which alienates her daughter Jessica. Joey himself can't stand the pressure and moves next door with the uncouth neighbors where he hones his teenage sex skills on their willing daughter.

Walter, in anger, gives up on his son and begins re-enacting his past conflict with his dead father. (Franzen: "The nice man's anger.") Walter has a tenacious, "abstract" love for Patty that suggests he feels inferior. Somewhat weary of being the copy-book mom and good fairy of the neighborhood, Patty has a clandestine fling with Katz, Walter's college roommate who always fascinated her. The two men were a strange couple, Walter, studious and ultra moral, his friend a bohemian musician. Katz's and Patty's romp introduces her to bone-shaking sex. But she sticks to Walter.

Katz, who is a catalyst in the narrative and something of a cliché, can be easily summed up. He becomes famous as a pop guitarist and avant-garde song writer. But he will refuse the trappings of success and show his independence by wearing only dirty T-shirts. He beds all the young-girl admirers he trips over. He does drugs. Though he proves to be the big penis in Patty's life -- they work up a sweat again years later -- she gets sick of him in the end and he could not care less.

But the reader learns all this by hearsay, as it were. Franzen reports what happens but he doesn't "represent" it. We don't get a scene painted between Katz and one of his lays. We don't learn how the twosome looks or feels. Nor does Franzen ever attempt to describe Katz' songs or music. We simply have to take the author's word that they are works of genius. It's a sketchy way of writing that makes you think of an author sitting at his desk and nodding his head repeatedly instead of fully realizing his vision in words.

The knots in Patty's character arouse our interest, but no explanation of them will be forthcoming. In time she raises the flag of total discontent. It's diagnosed as depression and she's shunted into therapy. Her mood is sneering and ironic. She takes to drink and concentrates on being a torment to Walter. But he seems made for long suffering and loses himself in ecological policy and an obsession with neo-Malthusianism, i.e., fright of overpopulation. Change comes with his career move to a new job in Washington.

How the years and pages are passing!

Family circumstances in the nation's capital are much more exalted because Walter is working for millionaires. Patty remains her butt-paining self. Walter has a pretty young Bengali assistant who falls in love with him. He's in non-"abstract" love with her too but will not yield his virtue and continues to put up with Patty. Both their children are at university. Jessica is a moralist bent on putting her parents right. Joey has been taken under the wing of a prominent D.C. neocon Zionist. At twenty he's already proving an astute capitalist, making money out of the invasion of Iraq.

Joey would seem to be negating his father's liberal stance. But Walter is in crisis: his "coziness with corporations and millionaires now made him queasy." No longer is he open to "constructive engagement with the coal people." His foundation has approved mountaintop-removal mining in exchange for a songbird sanctuary. But he realizes too late that he and the cerulean warbler have got the worst of the deal.

Catalyst-Katz, the musical deus ex machina, reappears on the D.C. scene. Patty turns him down. He had his chance, she says, and now it's too late. Before leaving, however, the weather-beaten rocker leaves Patty's manuscript autobiography on Walter's desk. It's what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, the contents of the deus ex machina's back pocket. In these pages Patty confessed not only her infidelity but her contempt for Walter. He throws her out and lets himself go, at long last, with his Bengali maiden. In a hiccup of liberalism he also breaks off with his millionaire friends who are more interested in coal, gas, and oil than bird watching.

O, yes, years are passing.

Patty, homeless, finds shelter with Katz in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Where else would a dirty T-shirt rock genius live?) But the arrangement doesn't last. Patty finally pulls herself together, becomes a good girl again and goes off to teach gym in Brooklyn. She still loves Walter who -- "abstract" love be damned -- now can't stand the sight of her. On top of being the butt of her written adventure in self-analysis, he is now plunged in grief over the death of his Bengali lover who drove off the road in the hills of West Virginia. (Had Walter read Franzen's first four hundred pages with care, he wouldn't have been surprised. We are told over and over again how wildly the woman drove.)

More years. More pages.

Patty, off the juice and with a daily run under her belt, has got back in the girlish form that once put her on the first team. Walter still says no game. When she plants herself on his doorstep, however, he's finally shaken out of the Patty-and-cat phobia that had stricken him. ("Cats were all about using people" and there were seventy-five million American cats.) The marriage takes off again though it's worrying that we are told Walter has "the defect of pitying even the beings he most hated." Can we hope for a sequel with Walter throttling Patty? In the meantime, guess what? Joey is back in the family circle. He donates 100,000 ill-gained dollars to help his father wage a Malthusian crusade. Jessica gets into the big hug too and we have a happy ending consonant with the holiday spirit and nice for folks who got Freedom for a year-end gift. How many will finish reading it by Xmas 2011?

Franzen's prosperous middle-class Americans, 1970-2008, are at grips with lifestyle choices, relationship quandaries such as we meet in the more sophisticated advice to the lovelorn columns, sibling rivalries, and parent-child conflicts. They are locked in ruthless competition with one another. A pop Freudian net has been dropped over them, and they get so tangled in it they do one another harm. But of course they come happily together in the end. They are, after all, middle-class Americans.

The freedom the title evokes comes down to how they accommodate themselves to this or that minute variation in the life their class conformity allows them. (Patty "pitied herself for being so free.") Credit cards come in so many different colors. A new diet or a cocaine weekend, fresh air or art, religion or ecology, divorce or the matrimonial blues -- characters and author apparently believe their range of choice is unlimited. In fact it's Atlantic-to-Pacific narrow.

Franzen's pitch for the nineteenth-century novel gradually swells into a preposterous suggestion that he's writing in the mold of Tolstoy. Coy, he lets his characters make the claim for him. Walter highly recommends War and Peace. Patty finds its impact "almost psychedelic"; it changes her. "Patty felt she'd lived an entire compressed lifetime in those three days [of reading]." Afterward, she sees Walter as "her own Pierre." She insists she's never read a better book.

But to mention War and Peace in Freedom was a monumental error: it invites comparison, and the only thing the two books have in common is inordinate length. Patty, in her reading -- not unlike her creator -- is interested in the sexual triangle. She has trouble getting into the "military stuff," into history.

Tolstoy's aristocrats are rooted in their national landscape at a time when the nation is rocked as never before. Unlike Walter's ecology, the Napoleonic invasion isn't a plot-device: it's a titanic moment of truth. To measure up to Tolstoy, Franzen would have had to consider how Southerners felt in 1861, or how the inhabitants of Baghdad felt in 2003. He couldn't limit his research to leafing through a few issues of Vanity Fair.

"How we live now" is the tag line that the publishing industry has attached to Freedom. It makes you want to shout loud and clear, "not me."


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Published February 28, 2011