Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's (And Our) America

"Freedom is not the kind of Great American Novel that [Jonathan] Franzen's predecessors wrote--not the kind Bellow and Mailer and Updike wrote. The American scene is just too complex--and too aware of its own complexity, for anything to loom that large over it again. But Freedom feels big in a different way, a way that not much other American fiction does right now. It doesn't back down from the complexity."--Lev Grossman, Time Magazine, August 23rd 2010.

I was genuinely hoping to write a review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom without any mention of The Great American Novel. I've mentioned it here before, in varying capacities, but trying to define that term is often done to fill space, has a tendency to be needlessly rhetorical, or causes some needless hand-wringing. Franzen's latest novel has inspired both claims of being a contender for said title, but has also provoked some much needed, thoughtful dialogues on literature and gender studies (more on this later). However, in previous years, Franzen has been a leading defender of both the novel as a social tool, and as well as the novel as a tool in general (Let's get another tiresome question out of the way: Is the novel dead? Short answer: Not at all). In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the idea of sitting down with a big novel may seem strange to some, or, as Franzen has put it in much more eloquent terms, an extravagant luxury. Even in times that are both uncertain and in constant flux all at once, the novel is still a medium that can capture emotions and states and not be outdated within five years. A novel like Freedom can explore sociological norms of an era and mention names and items that may end up being put in the "history" pile, but these outer themes take second billing to the true, timeless issues: those of family, people, emotions, and life in general. These may be very broad categories, but emotions never really change, only in response to their surroundings.

Freedom is a novel in which no fewer than four characters could be classified as the "main character." In 1980s St. Paul, Minnesota, Walter and Patty Berglund, the epitome (and anti-definition) of the liberal family, are the cause of much gossip and worry in their neighborhood. Walter is an upstanding lawyer with 3M and a tireless crusader for natural and sociological projects. Patty is a former NCAA basketball star, now (seemingly) content to be a stay-at-home mother. A good friend of mine who read Freedom at the same time, consistently mentioned that she found a lot of the characters to be caricatures. This is evident from the beginning, but reading the novel as a whole reveals that the initial opinions are more than likely intentional caricatures. Patty's actions as a new transplant to the neighborhood is both intensely earnest and an honest exaggeration of her desire to make good, or to at least appear to be the model of a Good Wife and Good Mother. But, like any real human being, her personality is rife with contradictions, and this also goes for the other characters.

"To Seth Paulsen, who talked about Patty a little too often for his wife's taste, the Berglunds were the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege. One problem with Seth's theory was that the Berglunds weren't all that privileged; their only known asset was their house, which they'd rebuilt with their own hands. Another problem, Merrie Paulsen pointed out, was that Patty was no great progressive and certainly no feminist (staying home with her birthday calendar, baking those goddamned birthday cookies) and seemed altogether allergic to politics. If you mentioned an election or a candidate to her, you could see her struggling and failing to be her usual self--see her becoming agitated and doing too much nodding, too much yeah-yeahing (Franzen 7)."

If anything seems amiss with the Berglunds, that's because everything is amiss. Walter struggles with his son Joey, a rebellious figure who eventually moves in next door with his girlfriend's Republican family; Patty devotes too much attention to Joey and too little attention to her daughter Jessica, an issue that flares up years later; as the novel progresses, it's revealed that Patty is suffering from depression and the hints of alcoholism. Freedom alternates between the past and the present, with large sections formed as Patty's autobiography, a work that's done at the suggestion of her therapist, but takes on greater significance later on. Patty and Walter meet in college, but their relationship takes awhile to develop. Patty is "friends" with an unstable drug addict named Eliza, who introduces her to Richard Katz, an up-and-coming rock musician who happens to be Walter's best friend. Richard is a defiant womanizer, and both his magnetism and repulsiveness make him attractive to both Patty (sexually) and Walter (vicariously). As Patty sinks further into her depression, seemingly inexplicable events occur. The family moves to Washington, D.C., where Walter takes a job with a coal company under the guise of establishing protected breeding habitats for a species of bird called the cerulean warbler, which also sets the stage for unprotected mountaintop coal removal. In addition, he also begins to fall for his younger assistant. Joey's college life leads to a job securing parts for a mysterious corporation selling substandard auto parts to the United States Military, all while his relationship with his girlfriend spins between breaking and becoming seriously unhealthy, not to mention his constant attractions to various other women.

While Patty, Walter, and Richard take equal turns being the focal point of the story, Patty's depression and actions not only make up a lot of the narrative, but has a trickle-down effect on everyone she knows. My aforementioned friend was irritated by how it was possible that Patty could be able to write long, detailed remembrances, along with detailed dialogues written, seemingly, word for word. While I completely understand this criticism, Franzen's writing and knack for dialogue (in Grossman's profile, he mentions how Franzen reads his dialogue aloud while writing, in order to achieve maximum success) more than makes up for this. The majority of the scenes between Patty and Richard are stunningly detailed, capturing nuances, unspoken attractions, and the constant verbal games they play. At one point, they're alone together while Richard, in his part-time job, builds the deck on Patty and Walter's summer home.

"She must have betrayed him in the way she said that, because Richard gave her a little frown. 'You OK?'
'No no no,' she said, 'I love being up here. I love it. This is my favorite place in the world. It doesn't solve anything, if you know what I mean. But I love getting up in the morning. I love smelling the air.'
'I meant are you OK with my being here.'
'Oh, totally. God. Yes. Totally. Yah! I mean, you know how Walter loves you. I feel like we've been friends with you for so long, but I've hardly ever really talked to you. It's a nice opportunity. But you truly shouldn't feel you have to stay, if you want to get back to New York. I'm so used to being alone up here. It's fine.'
This speech seemed to have taken her a very long time to get to the end of. It was followed by a brief silence between them.
'I'm just trying to hear what you're actually saying,' Richard said. 'Whether you actually want me here or not.'
'God,' she said. 'I keep saying it, don't I? Didn't I just say it (Franzen 160-161).'"

It's been quite awhile since my last reading of The Corrections, but I found that Freedom contains wonderful descriptions of the so-called "everyday moments." Given its long, painstaking sketches of city and rural life, political and corporate maneuverings, and the joys and pains of romantic and familial relationships, the smaller details are rendered just as striking, even though they could play into one of the usual criticisms of Franzen, his penchant for overflowing literary descriptions. But several passages made me smile with their reality and detail:

"That evening in Philadelphia, there was a brief dismal episode: she went down to the hotel bar with the intention of picking somebody up. She quickly discovered that the world is divided into people who know how to be comfortable by themselves on a bar chair and people who do not (Franzen 181)."

"Staying in hotels with Lalitha had become perhaps the hardest single part of their working relationship. In Washington, where she lived upstairs from him, she at least was on a different floor, and Patty was around to generally disturb the picture. At the Days Inn in Beckley, they fitted identical keycards into identical doors, fifteen feet from each other, and entered rooms whose identical profound drabness only a torrid illicit affair could have overcome (Franzen 303)."

Earlier, I mentioned that the recent applause over Freedom has been met with some relevant, honest critiques, but not of the work itself or of the author. Poet and literary critic Meghan O'Rourke published a wonderful article in Slate, and the title immediately brings up the concern: "Can a Woman Be a Great American Novelist?" Quite a few strong essays, even ones by Franzen himself, highlight the tendency of "literature" to be the domain of middle-aged white males. Of course, there have been great strides to the variety of literature. O'Rourke mentions Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison, and personally, I've been anxiously awaiting the new novel by Nicole Krauss. Both on this blog and in private conversations, I've been concerned about adding more essays on female writers, and in all of the excitement over Freedom, O'Rourke poses an excellent suggestion.

"A thought exercise, perhaps specious: If this book had been written by a woman (say, Jennifer Franzen), would it have been called 'a masterpiece of American fiction' in the first line of its front-page New York Times review; would its author, perhaps with longer hair and make-up, have been featured in Time as a GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST; would the Guardian have called it the 'Book Of the Century'? Without detracting from Franzen, I think we can say it would not have received this trifecta of plaudits, largely because we don't ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men, and our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white)(O'Rourke)."

These are essential thoughts, and the fact that someone took the time to disparagingly edit O'Rourke's Wikipedia page ("Despite her Yale education and privileged life, she believes she is at a great disadvantage as a writer because she is a not a (yawn) white male") proves her point that bias still abounds. However, to put a happier spin on this without taking away from the argument, it's a testament that a major literary novel can have this trickle-down effect, being both a major piece of art in its own right and highlighting the contributions of other writers. This could be another essay in its own right, but despite the respect gained by the likes of Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Joyce Carol Oates, to name a few, it's true that women writers don't always spring to mind immediately (O'Rourke mentions being guilty of this herself). To borrow her phrase, "unconscious bias" is still bias.

This may seem like a sidetrack, but O'Rourke's essay can be an answer (one of many) to the question that has been posed, either explicitly or otherwise, in virtually every review of Freedom that I've read: "What is it about?" Really, take your pick. If you want it to be about urban gentrification, go ahead. If you want it to be about the overlap and problems of both liberal and conservative personal politics, there are plenty of examples. If you want it to be a look at fractured families and regretful yet necessary sexual relationships, there are a lot of pages devoted to those, too. It's too easy to say that Freedom is about our modern times, but the blending of the sociological and the personal makes it both large and small.

Franzen has been called pompous and an elitist, for his literary acumen, his writing style, and his anger at the novel being perceived as a less-than-serious enterprise. However, his latest work speaks for itself, and its near-universal praise shows what a lot of readers have known all along, and is stated perfectly by Grossman: "He's one of contemporary fiction's great populists and a key ally of the beleaguered modern reader."

Works Cited:
Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan Franzen.

O'Rourke, Meghan. "Can a Woman Be a 'Great American Novelist?'" Slate Magazine. September 14, 2010.

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