by Tim Jacobs
For those who like their fiction burly and tough, and have an abiding fascination with the difficult (to use Yeats’s phrase), Jonathan Franzen isn’t your man—he eschews the difficult and has declaimed in an essay on William Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult,” that literary fiction needn’t be challenging to be resplendent art. His latest novel, Freedom, exemplifies this point of view, as it breaks no new ground in the area of narrative technique—the book, in fact, very much recalls its predecessor, The Corrections (FSG, 2001), which won the National Book Award for its well-written and accessible portrayal of the dysfunction of an American family.
Franzen’s fiction is best when it explores relationships. He is good at dramatizing the trivial, tricky, tender, and toxic aspects of our personal relationships and understands the complex ways we fall in and out of love with ourselves, others, pursuits. He skillfully articulates the intricate ways that relationships are held together like a Macgyver invention, with found twine and chewed Juicy Fruit. And he knows how to create compelling characters that feel like real people who suffer silently.
Freedom charts the rise and fall of a typical, middle class St. Paul, Minnesota, family, the Berglunds: Walter and Patty and their kids, Joey and Jessica. While the Berglunds have plenty of typical familial discord, little actually happens in the way of plot. Franzen, it seems, is a believer in the dictum that character is plot. It’s primarily the story of Walter and Patty’s courtship, marriage, infidelity (Patty’s), separation (six years), and eventual reconciliation after Walter’s post-marriage love, his executive assistant, Lalitha, is killed in a car accident—the dramatizing of which is farcical and syrupy. En route, plenty of neighbors fill in the background, as do the modest doings of the children.
While the novel is putatively about the Berglunds, this is singularly Patty’s story. Much of the narrative is delivered through an autobiographical manuscript that Patty writes—tediously in the third person about herself—at the supposed urging of her therapist, who never appears in the novel (neither does any mention of the therapeutic sessions, oddly enough, for someone who is supposedly depressed). After only twenty-six pages of perfunctory introductory material in which an array of largely unimportant characters are paraded, we are immediately forced into Patty’s turgid, self-indulgent autobiography, Mistakes were Made, for 161 dreary pages—and for another thirty pages for her “Conclusion” later on—that are nearly enough to put off the adventurous reader.
In the autobiography, we get Patty unplugged: we understand that she’s the misfit of her family because she’s an accomplished high school and college basketball player in an unathletic family; we learn that she is date-raped during high school; we follow her through her college years at the University of Minnesota; we get her jejune infatuation with Richard Katz, Walter’s college roomie (and, later, a famous rock star); and Walter Berglund’s infatuation with Patty, as well as the courtship, wedding, and blahblahblah of the Berglunds’ collective life. It’s pretty dry reading, of course, because Patty is no writer, and Franzen couldn’t dress up Patty’s prose because then it wouldn’t come off as Patty’s. Still, the voice of the autobiography and the unnamed third-person narrator’s voice in the novel proper are almost indistinguishable, which is a glaring stylistic flaw. But the main problem with the autobiography is that Franzen overrelies on it to deliver the bulk of the novel’s events and backstory. It’s unsubtle writing and a tired metafictional conceit that makes the novel feel as though it was composed in haste, which is disappointing considering the nine-year wait since The Corrections and that Franzen himself has remarked in interviews that he wrote Freedom in a year.
The rest of the novel is devoted largely to Walter’s machinations to protect the cerulean warbler, a songbird close to extinction, through modest federal political intrigue, lobbying, and a Virginia coalmine (it’s complicated); and Walter’s son Joey’s devious move to partner with a shadowy figure to supply used—that is, unserviceable—trucks and parts for the Iraq War effort, which makes Joey a fortune but causes him a good deal of guilt. He attempts to assuage his guilt with a large and morally ambiguous donation to his dad’s political cause. Pushing Wimsatt and Beardsley aside for a second, it’s at times interesting to try and divine what Franzen thinks himself about our self-interest via Freedom. The novel feels occasionally angry, and yet the easy and happy dénouement undermines any implicit critique it may be after.
So readers may ask: what is the point of it all? The quotidian doings of any family become tedious quickly; there must be some larger obtainable point for this exhaustive engagement with the Berglunds and their rock star chum. Unfortunately, the title doesn’t provide much of a clue: “freedom” doesn’t get enough attention for the reader to take it up meaningfully, though the word/concept is deployed explicitly about a dozen times or so. Are we being asked to consider what it means and how we obtain it in our “everything is permitted” era? Are we being enjoined to consider our own freedom via the freedom the characters have to screw up endlessly and yet make whole their lives again? Possibly.
Franzen’s work can be classified as American social realism; he writes large novels that satirize contemporary America, replete with all the recognizable markers and issues of our time. The problem is that their engagement with the cultural issues—here, the Iraq War, the Bush-Cheney administration, special interest groups, the environment, materialism, catty neighbors, relationships—is superficial and stale. There is, of course, real artistic value in dramatizing our silliness and ignorance at a slight remove, but the trotting out of our cultural ills quickly becomes a litany of familiarity.
Franzen’s pal David Foster Wallace once remarked in an interview that “ (what’s engaging and artistically real is, taking it as axiomatic that the present is grotesquely materialistic, how is it that we as human beings still have the capacity for joy, charity, genuine connections, for stuff that doesn’t have a price?” This is the missing element in Franzen’s angry social satire. In Freedom we get the familiar discussions of houses, renovations, Volvos, generational anger, politics, war, and the geist of cultural emptiness. But to dramatize the ways that, as Wallace described, we can as human beings push our nostrils above our cretinous little concerns—that we don’t hear much of in Freedom.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010