Saturday, September 18, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

“To imagine a man wholly destitute of freedom is the same thing as to imagine a man destitute of life.”

These words come not from Jonathan Franzen‘s heralded new novel but from the novel that keeps getting mentioned in it - Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Many times, Tolstoy reminds us that free will is something that diminishes the more we become entangled in the affairs of others, because their individual and collective senses of freedom are inescapably tied to ours.

The question of freedom, and “Freedom,” is ultimately what it means. Franzen’s novel has gotten plenty of attention - and backlash - since its publication earlier this month. Like its namesake, Franzen’s work will probably mean many things to many different people. To me, it was an endlessly frustrating reading experience.

“Freedom” bears more than a passing structural resemblance to “The Corrections,” Franzen’s 2001 book that earned him the praise and ire of Oprah Winfrey, and the reputation he enjoys today. “The Corrections” began with a scene-setting set piece to introduce us to its family, the Lamberts, then individual sections that focused on each member - the parental couple and their three children, Chip, Gary and Denise. For example, the section that dealt with Chip, and presented the self-important literary “hump” to the book, was derided by critics as being a trial to navigate before unlocking the rest of the rich novel. The other sections fleshed out our expectations. The book concluded with a bittersweet grace note epilogue that ties all of its characters together, “corrected” by each other and the events in their lives.

“Freedom” begins with the Berglunds, another Midwestern family, this time with two children - if one doesn’t count the passive-aggressive father Walter and the neurotic obsessive mother Patty. Instead of a third child, we have Walter’s best friend Richard, the secret repository of Patty’s sexual fantasies going all the way back to college.

The “hump” section of “Freedom” is Patty’s story, written by her for her therapist, with Patty referring to herself in the third person. More than a few readers have pointed out that Patty sounds a lot like Franzen stylistically, which reveals one of the major flaws of this very ambitious book. “Freedom” offers many observations, but the reader is not at all sure sometimes where these observations are coming from. Are they from the characters, or Franzen? Does this matter? It does when the tone of the book continues to become and more misanthropic as the book progresses. One sees the rest of the world - with all its other people, with all their disgusting otherness - as a travesty, a hindrance, a check on the characters’ freedom, to the point where the reader is left wondering if this is characterization, an artistic pose, or the author’s lack of regard for the rest of us mere mortals. One is reminded of the couple at the other table in the restaurant who continue to eat while cursing the food, the waiter, the other diners, etc.

We move through Walter’s story, Richard’s story, and find that the three adults are supposed to remind us of Tolstoy’s troika of Prince Andrei, Pierre and Natasha from “War and Peace.” More on that later. We then move on to Joey and Jessica, the Burglund’s two children. Jessica, a perfect liberal, is forever at odds with Joey, the Republican dolt. Joey’s chief occupation is running to and from Connie, the neighbor who very obviously would put her head through a plate glass window for him if he wished. Jessica exists to make her father happy, in the way that Patty dotes on Joey and is forever frustrated with him.

The party affiliations also bring up another gripe. There’s a disturbing political morality to all of this that is constantly off-putting. More often than not, Republican is shorthand in this novel for evil, just as religion is wrapped up in politics, and rendered either bad or annoying. All of this is fine for a campaign commercial, but this is supposed to be art. If the Great American Novel can be boiled down to a simple equation of Liberal Democrat= virtue, vision, intellectual, true, good - and Conservative Republican = mean, viscous, evil, stupid, greedy - then the field of candidates for the Novel has simultaneously gotten a lot bigger and much shallower. George W. Bush broods over this novel like a volcano menacing a sleeping city. Franzen seems to forget that his audience lived through the last ten years just like him. The familiar and tiresome gripes of the Iraq War, etc. have been rehearsed so many times that they lose any power they might have emotionally or intellectually. We get it, Jon. You didn’t agree with Bush v. Gore.

But the novel has many virtues. One is its sprawling inventiveness. Franzen gives us the history of the Berglunds going back several generations, which illustrates how much of these characters’ decisions are as much genetic predispositions as responses to the moment. Another is his use of the environment to describe how far the characters self-regard will clash with their regard for others. As the novel progresses, one sees that the inspiration for Walter’s interest in the hardly-endangered bird he hopes to preserve is merely his own long-checked ambition.

Franzen is also good at illustrating the divide between the elder Berglunds, boomers that they are with all the obligatory neuroses, with their children, who are destined not to understand them as much as they are misunderstood. Though the Berglunds have labored mightily to give their children a sense of freedom, the children don’t appreciate it, in the way that each generation squanders and ignores the lessons of the last one. This is one of the endearing, enduring qualities of the book. Franzen gives the reader fully-realized characters in ways that many novelists can only aspire to, with a rich leavening of information about weapons contracting, nature preserves, mountain top removal mining, and the politics of music. But he doesn't lose sight of the human. Toward the end of all of these moments, Patty's mother Joyce tells her, "I guess my life hasn't always been happy, or easy, or exactly what I wanted. At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they'll break my heart." Many readers will nod their heads, having heard them before, or said them.

But he forgets something crucial, and that is that the reader desperately wants some reason to believe in these people, to like them. The Berglunds and the universe around them grow tedious after a few hundred pages, chiefly because there is very little to actually like about them. If they ring recognizable for stretches, it isn’t discomfort that makes them tiresome but how little we sense Franzen thinks of them. And somehow, of us.

For all the comparisons to “War and Peace,” the endless passages about freedom that pockmark this book reminded me of Tolstoy’s other great work, “Anna Karenina.” Levin, contemplating his impending marriage to Kitty, muses that he is about to lose his freedom, and then smiles at the question. “Freedom? Why freedom? Happiness is only in loving and desiring, thinking her desires, her thoughts - that is, no freedom at all - that’s what happiness is!”

Franzen seems to be telling us something similar to Tolstoy - that freedom is something we define for ourselves, and our conception of it defines us. But Tolstoy’s definition was a radically Christian one - that freedom spent on the self is squandered and meaningless. The illustration that Franzen provides us is the negative of Tolstoy’s, and our time with his book feels as misspent as a life spent only unto itself.
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