Unexpectedly, B.R. Myer’s negative review in The Atlantic prompted me to read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The sentence that caught my attention was Myer’s contention that the novel’s flaws will be defended on the ground that it is a novel about commercialism and about the Iraq War. Truth be told, I would like to see a serious novel on those subject matters as they are topics that need to be examined by American writers, primarily because American corporations excel at exporting a rampant consumer culture abroad…and well, the Iraq War, the reason goes without saying. Reading Mr. Myers’ always-entertaining vitriol, I decided that perhaps I had been unfairly biased in deciding not to read Freedom. Perhaps Franzen had learned to master the sentence, as some laudatory reviewers described, but perhaps, most of all, he could explain the current state of American politics worth a decade of reflection since 9/11.
For the many who have read reviews of Freedom or read the book itself, the plot does not need to be described. But for the sake of those who have not, I will describe it briefly (please be aware in advance there will be spoilers):
The Berglunds are the kind of gentrified family everyone wants on their suburban block: socially and environmentally aware Walter, perky Patty who is always willing to babysit the neighborhood kids, and their two bright offsprings. Alas, their son Joey who is naturally anti-authoritarian, takes up sex at a young age with the girl next door, and soon decamps to live with her Republican, somewhat white-trash family. Mortified by her failure to become the perfect mother she always wanted to be — to prove she was not at all like her politician mother — Patty goes on a drinking binge followed by sex with Walter’s best friend, Richard, an aging cutting-edge rock musician. Walter quits his job as a lawyer and becomes unwittingly involved in a shady environmental scam for an energy tycoon with ties to the Bush administration. Eventually Walter discovers Patty’s betryal, has sex with his assistant, and the Berglunds fall apart.
The relevant political portion of the novel concerns Walter’s compromise of environmental idealism to try to effect environmental change through corrupt money and Joey’s dealings with the same parties in selling broken truck parts for Iraq as a subcontractor to the government. One must realize that Joey is all of twenty years old in this portion of the novel, a junior in college. One’s jaw drops because the details leading to Joey transformation from an unsatisfactory son to a corrupt subcontractor at the age of twenty is so cursorily filled-in that the escapade seems entirely implausible.
Politics is dirty. War is dirty. These are facts seen on the news nearly daily and from which I shirk away. Whether the lives at risk are those of Americans, Iraqis, Afghanis, or wild animals, we as a people have allowed such decimation to occur that we might understandably shy away from fully examining the consequences, even at the risk of worse consequences. This does not seem like news to me. This seems the daily state of mental gymnastics since the Iraq War began. Therefore, I beg to ask why Mr. Franzen cannot offer me something more worthy of consideration in a 500 plus page book set in close type.
I feel that it is imperative I receive satisfaction in some way or another from the politics ponderously and morally reflected on within this book as I will not receive any from the characters whose flatness betray a certain lack of authorial imagination. The dialogue within the novel is painful with each character sounding like another. When Walter, in his more youthful whimsical days, thinks to call a short film on bitterns Bitternness, we are given to understand that bleak bitterness is the central moving force of this long-winded novel.
The problem with using such a relentless force though is the characters, too, seem subject to the writer’s harsh satire. The character who seemed most like a caricature, or so it struck me, is Patty with her lengthy confession in a rhetoric that seemed entirely that of the author’s but which was ostensibly her therapeutic self-analysis. Throughout the reading of the confession, I couldn’t help but hear Palin’s inflections in my head, so painful is the stretch at a common language. The one nod to “difficult” literary devices here is that Patty describes herself and all her narrative in the third person, but rather than an intriguing structural device, I fear this might be mainly due to Franzen’s inability to write in any other style other than one shaped by his own conscious.
This is the problem with the novel, whether it be the aspects of politics, characters, dialogue, setting, believability, or language: never once can I escape Franzen’s conscious to delve in that of the novel’s world. This novel does not have a world. It only has referents to the world we already occupy. Twitter is never described; it just is Twitter. Airports, horses, sex, human beings, birds, weather, houses, Judaism, New York, Minneapolis, Georgetown…all these things are referred to, not described in any visual or thick manner that might allow for anyone thirty years from now to understand what Franzen might be writing about.
In his well-known book of essays, Franzen wrote this revealing bit:
Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of not being, the each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them. If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialized religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications?
It is a common complaint that this has come to be, that the internet has spawned millions of individuals happily living each in their solipsistic and hermetically sealed world. Yet, what is flawed with Franzen’s logic is that art contrives to fulfill that same need. As the reader, viewer, or listener of art, I observe, listen, read: in other words, I take in to myself the outside world and integrate that into an ever-shaping worldview. This is different than the internet where one puts out into the virtual world what one thinks. Perhaps, it is more active, but the internet is flawed for not being a solitary reflective space, for all of its solipsistic and hermetic nature.
But a more important aspect of art which Franzen’s argument foregoes is what Elaine Scarry calls a radical decentering upon encountering something of beauty:
they [beautiful things, that is] act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space, or they form “ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else’s sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.
Although Scarry’s essay is on beauty, I would argue that one should extend it to the functions of art. While art does not have to be necessarily beautiful, it should involve the reader/observer’s engagement and be a decentering.
It is true that I was decentered during my reading of Freedom, but I no more understood Walter and Patty Berglund at the end of the novel than at the beginning. These are consciouses whose motivations are ascribed in the shallowest manner possible. Patty’s life is shaped by her anger at her successful parents whom she believes neglected her emotionally as a child, as well as her competitive streak. Walter, at least, is given somewhat more dimension with a goal outside himself, the environment, but even that is self-serving as fuel for his need for anger at Patty’s betrayal. The characters suffer oddly from too fulsome of explanations. We are told when Patty is self-denigrating, when she is sad, when she finally understands her parents and are at peace with them. It seems that Franzen never trusts the readers to interpret, to engage with the characters and come to his/her own conclusions.
When Walter has his minor crisis in public after self-medicating himself and rants at an armory plant about the wasteful habits of the middle-class, one is reminded of Franzen’s own vitriol against middle-brow reading habits of Oprah’s book club. Indeed, has Mr. Franzen gone the route of Woody Allen of justifying his past actions through his art and then inflicting it on his readers? I bring this up as Freedom, for all its ambition of scope and desire to become The Great American novel has a habit of belittling the working class. From Walter’s siblings and fathers to his struggling neighbors to the people he relocates during his shady environmental dealings, not one poor person in the novel has a conscious worth delineating. It is a form of negation so breathtakingly demeaning that it bears note. Once I went to a photography exhibit in a warehouse on the wrong side of Chicago and saw a cluster of young twenty-somethings laughing. The photo in view was a man surrounded by taxidermy and rifles with his wife holding a little lapdog. The photo was obviously meant to highlight the stupidity of those who hunt, to bring these people into view for us art-viewing urbanites to sneer with delighted awareness at our own superiority. Franzen’s treatment of working class people, particularly when Walter is kicked and beaten at the armory plant, evokes that same petty, painful and stupid emotion.
Finally, I want to close this post with a mention of Franzen’s famous stand on social realism novels. Socially conscious and realistic novels are not unique to the American tradition. It is a transcontinental movement that spanned Russia, France, England, America and much more. It’s also noteworthy that it arose simultaneously with the use of sentimentality as a political and literary device to bring social consciousness to light on matters such as slavery, alcohol, child labor, poverty, and much more. The sentiment was used to show the pitiable condition to which a particular character has been subjected due to politics and careless lawmaking. However, the mechanisms of the Berglund’s misery is not that of law or politics but of a malaise born from high expectations as privileged, college-educated and middle class Americans. This is not a novel that springs from political needs but one where politics is used as an explication of the private misery of one family. In this regard, perhaps it shows the most awful part of American politics, that it so often does take a backseat to our own individual needs.