September 2010

Paul Charles Griffin


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen desperately wants to be relevant. Yet, when he described Otto Brentwood, from Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters, in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?”, he could very well have been describing himself: “As an unashamed elitist, an avatar of the printed word, and a genuinely solitary man, he belongs to a species so endangered as to be all but irrelevant in an age of electronic democracy.” Indeed, the entire technological matrix of our culture -- TV, movies, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. -- seems designed to obliterate the relevancy of the novelist. Yet Franzen has doggedly persisted. His third novel The Corrections struck a collective nerve in 2001. Now, in his new and much anticipated family drama Freedom, Franzen wrestles with the decade of George W. Bush, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and environmentalism. In his effort to weave together the public and domestic spheres, he makes the political personal.

Reading Freedom, one would hardly remember that Franzen once worshiped the postmodernists, that he wrote so admiringly of Gaddis’s The Recognitions or mimicked the conspiratorial megaplotting of Pynchon. That he was a postmodernist himself. Like The Corrections, this new book is pure social realism, the stuff of Dickens, Wharton, and James. Freedom is a domestic novel of, in Franzen’s own language, “at-homeness.” (In an interview in BOMB magazine in 2001, speaking of The Corrections, Franzen said, “Within American literature you find the venturing-forthness in Twain and Hemingway, the at-homeness in Wharton and O’Connor. The dichotomy is gender-specified to some extent. But I feel like I’m essentially participating in one of those swings, a swing away from the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing, which is how you can view Pynchon, as adventures for boys out in the world. At a certain point, you get tired of all that. You come home.”)

The only postmodern element here is purely structural: a sizable portion of the novel is the “autobiography” of its main character, the charming Patty Berglund, whose therapist has suggested she write down the story of her life. In a clever twist, the actual text of this autobiography shows up on the scene at a crucial moment in the novel proper, causing a devastating wave of disclosure and revelation. But even Patty’s authorial third-person voice in her “autobiography” strikes a remarkably realist tone, replete with pitch-perfect dialogue and astute atmospheric detail.

Franzen’s career arc then marks the end of something, namely, late postmodernism. The seismic shift in Franzen’s work from Strong Motion through The Corrections and into Freedom represents a triumph of voice over style, of clarity and substance over virtuosic wordsmithing. Freedom relies not on prose pyrotechnics but rather on straightforward narrative to offer meaning to our otherwise unwieldy, perplexing existence. But is Freedom the beginning of something new or does it mark a formerly postmodern writer’s compromised retreat to the more traditional and palatable realm of social realism? Is this work breaking any new ground that acolytes will imitate, as Franzen himself imitated his heroes, or does it, in its earnest yearning to be relevant, in its author’s conspicuous desire to be read, represent rather a kind of caving in to the market demand for relatable stories and recognizable characters? In other words, is it possible that Franzen, our Elite and Serious Novelist, in his heroic battle to be heard above the despair-inducing din of television and movies, is it possible that Mr. Difficult has sold out?

It must be hard to be Jonathan Franzen. He sees clearly the problems in the world, and he also has sufficient powers of reason to see their solutions. Yet, as a Serious Novelist, he does not have the kind of cultural authority to really do anything with his wisdom. The best he can do is create a morally perfect character, set him loose in a 560-page novel, and hope that the people who still read novels will tell everybody else -- the people who really need to hear the message, the people skipping choir practice to go to the movies. The exemplary Walter Berglund is Franzen’s Good Man, the devoted family man of humble Midwestern origins who puts himself through law school, then, after a career in the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, sets out to Washington to Make a Difference by playing power environmental politics with Bush-Cheney-linked businessmen in attempts to create a cerulean warbler reserve in West Virginia.

Yet, saving the warbler is not Walter’s primary moral message. His most pressing and ambitious plan is to bring greater public awareness to the serious global problems of overpopulation and overdevelopment:

We just want to make having babies more of an embarrassment. Like smoking’s an embarrassment. Like being obese is an embarrassment. Like driving an Escalade would be an embarrassment if it weren’t for the kiddie argument [“They’re buying them to protect their precious babies”]. Like living in a four-thousand-square-foot house on a two-acre lot should be an embarrassment.

Walter is above all else a reasonable man. He wants to tell the people of the world that we must change our ways -- or else. That the American Dream of the picket fence on the two-acre lot is problematic. But the American public does not want to listen because the American public does not value reasonableness, rather, it values cool. Enter Richard Katz, Franzen’s rock-star creation and Walter’s best buddy from college. Katz is the kind of man who believes it is his destiny to stick his penis in as many women as possible, the kind of man for whom “it was generally his policy never to apologize at all.” Katz, an utterly responsibility-free man based in Jersey City, slowly builds an impressive career for himself as a righteous musician. Guys like Jeff Tweedy secretly love his stuff. Then he hits the big time -- he becomes famous. All along, he looks on longingly and admiringly at his old friends. He sees Patty and Walter as the epitome of Goodness; Walter and Patty see Richard as the definition of Cool. Throughout the novel, they learn how badly they need each other in more ways than one. The ways in which Franzen contorts and manipulates this central triangle of friendship keep the reader’s expectations upended.

Meanwhile, Franzen brings Walter’s messages of land preservation and population control to the forefront of the action. Stylistically, Freedom resembles The Corrections -- the interweaving point-of-views that leapfrog each other through the chapters; the clean, lucid prose; the straightforward, faithful storytelling -- but its themes mark a return to the fertile terrain of Strong Motion, Franzen’s second novel. There Franzen tackled the politics of environmentalism and corporate corruption. In the more youthful work -- in an interview, Franzen figuratively said he was “approximately 18” when he wrote Strong Motion -- the heroine, Renée Seitchek is utterly and naively idealistic in her quest to reveal corporate malfeasance at Sweeting-Aldren Industries, the proud producers of napalm and pesticides. Seitchek, a Harvard seismologist, is convinced that Sweeting-Aldren is causing a series of earthquakes around the Boston area by pumping its toxic waste underground. The novel’s plot, echoing Pynchon and Delillo, is shady and conspiratorial. One is especially hard-pressed to believe the auspicious connections amongst the swirling subplots. At the same time, Franzen’s archetypal narrative is present: A do-gooder hero must save the earth from environmental degradation at the hands of evil corporations, an inept government, and a deaf public.

In Freedom, both Franzen’s hero and plotting have matured. Walter Berglund is aware that he must do business with “Bush cronies” in his bid to create his warbler reserve. Yet, in his Apollonian rationality, Walter has the entire, complex solution mapped out: A portion of the land, yes, will be given over to the (seemingly unconscionable [for a liberal]) mountaintop removal of coal; the locals will be luxuriously relocated to nicer digs down the hill; after the mining, the land will be carefully restored through the judicious replanting of trees, etc.; and lastly, the warbler reserve will be born, creating a pristine, natural space forever free from further human exploitation. From the left, die-hard environmentalists picket Walter, protesting the mountaintop removal; from the right, the cronies find a way not only to again make a fortune mining much of the land but also to make Walter feel alienated and angry. Walter’s moderate in-the-middleness is layered and compelling. Unlike Seitchek, a throwback hero of pure idealism, Walter Berglund is a modern hero of reasonable compromise.

Meanwhile, Franzen no longer relies on earthquakes and conspiracy to tie everything together. To that end, he uses the economics of war. Walter’s son Joey gets himself terribly mixed up with a dubious contractor and his scheme to sell rusty Pladsky A10 truck parts to the U.S. Army in Iraq. And lo and behold, Joey and his contractor partner are dealing with none other than LBI, the very same conglomerate which Walter himself is working with on the reserve project (!). A terribly serendipitous twist, yes, but at least the entire plot doesn’t hinge on seismicity.

Ultimately, what makes Freedom’s multi-pronged plot work is its subtlety. Franzen wrestles with the vast economic, consumerist, and environmental problems facing our world, and, through his characters, he supplies us with a series of complexities and compromises. For example, Walter, who preaches “One Child Good, No Child Better,” already has two kids and finds himself wanting a third late in life. Also, sure, LBI is deceptive and exploitative and other awful adjectives, but it’s also making Walter’s dream of a warbler reserve possible. By folding the half-bad within the mostly good or the vaguely virtuous within the seemingly unscrupulous, Franzen creates a complex, verisimilar world, offering a credible version of how change actually happens, or at least how it could conceivably happen, and in doing so, he includes every disheartening wrench in the plan, every inevitable glitch in the matrix.

As Franzen’s plot churns toward its climax, the author performs his usual tricks: virtuosic public outbursts delivered by major characters (“WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET! A CANCER ON THE PLANET!”); tenacious take-downs of the usual institutional villains such as organized religious and consumer capitalism (“In Walter’s view, there was no greater force for evil in the world... than the Catholic Church” and “We can finally see Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop for what they really are: as manufacturers of winter-green Chiclets”); and a recurring chorus of authorial diatribes against the government, here, the Bush administration (“the Siamese-twin fundamentalists of Bush and bin Laden” or, even more bluntly, “Bush II, the worst regime of all”). There are a few satisfying Corrections echoes, too, including shady business dealings in far-flung countries and an unforgettable poop scene. Certainly some readers will be put off by the intensity of Franzen’s embedded politics, and his prose at these moments can be too in-your-face. But, to his credit, Franzen has set out to be relevant, and he deserves recognition for writing a novel that at once so overtly and subtly tackles the Big Issues of our time.

In the end, Freedom is a sprawling, composite novel less about politics and more about family. About marriage and love, about sex and depression. About family politics. Indeed, when Franzen writes about the domestic, at-home stuff, he allows his prose a touch of the poetry that so infused his earlier novels. For example, Walter discovers he ultimately needs “a more dully and enduringly discontented situation to struggle against and fashion an existence within.” Or, for Joey, “a new and more grownup world of love had revealed itself: as if there were still no end of inner doors for them to open.” And ultimately it’s Patty Berglund who leaves the largest footprint on the reader’s heart.

The novel’s opening chapters about Patty are nearly perfect in their portrait of a young woman’s journey towards motherhood. The tragic, hidden truths of her youth; the mistake-prone, confusing years of college; and the at once blissful and difficult years of her marriage are all laid out in an efficient, well-crafted, short story-like manner. The nearly two hundred pages of Patty’s “autobiography” reveal a person struggling to resolve her inner conflicts: to be both good and free, or you might say, to be both good and cool. The dialectic of pure goodness and cool freedom neatly embodied by Walter and Richard, respectively, also plays itself out within Patty’s troubled psyche. After a successful college career in basketball, and a great, long stretch of motherhood (though there were problems with Joey), she battles with years of depression and with what she slowly begins to see as a lifetime of mistakes. It’s Patty’s pain that pulls the reader back. It’s Patty’s prose voice that serves as the novel’s throughline. And, ultimately, it’s her story that will sell the book. After all, Patty is the kind of person who still reads novels, and Franzen knows it (he even has her passionately reading War and Peace).

Which brings me back to the question of why Franzen writes like he does now. Franzen’s transformation from a “Status” novelists (one who suffers for his Great and Difficult Works of Art and pays no mind to his audience) into what he calls a “Contract” novelist) one whose primary concern is connecting to his readers and giving them a pleasurable reading experience) is now complete. First, consider his new prose. In novel writing, there’s an inverse relationship between demanding prose and gripping narrative -- the more you have of one, the less you have of the other (compare, say, Ulysses with A Tale of Two Cities). Take the following line from Strong Motion that I’ll always love: “The perfect gift for the man who had everything was a quarter-ounce bottle of feminism.” That’s funny and clever and true: a bon mot. I don’t remember how exactly the line moved the story along, but I do remember the line. Franzen’s prose in Freedom, though, is so direct and clean-as-water as to be less underline-able, less quotable. I’m not claiming that gnarly, jewel-filled, avant-garde prose is necessarily better than this new streamlined, narrative-driven stuff, I’m merely pointing out the fairly obvious difference between the two, and noting that I did long for the old heady wordplay, the daring digressions and bold linguistic experimentations of Strong Motion. In short, reading the new Franzen made me aware of my lingering, deep-seated bias towards experimental language novels and the concomitant bias against traditional narrative novels. There’s still a part of me that needs to belong to the Club of Difficult Books, just the way Franzen needed to belong to that same club when he plowed through Gaddis’s The Recognitions. So watching Franzen move into the Club of Book Club Books does give me some pain, but I suppose that’s personal.

In committing himself to a new style, Franzen has learned to hide his art, like Raymond Carver did, or like Alice Munro does. He tucks all his poetic prose prizes directly into the souls and journeys of his characters, of Patty, Walter and Richard. The brilliance lies in the complexity of the whole social tapestry that Franzen gives us. The insights are now psychological. For example, Walter may be the novel’s Good and Reasonable Man, but he is also a man who lives entirely in his head, who over-intellectualizes everything, even his own wife’s pain. And Patty may be the overly-competitive, morally-compromised mother who loses her own son to the neighbors, but she is also the central figure of love towards which all the others gravitate. Franzen goes to great lengths to show how family both defines and limits us, how it agonizes but then ultimately cradles us. And if we relate to Patty’s internal saga, or to Walter’s rage and obliviousness, or to Joey’s young love or Richard’s need to be cool, then that’s a good thing. Sure, somewhere, John Barth might be snickering, but getting the reader to relate and identify is Franzen’s whole m.o. now. After all, that’s the whole point of the big social Contract novel.

Clearly Jonathan Franzen is an avatar of the printed word. And even though he’s switched camps, he can’t be accused of so-called selling out. He writes what he writes, what he feels needs to be written. The truth is, as he quotes Don Delillo in his Harper’s essay, “The novel is whatever the novelists are doing at a given time.” Franzen is focusing on narratives that are vital to the body politic. He reminds me of Dave Eggers, who debuted with a self-conscious postmodern memoir, but now writes in a documentarian fashion about our very real problems, about war in Africa and injustice in New Orleans. Franzen bothers to write a novel because he believes his work can affect the public discourse in a real and substantial way. He lives and breathes and works in order to be relevant. And Freedom is as relevant as it gets: it places our cultural problems, particularly our environmental crisis, front and center. It’s a masterful novel of fully-realized characters, satisfying plot twists, and engaging politics. For Franzen’s sake, and for all our sake, I wish him readers. And if not a legion of readers, then I wish for Franzen the next best thing: that his very, very pertinent novel be turned into a movie -- a big summer blockbuster starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts as our beloved Berglunds.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374158460
576 Pages