This is a sneaky post I shouldn’t really be writing – I should be doing useful things in preparation for the start of term. But then this is a book I bought on impulse on the weekend, having heard such diversity of opinion over it that I could not resist. I’d never read Jonathan Franzen before, but he feels quintessentially American to me; he’s similar to so many American novelists, his troubled teens sounding like Tom Wolfe’s in I Am Charlotte Simmonds, his implosive marriages like Richard Yates’, his disaffected males like Don DeLillo’s, his snarky-witty tone a cross between David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth, and perhaps most of all he reminds me of Michael Chabon, without the literary flourishes. I don’t know about the stand-out artist of his generation, but he’s certainly a representative writer from smack bang in the middle of it.
Unsurprisingly, then, he takes his subject as contemporary America and the lives of the comfortably-situated middle classes. Freedom focuses on a family, Patty and Walter Berglund, who are politically correct, environmentally-aware, friendly, wholesome types, and their two outwardly admirable children, Jessica and Joey. Although in fact the image belies a much messier, darker reality shot through with disaffection and frustration. Assuming multiple narrative perspectives, Franzen deconstructs the family, following it through meltdown. If this sounds gloomy, it isn’t really; in its way, it is quite funny, even if the humour seems to encourage us to laugh at the characters rather than with them. But it is also very explanatory, very sharp, at times a tad preachy, and fierce in its politics.
To enter the narrative is to become caught up in a highly particular voice, eloquent and intelligent but emotionally cold, and one of the problems with this voice is that it is used across all the multiple perspectives, even though they include a supposedly autobiographical account (written in the third person!) and a great deal of free indirect style. In consequence, two things: the narrative is blanketingly homogenous, despite inhabiting a series of very different mentalities, and it is difficult to judge the characters. They all flow seamlessly out of Franzen’s voice, with no insertion of narrative distance – so is the intention to promote their ideology or to undermine it? It’s very unclear. I’m not saying that’s a problem, just that it’s unclear.
The emotional coldness is very interesting. When I think of the books I’ve read recently – Sarah Water’s The Night Watch, which will rip the beating heart from your body without the tiniest shred of sentimentality involved, Austen’s Emma with its pervasive, profound compassion, Orwell’s 1984 with its nightmarish darkness, it becomes all the clearer how far away Franzen stays from the murky depths and the scintillating highs of his characters’ experience. Take for instance the character of Patty Berglund, whose autobiographical account, written as I mentioned in a gender-neutral third person, makes up a fair chunk of the narrative. Something terrible happens to Patty in her adolescence, compounding a problematic childhood as the relatively stupid, sporty one in a family of eccentric creative types. This is the toxic root to her behavioural problems, but Franzen doesn’t want to get involved in what it really means for a woman to suffer terrifically low self-esteem. The emotional punch of anxiety, anguish, passion, possessiveness, these are irrelevant to the narrator. Patty’s story is flattened out, the incident forgotten, her ‘crimes’ no worse than any woman might commit in a dissatisfactory marriage and yet she is viewed with a jaundiced eye. Patty’s a messy person, but who isn’t? Without a vital emotional aura surrounding Patty’s story, it’s hard to know what to make of it, whether we should condemn or sympathise.
There are two possibilities here. One is that Franzen just can’t write women and I fear that banal explanation may be justified. The competitive rivalry between Patty’s husband Walter and his best friend, Richard Katz, is invested with much more authenticity and detail, far more beautifully and realistically described than Patty’s more dramatic experiences. And the narrative is dominated by the masculine imagination – evidenced by the preoccupations with politics and music. These are the jealously guarded province of the male writer – I have yet to see a woman write a political novel that is well received, or indeed to write about music in a technical or judgmental way, discussing what constitutes good taste. So I definitely get the hoo-hah that arose over the glowing reviews, as this is very much a book written by a boy. The emotions Franzen will do include competitiveness, ambition, pride, and the endless jostling for position of the would-be alpha male, all very testosterone-based.
The other possibility is more interesting. I’ve said before that this is a homogenous narrative, and it extends to the characters themselves. I’m intrigued by how much they all watch and police each other, ready and waiting to condemn any deviation from a certain ideal of personality. For instance, look at the way that transgression in this novel is such a timid and bloodless affair. The main agent for the dark side is Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend and resolutely non-mainstream musician. Katz doesn’t treat women well (surprise), takes drugs, can’t settle down and his punishment for all this is to record, by mistake, an album that’s a huge hit. To show the world what for, he returns to making roofing decks and (continues) being an insolent son of a bitch. Well, that’s truly awful, isn’t it? There seems so little possibility for the characters to be… different. Truly, madly, deeply different, radically different. They are all locked inside themselves and frustrated by the other characters in any attempt to break out. Is this what the combination of the cult of the individual and liberal humanism has brought us to? An ideology of normalization, in which everyone belonging to this particular class must conform themselves to a straitjacket of identity, permanently optimistic, achieving, attractive, do-gooding? It’s no wonder if altering an economy based on growth seems impossible – growing oneself, wanting more, wanting better, is one of the few desires that the characters are actually permitted.
So for me, the emotional coldness may on this reading be a kind of social commentary on the reduced range of emotions that this layer of American society allows itself; that Franzen’s vision of his culture, however unwittingly, shows people who long to change but cannot truly embrace a different way of being, because the longing to be ‘normal’ is too strong. In that case the freedom of the title is an ironic one. The characters cling to their idea of freedom but do not know how to live, do not know what to do with themselves, unsurprisingly when their existential range is so small. I’ve only once reviewed a book halfway through reading it (Lolita) and that didn’t go too well, so I’ll have to eat my words if something surprising happens in the next 200 pages. But that’s the view so far.