Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

With Freedom, Jonathan Franzen has written a poignant literary work about the coming of age in the Midwest of the 1970s and 80s, the discontents of family and human relationships, the Sisyphean search and struggle for identity in a postmodern world, and the confrontation of a chaotic society large without – seemingly – descending into insincere, excessively sentimental pathos and narcissism. The novel even has a “compelling” section about a lonely middle-aged man finding solace and peace of mind in bird watching. Yes, Franzen has written this book with passion, conviction, intelligence, credibility, honesty, and resonance beyond the actual events and characters described. Unfortunately, I don’t buy it.

I feel that what I’m going to write will get no love from those readers (and writers) who are essentially advocates of a literary school known as “realism,” or “naturalism,” and those who believe that to be considered a good writer, or a relevant one, one must copy reality, i.e., be a photographer or a journalist or a reporter whose artistic imperative is to transcribe uncritically whatever he happens to observe around him, which further means: to be a passive follower riding any current, not an active intellectual leader of his time, shaping the values of his culture. It has been said again and again that Jonathan Franzen is a great novelist – perhaps one of the greatest in today’s younger American novelists – and having been thoroughly taken in by the glowing reviews and recommendations from friends and colleagues, from all the media hype, and having recently read Franzen’s other “relevant” works, I feel compelled to add a voice of dissent and caution.

Last week, I read The Corrections, and so I was looking forward to seeing what Franzen had been up to for the past 10 years since its publication’s hitting the moderately intelligent public’s collective nerve. What Jonathan Franzen been up to is, essentially, rewriting The Corrections, but extracting all the humor that leavened the misanthropic bleakness of his vision in the earlier work. Once again we’re presented with an outwardly “perfect” nuclear Midwestern family that secretly consists of neurotic hysterics with low self-esteem who ultimately find themselves mired in infidelity, crises of identity, and morally dubious business dealings. Once again the focus is on generational conflict, and the “sins of the fathers” revisited in the lives of the children.

Freedom harbors similar ambitions which he originally set out in The Corrections, and, just like The Corrections, they ultimately fail to deliver. And, as Franzen totally loses his bet on the capacity of his brand of social realism to capture what he saw as the American “reality” in the 2000s, the book somehow becomes a step backward from its predecessor.

To me, Freedom fails because it is a Victorian throwback to the naive belief in representation. George Eliot seems to be Franzen’s guiding spirit, artistically speaking – not Balzac and Dickens, whose realism was heavily romantic, and certainly not Dostoevsky, who was a post-realist in many ways, and serves as a rebuke to Franzen’s retrogressive aesthetics.

It seems to me that realism today can be successful only to the extent that it constantly seeks to go beyond realism: into the grotesque, the sensational and violent, the sentimental, or narrative defined by language. Franzen, more than in his previous novels, is determined to purge these tendencies; just as the discredited media holds on to a belief in “objectivity” as a value that can yet be realized despite the demonstrated penetration of ideology into every point of view, so does Franzen believe in the truth claims of the traditional or classical realist novel, in the power of description itself to somehow “mutate” into transcendent criticism.

It is not that Franzen has failed in his execution of the concept of the social novel – friendly to the reader (his style is certainly not difficult, a far cry from the avant-garde approaches of Jeanette Winterson or, say, Don DeLillo), attentive to the larger issues of the day, seeking to blend the personal and the political, providing context to the news in an age of information overload – but rather that he has succeeded all too well, and thus brought us right to the limits of his kind of realism.

Furthermore, you realize that Freedom fails to be a transcendent critique of culture and society, degenerating into utter incredibility, as you read along: its characters form themselves into clichés, situations beggar belief, and pervasive determinism gives the lie to the very title itself. Freedom is Franzen’s last-ditch struggle with the realist novel’s basic formal characteristic, which is that it is a form of narrative where characters can find freedom. But Franzen comes away defeated, because realism as Franzen understands it just won’t do the job, not even in formal terms.

Besides the lack of originality, its failure to lend credibility to its socio-political and economic criticisms, the problem, in essence, is that almost none of Franzen’s characters and situations are believable. No, this time out I don’t believe a single, solitary word of it. I don’t believe in liberal middle-class parents who would let their teenage son move in with their obnoxious Republican neighbors. I don’t believe in a talented college athlete who’d let herself be hoodwinked for years by a ditzy, obsessive fan. I don’t believe in a committed environmentalist who’d sign off on strip mining vast tracts of virgin forest in the name of reclaiming those tracts many years afterwards for a single-species preserve. I don’t believe in a 19-year-old arms dealer making procurement purchases in Paraguay. I don’t believe in a couple who remain married, but utterly incommunicado, for 6 years. I don’t believe in a 47-year-old man with no religious convictions who is trying beer for the very first time, and is prone to bursting into tears on the least provocation. And that’s just for starters.

Worse, most of the dialogue is actually painful to read in its patent artificiality. I defy anyone to point to a passage in this book and seriously maintain that this is how parents, children or lovers actually talk to one another, in 2010 or ever. It’s as stilted and laden with portentousness as soap opera dialogue. In a plot-driven page-turner in the Grisham mode, this wouldn’t be a fatal flaw, but Freedom, with its political and social preoccupations, is a novel that wants to be taken seriously, and that’s simply not possible when the characters speak in an uninterrupted steam of cliché.

Perhaps the very worst bit, however, is its main character’s 200-page “autobiography” which purports to be her life story told in her own voice, but is, in fact, completely indistinguishable from the authorial voice used in the rest of the novel. Perhaps this is the only postmodern element in the novel, which is purely structural. But that this “autobiography” is later part of a significant – and, again, wholly unbelievable – plot twist compounded my dismay. 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 though Patty’s authorial third-person voice in her “autobiography” strikes a remarkably realist tone, replete with pitch-perfect dialogue and astute atmospheric detail, it is just unbelievable.

Moreover, as if desperate to seek verisimilitude, Franzen gives us large chunks of didactic political talk and environmental wonk discourse, with all the inelegance of a Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair, but this only makes the characters less believable.

As I noted, realism always has the tendency to devolve into cliché, in its eagerness to depict the average; it is when the writer moves beyond realism that we typically get monumental characters able to get their arms around the defining problems of the day. And Freedom ends up being a series of clichés held together by a superficially seductive narrative – quite readable, in fact, past page 300 – as we are told a definitive tale about the culture at large by an authority we must accept for his superior moral worth.

A last problem is the characterization in the novel. One-dimensional caricatures abound, from Patty’s Hippie-dippy sister Abigail to Walter’s starry-eyed, buxom assistant Lalitha to Joey’s shallow, glamor-puss love-interest Jenna to the shrill Fundamentalist kook who plays a significant role in the final section of the novel. The main characters – Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey – are more developed, but scarcely more believable. Walter’s character, for instance, does a 180 – starting as a preternaturally patient, kind, dutiful son and husband, and becoming an erratic, impatient, unhinged hothead. The problem is not so much the change in personality – people do change over time – but the fact that the reader isn’t privy to what drives or motivates the change. You see the college-age milquetoast and the middle-aged fanatic, but no steps in between.

It gives me no particular pleasure to isolate and discuss the political agenda of this novel. I commend Franzen for attempting something ambitious in a Tolstoyan mode (Tolstoy is, in fact, referenced directly and indirectly throughout the novel) – to give an American picture of “how we live now.” But, for me, unfortunately, his effort here falls completely flat, and I can’t possibly dare to read it again for another consideration.

Like The Corrections, Freedom celebrates and attempts to extend the possibilities of the good old social realist novel – at a time when realism is out of fashion, even in autobiography. It’s as if Franzen wanted to make skeptical post-moderns believe again, if only for a space, that literature really can and should hold a mirror up to the world. I didn’t and don’t believe him.

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