MAY 4, 2011
BY NOW WE’RE TIRED OF THINKING about Freedom. The book blew past us in a rush, we either read it or we didn’t, but whether or not we did — I read it the week it came out, entirely to clear this exhaustion — we’re tired of it. The weird satisfaction (was it “vindication”?) we felt after Jonathan Franzen’s novel was blanked on the Awards Circuit last month seems largely detached from the book itself, which never stood a chance. If celebrity is just the suspension of contempt (and it is), then the trail of hosannas that actually preceded the book into stores screwed it from the beginning. Many of us were tired of it before it was even for sale (some, probably, could feel the headache coming on long before it was written), which says everything about the culture of publishing and almost nothing about the book itself.
Of which, what, then? Should we file it away, content to call it overrated? Should we allow our memories to be defiled, or leap to the novel’s spirited defense? Each of these prospects seems tedious in its own way, as if the sheer volume of criticism — or not “criticism,” since there actually hasn’t been a lot of that — as if the very avalanche of opinions, adjectives, postures, allergies, laudations, star-ratings and reviews preempted the possibility of honest response. It almost does. Almost.
Franzen’s novel is ferociously … readable. This may sound like damning with faint praise (and indeed, it might seem plain stupid to judge a book as thoroughly-prodded as this one by such a metric), but I mean it to take all praise and damnation out of the equation. Freedom reads like a bullet-train. Still. Picking it up this morning for reacquaintance, I found myself seventy pages deep before I looked up. I’ve already read it twice. Of course, readability isn’t everything. Anatole Broyard once wrote a column in which he wondered why there wasn’t a term for those books one loves but is reluctant to finish. If there’s such a thing as a “page-turner,” Broyard wondered, why don’t we call those other books, those ones we simply can’t bear to be done with, “page-stayers” or “page-impeders?” It’s safe to say, with Freedom, Franzen has written the other kind of strong novel: the book’s locomotive force is all but unstoppable. Both times I’ve read it, I’ve done so in less than a week.
Which raises the question of what might be missing (why doesn’t the novel prompt me to slow down?), but given Franzen’s own knotty history with reader response, I’d say the author might be pleased, and could consider this an unmixed compliment. In his notorious essay “Mr. Difficult,” published in the New Yorker in 2002, Franzen conjures up a common reader, Mrs. M___, who was antagonized by the sophisticated language she found in The Corrections. “Who is it that you are writing for?” Mrs. M___ wonders. “It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.” She goes on to call the author “a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole.” This exchange with Mrs. M___ serves as a launching pad for his postulation that there exist, on the one hand, “Status” novels, which pursue aesthetic complexity at the expense of narrative comfort, and on the other what Franzen calls “Contract” books, which aim to fulfill their readers’ desires. “Status” books, no matter how miraculous (the object of Franzen’s essay, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, stands as the chosen example), give us migraines. “Contract” novels offer pure pleasure. A touch disingenously, Franzen describes The Corrections as “a comedy about a family in crisis” (I don’t hear Mrs. M___ laughing), but then says, “In my bones…I am a Contract kind of person.”
Let’s take Franzen, and his incredibly seductive — if ultimately false — binary construction, at his word. Freedom is a Contract kind of book in this sense. Where The Corrections felt like a series of set pieces, some more engaging than others, Freedom is riveting throughout. It’s more balanced than its predecessor, which often seemed to lose sight of its own particular strengths (namely, domestic drama) in the interest of embracing topicalities, displaying the author’s different spheres of knowledge. Freedom makes such displays less obviously, and synthesizes its various strands — Iraq, rape, indie rock, Green politics, marital strife and wilderness conservation, to peg but a few — almost perfectly. The book seems a more sublimated performance than its predecessor. It appears less self-conscious, though arguably it is more so, as evidenced by a most-likely-deliberate paring down of its vocabulary. “Diurnality,” “antipodes”: that fancy talk that so antagonized Mrs. M___ has been scrubbed clean. When a twenty-five-cent word does show up — when Joey Berglund “[washes] the gametes off his hands,” for instance, after jerking off in a library bathroom — there’s more than a hint of self-mockery in it, not least in the choice of setting.
In lieu of expensive diction, Freedom offers a more sophisticated and successful architecture. Like Tolstoy, with whom this novel self-consciously chases comparison, Franzen seems at home rendering domestic, psychological drama — what we, perhaps lazily, call “realism” — and pinning it, almost effortlessly, to its social dimension. Hence Walter and Patty Berglund, whose familial difficulties — they’re typified with a ruthlessness that feels initially like heartlessness but isn’t — wouldn’t be very interesting if they weren’t immediately twined with politics. They’re twined thus from the novel’s first paragraph, where Walter’s professional error “out there in the nation’s capital” is strained through the civic prism of St Paul, where “the news” — what news we won’t know for a couple hundred pages — “wasn’t picked up locally.” The syntax bends awkwardly, and the tone strains to accommodate both the parochial — and the narratorial perspective (one doesn’t know what to make, quite, of Ramsey Hill’s “urban gentry,” whether this appellation is smug, sarcastic, or both), but once this flexibility is established, Franzen’s free to go wherever he pleases. Patty is brought to us “ponytailed, absurdly young,” and “already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the neighborhood.” In other words, she’s brought on complete — an emblem of gentrification, just as Walter, bicycling through a snowstorm, is an emblem of Green politics — and the novel can then devote itself to her undoing.
It’s not a million miles, thus, from the staging of Anna Karenina: Anna arrives, equally fledged — equally married, privileged, and poised-for-calamity — fresh off the Petersburg train. What’s different of course is tone, and Franzen’s refusal, or inability, to suspend judgment entirely. Where Anna appears trailing mystery (“It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile”), the Berglunds arrive trailing matter: dishes, drywall, cookbooks, mechanics. If Tolstoy’s, and his characters’, vitality seems to ride upon the air, breathing out into the ineffable, Franzen’s jackhammers towards the interior. The book is filled with demolition, from the small-scale disturbance next door, as Carol Monaghan’s boyfriend Blake builds an add-on to her property (thus touching off a hostility that will effect the Berglunds’ familial and political lives), to the mountaintop removal of the story’s penultimate section. Patty’s infidelity is staged at a kind of crossroads: inside the house she is renovating, on the shores of the not-quite-pristine “Nameless Lake,” where the whine of her own power tools, too, pollute the landscape. Development, dust: Freedom is essentially a post-industrial narrative, just as Anna Karenina was in the main a rural one. In Tolstoy’s novel, cosmopolitanism strikes up against estate life, the country boredom that eventually drives its protagonist’s annihilation. Freedom makes no room for boredom — and hence, one could argue, for delight-and maintains its eye on destruction.
Franzen’s energy, his relentless rage, drives the novel. One needn’t look much beyond the chapter titles — “The Nice Man’s Anger,” “Enough Already” — to see how Freedom seethes. People who praise the book’s moral engagement, and its ostensible ambition, are aware of this. So, too, are those who detect a note of peevishness, a faintly metallic aftertaste that might make the novel easier to gobble than to savor. One can’t really imagine the Berglunds, or Richard Katz-Walter’s college roommate whose life as a rock star depends on a superabundant charisma — overflowing the way Tolstoy’s Anna does. Franzen’s too testy, too modern for this sort of effulgence, but he also understands these people too well. He’s too smart to forgive them too simply, just as he’s too smart to demonize the most despicable. (Vin Haven, for instance, the billionaire developer who becomes Walter’s unlikely bedfellow, is sketched with a particular human passion; one can’t help but note that his concern for migratory songbirds is close to the author’s own ornithological interest.)
Fury is of course the thinking novelist’s companion. Tolstoy himself was unable to restrain the sort of sermonizing Franzen only sometimes stoops to, and others invite rage into their fiction to transcendent effect — I’m thinking of Philip Roth, who often yokes it to erotic comedy, or Franzen’s own beloved Paula Fox and Christina Stead, both of whom use rage to render domestic tragedy incandescent. Yet — this transcendence is the effect, perhaps, Franzen doesn’t want, and arguably doesn’t achieve. Freedom attains its power precisely through its sublimation: neither anger nor judgment will burst its bounds, and the whole book, as such, is tantamount to a kind of Nice Man’s Anger.
Which leaves me, quite frankly, with qualms. Whether those qualms are about Freedom itself, as I suspect they are in part, or about the hothouse atmosphere that crowds it (speaking as a novelist, I wouldn’t mind not-winning all those prizes myself), I’m not sure. But those early claims towards the novel’s Greatness seem at the very least premature, and I wonder if the novel doesn’t undercut them in some way, perhaps precisely by denying this very element — the kind of inexpressible vibrancy Tolstoy gives Anna, and even the more caustic Flaubert allows Emma Bovary — a place in its arsenal. The book hardly cries out for an injection of club-footed mysticism; yet Franzen’s rational intelligence is so assertive, one wishes at times for a kind of drift, a cessation of all this pummeling, dialectical momentum in favor of uncertainty, hesitation, even wonder.
When I first picked up Freedom I interrupted myself in the reading of another, very different, kind of novel: Edward Wallant’s pensive, lateral The Tenants of Moonbloom, originally published — posthumously, to not much fanfare — in 1963. In its drifting, wayward motion, its urban microscopy (the action is largely confined to four teeming Manhattan tenements), its simple dreaminess the book seems a very obverse of Franzen’s. It waits, and it frames the reader as it does its shy protagonist, within a persistent stillness. Flattened by fever, overwhelmed by circumstance, slumlord Moonbloom can barely act at all. The book is easy to put down. And yet one wonders, even as its last thirty pages remained unturned on my nightstand untilFreedom‘s had lapped them twice, if it isn’t greater than Franzen’s novel, and if Wallant’s realism mightn’t be more acute. “He sat between daydream and nothing,” the book observes, as the slumlord sits in his basement office, watching pedestrian traffic slice by his window. “He was a hall of mirrors: within him his dream was an infinite series of reflections and all he could be sure of was that it existed and made him sure that he existed.”
Such ontological — which is to say, theological — speculation is largely absent from Freedom, where even a profound emotional state like depression is articulately described in terms of its “evolutionary advantages,” as “a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship.”Freedom‘s rationalism can hardly be held against it, any more than its sturdy construction or narrative and rhetorical energy could be called shortfalls. But the reflexive hailing of Franzen’s ambition starts to seem exactly that: a reflex. Is it possible that a book’s ambition could be measured in ways that aren’t pegged to its literal depictions, to encyclopedic knowing and a narrative’s evident “scope?” It isn’t unreasonable to spare a thought for books that are slightly less hectoring, and even to wish Franzen’s novel suspended its own aggressive intelligence a bit on occasion. There’s excellence to be found on nearly every page of Freedom. But greatness may be another quality altogether.