Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All the rage

In Freedom, Jonathan Franzen captures an American obsession that's become a form of addiction

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.

This is a novel that's much easier to admire than it is to like. By just about any meaningful critical criterion -- plot, character, dialogue, description, a sense of place, a sense of history -- Jonathan Franzen has long since proved himself to be a master, and in his latest novel he is at the height of his powers. But as a reading experience, Freedom is as emotionally exhausting as it is impossible to put down.
As with his 2001 novel The Corrections, with which it has strong affinities, Franzen's great subject in Freedom is the tumultuous inner life of the American family, and the indirect but unmistakable way in which that tumult is connected to looming imperial decline. Generationally speaking, the loci of the former were the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom; this time it's the Baby Boom and Generation Y. The core of Freedom is a love triangle formed by the life trajectories of Walter and Patty Bergland (whom we meet indirectly through their former neighbors in St. Paul; this is a story of multiple narrations) and Walter's best friend Richard Katz, a misanthropic rock musician who meets Walter in college and stays in touch in the decades that follow. Along the way we also meet the two Bergland children, in particular Walter and Patty's son Joey, whose iconoclastic rejection of his parents' progressive values -- Patty's permissiveness and Walter's environmentalism -- lead him into a number of unanticipated directions, among them an early marriage and a career as an international arms merchant during the Iraq War. Actually, all the major characters in this book undergo metamorphoses in one form or another; part of the book's excellence is the way in which very smart people all too credibly find themselves in truly ridiculous, if not paradoxical or even hypocritical, situations.

Yet the novel's narrative energy, and its satisfying resolution, may well be among its secondary pleasures. As with the best recent fiction, this is a book in which you really learn things about the way the world works: how companies like Halliburton game the system; how environmentalists drive Faustian bargains with companies like Halliburton; how the indy rock world has adapted to the end of the traditional record business; how Title IX changed the life of female athletes (Patty was a college basketball star); and so on. Franzen's ability to fully imagine the lives of his characters also turns their frequent arguments into lively ping-pong matches of dialogue, in which each side makes compelling points that resist easy villainy or pigeonholing.

So what's the problem? For lack of a better term, it's Franzen's relentlessness. He bores into these people, anatomizing their pettiness in ways that are real enough -- and recognizable enough -- but that finally feel like a form of aggression that he takes out on them. Take, for example, this quintessential Franzian sentence in which Patty assesses her mother, a small-time Westchester politician: "Paradise for Joyce is an open space where poor children can go and do Arts at state expense." There's something painfully exquisite about this masterpiece of compression:  the crudeness of Joyce's verb ("do"), the effortless abstraction of the limousine liberal ("open space," "poor children") and the vindictive quality of her altruism ("state expense"). You laugh out loud when the collegiate Joey muses that "the really attractive girls he'd met in Virginia all seemed to have been sprayed with Teflon, encased in suspicion of his motives." And you nod with grim amusement as you listen to Richard rationalize seducing a fan's girlfriend because "rather than thwarting his father's vicarious ambitions by pursuing entomology or interesting himself in financial derivatives, Zachary dutifully aped Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere there had been a failure of imagination."

But 500+ pages of this can really wear you down. There are few writers who can allow you to really experience what (someone else's) depression feels like, and Franzen's virtuosity in evoking this in multiple characters is admirable, enervating, and addictive. It's hard not to get halfway through this book without sensing that writing is above all else a therapeutic act for Franzen, even as he's one of the very few people who can actually succeed artistically in doing this -- and even as one of the things that you suspect most depresses him are people that read Jonathan Franzen novels (because their motives, like this one being the Big Novel of Fall 2010, are suspect). You end up feeling weirdly implicated.

That said, Franzen does have a larger point to make here, a point of real historical, political, and psychological importance. It's right there in the title: freedom, a term which pops up with subtle regularity. "It's all circling around the problem of personal liberties," Walter says at one point. "People came to this country for either money or freedom [money of course is another form of freedom]. If you don't have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily." Walter is making a critique of working-class libertarianism here -- his elitism is something he has an increasingly difficult time hiding or resisting -- but the point applies to Americans generally. Our love of freedom, a love unmoored from any larger goal or value, is killing us.

Freedom is not exactly a fun book, readable as it is. But it's an important one, if for no other reason as a vivid document of our time. It shows us a republic that's dying from within, and how, amid very considerable difficulties, a decent life may yet be lived within it. And how the antidote for freedom is love.