Freedom, Comparatively Speaking

Throughout the Franzenfreude conversations (the best contributions of which were by Katha Pollitt (here) and Meghan O’Rourke here), I kept trying to get my hands on a copy of Freedom. It was sold out everywhere. Midway through my search, I walked into Moe’s on Telegraph and asked the clerk for help.

Me: “Do you have Freedom?”

Her: “Umm… comparatively speaking?”

When I explained, she pointed to The Corrections and tried to convince me it had just come out in paperback.

The surreal quality of that encounter parallels my experience of the book, which I found familiar and absorbing and interesting in the way people who tell you their life stories on planes or in waiting rooms are interesting. Some of it is poignant and compelling, much of it is dull, but the underlying claim on your attention is that what you’re hearing is real. (In the way of real-life conversations, I found myself reading something in Freedom and thinking, more than once, “Wow. Someone should write a novel about that!”*.) Franzen’s social (or hysterical) realism is, in this rather literal respect, totally successful. It tells the kind of true story you’re quite likely to hear from a stranger, and tells it exceptionally well.

Still, what started off looking like a stirring record of a nuclear suburban family’s scrabbling for (and with) freedom, or the American dream, or 9/11, or something, ends up, in retrospect, seeming more like a long EKG strip. Freedom documents lives, but it does so in a plodding, only half-directed way, charting repetitive rhythms without urgency, but also without telos. By the end, the readout might register a little angina, a little quickening of the pulse, but the EKGs of the hearts in question all return to a suburban baseline. Which is pretty damn irritating, since the unavailability of that baseline status quo is the occasion for the novel.

I certainly don’t mean that things don’t happen in Freedom, or that it was boring to read. Parts of it are pure will-they-or-won’t-they soap opera, complete with the cheats soap operas sometimes employ. While nobody comes back in someone else’s body, the ending is one that the novel spends most of its time and emotive energy constituting as impossible. What’s more, it’s an ending whose impossibility is what actually powers much of the plot. (Imagine finding out there was never a bomb on the bus in Speed.)

In another sense, though, Freedom drops bombs aplenty. For a novel that spends 200 pages chronicling one character’s interiority, the protagonists’ decisions appear unmotivated and (to me, anyway) quite surprising.  Despite the extensive ground the novel covers (literally as well as thematically—the novel traverses West Virginia, Panama, Argentina, New York, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washingon, DC), there’s a still-life quality to Franzen’s portrait of the Berglunds. They’re strangely immobile. When a character does change, the exhaustive cataloging of Berglund habits and histories—some interesting, some not—is unhelpful at explaining why. (Imagine an Absalom that ends with Sutpen adopting Charles Bon and telling Rosa he’s sold the Hundred and bought them a brownstone in Brooklyn.)

You could drown in the backstory of this novel. There’s so much of it, and it’s often well done. But, rapes and alcoholic fathers notwithstanding, it’s nevertheless the case that the novel is either sloppy or much more experimental than its form and style led this reader to suspect. It may be that Franzen is deliberately disrupting novelistic conventions, especially when it comes to character psychology, or that he’s exploring the behavioral oddities that 9/11 made possible, or that—in an homage to American anti-intellectualism—he’s showing how logic plays no role in the complex workings of the human heart, or something. The fact remains that in the novel’s present tense, the characters behave in one consistent way until, suddenly, they don’t.  Patty Berglund and Richard Katz wouldn’t dream of hurting Walter (until they do). Joey wouldn’t dream of actually loving Connie (until he does). Etc. The piles of backstory vanish into irrelevance, and Patty’s autobiography transcends its genre to become fictional even within its own universe.

Again, that might be the point: memoir has long stopped being equated with anything approaching “truth,” and a generous reader might be inclined to view all this misdirection as a domestic application of the Bush PR tactics the novel skewers (see Jonathan’s dad, Walter’s boss). Patty’s diary could be read, I suppose, as a non-explanation analogous to “We really thought there were WMDs.” It may be that the whole of Freedom is intended to demonstrate the impossibility of explaining why people change.

As is probably evident, I’m not that generous a reader. Franzen’s character development reminds me of Patty’s excuse that she was asleep when she climbed into Katz’s bed. It seems to be powered by a kind of psychic botox that wears off suddenly, an unconsciousness (or subconscious) that makes change—and smiling—possible.

This wouldn’t rankle if Franzen were (like Updike and even Cheever) committed to a vision of the middle class predicated on willed blindness and (in its more vicious portrayals) mindless hypocrisy. But he isn’t. He seems, in fact, to be recasting the middle class as painfully self-aware.

The character who best represents that middle class is Walter Berglund, who in every way constitutes an exception to the foregoing. His psychological journey is on a different order of artistry in that his reactions emerge organically from his makeup, his choices and his history. His love of birds works as a reaction to his upbringing, and the dark turns this takes later represent entirely believable beginnings of lunacy.  (It’s possible that the “realness” of Walter’s attachment to birds—with its attendant eccentricity—rings true because Franzen is such a bird-lover himself). Besides the pre-fabricated Walter-Patty-Richard triangle, Walter’s relationship with Joey is the only one that develops naturally out of the patterns we’ve seen.

Compare Walter’s beautifully rendered development—where the surprises fit what we knowto Patty, whose defining characteristic, athleticism and dedication to a “team,” appears exactly nowhere in her autobiography (possibly the strangest non-treatment of college athletics I’ve seen). Obviously, there are formal issues here; the diary allows for character development to happen at one remove, and I’ll get to how that works in a minute. But it’s noteworthy that purely in terms of content, Walter’s obsession gets huge swathes of screentime (which, in turn, develops him—the nature of his investment is clear), whereas Patty’s obsession seems to hold little interest, both for her and for Franzen.  Either she finds it necessary to omit the sport she spent her young life pursuing, or else Franzen found it expedient to make her an athlete without thinking too much about what that might mean, especially in the seventies. The autobiography chronicles a tortuous friendship with a disturbed woman named Eliza—a necessary plot device to set up the love triangle—but spends no attention on the teammates with whom Patty spent most of her time. Her affiliation to a “team” remains, therefore, faceless and abstract, the opposite of Walter’s Cerulean warbler.

I can think of three explanations for this:

  1. Patty is actively repressing her time on the team (which doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the novel—her tepid friendships with teammates later in life don’t seem to occasion her the sort of pain that would suggest any tenderness about her involvement in athletics)
  2. she recalls her time in college solely in terms of Richard, Walter and Eliza (in which case, Patty is much weirder than she seems) or
  3. the rest of her college experience was irrelevant to the autobiography, since it’s meant as a therapeutic outlet for her to sort through that love triangle.

The third explanation strikes me as the most likely one, but there’s something basically untrue about its assumptions. As Walter’s arc amply demonstrates, this is just not how human beings process emotional events.  Everything bleeds into everything else. Given how significantly anyone’s life would change as a result of a career-ending injury, it’s hard to imagine that Patty’s dependence on Walter wasn’t strongly associated—explicitly, in her own mind—with the gap the team left in her life. (In which case, it would make it into her autobiography. To put it bluntly, Walter isn’t just a Richard-substitute; he’s filling a team-shaped hole.) The team is an incomprehensible omission: either it truly didn’t matter, or it exists as a fourth invisible point in the triangle, something that would have turned that love-triangle into a love-square.

Then there’s  Patty’s obsessive love for Joey and the repeated, faintly sinister references to their “times at the cabin,” all of which gesture at a much-needed showdown that never came. Why does Joey resent her? Is it simple adolescent detachment, or did something happen at that cabin that facilitated his escape to Connie’s house? Something central to that story remains untold.

The same goes for Patty’s treatment of Jessica, which brutally replicates her mother’s neglect of her, but which never has any consequences—Jessica (who is absurdly underdeveloped) doesn’t even seem to notice.

All this speaks to the uneven, zigzagging quality of Franzen’s handling of perspective. Frequently, after spending time in a particular character’s consciousness, the novel zooms out and blithely reports an outcome in a paragraph of only semi-interested summation. This casual indifference actually takes over from the useful sarcasm of the opening pages, where the point of view from which the Berglunds are being watched belongs to The Neighborhood—a version of America that, aside from its unpleasant womenfolk, never quite comes into focus.*

All that said, there’s much that the novel does really well, and I’m not convinced that the Great American Novel (whatever that means) is exactly what Franzen aimed to write. It’s easy to lose sight of that, given how eagerly critics have tried to shoehorn Franzen into the aspirational hubris of Great American Novelisthood.  I’d actually describe Franzen’s stylistic approach as strikingly modest: the novel rarely rubs your nose in its literariness or the brilliance of its prose. It liberally uses barely-veiled real material. It mostly ignores postmodernity. It’s not, in a word, inventive. Like Walter, it seems to be, above all else, responsible. That’s a good thing. Franzen seems to feel that his first duty is to tell a good story, with technique taking a back seat. (Some reviews have pointed this out a little brutally.)

While we’re on the subject of technique and story, I’ve been thinking about Freedom in the context of Elif Batuman’s diatribe against “program fiction” in the London Review of Books. Whatever “good writing” means, it seems it may not necessarily be coextensive with a “good books.” Of the former, she says the following:

If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.

There are problems with Batuman’s argument (Andrew Seal details several of them here), but as a product of a “programme” myself, I think she’s onto something in this paragraph. Whatever its faults, Franzen has definitely written an engaging story that people want to read.

Some people have suggested that Franzen’s adherence to nineteenth-century realism betrays an ambition to write something that will transcend his own time. I’m curious to see whether this turns out to be true. I think the novel is more likely to persist as a time capsule. Freedom may be a transcendent theme, but the novel’s treatment of it is intensely, historically specific, and that’s it’s strength. I suspect it’ll do for the Bush years what Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest did for 1960s mental health.

In a 2009 interview, he says (talking about Richard Powers in this instance, but obviously gesturing at his own vision):

He’s brighter than almost anyone who’ll read him, so you can always learn something from him. But I’m not sure he’s learning much himself, and that’s the big danger of trying to use a novel to mirror the social reality.

I like this. It’s such a startlingly apt critique of the novel Franzen himself wrote. (And reinforces that old psychological chestnut about noticing the flaws of which we are most guilty.) As Amelia Atlas puts it, despite many brilliant passages, there are times when it feels “like Franzen wrote his own SparkNotes.” The moral of Freedom seems to be that there really is nothing to learn. If you drive recklessly, and even if you don’t, expect accidents.

*Andrew Seal has a great discussion on of how the novel handles, among other things, Tolstoy, self-pity, and the problem of Lalitha.