With the bevy of “best of” year-end book lists appearing, I thought it time to re-visit Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom which seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the collective room, either appearing on the list (see Salon’s editors’ picks, The New York Times ten best books) or being trumpeted as absent from the list (Slate’s books, Salon’s authors’ lists). Already seemingly forgotten is the controversy that the Tanenhaus review in The New York Times Book Review engendered, a not wholly off-base gnashing of teeth over the critical circle jerk that greeted Franzen’s book, with complaints about why such a middling book is getting the full masterpiece treatment and pointing out that in our literary culture, male writers get an inordinate amount of this kind of “capturing the zeitgeist” adulation. I have to admit to some surprise that Freedom commands such year-end attention. Collective critical opinion tends to settle over time and I thought given the basic mediocrity of the book that a lot of critics, now freed up from that initial critical lockstep, would simply allow it to drift away unremarked upon (and to be fair, after sampling a number of such lists, Freedom is hardly a ubiquitous presence).
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to admire in Freedom. For one, as has been noted many places, Franzen actually ratchets back the ambition of the book from The Corrections, a seeming acknowledgement that what people connected to in that book were the characterizations, not the po-mo flourishes (which I tend to think of collectively as the “talking turd” sections) or the often awkwardly inserted current issues contexts (though Freedom has its own problems in this direction). And indeed two of the four main characters in Freedom are as well drawn as anything in The Corrections. Patty Berglund and Richard Katz emerge fully fleshed out and compelling and the book really sings in those sections where they are at the center of the story.
The problem is, I can’t really term a book successful that manages to create only two out of four of its major characters successfully. In Patty’s husband Walter, Franzen does the impossible, he turns a character who is alive on the page early into an unbelievable caricature by the end. Worse still, the son Joey never comes close to coming to life. Franzen seemingly has little ability to write convincing teenagers, even as he cooks the books a bit by making Joey preternaturally mature and self-possessed, a gesture that at least speaks to Franzen’s self-knowledge of the limitations of his characterization skills. The sections of the book narrated by Joey are frankly embarrassing and there were moments in the Joey sections where I thought Freedom became a silly, inconsequential book, one whose concerns seemed arbitrary (Joey’s storyline includes a less than believable foray into the politics of the Iraq war, there’s a long pointless subplot involving the beautiful sister of Joey’s best friend) and in the end, Joey isn’t much more convincing as a character than his mostly invisible sister, who Franzen doesn’t even pretend to care about.
The fourth character comes off better. The Richard Katz chapters are consistently sharp, well-paced, convincing, funny, angry and best of all compelling. One suspects that Katz is more or less a stand-in for Franzen himself (Katz spends much of the book as a respected musician with marginal fame who achieves much larger success and feels utterly unhinged by it) and even if parts of it are a bit much – Katz’s central flaw seems to be that everywhere he goes, young women want to fuck him and he obliges, magnificently, it seems – the Katz sections are amongst my favorite in the book.
Even more than in The Corrections, the current issues contexts seem shoehorned into the narrative rather clumsily and not in a particularly convincing way. When Joey becomes involved in a business supplying used parts to military vehicles in the Middle East, it isn’t exactly believable, but this is a secondary plot line at best and its presence is by no means deadly to the functionality of the overall book. But what is deadly is the plot that takes up much of the book, Walter’s attempt to save a single songbird through an impossibly convoluted scheme that involves allowing mountaintop removal coal mining on large tracts of land in exchange for leaving other parcels untouched. I never believed for a moment that something like this might work in the real world, it’s far too complicated and just plain impossible. As the New York Review of Books review points out, there’s no drama at all to what will happen to Walter and his songbird venture, it is doomed from the moment it’s explained to us but Franzen still manages to take 200 pages to get to that point. This central failure which is obviously necessary to what happens at the end of the book (along with an awkwardly timed, contrived death of a central character) really bogs down the middle, making it a slog to the inevitable denouement.
And what this plot line takes with it is Walter. At the beginning of the book, Patty tries to navigate a crush on the charismatic Richard, while taking an instant dislike to his unpleasant, seemingly single-minded and overly serious roommate Walter. She keeps running into him and over time, she (and we) get to know him, admire him for the purity of his focus. He remains who he is no matter what the circumstance and as these early stages unfold, we become drawn to that. He seems a type, the socially awkward roommate who has an idea from day one of what he wants and how he’ll get there. Franzen brings him to life through the details and through Richard’s steadfast commitment to his friend.
By the end of the book after having to twist himself in so many directions to serve Franzen’s convoluted songbird plot (which also involves a love interest in the form of Walter’s Indian assistant who, like Walter and Patty’s daughter, never rises above the level of plot device), he has become a cartoon and an unpleasant one at that. I found myself wanting him to fail.
The ending is indeed a moment of transcendence and logical in its way, though by this point, I’d completely quit believing Walter as a character and wanted the only two characters I did believe – Patti and Richard – to get it together, not because that would make sense (it wouldn’t in the context of the book itself), but because Walter to the end feels like a type, a caricature and who wants to see a character you do feel like you know and understand and empathize with end up with a cardboard cutout?
Not surprisingly, these successes and failures are linked to Franzen’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He writes women characters well and indeed Patty is the most sharply drawn, idiosyncratic and believable of all his Freedom creations, a high school and college basketball star who stumbles into a marriage with the dour best friend of Richard and ends up trapped in a middle class life (though I have to say I found the notion that what Patty really needs in her marriage is a good fucking by someone who won’t treat as respectfully as Walter does to be beyond facile, edging into the sophomoric). He seems to have no particular gift for writing teenagers and his attempts to create a larger, world context for his characters are at best a middling success and a total failure. And there are passages in the book that are frankly embarrassing. Take a look at these two lines and tell me he didn’t need someone to step in and save him from himself.
“For all queries, Patty Berglund was a resource, a sunny carrier of sociocultural pollen, an affable bee.”
“He flopped around on the ground, heavily carplike, his psychic gills straining futilely to extract dark sustenance from an atmosphere of approval and plenitude.”
And moments like the one in South America where Joey (saddled with the aforementioned “who gives a shit” subplot about trying to seduce the beautiful sister of his friend) ends up rooting around in his own shit feel insultingly calculated and silly. I’ve even read at least one review that commented positively on this, as though Franzen has found the perfect metaphor for this grouping of characters (“They root around in their own shit. Like literally!”)
Yet I read the book and if I was often (pick one) bored, annoyed, angered, incredulous, disbelieving, I was also sometimes exhilarated and that’s no small thing. Obviously I don’t think the book belongs on any “best of” lists but despite all the evidence above, on the whole I liked the book more than I hated it. Not to pile on Lorrie Moore (whose A Gate at the Stairs shares little with Freedom other than it’s a long-awaited book by a major American writer), but I found Gate a total artistic failure, a book by a writer who shows she still has some word-to-word chops but really has nothing to say (her pasting of an Iraq War context seeming a desperate last-ditch attempt to make her book mean something). And if I can only laugh at such a quintessential NYT’s line like this: “Franzen captures this through the tribulations of a Midwestern family, the Berglunds, whose successes, failures and appetite for self-invention reflect the larger story of millennial America,” which has an Anthony Lane-esque love of the pleasant-sounding phrasing that is utterly meaningless, the book manages to create in Patty a compelling portrait of how a person can go lost in their own life and how difficult it is to found their way back. That’s no masterpiece but it’s not total failure either.