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Vol. LXIV, No. 41
 
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
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Book Review

Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”: Through Acclaim and Backlash to Higher Ground

Stuart Mitchner

The attempted demolition of Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed best-seller Freedom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28) by B.R. Myers in the October Atlantic is being enthusiastically disseminated online by people who get their kicks seeing the big winners brought down. Many of these naysayers never forgave Franzen for the success of The Corrections (2001) and his holier than thou reaction to Oprah’s blessing.

Some sort of Freedom backlash was inevitable anyway, given the epidemic of over-the-top acclaim here and in England, from the Time cover story’s “Great American Novelist” to the New York Times Book Review’s “masterpiece of American fiction … a great novel,” to the online Guardian’s “A literary genius of our time … The novel of the year, and the century.” The Guardian blog consists mainly of attacks on Jonathan Jones for his overwrought adoration. People aren’t putting down Franzen so much as they’re scolding Jones, and rightly so, for his ecstatic gushing.

Myers and Brooks

Denouncing Franzen’s use of “juvenile language,” Mr. Myers, a member of the Green Party who lives and teaches in South Korea, observes that “one need read only that the local school ‘sucked’ and that Patty was ‘very into’ her teenage son … to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter. The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s … is a world in which nothing important can happen.” New York Times columnist David Brooks makes a similar point (“The ‘Freedom’ Agenda,” Sept. 29) when he faults the book for leaving out anything “potentially lofty and ennobling.” Freedom, according to Brooks, lacks “an alternative vision of higher ground.”

In the course of shrinking the novel to fit the title of his review (“Smaller Than Life”), Myers lays out some samples of Franzen’s weakest prose before closing by quoting a passage he approves of — but only as a preface to a patronizing, poorly phrased summation: “Perhaps [Franzen] can learn a lesson from Freedom: write a long book about mediocrities, and in their language to boot, and they will drag you down to their level.”

Higher Ground

The most pertinent example of a “vision of higher ground” about matters both “lofty and ennobling” is, as Brooks suggests, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which plays a part in Franzen’s narrative when Patty Berglund, his central (and most alive) character, reads herself into the novel as Natasha and sees her stolid husband Walter as Pierre and the man she’s about to betray him with as the dashing Prince Andrei. In effect, she’s treating War and Peace as a true romance, if a bit weightier than the ones that led Emma Bovary astray. Nothing ennobling, just a way of putting a literary spin on adultery.

Madame Bovary, of course, shows what a great writer can do with a “mediocre” character, as Myers crudely recognizes (“nonentities can be people too”), but as far as he’s concerned, Franzen’s Patty is “too stupid to merit reading about.” Here’s a reviewer who faults a novelist for “juvenile language” while making his case in terms for which a student writing a book report would be marked down. Certainly Patty makes a lot of stupid moves, as she’ll be the first to tell you. She has a genius for folly, a quality she shares with numerous memorable characters in literature. She may not be in the same league with Emma or Natasha or Anna Karenina, but this former star basketball player is a substantial creation, and like a good point guard, she’s quick, and she can surprise you with her power, as she does when Franzen’s game is on the line.

Brooks misleadingly downplays the importance of Patty’s prowess and her pride as an athlete when he stiffly complains that “we don’t really see the team camaraderie that is the best of sport.” Though “camaraderie” has less to do with Patty’s stature as a character than the will to win, we’re told that in high school “she would almost rather have died than let a team down. Earlier in the winter, with the flu, she’d played most of a half of basketball before fainting on the sideline and getting fluids intravenously.” In college, she’s a second-team All-American and the designated leader of the Minnesota Gophers. In the end, it’s the life-or-death force of Patty’s will, the mixture of stamina and desire and driving intensity and the fact that she’s known some game-winning glory in her time that gives Freedom a last-second, at-the-finalbuzzer touch of greatness.

Franzen shows us Patty’s potential for pushing the limits early on when she remembers first “doing a team sport with her mother watching.” Writing about herself in the third person at the beginning of her autobiography, “Mistakes Were Made,” Patty is at day camp, playing softball, the game’s in its last inning, she’s in the outfield feeling frustrated because “less skilled girls” are making errors in the infield and she’s been “creeping in shallower and shallower,” hoping to get into the action. So, when, with runners on first and second, the batter hits a grounder “to the grossly uncoordinated shortstop,” Patty dashes in, crosses in front of the shortstop, fields the ball herself, tags out the lead runner, and starts chasing the other one, “some sweet girl who’d probably reached first on a fielding error.” When Patty bears down “straight at her,” the girl runs “squealing into the outfield,” an automatic out, but Patty keeps chasing her anyway and applies the tag as the girl crumples up and screams “with the apparently horrible pain of being lightly touched by the glove.” Later, on the way home, Patty’s mainstream, office-holding Democrat mother asks her if she “had to be quite so … aggressive.”

The Cast

Few if any of the other characters are as convincingly equipped for their roles as Patty. Freedom has a relatively small cast. At the center you have the Berglunds, Walter and Patty and their children Joey and Jessica, and Walter’s best friend and Patty’s downfall, the womanizing singer-songwriter, Indie rock star Richard Katz who is, as Brooks puts it “strictly Dionysus-lite.” Patty’s good, decent, environmentalist husband Walter becomes involved in a politically compromised project to create a habitat for the Cerulean Warbler, but for much of the narrative he’s seen from the outside, more a subject or a theme than a character, and he doesn’t come fully, movingly to life until the final chapter. Joey flirts with the dark side (making a small fortune through Iraq War enablers and profiteers) until he sees the light. Jessica is little more than a walk-on. The girl next door, Joey’s lover and eventual wife, Connie, on the other hand, exerts a quiet force of love so great that Joey’s struggle with his attachment to her becomes one of numerous humanly important things that happen in Freedom, and the almost Faulkneresque enduringness of Connie’s devotion approaches that level of nobility both Myers and Brooks find lacking. For Joey, it’s as if “a new and more grownup world of love had revealed itself: as if there were still no end of inner doors for them to open.”

“Patty, c’est moi!”

The narrative develops through alternate points of view, first the omniscient voice describing the neighbors’ perceptions of the Berglunds in St. Paul, then Patty’s 157page autobiography, followed by a mix of the omniscient narrator, Richard, Joey, Walter, and a brief return to Patty’s memoir before the story becomes, triumphantly, Walter’s. Franzen’s dialogue is sharp, sometimes brilliant, but not enough to counter the fact that he isn’t consistently committed to his other characters. He goes off the rails in the first 20 pages of the third part (“2004”), where after some exposition disguised as an interview about his music and politics, Richard is audience to a presentation of the Cerulean Project from Walter that reads as if it had been lifted from an article in Nature. Another of the novel’s flaws is the character of Lalitha, Walter’s comely, adoring young assistant who enters the book at this point by making approving noises about everything her boss says. Franzen simply isn’t effectively invested in Lalitha, and the silly name he gives her only accentuates her artificiality. Patty’s strength as a character springs from the fact that Franzen becomes her. Like Flaubert famously claiming, “Madame Bovary — c’est moi!” Franzen could justly say, “Patty, c’est moi!” Or maybe it would be truer if Patty said, “Franzen, c’est moi!”

Patty’s finest hour is preceded by the last piece of her autobiography, “A Sort of Letter to Her Reader,” the reader being Walter, who kicked her out of the house six years previously after reading “Mistakes Were Made” and discovering that she’d betrayed him with his best friend. The first time through, I had little patience with this gathering up of loose family ends, which seemed every bit as desultory as the title suggests. I went back to it because of the game-winner scored by Patty and her alter ego, the author, in the last chapter.

The moment is no less dramatic for Walter, who is holed up in his cabin in the woods, fighting the good fight, free of Patty for six years, too deep in denial to endure a divorce. The good man has gone a bit mad, and his neighbors in Canterbridge Court, the development that has encroached on his retreat, seem primed to torch his cabin with him in it, this being the polarized present when there are those who would torch the White House and the man inside. And here comes Patty, driving for the goal and ready to die for the making of the final point.

Franzen’s magnificent closing movement has everything Myers and Brooks say the novel lacks. It’s important, it’s ennobling, and it achieves a vision of higher ground.

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