Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen is everywhere. Oprah Winfrey, the front cover of Time, the window of every bookshop, the top of every ‘books of the year’ list – he even made the front pages a while back for getting his glasses nicked at a book signing in London. You can’t ignore him, even if, like me, you don’t tend to have much interest in the sort of populist, middle-brow, middle-class, domestic realist fodder he peddles – if you don’t have Franzenmania you have (according to the Guardian) Franzenfreud.
I was compelled to read Freedom, his new novel, partly out of intrigue at an early review from the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, who makes occasional forays into the domain of literary criticism with more or less embarrassing results. Jones made a series of hyperbolic claims, including that Freedom is ‘the novel of the century’, that it demands comparison with something more exalted than mere Philip Roth (!), and, most hubristically of all, that it is ‘self-evidently a classic’.
An intriguing statement. Aside from the obviously questionable implication that aesthetic values are objective – and that Jonathan Jones is a suitably credible cultural authority that he need not stoop to substantiating his opinions beyond the assurance that they are ‘self-evidently’ correct – an alternative school of thought might proceed along the lines that a classic tends to be a novel that does something original with the form, and therefore its classic-ness is not always immediately apparent, but emerges over time. I was reminded of a little pearl from Proust:
“We are very slow to recognise in the physiognomy of a new writer the model which is labelled “great talent” in our museum of ideas. Simply because that physiognomy is new and strange, we find in it no resemblance to what we are accustomed to call talent. We say rather originality, charm, delicacy, strength; and then one day we realise that it is precisely all this that adds up to talent”.
What I take to be the features (though he didn’t deign to identify them) of Freedom that whipped Jones into such a rhetorical fervour are precisely the opposite of those that constitute “great talent” in a writer according to Proust’s formulation – and which, ironically, prevent him from immediately being labelled as such. What for Jones ticked the ‘classic’ box, for me often seemed merely repetitive, predictable, and conventional. For all its technical proficiency, Freedom seemed for much of the time to be going through the realist motions out of little more than habit.
A novel that literally wears its major theme on its sleeve, Freedom uses a moderately dysfunctional, middle-class, Midwest family as a canvass for an exploration of the various permutations of freedom (mostly insofar as it relates to the libertarian founding roots of American ideology – that’s right kids, the ‘American Dream’). Franzen has been hailed as the heir apparent to John Updike as the chronicler par excellence of the American suburban middle-classes, but more often than not he lacks that author’s stylistic polish and delicate attention to detail.
When Franzen is in the zone, he is capable of writing vivid, memorable scenes, and intricately constructed narrative sections that make subtle use of the ‘free indirect’ style to merge the perspectives of different characters (this in itself being nothing new or remarkable, but then formal innovation is anathema to what Franzen sets out to achieve as a novelist). From a technical point of view, the high point of the novel is undoubtedly the opening 30 pages, which would not be out of place in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Told from the perspective of a generic nosey suburban neighbour, the sequence introduces the Berglund family – the focus of the novel – from the outside.
The section shows us the Berglunds at crisis point – when, as we later discover, the tensions whose genesis the novel traces are nearing breaking point – and which we can then contrast with the earlier, happier versions of the major characters that we are subsequently shown. Thus we are introduced to paterfamilias Walter, the bookish, socially awkward former student radical turned middle-aged crank; Patty, the former high-school jock turned apple-pie baking, saccharine good neighbour, turned booze-addled, paranoid desperate housewife and occasional neighbourhood vandal; Jessica, the unremarkable daughter, a silent sufferer amidst the more ostentatious conflicts by which she is surrounded; and Joey, the sexually and entrepreneurially precocious 17 year-old son who has jumped ship and moved in with his girlfriend over the road (partly because his libertarian politics are, in a remarkable piece of symmetry, diametrically opposed to those of his father).
It’s an extremely auspicious opening – tight, controlled, written with compulsive verve – like watching a surprisingly slick opening number from a band that you weren’t really expecting to be that good. However, Franzen makes the mistake of playing his best song first. In fact the quality of the prose, the subtlety of the observations and the complexity of the narrative texture decline steadily as the plot accelerates. Ultimately we are left with a paper-thin, implausible page-turner in which the unwieldy themes that Franzen initially seems so keen to subject to serious scrutiny appear to have been long forgotten, squeezed out by the streamlined, televisual slickness of the domestic plotline.
The reason I would posit for this is that Franzen’s not inconsiderable skills as a novelist don’t lend themselves to psychological or thematic depth. If Franzen were a deodorant he would be Lynx – excels at first impressions, but lets you down in the long run, failing to provide the 24-hour freshness of an Updike, Roth or Bellow roll-on antiperspirant. Franzen is a master of what Somerset Maugham called ‘bedding in’ a character – as in a Raymond Carver story, a well executed in medias res introduction often gives an immediate sense of their essential characteristics (characters in Franzen always have essential characteristics – he’s very much of the school of Dickens and Balzac, rather than that of Flaubert and Hamsun, in this regard).
However, the abiding impression of reading Freedom is of watching a slick, well-acted, neatly scripted HBO series. Franzen tricks out his characters with just the right number of faults and quirks to give them a surface vividness – like a TV character – but just doesn’t seem to have the will or capability to take them any further. Hence all of the characters start off as intriguingly vivid creations, before gradually unravelling into two-dimensional mediocrity (the major exception being Lalitha, Walther’s younger mistress – yes, well spotted, it does sound like Lolita – who corpses it from the word go).
Freedom is a slick, confidently presented and hugely enjoyable page-turner. It vaguely wafts at its eponymous theme from time to time (fidelity/infidelity, personal liberty/social responsibility, capitalism/regulation, freedom to reproduce/destructive effects of unchecked population control, stuff like that), but you sense that the domestic drama is where Franzen’s heart ultimately lies. All of which is perfectly acceptable. This is a novel whose primary purpose is to entertain you – which it probably will – while making you briefly consider a few general issues. However, unlike most novels that we retrospectively refer to as classics, it is unlikely to shift your philosophical parameters or take you out of your literary comfort zone.