On some website Jonathan Franzen says two of his favorite books are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Desperate Characters by Paula Fox (1970). Franzen’s novel Freedom has a couple references to Gatsby and Franzen’s last chapter begins with the rumored death of a cat, recall that Fox’s book starts with a stray cat and a scratch and turns into a story about the unravelling of a marriage. So, in picking up Freedom, the nods are obvious and we have that going for us. And we get to say, comparing the length, “At least it’s not John Irving” with no small measure of relief.
While I have your attention, the phrase that slides off the manicured fingers of so many critics about books that are in excess of 250 pages is “the great American novel” (TGAN), which is nothing but a bucket of “please look my way Pulitzer judges” pleading or pathetic platitudinous blah, functioning as an applicable-everywhere ideological refraction, as though there ever was or can be TGAN. Any critic who applies the phrase with supposed seriousness ought to be strung up by the thumbs and spanked with every book written by James Patterson, which of course means they’ll be there for eternity. Freedom is not TGAN just as Tartt’s birdy bore or Irvings tattoo tedium or McCann’s Manhattan mundanity are not TGAN. In all instances award-bait is the fitting title. But there is something special, when it works, about the way Franzen captures the arbitrary mundanity that inhabits all such bildungsroman books. I think that Roger Ebert called this narrative trope too when about the movie The Big Chill he wrote, “‘The Big Chill’ is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”
Sometimes I think someone preached to a receptive audience, “and now for the next few of decades American novels will take My Dinner with André and expand it into a book weighing no less than a 400oz gold bar.” I see agents advising, “make it meandering.” This may be Franzen’s quality, he puts in his ten-ton-can, more clearly than the others, the emptiness and boredom that presumably underlies the lives of many Americans, and he does this in a way that forces the reader to inhabit the same mind-space by his ongoing didactic expositions and contrived passages of dialogue. But again, to use Ebert’s words, it has all the right moves and words. Does it add up? Yes, but to what end?
Freedom never looked so unappealing as in this novel. Here the opposite of freedom is either subjugation or dependance and characters have the freedom to pick their version of “freedom.” A Heideggerian move takes place: freedom exists only along the way, as a call, or in this case a performance of desire. The desire? To be free.
Franzen’s been given a tongue lashing for his pessimistic view of America and it’s clear the critics who have said such things either have fundamental problems recognizing reality or they’re pandering to upper middle pseudo-liberal narratives. Everything Franzen says, about fakery and governmental propaganda regarding WMD’s in Iraq, about political grubbery, about payoffs and fall guys, about a lying mainstream media who is complicit with government, and on and on, have proved themselves to be absolutely true, although neither the pseudo-liberals nor the mainstream media care to admit it. Freedom for other countries is getting delightful bombs delivered by the United States. Freedom for Americans is the right to voice aloud their wonderment as to why people of those countries don’t enjoy such gifts. In this sense we can credit Franzen’s views as nodded to in the novel as a form of literary realism in the sense of the distinction called ‘actually existing capitalism.’ This is not pessimism but fact.
There are two simultaneously spinning records here, one is the chomp on the bullet real look at the way people in power and politics don’t give a shit about normal people, and those whose bootlicking of their higher ups often manifest in bragging about proximity, meaning physical feet of their house from someone else’s house. The second is the articulated malaise that crawled its way through upper-middle McMansions toward the early oughts. The desire to be free requires that one recognizes one’s own fetters.
I want to say Franzen imagined a suburban version of the so called Nabokovian idea of the ape that when given charcoal drew the bars of its own cage but I probably must take credit for that one. And so in sketching those bars, the protagonists of Freedom understand their unfreedom and as a result strive for that which they cannot obtain, the outside looking in.
I never obtain clarity when reading Franzen’s work. I enjoy his interviews, and his book recommendations, and I respect his writing and what I know of his writing process. He’s probably a great guy to hang around with on a porch in the late afternoon. But there’s something in reading his work that gives me the feeling I get when I buy something I wasn’t sure I needed or wanted and suddenly realize a sort of disgust at my capitalist yearnings and the continued emptiness the new thing didn’t fill. Franzen is most often neatly consistent in his style so that I have to believe he wants me to obtain this response, and then I think he wants me to extrapolate to recognize that this disgust the engine that America runs on. So he develops the insipid flavor he’s after but then I’m the one who has to suck the milkshake through his straw and after a while, because it’s one damn big milkshake, I get tired of it. As a point of comparison, I don’t tire of James or Durrell.
Given that Updike has been raked over the Kingsford briquettes for his portrayal of women, I’m almost surprised the reviewers don’t have a similar heyday here. Women in Freedom are mostly portrayed as totally messed up half-cocked and half-cooked proto-Karens with questionable agency who wash their antidepressants down with liquor. The men on the other hand often burst into tears in a 18th century manner. While it’s all strange stuff, none of it really matters because none of it really matters.
We, like the characters, blandly shrug the passing years and events; there is a now this, new that — who knew life was so casually meaningless, even when pushed to extremes. It’s all so part and parcel of the bourgeoise struggle, so effigy and ennui (a mondegreen sung to that hideous McCartney and Wonder chihuahua howl). In all cases, postering saves the day, evidently, by boredom personified — the characters imagine they are on a journey through life. The truth telling messenger is Richard Katz, the libertine punk metal screamer turned country crooner who gets the breaks where other’s can’t get their foot on the second rung of the lucky-ladder. But true to Freedom’s mandate he hates to be reminded of any of his song’s successes and he prefers to build decks. This is probably the second quintessential symbol of class yearning topped only by Fussell’s comment that bourgeoise bathrooms are always decorated a class tier above which anyone currently resides. Game of thrones indeed. In the book, those who get close to freedom either lose it or live in disgust of their fair gotten gains.
I say this with all respect: If Franzen can create a scene of dialogue over the course of two pages, he’ll extend it over the course of ten. Maybe freedom is found in exegesis? And this is part of my issue. I’ll admit, I tried the book once and made it only to about page one something because of this. But after reading some toss away online idea that Franzen’s writing was similar to William T. Vollmann for what was said to be a “blank fiction” form, I called Freedom forth from the vast repository of forgotten novels. What I realized was the casual definition of blank fiction does not apply in Freedom and in fact the entire idea of blank fiction deserves a clear definition with examples especially to differentiate it from POV’s and I don’t think sensational subject matter treated matter-of-factly answers the call. This time I liked Freedom enough to keep at it, although by page 500 I was sliding back into that feeling of “when can I leave this birthday party without looking too conspicuous?”
So I like the book and I less than like the book. I’ll also admit that about half way through I took a breather to reread The Great Gatsby and then a couple of stories by Gary Lutz. That little excursion cleared the head. I came back to Freedom still respecting Franzen’s writing in the way that I’d respect an organ transplant even as I’d be cranked up on brutal immunosuppressants.
Freedom, can be read as basically a JR pm-soap for cultured liberals who dip pages of The New Yorker into their fair trade coffee and who think a critical journal is The Atlantic. If those are the boundaries of writing and thinking, one might as well go to the county fair and squirt water into the mouth of a clown head and call it research. I underlined more than a few sentences while reading Freedom, not because they were great sentences, rather, I did so as reminders for me to consider things related to the novel that I’m currently writing. I was simply too lazy to write down the lines of flight separately in a notebook. And reflecting back, there was no sentence that stood out as particularly brilliant, although to go with Ebert again, Franzen knows all the right words.
I think that Richard Katz was based on someone like Peter Steele (RIP) of Type O Negative, although I couldn’t help but see Katz more as Conrad Birdie from the movie Bye Bye Birdie. He was unique and a lot of ink was tossed in his direction (like it was in every character’s direction) and yet he functioned as blandly as anyone else. Characters were or were not true to their unique character, but this is de rigueur for such books where alcoholics suddenly give up drinking, smart people suddenly become stupid, and so on. Resultantly, I can’t claim the book as being about character, nor about plot for that matter. These are all superficial trappings in Freedom. As for ideas, who cares Walter tries to save some blue bird and who cares about Joey heading to South America because he suddenly became an arms dealer.
The novel all comes down to the United State’s Declaration of Independence in which the characters engage in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s the key phrase. They have life, they don’t know what liberty looks like, and they pursue happiness. And note, their unalienable right, to be literal, is not happiness but its pursuit. The novel doesn’t go deep into this so it’s not worth looking toward Mill, or Bentham, or Isaiah Berlin with respect to their views on liberty and freedom because that would require too much straw grasping and unfounded speculation.
Franzen came to the table questioning the novel, probably a good thing, and it’s most likely simply another symptom of his cynicism and disgust of uncritical support for war and corruption up and down the line of American politics, which infects book publishing too — let’s call it hysteria over the gloss. Since the writing of Freedom, Americans’ hatred of absolutely insignificant things under the title of dogwhistle partisan politics, has turned into a fine art, both in presentation and in appreciation. Franzen attempts to capture this but he misses. He didn’t forecast the way virtue signaling would take over the entirety of natural life in America. We hope to see the characters’ real selves but their doors are locked and we end up with characters as stand-ins, as categories.
These are themes that were around when Franzen wrote this novel but he doesn’t catch or pursue them, oddly. So his work sits like the odd boy out at the school dance, like salt on ice cream, it’s not dirty realism, it’s not deep in character consciousness, it’s not about exquisite detail, it’s not full on cynical critique, nor do I think it fulfills what Margaret Hunt Gram labels as Franzen’s “Lukácsian realism.” Sure enough though, the novel presents a minor key piquancy between pseudo-capitalist critique and soft denuded Dickens.
Speculating on the thinking of authors who create such works I imagine authorial interior dialogues like: “Let’s see, I need something to happen. I know, I’ll create a pretense and send this character far away. Why? No other reason except something has to happen.” And this is what I mean by The New Yorker reader mentality. I imagine at a nearly subconscious level they think things like, “Oh, how great, the author nodded to my preferred viewpoint on this issue.” Or, “Oh, the author nodded to the tension between this and that, so deep!” Or, “Hurray for pseudo-eco-activism, where’s my mouse so I can click support.” Characters, and presumably readers, worry about things like an abstract population explosion more than the reality of bombing civilians. For them, the readers, all of this is perfect postering because they want their echo chamber to be fully non-contradictory. Isn’t this a definition of freedom too? Amidst this superficiality Franzen’s characters are reading, and by reading I mean things like War and Peace. In the end though, all the nods don’t lead to a whole, nor do they represent the whole as issues are kept at a comfortable aesthetic distance. I will however agree with Gram’s note of Lukác’s disapproving of “the fundamentally antirealist strategy of didacticism, ‘“inserting” theses into scraps of reality with which they have no organic connection.’” It is upon this point alone Franzen’s work hinges in my view, both the dialogue and didactic expositions, as the touchstone for all such contemporary works.
Saul Bellow at his best could turn a mundane moment into a nova; Franzen does a great job but it’s simply the bread and the knife and the crystal goblet and the wine per Billy Collin’s Litany. And if I could exactly pin down this difference I’d hold the secret to life, or at least to literature, or in a sense it would give me the “key to all mythologies,” to borrow from George Eliot and to slyly set up Franzen’s next book Crossroads due out fall 2021, which I look forward to reading and expect to simultaneously enjoy and dislike.
Ebert, R. (September 30, 1983). The Big Chill. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-big-chill-1983
Gram, M.H. (2014). “Freedom’s” Limits: Jonathan Franzen, the Realist Novel, and the Problem of Growth. American Literary History, 26(2), pp. 295–316.