Magazine | October 18, 2010, Issue

Discontents and Their Civilization

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, 562 pp., $28)

Literary types like to complain that no one reads big, meaningful novels anymore. These days, they tend to blame punch-drunk publishers, or all-saturating technology, or the cast of Jersey Shore — anything and anyone, in other words, but themselves. Truth be told, it’s always been damned hard to write a big, meaningful novel. It’s much easier to excavate a historical curiosity or sample a local richness, to make a cat’s cradle of the Old Country and the New, to wax lyric about some last best place or work up a spun-sugar confection of verbal cleverness and formal dazzle about urban ironies, or ironic urbanities, or urbane ironing, or herbal aeries, etc. This kind of stuff tends to win admiring reviews from predictable quarters and earn invitations to exotic book festivals, where literary writers meet up and, whether on that afternoon’s panel or in the hospitality suite later that night, complain to one another that no one reads big, meaningful novels anymore.

To the general reader, meanwhile, a great deal of contemporary literary fiction must come across as an endless parade of independent-study projects from a class full of brainy, over-parented private-school students. Always brilliant but often bloodless, sounding great depths but no wider than drinking straws, such books cannot make any persuasive claim to speak of and to the country at large, to reveal the American scene in its roaring, sprawling fullness. These limitations have been made abundantly clear, this fall, by the tremendous success, and equal achievement, of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. In the past, Franzen himself has certainly sung his share of funeral dirges for serious literary culture. But thankfully, as his latest proves, he’s also clearly ignored his own doomsday blues and gone ahead and written an unapologetically ambitious novel of the young American century. Artful, readable, intelligent, and just plain right, whether witheringly or sympathetically so, about so much of recent American experience, not to mention about family life and ultimately about human nature itself, it’s a book that gloriously reminds you of what a straight-up great writer can do.

The novel concerns the Berglund family, congenital bourgeois-progressives living on the gentrifying frontlines of a St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood. Patty, the wildly imperfect matriarch, starts out as the unloved jock-daughter of a devoutly liberal New York family. She’s raised under a regime of subtle and not-so-subtle neglect by her parents — who are far more interested in encouraging the charming eccentricities of Patty’s arty siblings than watching Patty star for her high-school basketball team. This neglect turns unconscionable after she’s raped by a boy who gets away with it because he’s the son of an important social and political ally of her parents. In turn, Patty rejects her impeccably East Coast background for what she decides has to be a better life in the purer, more decent Midwest. There, after marrying a sweet wet noodle of a lefty named Walter, whom she effortlessly beguiled at college and ambivalently chose over his bad-boy rock-star roommate Richard, Patty endeavors to be a titan of good neighborliness, and, more important, the undisputed champion of American motherhood.

Lionel Trilling observed that the muscular imaginations of Hawthorne and Melville, and later Hemingway and Faulkner, found vitality in exploring the effects of once-powerful pieties and sentiments on characters who remain devoted to those pieties and sentiments in spite of their exerting a diminished hold on larger life and their retaining a capacity to wreak so much private damage. I think the same very much holds for Franzen, though in place of what commanded these earlier writers’ attention — New England Puritanism, Old Southern triumphalism, romanticized war — for him it’s American Exceptionalism in its late-bourgeois-progressive mode, with its NPR listener-supported combination of anxieties and excesses about everything from the ethical implications of your shade-grown coffee beans to the categorical imperative that your two children regard you as friend first, parent second. Patty wants to be not just good, but great, according to this ethos — which, the novel reveals, is not just plainly unsatisfying to deeper human needs upon its total fulfillment, but limiting and even destructive in the options it makes available for when, as ever, things don’t go as planned.

#page#After a brilliantly funny prologue, complete with a nosy, gossipy neighbor-cum-chorus compiling evidence to confirm that “there had always been something not quite right” about the perfect-seeming Berglunds, Franzen explores what happens when, in her early forties, Patty proves less and less capable of maintaining her neighborhood, her family, her marriage, and herself at the tasteful, thoughtful, rewardingly high standards she’s set for them. A great deal of the novel’s comedy and, later, its pathos, proceeds from Patty’s repeated defeats and her refusal to be defeated by, among other things, nasty neighbor wars, scandalous teenage sex, degrading midlife affairs, family dispersal, marital wreckage, her husband’s professional suicide, and her own borderline craziness. Franzen plots these interconnected developments through a series of set pieces, some shaggier in their telling and overstocked in their bits of verisimilitude than necessary, but each refocusing the novel’s primary matter through one of its compelling main characters. In addition to Patty and Walter, these include Richard, the aging, up-and-down rock star who’s their longtime shared, if fraught, interest, and also their son Joey, an absolutely perfect specimen of entitled young America (a freshman in September 2001, he nurses a deep “personal resentment of the terrorist attacks” because they prevent him from having “the college experience he’d expected”).

Throughout the book, Franzen proves a devastating satirist of American civilization’s apparent achievements: Parents Weekend at a tony liberal-arts college features an “afternoon colloquium” on “Performing Identity in a Multivalent World”; a loutish neighbor builds a great-room in his Minnesota backyard complete with “stained-glass Vikings chandelier, and mechanized recliners”; a young woman visiting Chicago for the first time notices that “the streets were deserted except for gypsy cabs and occasional Scary Black Youths of the kind one read about”; weekly sex in a stalled marriage is “a chronic but low-grade discomfort, like the humidity in Florida”; the best counsel you can give someone giving up on life is that “maybe you need an antidepressant or something”; young liberal couples blithely come into New York “for the weekend, to go to the museums and do a gay-marriage march”; Washington think-tank types, hawkish about Iraq, shamelessly name-drop Bush-administration biggies and Leo Strauss alike at pre-invasion dinner parties; and a Prius sporting an Obama sticker self-evidently points “toward godlessness.”

Franzen complements his penchant for ecumenical satire with his remarkable capacity for detailing the spike-and-crash vitalities of family relationships. It’s a winning combination that, in his earlier novel The Corrections, gradually lost out to a powerful undertow of melancholy, which itself eventually turned depressive, despairing, and finally nihilistic. The same dark horizon appears partway through Freedom, with Patty pursuing her longtime adulterous yearnings and Richard both battling and accommodating those yearnings; Walter risking his cherished liberal principles, not to mention his own marital fidelity, when his professional crusade for a bird sanctuary puts him in conniving and tempting company; and Joey turning into a charged-up young Republican who becomes involved in post-9/11 military-industrial entrepreneurship while becoming ever more serious with, and yet pragmatically unfaithful to, his sweet, loopy, and doggedly devoted hometown girlfriend.

In other words, whether in public or private settings, everything and everyone is set up for a cataclysmic fall. We’ve been prepared for as much throughout the novel by various invocations of “freedom” that, if heavy-handedly at times, frame bleak accounts of what people can and tend to do with it, and likewise by repeated references to the main characters’ wanting to lead good lives but no longer being sure of how to do so. And yet they want to, they want to! At the very depths of their despair, the main characters choose not to wallow in their accomplished filth or hide from the storms they’ve brought down upon themselves. Instead, they want to do better, truly better, which is to say, they want to break free of the hothouse selfishness that’s been so generously nurtured by their age and culture. And where lesser writers might detachedly frame, or ironically disavow, such longings, Franzen doesn’t flinch. Instead, he’s bold enough to fulfill their old-fashioned hope (and ours) for “a happy ending.” In concluding this already big and meaningful book with moving acts of forgiveness, restoration, and rejuvenation, Jonathan Franzen has more than done his part for that long-endangered species, the great American novel. Now do yours: Read the book.

– Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist and critic, is a professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is writing a biography of Richard John Neuhaus, and his second novel, which is set in Sri Lanka, will be published in 2011.

Randy Boyagoda — Mr. Boyagoda, a novelist, is a professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also the principal of St. Michael’s College. His latest novel, Original Prin, will be published in Canada in 2018.

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