NR Digital

Discontents and Their Civilization

by Randy Boyagoda

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.

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