Commentary Magazine


How Not to Be Alone

I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom. Franzen is a talented American writer and his works to date are not wanting for brilliant descriptive gems. But as a sermonizer on the topic of America’s derelict soul, he is as ingenious as a disenchanted ninth grader; he’s also as self-important.

Don’t believe me. Ask him. “I feel as if I’m clearly part of a trend among writers who take themselves seriously,” he offered in response to an interviewer’s question having nothing to do with himself, his seriousness, or anyone else’s. “I confess to taking myself as seriously as the next writer.” Perhaps if the next writer were Jonathan Franzen.

According to reviews, Freedom is an ambitious work intended to tell America something new and vitally important about itself. Yet, despite the torrent of ecstatic press, the book didn’t make it onto the short list for this year’s National Book Award in fiction. But Franzen need not take the snub too, um, seriously. He just gave an America-bashing interview to the Guardian’s Sarfraz Manzoor that’s all but guaranteed his Nobel Prize. This exchange provides the best cross-section view of the liberal mind at work that we’ll ever see.

Franzen: [In] the last decade America has emerged even in its own estimation as a problem state. That is, there were many criticisms one could make as early as treatment of the Indians; it goes way back; and our long relationship with slavery. There have been some problems with the country at many points. In the Cold War, we were certainly culpable. But the degree to which we are almost a rogue state and causing enormous trouble around the world in our attempt to preserve our freedom to drive SUVs and whatever by…

Manzoor: Operation Enduring Freedom.

Franzen: Operation enduring freedom, good. It does make one wonder: What is it in the national character that is making us such a problem state and I think [it is] a kind of mixed-up childish notion of freedom. And perhaps really, truly, who left Europe to go over there [America]? It was all the malcontents; it was all the people who were not getting along with others.

Manzoor: Are you more comfortable in America now than you were when you started writing the book?

Franzen: (sigh) No. It was possible while I was writing the book to look forward to some possibility of significant change. And now people left of the middle feel puzzled and sort of anguished because we don’t have an object for our anger but the right is still as angry as ever. I mean that’s the worrisome thing about our upcoming elections. [The worrisome thing] is that the right is still just as angrily motivated as ever. And the Democrats are in disarray and feeling, well, we have power but the system itself is so screwed up, and we are relatively the adult party so we’re responsible for trying to make an unworkable system work. It’s just, it’s this kind of (groan) discouragement and dull throbbing anxiety.

Forget the book. The pontifications above constitute Franzen’s true unwitting masterpiece. The whole liberal template is unwound and labeled like cracked genetic code. The wonderful thing about liberals is that their dismissal of competing ideologies strips them of the need to cloak or soften their bizarro theories when speaking publicly.

The first order of business is America’s guilt. Franzen can’t imagine that any sane person would disagree with him about the U.S.’s role in the Cold War being on a moral continuum with the institution of American slavery. And of course, who could possibly deny that the Bush years were even more ghastly than either one?

After the dirty hands comes the condescension. The American conception of freedom is “childish” and the Democrats are the “adult party.”

Next up is the left’s penchant for totalitarian lockstep. Franzen wags his finger at the earliest Americans for being nonconformist “malcontents” who bucked the non-democratic European nation-states. Note the creepiness of the speculation on misfit ancestry and problematic national character.

Last, the subterfuge. The Democrats have done nothing wrong. It’s this stubborn broken thing called “the system” that no amount of liberal wisdom can set right. And so what can the enlightened liberal do but groan in the face of the “dull throbbing anxiety” created by the non-liberal world and its perpetually angry conservatives.

Franzen’s failure is ultimately not political but artistic. His realm is the creative, and in parroting those of the most meager imaginations, he has reversed the artist’s aim. Liberalism doesn’t only encroach upon things like opportunity and standard of living. It’s what it does to the self that’s most dangerous and pernicious. It pushes out the individual imagination and replaces it with wooden convictions. Before that wreaks havoc on a polity, it has its way with a mind. For a novelist, this is fatal. And so Franzen, a writer of copious narrative and descriptive gifts, ends up sounding like a 14-year-old who broke up his usual Daily Kos with his first read through Howard Zinn. The Nobel speech can’t possibly measure up.

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