Let Franzen Ring
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 576 pages
The celebrity novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose ambition has long been to do the “job of social instruction,” has written a “big social novel” to settle the question of what “freedom” means in America—if not once and for all, then for at least as long as the names of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney conjure outrage and condescension. Freedom mentions the former president and vice president some 20 times, even making reference at one point to “the Bush twins and all the partying and loose morals that the Bush name connoted.” For a novelist who once took to the pages of Harper’s to express his conviction that “drawing on an up-to-the-minute vocabulary of icons and attitudes” would consign a book to “overnight obsolescence,” this might seem to be an odd strategy.
Not really. Franzen’s aspirations are monumental; as a “social novelist” who seeks to convey “vital social news,” he places himself in the company of Tolstoy. Critics have already decided that Freedom fulfills those aspirations. The Economist compared it to Paradise Lost. Time magazine put Franzen on its cover, hailing him as the long-awaited “Great American Novelist.” He gained another sort of renown when President Obama was spotted on Martha’s Vineyard in August with an advance copy of the novel.
Yet the other two books Obama carried along on vacation, The Red Pony and To Kill a Mockingbird, were more suitable companions for Freedom than War and Peace. Despite his insistence that he belongs “solidly in the high-art literary tradition,” Franzen fits more comfortably alongside John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, as well as novelists like William Styron, Gore Vidal, John Irving, and Wally Lamb. He represents a familiar American type: the rather ordinary cultural artisan who labors to make a popular splash, although he is embarrassed by the vulgarity of success, and itches to be known for a higher achievement.
It is not uncommon for a middlebrow American novelist to tack a social theme onto his huffing bestseller in the hope of being taken seriously. What is unusual is Franzen’s self-conscious appeal to a mass audience of self-regarding elitists. That Franzen should have caught Obama’s notice should be no surprise—he got to meet the president in October—because his novels attract the same kind of person who is attracted to Obama. His characters populate the same class of Americans with good educations and better intentions who boast of subordinating self-interest to facts and science and argument. They speak the correct language, display the correct tastes, glorify the correct ideals, affirm the self-image of the correct people, and despise the incorrect.
It took Franzen a while to hit upon his successful formula. His first novel was a 500-page political farce with an unruly plot of incongruous characters like something out of Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, or maybe even Tom Robbins. The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) is set in St. Louis—Franzen grew up in Webster Groves, an inner-ring suburb—and imagines that the city is being taken over by Indians under the command of the new police chief, a 35-year-old woman from Bombay who is secretly financed by Indira Gandhi’s family. Beneath the silliness and exaggeration, Franzen’s sharp eye for social detail could be detected now and then: at the homes of elderly residents, “the blinds in the windows, lowered in a different era, would not be raised all day”; a daughter, criticized by her father, retaliates by telling him that his pants are too short; two black custodians, talking animatedly a moment before, glance at each other and fall silent when a white manager bids them good morning; left alone in her parents’ house, a teenager “would feel a deep pang of boredom and irresponsibility.” While he did something else with the story line, Franzen was developing the requisite skills for social realism.
In Strong Motion (1991), his second 500-page novel, Franzen settled on the themes that would repeat themselves in all his subsequent fiction—“environmentalism, women’s reproductive rights, and a certain anti-corporatism,” as one critic named them off. The plot turns on earthquakes in the Boston area that are triggered by a chemical company’s drilling of deep wells. Although he interrupts the narrative with public service announcements (“The same wave of profit-taking that had crashed onto Cape Ann in 1630 was even now rolling out over the Pacific Coast, carrying with it the last of the continent’s virginity”), Franzen could not distract himself from his main purpose—the story of a sensitive young man (not entirely unlike himself) who rises to political consciousness and falls intensely in love with a brilliant and politically committed young woman.
The Corrections (2001) made Franzen’s name, especially when Oprah Winfrey fell in love with it. “Funny, familiar, insightful, and disturbingly real all throughout,” she said in choosing it for her book club and inviting its author onto her television show. “Not a false note in all 568 pages of the book.” With an instinct for publicity surer than Bill Veeck’s, Franzen loudly resisted Oprah’s advances. On NPR, he derided the writers who appeared on her show as “bogus.” To another interviewer, he complained that she selected only “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” books for her club. The Corrections was “a hard book for that audience,” he said. Oprah promptly disinvited him.
Overnight Franzen became the most widely discussed writer on the planet. The Corrections, which debuted in fifth place on the New York Times bestseller list but had dropped to eighth before the controversy, shot to No. 1 after the “blood sport entertainment” (in his own phrase) that Franzen had provided. The novel went on to win the National Book Award, selling almost a million copies in hardback. The critics, as the saying goes, were unanimous in their praise—or nearly so. In Commentary, Joseph Epstein called the novel “a highly schematic effort to show what happened to the American middle class during [the] socially unmoored decade” of the 1990s, concluding that it lacked “freshness of feeling.”1
The Corrections was a good old-fashioned family saga without the good old fashion. Franzen makes much the same mistake in Freedom. Although the latest novel sets out to do for the Bush years what The Corrections had done for the 1990s, it is—to be frank—just an old-fashioned adultery novel. It derives whatever freshness it has from a few conspicuous reversals of the expected. One member of the married couple at the center of the book—Patty and Walter Berglund of St. Paul—was an all-American basketball player at the University of Minnesota. It’s the wife, of course. The other is a lawyer with an environmentalist organization who ends up helping a Texas oilman—Bush’s friend—to rape the environment in order to save an endangered bird. The adulterous lover is a rocker, Walter’s lifelong friend, experienced with drugs and women (and with whom, for “the first time in her life,” Patty has sex “properly”), who is nevertheless the voice of conscience and renunciatory love.
Franzen also reverses the progress of traditional adultery novels like Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Instead of ending tragically with the death of the adulteress, Freedom ends happily with the Berglunds’ reconciliation. But that points the way to Franzen’s theme. Patty steals into the rocker’s bed and nearly destroys her marriage and family because of her freedom to do pretty much as she likes—a “freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.” In Franzen’s world, freedom is just another word for recklessness and perjury, an excuse for bad behavior, a license that we covet for ourselves and deny to others.
Consider the Satan of this Paradise Lost, a prominent neoconservative intellectual who is “the founder and luminary president of a think tank devoted to advocating the unilateral exercise of military supremacy to make the world freer and safer, especially for America and Israel.” Invited by his Jewish roommate for Thanksgiving, the Berglunds’ son Joey listens as the young man’s father holds forth on
the “new blood libel” that was circulating in the Arab world, the lie about there having been no Jews in the twin towers on 9/11, and [on] the need, in times of national emergency, to counter evil lies with benevolent half-truths. He spoke of Plato as if he’d personally received enlightenment at his Athenian feet. He referred to members of the president’s cabinet by their first names, explaining how “we” had been “leaning on” the president to exploit this unique historical moment to resolve an intractable geopolitical deadlock and radically expand the sphere of freedom.
For Franzen, neoconservative political opinion is so incredible that he cannot even be bothered to mimic it with any care. He is positive that he is writing for an audience that shares his incredulity. For him, the neocons were obviously lying about the casus belli in Iraq. In private, then—among family and friends—they must surely have admitted as much.
Joey’s host explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media (i.e., to lie to them) “in the service of a greater truth.” Joey protests that those who lie about Iraq are “no better than the Arabs with the lie about no Jews being killed on 9/11.” Unruffled, his host patiently explains that you have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you.”
“But that’s because they’re free,” Joey said. “Isn’t that what freedom is for? The right to think whatever you want? I mean, I admit, it’s a pain in the ass sometimes.”
Around the table, people chuckled at this.
“That’s exactly right,” [his roommate’s] father said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”
And in short, neocons don’t really believe in human freedom. It is, for them, a fancy piece of outerwear to conceal their own will to coercion. Not that Franzen subscribes to Joey’s conception of freedom as the right to think whatever you want. Otherwise he would, in good faith, have created a character who set forth the actual neoconservative case for war in Iraq. Franzen may not be the equal of Tolstoy or even Milton, but he does not lack the talent for creating such a character. Instead, like the character he did create, he lacks the integrity.
Franzen’s own moral failure does nothing whatever to establish the truth of what he has to say about freedom. What it does establish is that Franzen’s glittering public success—his claim to be the “Great American Novelist”—rests upon his unique ability to congratulate his readers on sharing his liberal icons and attitudes.
1 “Surfing the Novel,” January 2002.