Americans have always had, in addition to wide-spread arrogance in imagining that their current literature is the best, the inferiority complex for not producing the Great Novel, nothing that could be compared with War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov or David Copperfield and Vanity Fair or Remembrance of the Things Past and Lost Illusions or The Magic Mountain and Tin Drum, or Don Quixote, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Of course, it could be argued that Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Grapes of Wrath, The American Pastoral (Roth addresses terrorism before it became the central American problem) or Continental Drift by Russell Banks are great American novels, but somehow the critics and reviewers are still dreaming of The Great American Novel. And this novel has been anointed as such by many.
I don’t know whether Franzen worried about whether he was writing a great American novel or not, but it’s interesting that the protagonist reads War and Peace and refers to it quite a bit. Freedom (FSG, 570 pages) opens with a literary setting, Summit Avenue in St. Paul, where Fitzgerald was born. Anyway, the novel takes a large sweep, covering three generations of one nuclear family with the social and political nexus which it occupies. In structure it’s both a Bildungsroman, a novel about growing up, and a family oriented novel, like Buddenbrooks, except the American family, being nuclear is smaller, but it compensates for its smallness through social life, friendships, adultery, and business partnerships, to cast a large net and to cover many characters. The principal strength of the novel is the grace with which it moves from one character to another developing them and making them intimately available to readers, so that they become more than characters—they are people we live with as we read the novel. Here Franzen achieves the Hemingway principle of characterization—Hemingway said he did not work characters but with people. And moreover, many psychologists and literary analysts have observed that we love to read novels in order to spend time in the company of interesting people intimately. In real life, people don’t reveal to us, usually, their secrets and intimate thoughts, but in many novels they do. They are more exposed to us than a patient is in a psychiatrist’s office. We listen to interior monologues, and find out the doubts, insecurities, and the sexual attractions and temptations of several protagonists. And just like in psychotherapy, sex plays the major energizing role here. Patty Berglund, who is the center of the first section of the novel, is raped at a party by a rich young man, but the charges against him are dropped because he comes from an influential family. Patty is attracted to a rock musician but marries his steady friend, while she is being adored by a lesbian. Her son, Joey, has sex at the age of 11 with a neighbourhood girl, who is 12, alarming both families. Twenty years later, having become an alcoholic, she fulfills her fantasy of sleeping with the half-Jewish rock musician, Richard Katz, who looks like al-Gaddafi. In some way, this is the kind of plot that Danielle Steele’s novels have, a romance permeated with sex. But at the same time, it’s a literary novel, with lots of political critique, with psychological disorders, and psychotherapy and alcoholism and drug-abuse, and it’s a cultural critique about how we live in suburbia and how we consume the planet, so there’s a bit for nearly everybody here. The main theme of the novel, according to the title, should be Freedom, and in some ways it is. How free are we to fuck around? How free are we to promote democratic agenda to save the environment? How free are we from drugs and alcohol, or are we free thanks to drugs and alcohol? But more than freedom, I think American sex is the central theme.
And while the novel deals with alcoholism, depression, and a few other psychological and social issues, I haven’t actually been provoked to think—wow, this is an amazing new angle. We are invited to ponder many issues but other than with the environmentalist politics, we don’t actually encounter epiphanies here beyond the salubrious thoughtfulness, which keeps the momentum on the high end, in counterpoint to the libidinal aspect of the novel.
If you are the type of person who would never read a steamy romance, you still will be pulled by the steamy romance elements here, and titillated to go on. Will they bang or won’t they? Much of the suspense revolves around that. And once they do, will they be found out by the husbands and wives and friends? Will they break up a marriage and make another one? It turns out American marriage and families are a resilient beast, despite high divorce rates. Franzen, although he’s never had a child and he lives unmarried with a girlfriend, says about marriage this: “Family is perhaps my primary prism for refracting the world into meaningful constituents, and one way or another we need to have some kids in our lives.” It sounds as though he wants to have a child in order to be able to write more insightfully about American lives. He was tempted, he said in an interview, to adopt Iraqi orphans.
I enjoyed reading the novel: it was fun to be with the people, many of whom resembled people I have known, and the conversation always rang true. Franzen’s people talk a lot, and they talk very naturally, and wittily, so that there’s hardly a dull moment. Each conversation is like a ping-pong game with reparties, and while it’s not absolutely realistic that everybody would be witty (especially not in the States where the art of conversation is dying out while the art of facebooking is booming), it’s fun to read such dialogue. Franzen supposedly revises his dialogue by reading it out loud several times, cutting superfluous words, and he avidly keeps up with the current vernacular of the young.
The novel is a sort of bazaar, with elements of Vanity Fair, with a bit for everybody—from something that would fit in Desperate Housewives, or Dallas, or Days of Our Lives, to the concern for the environment, something that would fit a high-brow satirical work, such as White Noise by Don DeLillo. However, there’s not much in the novel for a literary buff, in terms of language or experimentation. The story telling is solid and more or less chronological, 19th century style, and the language is functional, even if elegant—not drawing attention to itself with stylistic excesses and experimentation.
Franzen transcends the purely personal through environmentalist concerns. Patty Berglund is married to Walter, who is an environmental purist and lawyer. Her rides bicycle to work even in cold Minnesota winter, and he takes it upon himself to protect song birds. He wants to campaign against the domestic cat, estimating that free-roaming cats kill nearly a billion birds a year in the States. Instead, Walter organizes a wild-life refuge in West Virginia, specifically to preserve the cerulean warbler, a song-bird, which is not even on the threatened species list. Ironically, this humanitarian project, while shutting down an operation to shave off a mountain top and while freeing up a forest of houses, displaces and renders homeless 200 families, and the money for the project comes from President Bush’s friends. Franzen, who himself is an avid bird watcher, here takes an admirably deep look at what can happen with excessive environmentalist zeal—that there could be collateral human damage.
The novel, unfortunately for cats, has become a runaway bestseller. Even Oprah has invited Franzen to her show. Previously, for the Correctionist, when she chose his book, and Franzen complained that Oprah was too low-brow, she had disinvited him from the show, and it was a sort of scandal, in which Franzen appeared to be a high-brow literary elitist. Well, now, this novel definitely is neither high-brow, nor low-brow, with enough scope to veer into both territories, and with enough sex. It is selling millions of copies very quickly, and people are actually reading the book, which is great to see in the days when the book has already been an occasion for various epitaphs and funeral marches. But, yes, it’s not good news for cats because if you ponder the fact that they kill so many wonderful birds, that they kill the song in our trees, then, I must say, woe for you cats, and by the way, trees and birds, too, as the hardcover is like a brick of cellulose. A delightful one. These days it’s hard to find a novel that is readable throughout, and this one is. It’s not War and Peace. It is Peace.
–Josip Novakovich, author of Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust
excerpt from Freedom:
Walter and Patty were the young pioneers of Ramsey Hill-the first college grads to buy a house on Barrier Street since the old heart of St. Paul had fallen on hard times three decades earlier. They paid nothing for their Victorian and then killed themselves for ten years renovating it. Early on, some very determined person torched their garage and twice broke into their car before they got the garage rebuilt. Sunburned bikers descended on the vacant lot across the alley to drink Schlitz and grill knockwurst and rev engines at small hours until Patty went outside in sweatclothes and said, “Hey, you guys, you know what?” Patty frightened nobody, but she’d been a standout athlete in high school and college and possessed a jock sort of fearlessness. From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.