14 September 2010

Jonathan Franzen, FREEDOM: And all of the houses they built in the '70s finally fall

Last week I went to see Jonathan Franzen read at what I was told was the first East Coast stop on his book tour, about a week after FREEDOM came out. The front section of seating quickly filled out with the seat next to me occupied by an older woman who appeared not to notice that there was a reading going on at all. Throughout the applause, the effusive introduction (during which Franzen appeared to bang his head on the signing table), the selection from FREEDOM and the Q&A, the woman, well dressed with stacks of rings, sat reading a library copy of Tana French's FAITHFUL PLACE -- as I write this, currently not on the New York Times bestseller list -- and sighing quite loudly to herself. I even heard a strangled "Oh my god" once when she turned a page. Oblivious to the earnest attention of the crowd, she sat.

For most Americans, the stir over FREEDOM -- that it's Franzen's first novel in nine years, the adoring attention from critics and the inevitable backlash -- probably means no more to them than Franzen's opinions on his TIME cover ("I suggested 'pretty good American novelist'") or fiction writing in general ("People who are uncomfortable behave in interesting ways") meant to my neighbor at the reading. We reading this can plonk them over the head with how great THE CORRECTIONS was, but it's unlikely they'll take our word for it; unless their book club picks it up in a few years, they probably won't be in the market for FREEDOM either. The world will little note nor long remember, et cet. Yet still we have to hold ourselves to some standard and say: Does FREEDOM merit all the attention after all?

Now that I've finished it, my answer would be: Absolutely. But I hadn't made up my mind on that point until much deeper into the book, than I had expected to go. As prefigured by the Lev Grossman profile, FREEDOM is an incredibly plotty novel, more so than most other works of contemporary literary fiction I have read (or probably will read) this year, but its first 200 pages follow a somewhat predictable track: Fissures appear in the house of the Berglunds, lawyer Walter and homemaker Patty of St. Paul, as tensions rise over their teenage son Joey's behavior, particularly his devotion to the girl next door. We see the fault lines first from outside, in a neighborly Greek chorus, then from the inside in the form of a purported memoir which Patty has been instructed by her therapist to write. The memoir is called "Mistakes Were Made."

This is where I'm tempted to break in and say "See?? This is a novel about AMERICA!" Two factors hold me back, the first being the insufferability and possible stonerdom inherent in a comment like that, and the second being that the concept of Patty's memoir didn't really work for me. Aside from comments about "the autobiographer," it would be impossible to imagine even a terminally bored housewife from reproducing the work shown here; its details are too extensive, Franzen's hand shown a few too many times. In the midst of this section, in which we travel back to Patty's college days, before she met Walter and his roommate (her original object of desire) musician Richard Katz, I began to worry a little about the hands into which I put myself. This is the fault line of the novel, the tension between 19th and 21st centuries; we live in the era of the memoir but crave the pace of fiction in it. I didn't want the 21st century to intrude -- and is there a more obvious way of pointing this out than having Patty, in the grip of malaise and the middle of her purported autobiography, engrossed in WAR AND PEACE? That it's pretty rare for anyone to casually pick up WAR AND PEACE is not the point. It's obvious in a clever way, a delicious way, a way that nearly made me want to re-experience that Tolstoy (and I'm on the record as saying it's overrated).

When Franzen resumes what I don't feel too bad about calling the plot, the central plot, concerning Walter's new job as executor of a billionaire's environmental philanthropy, I felt myself in much better hands. The second half of FREEDOM -- termed, for me, from the time we meet Walter's assistant Lalitha and witness her and Walter describing the work of their foundation to an incredulous Richard Katz -- is packed with events, but not a thriller; contains drama, but not melodrama; and concludes in a sequence that, even if I were to spoil it, would sound so much hokier than I found it. Instead, I was completely moved. I forgot how Franzen excels at endings, and FREEDOM is an example of that. Getting back to my neighbor at the reading, so little perturbed by the man who called himself a "pretty good American novelist" and spoke of wanting to write a book that "corresponds to some genuine change in [him]self," I think she would be far more likely to pick up FREEDOM if she knew how it ended, or at least how the arc of the Berglunds' marriage guides and shapes the book even when it looks as fragile as the population of cerulean warblers Walter's boss claims to want to protect forever. Deeply sad and sometimes cold as it is, it's anything but a tragedy.

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