Posts tagged ‘Freedom’
So, that review was kind of snide and snarky. And I did like the book in one way, and that is that I thought that it was entertaining, even if it was only half-way original. I think Jonathan Franzen is definitely talented. So, I have some second thoughts.
Even if the date rape was clichéd, I still recognize that the reason that it may feel clichéd is that is so true to life. After all, I wrote my own post that was somewhat similar to a Lifetime movie, only it wasn’t fiction, it was from my very own damn life.
It’s not just a cliché, it’s also my life.
In addition to that cliché there was also the love triangle between the “nice” guy and the “sexy” guy, as if nice can’t also be sexy. It struck me, after reading the book and then also reading interviews and biographies of Jonathan Franzen, that perhaps this book was somewhat personal. Richard and Walter are stand-ins for someone else, and that someone else is Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
Even though Franzen is the bigger environmentalist and the bird watcher and probably the less flashy of the two, and even though Wallace superficially resembles Richard, with his greater charisma and physical beauty and tobacco chew, I think that Walter and Richard are actually just dual aspects of Franzen’s personality. It’s Franzen against Franzen.
Also, if anyone is Walter, the more spiritual one, the kinder one, the more worthy one, it’s Wallace, who couldn’t possibly hurt a fly other than himself, if it weren’t for the one fact of his suicide. Wallace was the “churchgoer,” the one with the reputation as the “nice” guy, and yet it was Wallace, and not Franzen, who hanged himself on his own porch for his wife to find his body. Maybe not so selfless a death as David Foster Wallace would have wished for himself, if he had been in his right mind at the time.
It strikes me that Walter’s eventual forgiveness of Patty, and, by implication, Richard, is Franzen’s final tribute to his friend David Foster Wallace. And with this act, his overvalued novel is somewhat redeemed and maybe even worthy of half of the superfluous over-the-top “critical” literary views, if the idea was to transcend the selfish and self involved characters of his Seinfeldian universe, with this one final act of grace.
It occurs to me that the repitition of the word and the ideology of “freedom” in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech and the fact that Jonathan Franzen’s novel is titled, Freedom are no coincidence.
After writing a blog post about Franzenfreude nearly a year ago now [https://gooseberrybush.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/ill-weep-into-my-royalty-statement/], I thought I’d get around to finally reading the book that caused the controversy. I ordered a copy of Freedom from half.com and got a hardcover version that had been withdrawn from a library in Schaumburg, Illinois. I read it over the weekend. I have some thoughts about the book, and I’d like to share them.
First of all, even though much of the book is an “autobiography” written in the third person, by the novel’s female protagonist, Franzen doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of women. The only woman who’s really fully fleshed out in the book and still remains likeable, is the daughter, Jessica, one of the few people in the novel who doesn’t have her own vantage point recounted in the book. She is a character who is only discussed upon by her mother, her father, her brother, and her father’s college roommate. She is the only one of the four Berglunds who doesn’t get her own story told.
Freedom is a family drama that’s over 500 pages long. I couldn’t help feeling that the same story could have been told more eloquently and economically, by someone like Joyce Carol Oates, who would have most certainly given Jessica a voice. But I don’t know what I expected from an author who actually snubbed Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club Selection the first time he was chosen, because he feared that it would cause male readers to reject his book. Bear in mind that Winfrey’s book club has included the likes of such gynocentric authors as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Real pussies, those guys!
Franzen is indisputably a good writer. I’m not arguing that he has no talent. What I am arguing is that he’s not our generation’s Messiah of the Great American Novel. Franzen has been so overly and overtly hyped that, even though he himself comes across as a smug, pretentious and self-satisfied bastard, even he probably doesn’t believe his own press.
The novel starts off with what could have been a short story on its own, the story of the disintegration of a once happy Midwestern American family, told mostly through the eyes and ears of the family’s busybody neighbors. The son starts up with a neighbor girl, and the wife alienates her son to the degree that he chooses to move out of his family home and in with his teenage girlfriend and her mother and stepfather. This causes the wife to come unhinged. We’re told the neighbors suspect her of slashing the tires on the truck of her son’s girlfriend’s stepfather. They also suspect that she has a drinking problem.
After this preface, we’re treated to several chapters of the autobiography of Patty Berglund, the wife and mother with the drinking problem. The writing assignment was for therapy. She starts with a cursory description of the dynamics of her family of origin and then goes into the story of a date rape that she survived as a teenager, an assault that was swept under the rug by her parents.
The chapter is called Agreeable, and it was originally published as a short story in The New Yorker, a periodical that I subscribe to, which might explain why the story seemed so familiar to me. But nah. On top of having probably read the story already, it reads like a 1980’s afterschool special or a Lifetime movie that I remember seeing once. The story of the dutiful daughter raped by the son of a politically powerful family and then encouraged to accept the boy’s insincere apology as penance for his crime – there’s nothing new here. Franzen serves up Mom’s meatloaf and expects us to praise it as if it were filet mignon.
The biggest example of predictability is the love triangle between Patty, her husband Walter, and Walter’s narcissistic musician friend, Richard Katz. Katz is described as promiscuous, unreliable, irresponsible, and prone to addictive behavior. On top of his finer traits, he also happens to be a fundamentally decent fellow with a glossy sort of asshole charisma.
It’s easy to see why Patty might find him attractive in a superficial way. He’s the sort of guy who believes in gender equality and likes women in theory but in practice has nothing but contempt for virtually any female, or at least, for the ones he wants to fuck. I might have found the character of Richard Katz somewhat attractive myself, but Franzen ruined it for me by describing him as looking like Muammar Gadaffi. Maybe this is an example of the “funny” that the book jacket reviewers credit Franzen with.
After Patty and Richard inevitably scratch their itch at Walter’s mother’s vacation home, Richard records an album of sad love songs with his alternative country band Walnut Surprise and becomes a hit with the middle-aged and pretentious set. The album is reviewed and featured on NPR. Richard Katz experiences his first taste of fame, tours the world with a girl in every harbor, and then eventually bottoms out after a DWI conviction and a stint in rehab. Richard Katz isn’t a character. He’s a conglomeration of hackneyed musician clichés.
Walter is a humanistic do-gooder type, passionate about the ecology and the sustainable living movement. He’s so earnest as to come across as self-righteous, a difficult feat for an atheist to pull off. Walter is so good, and Franzen underscores his very goodness so repeatedly, that Walter’s only fault is in his self-righteousness, and perhaps, in his naivete. He comes across as a caricature of a good man rather than a fully realized character. Still, when he finds love with his young and gorgeous Indian assistant, you root for him. But alas, Lalitha is not long for this world.
Franzen foreshadows the novel’s conclusion, setting you up for Patty and Walter’s reconciliation hundreds of pages before, with a speech from Walter’s mother Dorothy on the virtues of loyalty. I suppose Franzen thought his readers would find this a satisfactory conclusion, but I just wondered how long it would take before Patty decided to shit on Walter again. If Freedom is supposed to be Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre I think he needs to make like Wile E. Coyote and go back to the drawing board. As far as works of art named Freedom go, George Michael has Jonathan Franzen beat.
There has been some controversy in the literary world recently concerning the accusations of sexism and the differentiation of serious literature from popular literature. The elitist literary establishment would have us all believe that the only quality writers are white males with MFAs. Their books, by necessity, sell few copies, because the discerning public is a small portion of the public. That’s the theory, anyway.
What prompted the outrage is all the attention paid recently to two books that received heavy coverage in The New York Times. The Times has devoted unusual space to effusive reviews of two books, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Jennifer Weiner, a “chick lit” author that I admire, tweeted, “In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement.”
Weiner’s theory is that when women write about love and family and relationships, then it’s called “chick lit,” and when a man writes about the same things it’s Literary Fiction, destined for a shelf in the classics section. It’s a pretty fair criticism. The literature that’s supposed to be taken seriously, according to the critics, is more often than not, written by men. And hardly anyone reads it.
The funny thing is that this is the opposite of how a “classic” of literature is born. The classics we think of nowadays are not the products of critical darlings but are the books that were preserved by virtue of their popularity. Charles Dickens was a popular writer. Ditto Edgar Allen Poe and Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Their books sold well, but no one accuses them of mediocrity just because more people enjoy reading their books. Just because a book is popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it automatically lacks any artistic merit.
Jennifer Weiner and another writer I admire, Jodi Picoult, who tends to write family dramas, came together for an interview on The Huffington Post to discuss the controversy of the allegation of sexism, along with how the literary world works in general. If you’re interested, then you should check out the conversation. They make some good observations.
I haven’t read either Freedom or Super Sad True Love Story, and both Franzen and Shteyngart are just trying to market their books as any writer would. Maybe they truly are that brilliant. Maybe both these guys would agree with Weiner and Picoult that sexism continues to reign in literary circles. I am providing a link to both the HuffPost article with Weiner and Picoult, as well as a link to a YouTube video that Shteyngart made as a “book trailer” to promote his latest novel. It’s pretty funny.
One thing I do know: In my opinion, not every critic’s darling is actually a good writer. It’s kind of like the emperor’s clothes. One foggy old white man says some other well-educated white man is a great writer, and everyone follows suit. For example, I don’t really enjoy Saul Bellow, John Updike, or William S. Burroughs. I respect that other people really, really get them. But they do not appeal to me at all. Burroughs, in particular, is abstract and unrelatable. I suspect that you have to actually be stoned on heroin while reading him to appreciate him fully. I’d much rather read Jennifer Weiner.