Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I checked Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom out of my local library on a Saturday afternoon; I finished it, all 560 pages of it, by the next Monday night. Which says something about the dullness of the summer, or the tenacity of my reading, but also something about the book itself: it is, for at least the first 300 pages, compulsively readable. And for the last 200 or so, rather slow. Middle ground is a dull place to be, especially when speaking of a novel placed so firmly in the middle of the road, but here there is no escape. Freedom is neither as bad as its detractors charge nor as good as its fans proclaim. It’s a good book, not a great book; interesting, not compelling.

Franzen can write, but not brilliantly. This should be said. This is a man who writes, “The extreme white of their T-shirts seemed to him the color of the Bush regime” (p. 349). Clumsy. Seldom is he outright unpleasant, however—this is a cherry-picked example—and for the most part his prose is functional, if unimpressive. An NPR reviewsays, “There isnt a page that goes by without insights you can mull over and sentences you can admire,” but I’m hard-pressed to think of a single really pretty sentence in the volume. The language is, at its best, invisible. But enough quibbles: on to substance.

Tim Parks, writing for NYRB, has several key insights regarding the novel’s flaws. The first is that the “first-person” sections of the novel, told from the female protagonist’s point of view, “have a style that is undistinguishable from that of the extremely sophisticated Franzen.” Not only is this true, but Franzen knows it is true: whenever he writes an “autobiographical” section he drops interruptions from the supposed POV character into it to remind the reader that she, not he, is speaking. There is no way to tell from voice alone. The “autobiographical” passages, the novel’s main conceit, are clumsily shoved into the narrative. Which is fine: a bit of clumsiness, a few technical fuck-ups, are to be expected in a middling novel. In a great novel? And at the center of its narrative structure? Not so much.

The next charge is more damning. “Franzen’s [characters] often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on…Often it feels like the characters only exist as an alibi for what is really a journalistic and encyclopedic endeavor to list everything American.” It’s true: Franzen’s novel is packed to bursting with pop culture minutiae. Spot-on minutiae, I should say; as a hipster-ish twentysomething I can verify that every band referenced is exactly where it should be, and just as up-to-date as you might expect. But it’s a neurotic kind of accuracy, and by the time I got to the paragraphs on Bright Eyes I almost felt sorry for Franzen. Is he trying to prove something? It’s good right now, within a year of the novel’s initial publication, but in ten years’ time—never mind a century’s time—it’ll be close to unbearable.

Why does he need these kinds of detail? This is the man who wrote, after all, that “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” My best guess is that he can’t help himself. He can’t let the knowledge go to waste. But at the same time the details mean nothing.* He won’t trim the fat; he can't help but name every band every character ever listens to. This lack of discipline is fatal to a novelist, especially one writing something this long, and it starts to show. The novel’s plot is flabby, strung-together, and as interesting as it is up to a point, by the end its interminable conversations of the dysfunctional middle class are outright numbing. The book gestures at meaning in a hundred directions--emotional, political, various minglings of the two--but it never settles on one to genuinely examine.
Franzen wants the novel to matter—hence the constant gesturing at environmentalism, the War in Iraq, 9/11, and so on—but he doesn’t have the discipline to really consider these things. To echo Eliot’s criticism of Chesterton: he has many ideas, but he never really thinks. Instead he lets his quasi-journalistic cataloging do the thinking for him. He sees that the Iraq war effort is corrupt (big surprise!), but he doesn't ask why. He sees that suburbanites are grossly reactionary, but he doesn't ask how things could change, or what is peculiar about their breed of conservativism. He alludes to big ideas (hence the way his characters name-drop Tolstoy and D. H. Lawrence and the like), but he doesn't have any.

Which, again, isn’t to say Freedom is a bad novel. It’s exciting at times, and clever (though never insightful, critics be damned)—a good novel. It’s not a great or important novel, but it doesn’t need to be. I only wish we could stop arguing about whether Freedom is an Important Novel and start considering it as an Entertaining Novel. It's Grisham or King or Clancy, with delusions of grandeur. It's a beach read. Check it out from your library, if they have it.

*Take the example of the University of Virginia, the setting for a few scenes. I’ve attended the university for two years. Franzen gets the details right—that we call the campus “grounds,” that our football team loses all the time, etc.—but the details have no evocative power. They don’t do anything beyond proving that Franzen did a little homework.

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