The reckoning begins at home. Just as the complacent upright parents in Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” see their world capsized by their own children, who become militant leftists, so the Berglunds inadvertently have bred a native rebel, their son, Joey. Bright, handsome, personable, preternaturally adept at getting his way, all thanks to his doting mother, he defies her by moving next door to live with the enemy, the disheveled right-wing household where the chainsaw tree-murderer cohabits with a blowzy single mother and her blameless teenage daughter, who worships Joey and showers love on Patty — or would if only Patty didn’t coldly rebuff her.
This idyll, related with brilliant economy, establishes the themes explored over the course of a narrative that moves at once backward, forward, inward and outward — with hypnotic force and with none of the literary flourishes that faintly marred “The Corrections.” The Berglunds, introduced as caricatures, gradually assume the gravity of fully formed people, not “rounded characters,” in the awful phrase, but misshapen and lopsided, like actual humans.
One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.
Granted, nonentities are people too, and a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But although the narrator of Freedom tells us on the first page, “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds,” one need read only that the local school “sucked” and that Patty was “very into” her teenage son, who in turn was “fucking” the girl next door, to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter. The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language is a world in which nothing important can happen. Madame Bovary’s marriage sucked, Heathcliff was into Catherine: these words fail the context not just because they are of our own time. There is no import in things that “suck,” no drama in someone’s being “into” someone else. As for the F word, Anthony Burgess once criticized the notion that to use it in matter-of-fact prose is to hark back to “a golden age of Anglo-Saxon candour”; the word was taboo from the start, because it stands for brutal or at best impersonal sex. “A man can fuck a whore but, unless his wife is a whore, he cannot fuck his wife … There is no love in it.” A writer like Franzen, who describes two lovers as “fucking,” trivializes their relationship accordingly. The result is boredom.
Obviously, Freedom was the dominant point of literary conversation during my hiatus. Despite my having been mentioned in the tediously predictable Weiner/Picoult cage match, I found nothing in that debate sufficiently new or interesting enough to require comment. (Although if Jennifer Weiner really thinks In Her Shoes merits the kind of critical attention Freedom has received, I'm not the idiot.) Meghan O'Rourke offered the smartest and most elegant closing word on that front.
As for the book itself, I can only offer this. I read the first 50 pages of a galley on an LA/NY flight, lost interest, and set it aside. I actually managed to leave it behind on the flight. It felt (at the outset) like another unpleasant tour of yuppie entitlement. I've never much cared for Franzen's characters, but more seriously, I'm left feeling he doesn't care very much for them either. Having read The Corrections once, I wasn't feeling compelled to read it again, and had more or less dismissed the book from my attention, until the thoughtful Tanenhaus review, which gave me enough reasons to decide to go back and try again. Oddly, the Myers review doesn't change that impulse for me - any book that can produce such wildly divergent opinions is, I think, something that still merits attention. So I will try again and let you know where it goes.
Any readers who have already read Freedom should feel free to weigh in below.