Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Self-Inflicted

Individualism spells disaster for Jonathan Franzen's unhappy Americans

William Deresiewicz


Jonathan Franzen is, by his own account, a divided soul. "It turns out," he once wrote, "that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience." One was the Status model: high art, genius, Flaubert; the other was the Contract model: accessibility, pleasure, the community of readers. Of the two things for which Franzen is most famous (other, of course, than The Corrections, his 2001 National Book Award–winning best seller), both were public controversies that erupted from this very self-division. The first was his 1996 Harper's essay that renounced the novel of cultural critique in favor of "writ[ing] fiction for the fun and entertainment of it," yet contrived to do so in a way that left him looking like exactly the kind of ideologue he didn't want to be mistaken for. The second may be dubbed l'affaire Oprah—Franzen's disinvitation by that redoubtable figure on a charge of aggravated elitism, in the course of which he came across as both a snob to the masses and a philistine to the literati. He couldn't seem to figure out where he wanted to the stand, and so, renouncing both the highbrow and the low, pleasing no one by trying to please everyone, he managed, in the most sincere and well-intentioned way, to strand himself inside a one-man DMZ that perfectly embodied his ambivalence.

Of this conflict and a series of cognate ones—emotional, political, even geographic—Franzen has fashioned his new book. Freedom centers on a love triangle. Walter is "the nicest guy in Minnesota," a lawyer and environmental activist who grew up the son of a martyred mother and abusive, alcoholic father in the bleak environs of the Iron Range. Patty is the wife he met at school, a hypercompetitive jock who, emotionally stunted from a childhood of neglect in the midst of her self-involved family of New York high achievers, was just waiting for someone to come along and take care of her. Richard is the wild card, Walter's best friend: a feckless, charismatic indie rocker with a threateningly handsome face that makes him look like Muammar Qaddafi. Walter and Patty's misbegotten marriage, Walter and Richard's complexly competitive friendship, Patty and Richard's long-delayed, intermittent, and thoroughly tormented love affair—these form the core of the plot, along with the story of Walter and Patty's son, Joey, who finds himself involved, in their gentrifying Saint Paul neighborhood, with the working-class girl next door.

Readers of The Corrections will recognize a number of key motifs: family dynamics and their impact on adult children, the Midwest and the urban East (Walter and Patty move to Washington, DC; Richard moves to Jersey City), the sorrows of the upwardly mobile middle class, the conflict of duty and pleasure. Franzen remains superb at rendering the psychological texture of everyday experience: the gyrations of the soul, the power struggles of domestic life, the chess moves of romantic behavior. But if the terrain, and the mind that maps it, are recognizably those of the earlier novel, the contours are different. The Corrections focuses on filial relationships, Freedom on romantic ones, including Walter's affair with his fetching young Indian-American assistant (named, with a nod to Nabokov, Lalitha). In The Corrections, Franzen's coevals (he was born in 1959) are still dealing with their parents; in Freedom, they are dealing not only with one another but also with their own adult children.

The focus on a single family, and the plot's convergence on a climactic Christmas dinner, give shape to the earlier novel's capaciousness. Here, a more loosely structured cast of characters and a less sharply defined chronological scheme afflict a narrative of comparable length with a sense of sprawl. The story begins around 1980 and runs, with flashbacks, to 2004, then meanders the rest of the way to the present. Franzen seems to recognize the organizational trouble. The novel opens from the point of view of Walter and Patty's neighbors—a twenty-three-page dash that's as perfectly plotted as a short story—switches to Patty's journal (written at her therapist's behest), follows with a long middle section that is titled "2004" but actually covers a stretch of several years, returns to Patty's journal, and finishes from, once again, a neighbor's perspective.

The book's architecture is impressive but doesn't really solve the problem of diffuseness. The novel lacks the drive of The Corrections, as evidenced also in the materials of the plot. Gone is the antic invention of the earlier book—Lithuania, Corecktall, Mexican A, Chip stuffing a frozen filet of salmon down his pants—which was often annoying but always a mark of vitality. The Corrections was grim—far grimmer, in fact, than anything in Freedom—but the very brutality of its candor made for a wild humor that is absent here. Freedom stays at the level of the earlier novel's least successful passages, the Denise parts, a Viking-range-and-kitchen-sink realism.

To judge by the two volumes of nonfiction that Franzen has published since The Corrections—How to Be Alone (2002), a collection of essays, and The Discomfort Zone (2006), a memoir—the new novel dramatizes a whole series of interrelated conflicts that go to Franzen's understanding of his place in the world. Richard, the rocker, fights the battle of Status and Contract. Celebrated for his stubborn aesthetic rectitude, during years of obscurity, by a coterie of fans, Richard finds his identity imploding after achieving a surprise popular success at around the same age (early forties) and same time (the vicinity of 9/11) that Franzen did. Cornered by a young fan, Richard delivers an impromptu bravura rant on the phoniness of pop subversion. ("Sheryl Crow is a chewing-gum manufacturer, and I say that as a longtime chewing-gum manufacturer myself.") If a lot of people like his work, he must be doing something wrong.

Walter's professional dilemmas are Richard's writ large. A billionaire Texas birdwatcher wants to spend a huge amount of money to protect his favorite species, the cerulean warbler, by buying up tracts of West Virginia wilderness, and Walter, seeing a chance to actually get something done for a change, agrees to run the operation. (The plotline comes directly out of Franzen's own environmental commitments and their coalescence around the issue of avian habitat, as developed in the final chapter of The Discomfort Zone, which talks about the author's passion as a birder.) There are a few catches, however. Such as, the land is going to be strip-mined first. And a couple of hundred families have to be displaced from their ancestral homes. And every environmentalist in West Virginia thinks Walter is a traitor. So he holds out as long as he can, trying to convince himself that he hasn't been royally played, then finally makes a break for it, erupting in his own anticorporatist tirade before lighting out for the open road.

Walter and Patty's son, Joey, a budding young Republican who gets involved in a dubious scheme to supply truck parts to the Iraqi invasion, triples Franzen's point. As soon as you try to put your ideals into practice, they get mangled by the very systems you need to operate within. But there's a deeper opposition working here as well. Ideological purity, aesthetic or otherwise, can also be a front for misanthropy. Refusing to engage with systems may just be an excuse for refusing to engage with people. For system, in effect, read community. Homo franzenius is often a loner, especially the male of the species. Joey resists his girlfriend's devotion. Richard's womanizing keeps intimacy at bay. After the collapse of his West Virginia plans, Walter holes up in a cabin for six years. Franzen has written about his own impulse to self-isolation (the title of his essay collection cuts more than one way) and admits that his initial enthusiasm for nature was largely an urge to get away from other people.

In the geography of Franzen's imagination, community is to solitude as the Midwest is to New York, the place he grew up to the place he lives now. "First City," he calls his essay on the latter, in pointed contrast to The Twenty-Seventh City (1988), the title of his first novel, which is set in Saint Louis. Franzen was raised there, but in his past two novels he has shifted his imagination northward, to Minnesota (a place to which he has no biographical connection), as if to underscore the nature of his subject: make it colder, darker, bleaker, more Scandinavian—more, in a word, midwestern. And midwestern, for Franzen, also means communitarian: the "friendly egalitarian suburb" in which he was raised, Walter and Patty's nosy neighbors in Saint Paul, his own mother's need, as he tells it, to make sure that their family "fit in." New York, meanwhile, is the locus of noisy, self-willed individualism—the place of Patty's siblings, all broken, as adults, by their need to be exceptional.

If Franzen's native region has an ethos, it also has an affect: that renowned midwestern "niceness," which lubricates the gears of community. Walter's story, which becomes the novel's central thread, is a profile in that quality. Richard loves Walter because he is nice. Patty marries Walter because he is nice. Walter marries Patty because, being so nice, he deludes himself that she is, too. Nice is self-sacrifice, nice is restraint, nice is forgiveness. But nice—the humble squint, the deferential slouch, the knack of making room for other people by minimizing your own claims—can also be a mask, in Franzen's mind, for an equally midwestern quality: depression.

Depression is everywhere in Freedom, as it is in The Corrections. It is hereditary, in Franzen's analysis—he writes of Walter's "Swedish-gened depression"—"a successful adaptation to ceaseless pain and hardship" that makes you incapable of enjoying pleasure or experiencing hope. But it is not only hereditary. "The Nice Man's Anger," Franzen calls one of his chapters. If depression is aggression turned inward, and rage is aggression turned outward, then even Walter, that paragon of niceness, has another option, and the whole West Virginia fiasco, together with the collapse of his marriage, becomes an extended opportunity to exercise it.

Depression and rage: These are the poles of Franzen's emotional dialectic. (They are also the moods of frustrated idealism, whether artistic or environmentalist.) Alfred and Gary in The Corrections, Walter and Patty here—all of them swing on this pendulum. And just as depression as a feeling corresponds to niceness as a social strategy, so does rage correspond to the opposite of being nice: telling the truth. That is Richard's self-appointed role: being an asshole or, in other words, being honest. He's the one who sees through Patty's selfishness, at school, and tells her to stop jerking Walter around. He's the one who calls Walter on his feelings for the lovely Lalitha. And he, of course, is the artist, the professional truth teller.

And so we come full circle, back to Status versus Contract, art as brutal honesty versus art as community building. The remarkable thing about Franzen's writing is the way it manages to operate on both sides of the divide. His prose is exemplarily nice: fluid, colloquial, pleasant, inviting. But the niceness hides a deep political anger, which, framed as satire or polemic, aims itself at his own audience, the liberal middle class. "There were also more contemporary questions, like, . . . Where to recycle batteries? How to respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood?" Franzen is the guy who smiles at you every morning but secretly hates your guts.

Yet the niceness and the anger are equally genuine and, for Franzen, equally valid. As angry as he is at us, he is equally angry at himself. Because he is nice—self-doubting, fair-minded—he feels the claims of both sides: of principle and compromise, solitude and community, New York and the Midwest. And to these oppositions, these ambivalences, one more must be added: adolescence and adulthood. In the aptly titled essay "Mr. Difficult" (which is the kind of thing you'd call a teenage boy), Franzen talks about his former idol, novelist William Gaddis (The Corrections is named in homage to The Recognitions), and how he used to struggle with the "skinny-young-man attitude" that Gaddis represents. "The essence of postmodernism," Franzen concludes,

is an adolescent celebration of consciousness, an adolescent fear of getting taken in, an adolescent conviction that all systems are phony. The theory is compelling, but as a way of life it's a recipe for rage. The child grows enormous but never grows up.

Solitude and self-aggrandizement, ideological anger and ideological purity: all compelling, all ultimately immature. The stories of Gary and Chip and Denise in The Corrections, of Richard and Patty here, are all about fighting, against one's own inclinations and the drift of the culture, to grow up. Almost alone among the prominent writers who have come of age over the past couple of decades—or at least, the prominent male ones—Franzen has committed himself to the values of adulthood: responsibility, moderation, hard work, self-control. That these are quintessentially midwestern values is not, of course, an accident. That Franzen struggles with them is what makes his inner drama worth attending to. One can almost feel him willing himself not to be another American man-child.

But maturity (like Contract and niceness and community) is finally what wins his assent, and it is Freedom's largest point that it must win our political assent as well. The novel is named for our nation's highest value and is everywhere a criticism of it. The desire for freedom, in Franzen's view, is nothing other than an adolescent urge for irresponsibility and unconnectedness. The novel is full of people whose freedom not only makes them miserable, it makes everyone around them miserable, too. Walter's older brother, Mitch, has left behind a string of children by a string of women:

"You worry about your kids?"

"Yeah, I worry, sometimes. But they've got good mothers that know how to take care of them. I'm no help at that. I finally figured that out. I'm only good at taking care of me."

"You're a free man."

"That I am."

Spoken like a true American. Patty's wealthy, self-indulgent family—pointedly named the Emersons—becomes an allegory for the nation as a whole, spending down the riches amassed by earlier generations to prop up a life of blissfully ignorant indolence. "I can work," her sister Veronica says. "I'm working now. I'd just rather not. It's boring. . . . I really just want to be left alone." American freedom, the novel insists, is the ruination of the world, and human freedom is the ruination of the planet. This is not a nice thing to have to listen to, and the novel's polemicism mars its artistry, but it is surely something we cannot hear too often.

William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education is forthcoming from Penguin Press.

Ctrl-Alt

September 7, 2010
6:24 pm

The "Mr. Difficult" takedown still sticks in my craw. Franzen implies that Gaddis was immature, but hey, Gaddis had to work for a living, something that Franzen has never had to do, so who's really the enormous child? The man who went to a crappy job he hated every day in order to support his family, writing when time would allow, or the man whose only responsibility is to himself, who writes when he feels like it? Gaddis was a man, a man who saw through the systems he had to live and work inside. Franzen has the luxury of standing outside those very systems, only having to engage them when it's adventageous.

Old Saw

September 21, 2010
11:31 pm

Ctrl-Alt Delete.
Gaddis was a great writer, indeed, but I never really thought of him as a post modernist.
The confusions were less ontological and more epistemological. That is to say, I think Gaddis was more of a modernist, rather than a post modernist. The irony is, after post modernism, even modernism is a type of post modernism.
You can no longer write a pre-post modern novel, so you write what looks like a modernist work that by virtue of the knowledge of post modernism, can not be unselfconsciously modernist.
Franzen has this problem as well, of course.
That is the root cause of the conflicts described in the beginning of the review. It is also the cause of frustration for someone who cannot artistically ignore what he no longer wants to acknowledge.

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