In 1996, with two well-received but not widely read novels to his credit, Jonathan Franzen published a long essay in Harper’s magazine in which he aired his concerns about the novel’s waning cultural authority. As Franzen later admitted, the essay was not a particularly cogent piece of writing. Even in the clarified version that appears in How to Be Alone (2002), lumpenly retitled ‘Why Bother?’, much of what he describes as the ‘painful stridency and tenuous logic’ of the original remains in evidence.
Franzen characterised the essay as a public exorcism of some personal demons, describing it as the record of ‘a stalled novelist’s escape from the prison of his angry thoughts’. His obscured and misunderstood intention, he insisted, was to explain how he had come to abandon the callow ambition to write a big social novel that would somehow grab society by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into it. But the essay’s sincere anxiety about the uneasy relationship between creativity and commerce, which manifests itself (in Franzen, at least) as a conflicted sense of loyalty to both artistic integrity and audience gratification, a desire at once to reject consumer culture on principle and critically engage with it, remains a persistent and, in some respects, defining theme in his work.
That he is still apt to be defensive about the cultural status of serious literature can be seen in Franzen’s recent essay in praise of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), which appeared in the New York Times in May 2010. The earnest young man who wrote, in an uncollected article published the same year as the Harper’s essay, that American writers face ‘a totalitarianism of commercial culture analogous to the political totalitarianism with which two generations of Eastern Bloc writers had to contend’ might be embarrassing to his older self, but Franzen’s writing has continued to express concern that the infernal machine of technological consumerism is overwhelming and oppressive. He has clearly not abandoned the ambition to write big social novels that are, on some level, locked in a DeLilloian wrestle with the whole writhing madness of contemporary American culture. The Corrections (2001) proved to be his breakthrough book, artistically as well as commercially, not because it shrugged off the socio-political concerns of The Twenty-Seventh City (1988) and Strong Motion (1992), but because it developed a more effective way to channel its expansive riffs about dotcom booms and the medicalisation of mental health through the medium of its generously drawn characters.
Two large contextualising ironies have come to shadow Franzen’s public handwringing about the fate of serious fiction. The first is that the success of The Corrections, which was comprehensive enough for the book to have been read by Lisa Simpson, has placed Franzen in an élite class of bestselling ‘literary’ authors whose works are guaranteed wide exposure and considered scrutiny; indeed, in some circles the publication of Freedom has been treated as an event of great cultural import, significant enough for him to appear on the cover of Time and to be lionised as a Great American Novelist. The second is that, strictly speaking, Franzen is (as W. Somerset Maugham once had the wit to describe himself) really only a first-rate second-rater. Freedom is an almost classically middlebrow novel. It is a big, readable work of character-driven social realism, solidly grounded in domestic drama, but with an overlay of concerned political conscience. Though it affects an air of worldly pessimism and occasionally summons a weakly satirical humour, it is for the most part a work of heart-on-sleeve sincerity. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel that contains so much crying.
Freedom, like The Corrections, centres on an ordinary, white, middle-class, liberal American family. Walter Berglund and Patty Emerson are college sweethearts who have married and had two children. The novel opens with the young family moving to an inner-suburb of the Midwestern city of Saint Paul as part of an early wave of urban gentrification. The Berglunds are a seemingly perfect couple. Walter is decent and hardworking; Patty, a former college basketball star, strives to be a devoted mother to her children.
The novel unravels this outwardly idyllic existence with considerable thoroughness. In a long section that is ostensibly written by Patty in the third person as part of her therapy, we are led through the circumstances of her unhappy youth, her early relationship with Walter, and her descent into alcoholism and despair. We meet Walter’s college roommate, Richard Katz, a rock musician who, in the course of the novel, becomes successful after a long period of dues-paying. In one of several stereotypical contrasts around which Freedom organises itself, Richard is selfish and insensitive, possessed of a roguish charisma (or so we are told; it doesn’t leap off the page) that tends to eclipse the considerate and reliable Walter. Patty, of course, carries a flame for Richard, and they eventually have a brief but foolish affair that becomes the catalyst for the disintegration of her marriage. The novel also charts a deepening rift between Walter and his son Joey, the fourth of the book’s main characters, whose adolescent rebelliousness has him appalling his parents by cavorting with the daughter of their blue-collar neighbours and, even worse, becoming a Republican.
The interpersonal anguish makes for good soapy stuff. Yet one of the interesting things about Freedom is that its very middlingness represents a deliberate aesthetic decision. It is an absorbing book largely because it has been written to be absorbed. The prose is easygoing to the point of blandness, and occasionally lax; which is to say, the writing never rises to any great heights because it never really tries. Franzen has seemingly decided that his virtue as a novelist is a kind of dogged patience. He is prepared to follow his characters for hundreds of pages at a time in order to establish the kind of comprehensive acquaintance with their personalities that might allow us to understand their hopes and fears, and to forgive them their considerable failings. The novel’s broad canvas is an attempt, worthy if not entirely successful, to humanise its knowingly stereotypical elements and to give credible depth to its strong moralising impulses.
Freedom is, in other words, a novel that treats its characters reverently but subjects them to large structural ironies. Some of this is implied by chapter and section headings (‘Good Neighbors’, ‘Mistakes Were Made’, ‘Free Markets Foster Competition’) which are heavily ironic to the point of sarcasm. The title carries a similar burden. Freedom is concerned with the various ways in which its characters are not free. Its point is not simply that they are undone by their choices and their innate weaknesses, but that there is an almost systemic aspect to their failures and disappointments. The novel’s socio-political context is seen to be not simply corrupt, but also corrupting. Walter and Joey, driven by their similar temperaments to opposed political positions, both attempt to exploit the system after their own designs. Walter signs up to an unlikely commercial arrangement in the hope of creating a permanent nature reserve; Joey becomes entangled in a dodgy scheme to sell useless machine parts to the US military. Both are compromised and ultimately defeated by the mendacity and deviousness inherent in the process. But beyond the satirical intent of these sub-plots, which express some of the palpable disgust with the America of George W. Bush that is part of the novel’s atmosphere, Freedom cultivates, as a kind of underlying conceit, a sense that the boundary between its characters’ private lives and the unhealthy political context is porous. A metaphorical seepage is evident throughout the novel. When Joey reflects on his deepening relationship with his girlfriend Connie, he thinks to himself that ‘prices weren’t always evident at first glance: that the really big ballooning of the interest charges on his high school pleasures might still lie ahead of him’. As Walter’s relationship with Patty deteriorates, he feels ‘frightened by the long-term toxicity they were creating with their fights. He could feel it pooling in their marriage like the coal sludge ponds in the Appalatian valley.’ The political is personal in Freedom, rather than the other way round. At the height of their estrangement, Joey experiences ‘hurt that felt structural, as if he and his dad had each chosen their politics for the sole purpose of hating each other, and the only way out was disengagement’.
The line’s spark of metafictional awareness implies something of the extent of Freedom’s ambitions and limitations. It is a novel that displays Franzen’s strengths as a novelist, notably the comprehensiveness and humane generosity with which he realises his characters, alongside his weaknesses, which are evident in the fact that Freedom is a complex novel that ultimately rests on some large simplicities. Franzen is an ingenuous but knowing writer, and if his characters are, at bottom, recognisable types, it is in part because he is suggesting that we are all typical in certain ways, whether we like it or not, and often for reasons that are not really under our control. Yet a raised eyebrow is warranted when the six most prominent characters in a novel divide neatly into three egotistical men and three needy women.
A number of early responses to Freedom picked up on the fact that Patty Berglund spends part of the novel reading War and Peace. This has been interpreted as a declaration of Franzen’s literary intent, seemingly on the grounds that Freedom is a work of realist fiction that is rather long. But Franzen is not that gauche, even if he does put his foot in his mouth occasionally. And there are other notable literary allusions to be found in its pages. The first time we glimpse Richard Katz, he is relaxing with a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s V.. When Joey attends college, he is made to read Plato, anticipating a scene in which his room-mate’s Republican father delivers a postprandial lecture about the invasion of Iraq that evokes the anti-democratic philosopher to justify the lies that were told in support of the war. In each case, reading matter is presented as a reflection of personality. Just as Pynchon is a sign of Richard’s hipster credentials, Patty’s excursion into Tolstoy is a flight from her unhappy reality, an expression of her desire to lose herself in a comprehensive fictional world. To the extent that it does bear upon Franzen’s intentions, the allusion is perhaps better understood as a modest acknowledgment of the ability of great literature to remain relevant on a personal, if not a cultural, level.
It is one of several instances in which some of Franzen’s anxieties would seem to be ironically diffracted through the novel as a form of understated self-mockery. In the middle of Freedom, Richard grants an interview to an eager young fan in which he sarcastically denounces the commercialism of the music industry and claims to have embraced Republicanism and consumer culture. It does his career no harm whatsoever; indeed, the ease with which the supposedly rebellious and bohemian Richard becomes reconciled to his success is another of the novel’s ironies. But when, late in the book, Walter is driven by his personal and professional frustrations to denounce the rapacity and environmental destruction that is seemingly built into the capitalist system, he is instantly marginalised as a crank. Freedom’s pessimistic politics thus gravitate toward a kind of quietism, with the suggestion that ironic resistance is ultimately a form of complicity, but sincere denunciation is futile; while, as a work of fiction, it remains content to leave the tension between its own artistic aspirations and its populism scrupulously unresolved.