Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Which I Agree with David Brooks

Or perhaps both David Brooks and I agree with an insight common enough to pass for conventional wisdom. Brooks is reviewing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a book I will not read for reasons that will become clear. B.J. Myers savaged Freedom in the Atlantic as “a 576-page monument to insignificance,” complaining that in Franzen’s world “nothing important can happen.”

Surely, says Brooks, “this is Franzen’s point.” In the America of Franzen and most of the other major American writers of the past century, nothing important can happen because people are too obsessed with neat lawns, nice cars, perfect nails, and every other sort of bourgeois trivia to care about Important Things. Really? Brooks:

My own answer, for what it’s worth, is that “Freedom” tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.

Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.

By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma.
Exactly. I recently tried to read a John Updike novel and tossed it away after twenty pages of caged misery, thinking, if suburban life were really that bad, we would all have gone back to the forest generations ago. Of course our age has its besetting woes; every age does. Among ours I would number loneliness as the worst, springing from the weakness of our communities. But the thing that most bothers people like Thoreau and Franzen about our world, its lack of an obvious religious structure or defined path toward spiritual meaning, is just another way of stating the best thing about our world: we are free to think for ourselves and to make of our lives what we can. Franzen seems interested in freedom -- he gave his book that title -- but he does not understand its value. He seems to be arguing that for most of us it is just an excuse to wallow in triviality. And for many it probably is. So what? Why should it bother Franzen that millions of Americans are stupid and shallow? Millions of others are creative, quirky, fanatical, open-hearted, maddening, violently misanthropic, amazingly generous, and every other quality one could name. This may be a land in which a reality show about mean people competing for a worthless prize can get millions of viewers, but it is also a land with tens of thousands of garage bands, self-published novels, one-man political movements, and self-proclaimed philosophers, and nearly as many poets as readers of poetry. People who don't like suburban America should go somewhere else -- Indonesia, Botswana, Manhattan, Idaho -- and stop whining about the sort of pleasant existence where boredom often is the biggest problem. There are worse lives.

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