Monday, February 21, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

When I told a colleague I was listening to Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, she said, "Oh, the great American novel." There is something of that ambition about the book, an attempt to capture America in the decade after 9-11. (At least, the America of middle class white people, the only kind who appear.) Franzen is determined to get the details of American life exactly right, from the dynamics of gentrifying neighborhoods to the way college students talked about Facebook when it first emerged. I can imagine social historians 50 years from now assigning Freedom to their students, assuring them that it is accurate in every detail.

As a novel I found parts of it compelling and other parts tedious. Franzen's real interest is obviously interpersonal relations, especially family life, and the political parts of Freedom seem phoned in. Only when he connects a character's politics to tensions in his or her family does Franzen really seem interested. We have neocons and environmentalists and truck-driving working class men angry with liberal elitism, but it all seemed rather cardboard to me, especially compared to the attention Franzen lavishes on sibling rivalry and sexual guilt. Looking around him, Franzen must be wondering why so many Americans are so angry, and the answers he comes up with are more Freudian than philosophical or economic. One of the three main characters is environmentalist Walter Bergland, who doesn't so much love nature as hate atv-driving, chainsaw-wielding, gun-toting despoilers of the world like his father and brothers.

The other main characters are Walter's wife Patty Bergland and Walter's best old college friend, sometimes successful musician Richard Katz. You can already imagine the love triangle that develops here, as Patty marries the ploddingly earnest Walter while longing sexually for the excitingly wicked Richard, all the while musing that Walter and Richard love each other more than either will ever love her. I found this tedious; aren't there any other plots? As if one cliché of romance weren't enough, Franzen gives Walter and Patty's son an equally clichéd relationship with his sweet, loving hometown girlfriend; as he goes away to college, meets wealthy, powerful people, and longs to join them, he struggles with whether to get rid of his old love in favor of someone more stylish and well-connected. These relationships are the real heart of Freedom, and the most powerful parts all describe either the lovers' interactions or their internal struggles over whom and how to love.

Perhaps the stereotypical structure of the relationships is the point. We think we live in a revolutionary age, Franzen suggests, but what matters is still the timeless human concerns: love in both its passionate and gentle aspects, family, self esteem. I have no real problem with that; as I said, this is really Franzen's interest, and he should write about what interests him. He is, by the way, a highly skillful writer of the window pane variety; his prose rarely calls attention to itself but describes with admirable clarity what he wants the reader to see. I would not say, though, that this book really captures America very well. For one thing, Franzen seems to have no understanding of money. Nobody in the book ever lacks for it, and a couple of times when it seems that the absence of money will create problems, large sums of cash appear by semi-magical means to keep things moving. Characters with no income still live in Manhattan, albeit in cramped, dingy apartments; they put themselves through college without obvious jobs; when they turn toward corruption, wealth showers down on them so fast that they are rapidly sickened by it. Without a serious consideration of money, I think, it is impossible to get at why Americans are so angry. Why do college professors feel ignored and abused? Money. Why do working class people rail against "elites"? Money. Why are middle class people anxious? Because although they have enough money to get by, they never feel like it is enough for both safety and the things they crave. A book titled Freedom ought to give more attention to what freedom means to most Americans, which is enough money to do what you want.

Instead Franzen focuses on freedom as it applies to family and love. People struggle to break free from their families but then find themselves naked and alone; people act on forbidden sexual desires but then find themselves desolate with guilt and shame. Obedience to traditional moral dictates doesn't always work either, and people who sacrifice their freedom for duty are likely to feel trapped, bored, depressed, and full of resentment for those who break the rules and seem to be getting away with it. There can be no political solution to these problems. That, I suppose, is Franzen's message, to the extent that he has one. For him political anger is a misdirection of energies that should be spent putting our emotional lives in order, and instead of marching and shouting slogans we should be talking quietly to the people who matter to us.


Unknown said...

"Why do college professors feel ignored and abused? Money. Why do working class people rail against "elites"? Money."

I can't say this is true in my experience at all. My colleagues joke about money, but I don't sense any indication from them that "money" is the reason they feel abused, to the extent that they do. When I see money disputes, they often seem to be actually about power. At my school, people are upset that the admin cut the school's retirement contribution, but I gather that my colleagues are upset less about the money than about the fact that this looks like a power grab by the admin--if they can prove they can cut something by fiat, they've won a victory; if the faculty can prove they can't, it's the faculty that's won. The same goes for the current union and budget fights in Wisconsin and in Washington.

Yes, folks without jobs, or who think they're going to lose their jobs, or who suffer health catastrophes, etc., worry about money. But it's not clear to me this is what you're talking about. You seem to be talking about a societal obsession, rather than individuals in particular circumstances, and I just don't see it--not the way you describe it.

That said, adultery seems to me even less central to our society than money. It affects and obsesses some individuals, but it's not a societal issue either. Franzen's book sounds absolutely trivial, and forgettable.

John said...

I think the root of professors' complaints really is money. I think if you doubled all professors' salaries, their complaining would be cut in half. That is partly because other things about their jobs are pretty good, in terms of autonomy and doing things that interest them. So, sure, they defend their turf, but they would worry about it less if they could afford to spend the summer in Tuscany.

To quote my brother-in-law the business tycoon, "I find that the best way to motivate people is money."

Unknown said...

My experience is that people with a lot of money complain just as much or just as little as they would if they had somewhat less. Another way of saying it is, just because an abrupt doubling of a person's salary would be a pleasant surprise and mood-lifter, doesn't suddenly mean that all other issues are really proxies for money. If you suddenly made them all ten years younger, I bet they'd be happy with that too. But that doesn't mean that all professors' unhappiness is "really" about their lost youth.

For that matter, a lot of people's worries, including their money worries, are much alleviated when you put them on prozac. Does that mean the great American novel should be about serotonin? (It would at least be different.)

John said...

So what's your theory about the anger of the comfortable middle class?

Unknown said...

I'm actually not sure there's that much anger in the comfortable middle class. I see it in the media, but I don't see it around me, and so I wonder if the idea that the middle class is angry is like the idea that crime rates are rising.

I have a feeling that a lot of the anger that is out there derives from personality; in the old terminology, the angry folks are of a choleric humor. But, since our society in all sorts of ways actually encourages mellowness (or least repression) and discourages anger, we're shocked and fascinated by anger when we see it, as we are shocked and fascinated by violence.

Internet anonymity also may encourage expressions of anger, or at least make them more visible to more people.

Incidentally, I don't actually see that much professorial anger around me either. There's a fair amount of frustration with student apathy and the prevailing top-down admin style. But anger? I don't sense floods of it.

John said...

Certainly the anger of Americans is probably exaggerated in the press, and many people are quite content. But the Tea Parties are real and they have mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to "fight back" at things they seem to hate with a passion. I see a lot of political anger in America. No doubt much of it is simply character, and many of those people would find something to be angry about. But there is a large swath of America that seems quite angry about "big government" and "liberalism," and I find this quite puzzling -- especially since so much of it comes from people who depend on Social Security and Medicare.

And in defense of my theory that much American anger is rooted in economics, I point out that polls of the "national mood" track the economy very closely. When the economy is booming, people say the country is "on the right track," and when the economy is bad they say the opposite.