Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Why I Am Not Reading "Freedom"

Jonathan Franzen is the novelist du jour. From the cover of Time magazine to Oprah's Book Club he has been lauded and feted, elevated to the summit of literary intellectualism.

Of course, no one reads Time magazine any more, and Oprah's ratings have been sliding downward for the past couple of years-- probably beginning with her public support for Barack Obama. 

Because or despite all that, Franzen's opus is going to be read and reread, discussed and dissected, in book clubs across America and at cocktail parties in Manhattan.

If you fail to read the book and cannot issue forth with a serious riff about what it says about today's America, you are going to be labeled a Philistine. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I didn't finish Franzen's earlier work, The Corrections: A Novel. I found it tedious, didn't care about the characters, what happened to them, or why they were doing what they were doing.

Some novelists can get away with inferior characters and plotting because they write so well that their prose stylings carry you along. Such was not the case with Franzen.

In my previous post, I expressed dismay at the fact that a New Yorker writer, named George Packer, was quoting a clunky Franzen sentence as though it were a piece of incontestable, even oracular, wisdom.

When I was writing about the offending sentence, I was thinking that it must have been something that Franzen had tossed off under pain of deadline. No one who writes that badly can be lionized by the literary establishment.

Alas, it appears that Freedom is filled with similar offenses against reason and sensibility. Reviewing the book for The Atlantic, B.C. Myers quotes Franzen's description of Richard's love for Walter: "These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow." Link here.

Does that make you want to know more about Richard or Walter? Does it whet your appetite for more of Franzen's prose stylings?

For those who want to know what the novel is about, or, I should  say, is not about, and for those of you who want to know what I'm missing, Myers sums it up nicely:  "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 Surpise, the novel is a 576 page monument to insignificance."

For those who have been thinking that the book is about today's America, David Brooks offers a correction. As he sees it, Franzen's novel is not really about today's America; it is about American literary culture, its false pride and its dogmatic prejudices. Link here.

It's as though the artist had taken his eyes off of his model and had decided to construct a fiction whose purpose is to persuade people of the truth of his political opinions. This is art in the service of political indoctrination... aka propaganda.

As Brooks puts it, Franzen has written a caricature of America whose purpose is to disabuse us of the notion that our lives are interesting, worthwhile, or significant.

The novel does not present human dilemmas, interesting and compelling characters, or even a great story. No one ever accomplishes anything of value; no one ever makes an important contribution. There are no heroes and no villains.

The book is about America the diminished, America the way that socialists have always portrayed it. It shows us the way literary intellectuals see America, and the way they want everyone else to see it.

Such people, Brooks explains, have, from the time of Thoreau, seen Americans living lives of "quiet desperation." Brooks correctly labels this a modern orthodoxy, a dogma, that, if you embrace it, will admit you to the confines of high toned literary salons and get you on to Oprah.

In his words: "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. There's no religion. There's very little about the world of work and enterprise. There's an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling."

So, you have America deprived of its heroes and villains, of its great politicians and entrepreneurs, of its larger than life characters and its cosmic dramas. You have America reduced to pure and utter banality.

Is there any redeeming social value here? Perhaps, there is value in seeing the world as literary intellectuals see it. If you are a literary intellectual,  or aspire to be one, you will read Franzen and be filled with feelings of superiority to these characters; you will enhance your self-esteem by comparing  your fascinating life with the characters' lives of quiet desperation.

But of course, the book is not just written for Franzen's buddies and pals. It is written for a larger audience, for
people who aspire to be literary intellectuals, who want to think like them and even be like them.

One hesitates to draw conclusions without having read the book, but it may be that Franzen is really offering a parody of the conceit of literary intellectuals. And of the certainty with which they promulgate their world view as though it were a higher truth. 

If so, the joke may well be on them, and on anyone who finds that Freedom offers the truth about modern America.

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