Thursday, September 29, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This contains a few plot spoilers, as its a book that you can only talk about that way, but I've tried not to give too much of the detail away, so be warned.

In his highly acclaimed 2010 novel "Freedom", Jonathan Franzen gives us the Berglunds, a middle class American family whose life is tracked over a thirty year period. There are no subplots that don't involve the family, no major characters that aren't somehow in their working or emotional orbit. Despite its 600 pages, there's a tight claustrophobia to this small cast; an intimacy, rather than a vastness to the novel's ambitions. Yet, the novel is ambitious. Why else should we spend so long with Patty and Walter Berglund, unless they are emblematic of their age or so fascinating a pair of creations that we can only revel in their lives?

Rarely, I think, has America seemed such a different country than Britain. For the world that the Berglund's inhabit through their rise, their fall, (their rise again?), is only echoed here in the same way that the foreclosures of subprime mortgage market were. For this is the American middle class, where Walter Berglund can give up his corporate job with 3M and still earn $170,000 a year with a thinktank/charity; where his 21 year old son, useless, hardly educated, but cockier than his father ever was, can be pursuing arms deals worth $700,000 in South America. From this side of the ocean American life seems stranger, further away than ever before.

Franzen begins with censure. Despite much talk of him rescuing the realist novel, here he is the most manipulative of omniscient narrators. "There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds" he says, on behalf of their St. Paul neighbours on page one. And we're off. With an obvious tell, rather than a show. What does he mean? Over the next 600 pages we kind of find out, but kind of don't. The Berglunds are as typical a family as you might imagine. Patty, a stay-at-home mother, being a lead gentrifier of their city suburb; Walter, a good family man and corporate drone; their regulation 2 kids, a boy, a girl, as invisible as such kids ever are, at least till the boy moves in with his childhood sweetheart and her down-at-heel mother. In the breakneck 30 pages at the start of the novel we're given a whizz through what the neighbourhood, acting as Franzen's Greek chorus, think of the Berglund's and its ripe with neighbourly sarcasm. We don't realise it here, but we are halfway through the story, a very odd place to start.

The second section takes us back; via the narration of a memoir that Patty has written for therapy (we never quite find out why or when she has therapy, but then again, she has reason enough). Patty was a star athlete, going to a specialist athletics college, partly to get away from her arty, Democratic secular Jewish family. Partly, it seems, in one of Franzen's frequent manipulations, to meet Walter, essentially the good son of a rich, but ragged family. In the late 70s, early 80s (Franzen is rarely specific about the cultural times, though he's very specific about the politics and economics of each era), he's given us not an everywoman, but a somewhat unique one. She's taller than her classmates, until she goes to Basketball college, where she's amongst other giants, but one of the few non-lesbians in her team. If team sports is one of the American obsessions, it clearly doesn't run as far as the women's teams. It seems Patty has developed her own outsider status - but also found her own crowd. An early rape by a typical jock, puts her off men, and throws her into a dysfunctional friendship relationship with the gothic, depressive, pathological rich girl, Eliza. It is through Eliza she meets Walter and his musican room mate Richard Katz.

It is the relationship between Walter, Richard and Patty which is the heart, the strength and the centre of the novel. Walter and Richard could not be less alike, yet, like often happens, the randomness of their room sharing creates a lifelong bond, and a lifelong resentment. Both love and need the other for what the other isn't. Walter always feels second best to Richard, whose easy way with life and women he admires and resents in equal parts. Richard goes back to Walter time and again, for a stability and an intellectual consistency that his own life lacks. In "Freedom", it is their love, their rivalry, their hate, which is Franzen's strongest suit. Like Amis's "The Information," Barnes' "Talking it Over" or Pinter's "Betrayal", male friendship-rivalry is explored across the decades; and as ever, there's a woman at the centre. Patty is sexually attracted to Richard, but is pursued (and likes being pursued) by Walter. His diffidence constantly opens up the chance that she might choose Richard, but in the end, Richard's own waywardness drives the sensible Patty into his arms. This unscratched itch comes back to them later in lives, when an unhappy Patty, and a down-on-his-luck Richard become lovers at long last, at the "Nameless Lake" that becomes the title of his breakthrough album. We go back and forth through time; Richard Katz an occasional rather than constant presence in their lives - perhaps more important to Walter than Patty at the end of the day. Yet marriages are mysterious things, and Walter and Patty's remains so. Its as if, over 600 pages and 30 years, Franzen hopes we will have enough evidence to understand them, and understand why they love each other.

But things aren't quite that straightforward. We have to take Walter and Patty as read. For Franzen is nothing if not the omniscient narrator, and he has his favourites. Rather than being, as I initially thought, a modern everywoman, or exemplar (her basketball playing an equivalent to Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's football proficiency), Patty - who can gain the attention of two such different men - is prodded and poked by Franzen's narration throughout. The most interesting creations in the novel are the women; Patty; Eliza; her son's girlfriend Connie; yet Franzen or his narrator hates them all. Patty is raped, and her father doesn't quite say its her fault, but he comes close. She falls for Walter not as an athlete, but after she breaks her leg, and he dotes on her. As a wife and mother we see not the good years, but see her being despised almost as a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. She dotes on her son Joey and he runs away from the claustrophobia of her love; whilst her daughter is the one uninteresting woman in the tableau, a walk on role, who Franzen assigns particular tasks to, but remains uninterested in throughout. We've been told so often about Patty's failings that when Richard - to all intents and purposes a bona fide rock star - becomes her lover, its almost hard to know why. For their is no awakening of character, she is portrayed always as a victim. A fascinating character, but Franzen's patent dislike of her verges on the misogynistic.

As the novel bobs and weaves through the years, we are given potted histories of other family members - an attempt at the Victorian tableau novel - which seem a little distracting (particularly when he throws in details of Patty's family during the last hundred or so pages of the book), but also, and this seems to be Franzen's key, a long plot jump into the year 2004, post 9/11, and into the heart of the madness that was Bush and Cheney's NeoCon America. To all intents and purposes Franzen's characters are mostly Clinton (Bartlett!) era liberals; and here they are in 2004, having discussions about the terrorist threat, and making money out of arm's deals. In a plot swerve that lack's credibility, Joey, the Berglund's 21 year old son moves to New York and becomes a go-fer for an arms subcontractor; whilst Walter joins a not-for-profit that is saving hectares of land from development in return for mining contracts (whilst inevitably falling for his beautiful Asian assistant.) We are given pages and pages of exposition; characters talking with environmental pamphlets as scripts, as these parallel escapades, though occasionally funny and grotesque, grind us through the early years of the 21st century. Joey, like Walter, remains an uninspiring character. Whilst the women in the novel have a certain zest, however much they are despised, the men seem really in need of our dislike, both for how they treat their women, and their opinions and career choices.

Don't get me wrong, "Freedom" is a vastly enjoyable read. Its an intellectual's page turner, a worthy beach book, and kept me running back to its many pleasures whilst on two weeks away round Europe, but it seems to be striving to be more than that - a "state of the nation" novel. There's a glowing review from Philip Hensher on my copy, and I can understand why, as his "The Northern Clemency" is the closest British equivalent of recent years. That book similarly tried to give us a vast political story through a single family, and, like "Freedom", gives us an enjoyable overview of that family, without really articulating the sweep of the age. I felt that Hensher's love of Proust meant that he over-emphasised every detail in the hope that something Proustian would result; and with Franzen, whether its Updike or Bellow or even Roth who he wants to emulate in their vast sweeps over the age, the novel comes across more like a less wacky version of John Irving's "Hotel New Hampshire." Despite the long gestation since "The Corrections", some of the novel seems to have been written in an over-fast flurry, to capture the zeitgeist of the day, yet this is hardly Franzen's strength. Walter's obsession with "over population" is quirky to the point of stupidity, (its not primarily a comic novel, and yet this is surely a comic conceit?), and the unexpected sudden death at a key point late in the novel is cynical writing of the worst type, killing of a character at an appropriate point in the soap opera.

And perhaps, at the end of the day, that is the point. This is a soap opera. Its claustrophic cast give us much pleasure along the way, and there's enough variety of style, tone and location to keep us going. Any outrage with Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from the Goon Squad" beating it to the Pulitzer should be tempered by the knowledge that in every way Egan's novel - which in many ways treads the same ground, the same class of people, the same timescales, even dips into the music industry - is the superior one. Perhaps these two books offer a genuine example of Zadie Smith's surmises about the contemporary novel (where she suggested that Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" and Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" were opposite in approaches.) Like every other American novel of the last few years, set near or by New York, the twin towers is given ample leg room, yet despite its contemporary concerns Franzen seems remarkably old fashioned in many ways. Like Micheal Chabon's "The Wonder Boys" he touches on the lost Jewishness of his characters, but more as another "set piece" among many, and he has none of that writers' deliciously comic touch.

In "Freedom" I got the sense that whatever his original plan was, it somehow got diluted or altered, by the trajectories of both his writing, and the times. The worst pages by far are the expositional ones, about multinational corporations, environmental policies and land-grabbing. In trying to expose the cynical manipulations of Bush-era capitalism he is neither comic nor serious enough to really add something new; whilst the Berglunds, though endless intrigueing, are neither typical or atypical. The omniscient narrator is often censorious, yet the characters themselves are inconsistent. In such a long narrative arc, it should be possible to perceive change, but it tends to happen with a jolt. Richard Katz is a non-drinking rocker (straight edge? no, of course not, or at least Franzen never tells us that), then he drinks. Joey Berglund eschews masturbation, then turns into one of the Inbetweeners in the frequency with which he pops one out. There's plenty of sex, or at least sexual imagery, in the novel, yet in showing us two generations of teenage life (Patty and Walter in the early 80s, Joey in the mid 2000s), we just see an opportunity for different jokes to play out. Joey, more conservative than both his parents (but like them, marrying young, and to a childhood sweetheart - Connie, who is in calm devotion to Joey, everything his manic mother's love wasn't) is described in detail when he has phone sex with Connie. Holden Caulfield this is not.

And I could go on. Richard Katz's arrival in any scene livens things up a bit, if only because of the unresolved tensions with Walter and Patty. He goes from unpopular punk rocker to cult singer (yet makes a living putting up wooden decks for middle class New Yorkers.) If you are interested, you'll get family trees of both Patty and Walter's families. There's even a nice little sidetrack with Joey to South America where he finds out he really loves his wife whilst trying to get off with his best friend's beautiful sister.

If you've a book group, and a spare month (it is long), give it a read - you'll enjoy. But long and hard as I looked, there was little here that comes close to the "Great American novel."


CageFightingBlogger said...

I got a signed copy about a year ago. Not read it... yet. Met the guy. Awkward.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Its why I shy away from meeting writers, having to buy and read all their books! I want to, I really do, but haven't the time. "Freedom"'s a good one to pack for next time you're away!

Rihel said...

"Visit from the Goon Squad" vs. "Freedom"-- you really think that Goon Squad is superior? The characters of "Goon Squad" are faker, each one embued with their own special quirky flavor, selected for self-consciously non-cliched oddness. The futurism is unimaginative, and look, Ma! I'm a post-modernist -- you can tell by my powerpoint chapter of forced Indie charms.

At least "Freedom" has characters I believe could exist, in a plot that ties them together in a way that I believe.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Absolutely. Its not just about character after all. Good Squad is a noir novel and does it superbly; "Freedom" tries to be naturalistic and fails, fails again. I don't think he gets the world he is writing about; whilst Egan does. One's a superior fiction; the other's a pale reality. Its wrong to compare them. But Egan's book is much better written, Powerpoint included.