Reading Franzen’s Freedom

I’m not, actually, not on principle or anything but just because I have literally stacks of other books I want to read slightly more. But the interesting reports on it that keep coming  in from the bloggers I follow are nudging me closer to buying it, not because they all love it but because it does seem to give us plenty to talk and think about. Also, after a while it’s like being a wallflower at the dance or something!

At Like Fire, Lisa Peet judges the book good but “overweight,”

The writing is observant and intelligent about how we live and how we mess that up: parenting gone awry in small, shattering ways; political tradeoffs that make sense until they suddenly don’t; lovers and spouses caught looking over each other’s shoulders at something else in the distance. Freedom is a very moral story. Still, the novel felt like getting into a slightly drunken dinner-party political discussion with a left-leaning Libertarian—each separate argument holds, but when taken together they add up to something you wish you’d argued against more cogently when you wake up the next morning. Franzen has a lot to say, and he says it well. But although the parts all work—I couldn’t point my finger at any set piece in particular that dragged the book down—that doesn’t mean they all needed to be there.

She concludes her judicious review in the reasonable tone that seems to have eluded many commentators:

The hype surrounding Franzen will eventually die down, and what we’ll be left with is the book we deserve: sprawling and personal and deeply entrenched in its present. Whether it will endure the tests of time is mostly irrelevant—Freedom, as the title asserts, is a fun ride while it lasts.

Jeanne at Necromancy Never Pays began admiring Franzen’s writing but has some particular complaints from (as she somewhat wryly notes) a female perspective on a male writer who notoriously did not want his previous book “to get a reputation as a woman’s novel”:

Franzen is very good at presenting character. Even his female character, Patty, thinks in a way that I have to admit seems genuine. In her forties, she finally “acknowledged realities about her physical appearance which she’d been ignoring in her fantasy world…she humbled herself.” Having just done this myself, I can’t say it doesn’t ring true.

But it really rubs me the wrong way (ahem) to read that a woman’s intelligence lies in her sexual organs: “Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity….”

At Tales from the Reading Room, litlove is part way through and finding herself intrigued by the novel’s “emotional coldness”:

When I think of the books I’ve read recently – Sarah Water’s The Night Watch, which will rip the beating heart from your body without the tiniest shred of sentimentality involved, Austen’s Emma with its pervasive, profound compassion, Orwell’s 1984 with its nightmarish darkness, it becomes all the clearer how far away Franzen stays from the murky depths and the scintillating highs of his characters’ experience. Take for instance the character of Patty Berglund, whose autobiographical account, written as I mentioned in a gender-neutral third person, makes up a fair chunk of the narrative. Something terrible happens to Patty in her adolescence, compounding a problematic childhood as the relatively stupid, sporty one in a family of eccentric creative types. This is the toxic root to her behavioural problems, but Franzen doesn’t want to get involved in what it really means for a woman to suffer terrifically low self-esteem. The emotional punch of anxiety, anguish, passion, possessiveness, these are irrelevant to the narrator. Patty’s story is flattened out, the incident forgotten, her ‘crimes’ no worse than any woman might commit in a dissatisfactory marriage and yet she is viewed with a jaundiced eye. Patty’s a messy person, but who isn’t? Without a vital emotional aura surrounding Patty’s story, it’s hard to know what to make of it, whether we should condemn or sympathise. There are two possibilities here. One is that Franzen just can’t write women and I fear that banal explanation may be justified. . . .

The other possibility is more interesting. . .

At zunguzungu, Aaron Bady, also not quite finished, is finding the book “superbly written but sort of wrong“:

I’m particularly drawn to readings of novels and movies as exploring the breakdowns of their own interpretive matrix, and it may be that the novel is, in this way, about the failures of realism. What I do know is that, as a novel, it tells me very little that strikes me as true in the way it describes MTR activists, even as it makes quite ambitious claims to generic realism. Which is the problem: how does a “realist” novel address the fact that it might be wrong? In that vein, in fact, I can’t help but notice all the little fuck-ups I’m coming across; the character who catches shingles from someone with chicken pox, for example, was written by an author who doesn’t know what shingles is (you catch chicken pox from someone with chicken pox; shingles you catch from yourself).

At Blographia Literaria, Andrew Seal (who has finished the book), takes the comparisons between Freedom and War and Peace as his starting point:

I don’t know whether Franzen means for this allusion to War and Peace to be a red herring of sorts or not, the kind of thing which is designed to catch a critic who is on a hunt for a hook to bite down on, for something portentous to compare the year’s biggest novel to. Franzen does preface Patty’s later recounting of Natasha’s story with the comment, “And she became a better reader. At first in desperate escapism, later in search of help.” Patty’s first connection to War and Peace is escapist; she uses it to justify sleeping with the Andrei character, Richard, literally making life resemble art. Later, Patty becomes a better reader by accepting that the analogy between Tolstoy and her life is imperfect and not to be lived through, just to be consulted for truth or “help.”

This, in a nutshell, is in fact Franzen’s own ethics of reading, at least as they are articulated in the Harper’s essay: Franzen’s own autobiographic narrative there is a similar story of recognizing that the imperfect fit between life and art is the real source of its power—just as long as we recognize that art is not meant to make a perfect fit, is not meant to act directly as a model, that we’re not supposed to act like characters. Understanding characters helps us understand ourselves, yes, but we err when that understanding is of ourselves-as-characters. And the fact that War and Peace is in fact only mentioned five times in the novel—and four of those instances within twenty pages—suggests that this episode similarly is not meant to be so fundamental to our understanding of the novel: not a code or a key but a symptom, a single instance of a leitmotiv at most. To do more with War and Peace or Tolstoy is merely to fetishize allusion for its own sake—exactly the type of conflation of art and life that Franzen is (at least in my reading) trying to guard against.

He moves on to propose that “there is, perhaps, something we can recover from this comparison between Franzen and Tolstoy”–but you’ll have to read his post yourself to find out!

At American Fiction Notes, Mark Athitakis excerpts from his Chicago Sun-Times review to highlight why he things “the novel doesn’t quite come off”:

Throughout the novel are glimpses of people who are more coddled by art than inspired by it. A rock club is full of fans of a “gentler and more respectful way of being . . . more in harmony with consuming.” When Richard gives an interview saying rock “never had any subversive edge,” the provocation is subsumed into blogosphere noise. But writing can hurt, Franzen insists, and art can reshape us.

“Richard” is Richard Katz, a musician friend of the couple at the center of the novel, and something of a mouthpiece for the frustration/contempt/weltschmerz Franzen feels toward the way culture is made and consumed in America. There’s no question that Franzen is a firm believer in the power of storytelling—the whole novel is a study in how the stories we tell one another or ourselves can have a huge impact, sometimes literally wound us. Yet in nearly every scene in which Richard arrives, Franzen appears to be wringing his hands over the usefulness of pursuing art in a society that’s dead to it. It’s a valuable question, but Franzen pursues it awkwardly, and doesn’t resolve it in a satisfying way.

Not a blog, of course, but at the Wall Street Journal another writer I follow attentively, Open Letters Monthly‘s own Sam Sacks, finds Miltonic echoes in Franzen’s “situat[ing] hell wherever there is least duty and most license–”

in this case, in leafy Midwestern suburbs and East Coast townhouses. Hell’s denizens are the members of white middle-class nuclear families, the very people, one supposes, who compose Mr. Franzen’s readership. Like “The Corrections” (2001) before it, “Freedom” is an allegorical novel smuggled into the mainstream it rails against by seeming to be a work of highly polished narrative realism.

And, last but certainly not least, at stevereads Steve Donoghue is having none of it, taking Sam Tanenhaus to task for his “deeply, blandly dishonest” review of Freedom in the New York Times Book Review:

Fundamentally, this is the way a reviewer writes when he doesn’t believe what he’s writing. And in this case it’s appropriate enough, because in Freedom Franzen has written a nearly 600-page novel in which he doesn’t believe a single godforsaken word. Every particle of the book’s grotesquely self-indulgent length is pure artifice, pure hypocrisy, pure lie. Franzen started out with the idea of mocking certain things – most especially the specific kind of mindlessly opinionated and entitled suburbanites with whom he spends his every waking minute and whose ranks he himself long ago joined, if indeed he was ever outside them to begin with – but he found he actually liked them instead, viewed them as genuine civilizing forces (just for clarification: you and I, no matter who we are? We’re the ones who need civilizing). But rather than abandon the envisioned evisceration, he thought to turn it elaborately, I’m-smarter-than-you-can-even-see faux-satirical, pretending to hate the thing he loves in order to torture it a little. Call it assaultive fiction. And even that quasi-plan fell apart completely, probably after endless nights spent drinking and endless mid-mornings spent speed-writing to make page counts. What’s left – what gets published to unprecedented fanfare this week and collects a National Book Award (at least) in a few months – is nothing at all, a rote exercise in verbiage.

I sympathize with Jessa Crispin‘s annoyance about the implicit pressure to read what everyone else is reading:

The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

But sometimes, if the right people are talking, it’s a conversation you want to be part of. Still, I’ll probably wait for the paperback version. I’m in no real hurry: the book will be good or it won’t, whether I read it sooner or later, and in the meantime, I’ve got L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between on my nightstand, a tempting pile of Virago classics on my desk, Elizabeth Hardwick’s A View of My Own by my reading chair, and I’m starting Gaudy Night with my class next week. Gaudy Night: now there is a book you must read–why? Because I love it, that’s why.

Update: Ron Hogan posted about Freedom last night too, at Beatrice. He focuses on a couple of prominent reviews in the big mags, specifically Ruth Franklin’s in the New Republic and B. R. Myer’s in the Atlantic, and on the possibility that there’s a “liberal backlash” against the novel:

The headline promised to consider the “liberal backlash” against Freedom, because it struck me that the two harshest reviews of the novel so far have come from The Atlantic and The New Republic, with the latter’s Leon Wieseltier going out of his way to offer a justification for brutal criticism (”I pride myself on this negativism… Anger at the false and the fake… is an admirable anger, because it is the heat of a cause, and our causes are the spurs of our culture”). Now, I’ve got my opinions about that line of logic, but that’s a bigger subject for another day… For now, I’m just wondering if maybe, in the same way Franzen’s prose is just “literary” enough to dazzle many readers/critics with its technical polish, his themes are just liberal enough that readers/critics of the centrist-left persuasion will see him as delivering an insightful critique, perhaps even bordering on the progressive—and, since he doesn’t excuse the flaws of his liberal-seeming characters, nor does he refrain from poking fun at things like environmentalism or immature critiques of consumer culture, right-centrists can also find plenty to appreciate. Which may leave readers/critics who consider themselves to be much more left of center with a desire to re-affirm their position by pointing out the shabbiness of Franzen’s political satire… and if they can hook that up to an aesthetic attack, all the better.

His piece made me reflect on why the mainstream coverage of Freedom did less to engage my own interest in the novel, as a reader, than the blog posts I’ve rounded up here. My tentative conclusion is that the big reviews feel the need to pronounce on the novel, while bloggers–though they make some pronouncements–have more modest goals. They’re thinking about it and talking about their thinking; they’re OK with ambivalence, with not taking sides or being definitive. That leaves room for me, in their conversation, whereas Franklin or Myers really don’t care what I think at all (not just literally, but because the form they’r working in, the ‘official’ review, is just more closed). I like a review that takes a strong stand. Sometimes I write such pieces myself! But in this case the discussion seemed offputtingly extreme until I turned my attention to a different crowd.

6 thoughts on “Reading Franzen’s Freedom

  1. zunguzungu September 29, 2010 / 10:45 pm

    Thanks for this; more to read once I’ve finished the book!

    And here, another post to add to your list!


  2. Colleen September 29, 2010 / 11:20 pm

    Personally, I’m entirely allergic to books this popular, and it’s not just because as a book-seller I resented having to talk to people literally every day about how amazingly amazing Stieg Larssen’s books are.

    I think that if EVERYONE loves, loves, loves a book something’s gone wrong – likely that the author has sacrificed some important nuances and depth in favour of platitudes masquerading as such. This is based both on snobbish ignorance (I have not read any Franzen novel, no Harry Potters, no Larssens, nor Memoirs of a Geisha, to name just a few) and on my experiences with the few such show-stopping numbers I have read (The Kite Runner, The Lovely Bones, She’s Come Undone).

    In other words, I’m very happy to have read Steve Donoghue’s scathing post on the Franzen Fracas and not Franzen’s novel itself.


  3. litlove September 30, 2010 / 4:09 am

    This is a fantastic round-up, Rohan, and thank you for the mention. I’ll be checking all these other bloggers out now as several are unfamiliar to me. The really good thing about a book like Franzen’s is that it gets us all to stretch our interpretative muscles. And there’s no harm in that!


  4. Rohan Maitzen September 30, 2010 / 7:55 am

    Colleen, part of what I find interesting is precisely that many of these folks don’t “love, love, love” the novel at all, and yet they are still finding it thought-provoking. And I figure it’s about as arbitrary to refuse to read a book because it’s popular as it is to read a book because it’s trendy. Wolf Hall got a lot of attention–and mostly positive, as far as I know, much more universally so than Freedom, and it was wonderful, after all. If the book sounds like the kind of thing I’d be interested in reading, I’ll usually give it a shot.


  5. Rohan Maitzen September 30, 2010 / 12:12 pm

    I’m starting to sense the same kind of piling on out there for Emma Donoghue’s Room, just btw. This one I may be able to resist, though: I’m skeptical about the praise because I wasn’t very impressed with the two other books of hers I’ve read.


  6. Maire October 5, 2010 / 4:50 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful roundup! I have to admit that some of these reviews actually make me less curious about it. But I discover some great new blogs!


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