Books October 2010

Smaller Than Life

Jonathan Franzen’s juvenile prose creates a world in which nothing important can happen.
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George Bates

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. 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 Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance.

Granted, nonentities are people too, and a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But although the narrator of Freedom tells us on the first page, “There had always been something not quite right about the Berglunds,” one need read only that the local school “sucked” and that Patty was “very into” her teenage son, who in turn was “fucking” the girl next door, to know that whatever is wrong with these people does not matter. The language a writer uses to create a world is that world, and Franzen’s strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language is a world in which nothing important can happen. Madame Bovary’s marriage sucked, Heathcliff was into Catherine: these words fail the context not just because they are of our own time. There is no import in things that “suck,” no drama in someone’s being “into” someone else. As for the F word, Anthony Burgess once criticized the notion that to use it in matter-of-fact prose is to hark back to “a golden age of Anglo-Saxon candour”; the word was taboo from the start, because it stands for brutal or at best impersonal sex. “A man can fuck a whore but, unless his wife is a whore, he cannot fuck his wife … There is no love in it.” A writer like Franzen, who describes two lovers as “fucking,” trivializes their relationship accordingly. The result is boredom.

Franzen does not take his story very seriously, but the irony is indiscriminate and directionless; he hints at no frame of reference from which we are to judge his prose critically. Nor are we to imagine that a fool or semiliterate is addressing us. The same narrator who gives us “sucked” and “very into” also deploys compound adjectives, bursts of journalese, and long if syntactically crude sentences. An idiosyncratic mix? Far from it. We find the same insecure style on The Daily Show and in the blogosphere; we overhear it on the subway. It is the style of all who think highly enough of their own brains to worry about being thought “elitist,” not one of the gang. The reassuring vulgarity follows the flight of pseudo-eloquence as the night the day. Like the rest of these people, Franzen should relax. We don’t need to find a naughty word on every page to know that he is one very regular Joe.

But if Freedom is middlebrow, it is so in the sacrosanct Don DeLillo tradition, which our critical establishment considers central to literature today. The apparent logic is that the novel can lure Americans away from their media and entertainment buffet only by becoming more “social,” broader in scope, more up-to-date in focus. This may be the reason we get such boring characters. Instead of portraying an interesting individual or two, and trusting in realism to embed their story naturally in contemporary life, the Social Writer thinks of all the relevant issues he has to stuff in, then conceives a family “typical” enough to hold everything together. The more aspects of our society he can fit between the book’s covers, the more ambitious he is considered to be.

Every big fat new effort to “develop” the DeLillo model is thus hailed as important even before it is read, as happened with Franzen’s last novel, The Corrections (2001). No doubt the rave reviews for Freedom will evince the same reluctance to quote from the text that we saw then. Reviewers gave that book maximum points for sweep and sprawl while subtracting none for its slovenly prose, the short-windedness of each of its thousand “themes,” and the failure of the main story line to generate any momentum. (These flaws, too, were in the great DeLillo tradition.) There was no overlooking a certain determination to be impressed. I especially liked how the author got a pass for the first chapter, a soporific one even by postmodern standards, because a later line seemed to imply it had been a practical joke.

Not surprisingly, Franzen pushes his luck even further in Freedom. Patty’s memoirs start very early on in the book under the separate title Mistakes Were Made: The Autobiography of Patty Berglundby Patty Berglund. It gets worse. Here, referring to herself in the third person, Patty recalls her delayed reaction to having been raped.

The indignity was that Ethan had considered her such a nothing that he could just rape her and then take her home. And she was not such a nothing. She was, among other things, already, as a junior, the all-time single-season record holder for assists at Horace Greeley High School. A record she would again demolish the following year! She was also first-team All State in a state that included Brooklyn and the Bronx. And yet a golfing boy she hardly even knew had thought it was OK to rape her.

Are we to chuckle at the adult woman for writing this in seriousness, or is she mocking her younger self, the teenage rape victim? Either way, she is too stupid to merit reading about. Mistakes Were Made is of the same subtlety throughout and can thus be easily summarized. Patty has two men in her life, “the great guy she’d married and the sexy one she hadn’t.” In vain does she yearn for husband Walter to “just bend her over the kitchen table some night and have at her from behind.” (And we wonder why young people would rather read about love in vampire fiction.) Their son, Joey, turns out “in the mold of Richard,” the sexy guy, which is why Patty is so “into” the boy. Everything is described in the most hackneyed terms imaginable. When her children leave home, Patty feels “the emptiness of her nest … now that the kids had flown”; and what should we read about when Richard drops by during Walter’s absence but “banging,” “doing the deed,” “scratching the itch.”

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