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.”

For a while one wonders whether our memoirist, like Holden Caulfield, is relying on the buffering effect of trite language to get through a painful story. Yet only a very humdrum marital malaise comes to light. The narrator who takes over when Patty finally shuts up—almost 200 pages into the book, though she weighs in again later—writes and thinks in much the same way. The sentences run longer on average, but the clichés keep coming, as in a reference, clunkily tied in with the environmental crisis, to the “toxicity” of the Berglunds’ marriage. Emphatic lines of dialogue continue to appear, chat-room-style, in capital letters sans exclamation marks: “I KNOW IT’S NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.” (I confess I have no idea what this is meant to sound like.)

Language vies with content to be as ugly as possible. Richard’s love for Walter is described as follows: “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.” Meanwhile, the author’s attempts at humor descend to the sort of puerility that Americans tolerate only when reading a so-called literary novel. A documentary about bitterns is to be called Bitternness; the pun is repeated a few times for good measure. A man with his face in a woman’s private parts can “feel one of the cats clambering onto his feet, seeking attention. Pussy, pussy.” The imagery ranges from merely passable to lazily half baked: “Gene … stirred the cauldrons like a Viking oarsman.” No doubt the author’s fans will welcome this writing because hey, it’s so much like modern America itself. If only Franzen were less aware of how much badness he can get away with.

Why was Freedom written? The prologue raises expectations for a socially engaged, or at least social, narrative that are left unmet. Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.) Of the four main characters, only Walter has a real job, about which we learn nothing until it becomes a matter of traveling around with an admiring young assistant. (American novelists never tire of the student-don romance; they just dress it up in different clothes.) Walter is constantly holding forth on issues he has researched, but not dramatically experienced. They are entertaining tirades, but this is not what fiction is for.

Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.) These readers want a world that is recognizably their own in every trivial particular, right down to Twitter, even if the book says less of real relevance to their lives than one written a century ago. The critics do their bit by acting as though name-checks constituted themes and issues. I can hear the prize laudation for Freedom now: “It is a novel about commercialism, about the war in Iraq, about the pervasiveness of Hollywood culture …”

Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter, if only because he is less obviously unpleasant than his wife, son, and college friend. But whenever we come close to caring about him, a silly joke comes along to set us straight. The ethical choices on his steak-house menu are so few and unappealing that after a little deliberation he says, “Fuck it … I’m going to have the rib-eye.” (A fellow environmentalist cheers the selection as if welcoming a wallflower onto the dance floor.) The book pays dearly for this sitcom gag; Walter’s interest in saving wild birds suddenly looks like a manifestation not of real conviction, but of the same uptight goody-goodiness that bores his wife. Even when he finally loses his temper, the book shows him no respect: the chapter in question is called “The Nice Man’s Anger.” Would he have turned out less of a clown had Freedom been written after the BP spill? I doubt it; Franzen must riff and smirk for our age, the Age of Unseriousness. No sooner does Walter declare his love for his assistant than we are forced to follow him to the bathroom, where, unable to pee, he wastes water in “an unnecessary flush.” How tiresome all of this is; literary fiction has drawn man smaller than life for much, much longer than it ever did the opposite. Later, some gossip about another man suffices to make Walter rethink his future.

To throw away his marriage and follow Lalitha had felt irresistible until the moment he saw himself, in the person of Jessica’s older colleague, as another overconsuming white American male who felt entitled to more and more and more: saw the romantic imperialism of his falling for someone fresh and Asian, having exhausted domestic supplies.

If his love is not strong enough to counter an access of political correctness, nor strong enough for him to see Lalitha as a woman first and an Asian second, why should we care about it? As for the vile phrase having exhausted domestic supplies, Walter, who has so far been faithful to his wife, has no reason to apply it to himself.

One keeps waiting for something that will make these flat characters develop in some way, and finally the Nice Man is struck by a great blow of fate. But rather than write his way through it, Franzen suspends things just before the moment of impact, then resumes Walter’s story six years later—updating us with the glib aside that the event in question “had effectively ended his life.” A writer’s got to know his limitations, but this stratagem is clumsy enough to make one want to laugh for the first time in the book. It certainly beats the part where a wedding ring is retrieved from a bowl of feces.

I found nothing glittering in Freedom but saw at least one glimpse of the novel it might have been. The following is from early on in Walter’s travels with his assistant:

At the Days Inn in Beckley, they fitted identical keycards into identical doors, fifteen feet from each other, and entered rooms whose identical profound drabness only a torrid illicit liaison could have overcome. Walter couldn’t avoid thinking about how alone Lalitha was in her identical room. Part of his feeling of inferiority consisted of straightforward envy—envy of her youth; envy of her innocent idealism; envy of the simplicity of her situation, as compared to the impossibility of his—and it seemed to him that her room, though outwardly identical, was the room of fullness, the room of beautiful and allowable yearning, while his was the room of emptiness and sterile prohibition.

This is simply too repetitive to rise all that sharply out of the surrounding morass. Still, a mature thought and a fine shading of sadness are conveyed here. Before this passage, I had concluded that the style of the novel was, as the French say, the man himself; now I prefer to give Franzen the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he can learn a lesson from Freedom: write a long book about mediocrities, and in their language to boot, and they will drag you down to their level.

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).
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