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.)