Four Responses to Freedom
Most people will not get their news about Freedom locally, which is to say from the novel itself. By this point, the reviewers have gotten to it, expectations have formed, opinions crystallized, rumors spread. This is too bad, because few novels merit more the rewards of being read in a naïve state, undistorted by the hype cycle. For a while this past summer, the happy few who would write the reviews and make the pronouncements dwelled in this state and talked among themselves of nothing but Franzen’s new novel, at parties, at dinners, street-corner encounters. A current of excitement surrounded the book, which was itself exciting; since I first entered the world of advance copies, back in 2004, this was the first novel to inspire such fervent passion among the professional reader class in which I now have to count myself.
The passions, however, were confusing, especially to people who have been so relentlessly socialized or educated into understanding literary judgments as mere taste and who understand themselves as wielding the power to shape those tastes. They felt they were supposed to like Franzen, so, when they did like Franzen, they immediately questioned themselves for liking him and questioned him for producing something they actually approved of.
“Don’t get me wrong,” one blogger said to me at a party, “I loved the book. I mean, but I love lots of books that maybe I shouldn’t love, just like I love some sitcoms, and, yeah, some of those scenes, especially near the end, like when Joey calls his dad after he fucked up the Defense Department contract, it felt like a sitcom.”
“The ending, what did you think about the ending?” moaned another. “It’s fake. It’s like a soap opera.” She, too, said she loved parts of the book. The novel was, she admitted, probably the best novel of our times, but that was an indictment of our corrupt times, our debased tastes, perhaps of her own capacity for love.
I resorted to literary parlor-game comparison: “Not as good as Humboldt’s Gift?”
“Not as good as Middlemarch?”
“Certainly not. It’s not even as good as American Pastoral.”
I disagreed, on all counts.
There were other complaints: there was too much environmental stuff, there wasn’t enough Richard Katz. What about Jessica? The good kid. Doesn’t the novel ignore her as much as her family does, and isn’t that too an injustice?
In their different and resistant ways, these readers, even though they are also critics, were paying the novel the compliment of taking its characters and their dramas as seriously as they take their own lives. They all took Franzen’s characters so much to heart that they wanted to rewrite them and make them their own. These weren’t critiques, they were relationships.
At another party, a friend told me that he’d been reading Franzen’s first novels, The Twenty-Seventh City and Strong Motion, and had come to the conclusion that, in those novels, Franzen was still laboring under the influence and curse of Pynchon and DeLillo’s paranoid novels of pure information, or “hysterical realism,” in which middle-class characters, once the paradigmatic heroes of the novel, drifted around, the prey of greater forces: the atom bomb, the airborne toxic event, the corporate conspiracy, the persistent blasts and blats of culture that shaped our fragile life on this planet until the characters themselves became meaningless, impossible to care about, devices and ciphers for greater scientific truths about our posthuman conditions. With Freedom, however, Franzen was announcing his own emancipation from what had become postmodern fiction dogma. He was showing us what he and we had known all along: character still matters, families still matter, the old tragic individual passions — jealousy, pride, love, the desire to be good, to do good, to create or destroy — these things still motivate us, even in our post-post age, our end-times mood.
This sounded right to me, but then I remembered that the novel isn’t exactly a paean to an older humanism or mid-century Freudianism. Walter Berglund’s anguished public declaration, “We are a cancer on the planet,” doesn’t arise out of the discovery that his wife has the hots for his best friend, or because, as we later learn, his older brother was once unjustly handed the very thing young Walter most wanted. Although Franzen has built the novel in a way that gives readers the freedom to choose to put a purely individual psychology–based gloss on Walter’s pronouncement and his activism, these also come out of deep study and an intellectual despair about how the mass of humanity really does seem to be sucking all life out of the planet. Truth, the truth of experience, in Franzen’s novel, as in life, is multiple. Human beings have unleashed forces that seem to render our individual assertions of agency quaint or foolish, or possibly even dangerous. This doesn’t stop us from feeling the powerful tug of those assertions or from experiencing personal crises over how to channel our desires and how to raise our children. Neither, however, does the love or hate we feel for individual human beings make the macro-scale effects of human group behavior irrelevant or unreal. Franzen has managed to write a novel that holds the forces that govern our messy human lives and the forces that govern messy human societies in equal and unresolvable tension, without reducing one to the terms of the other. Character survives, but it doesn’t triumph.
This sustained irresolution drives the novel but is also what drives some people crazy about it, the same way some people are driven crazy by the music of one of Walter’s favorite composers, Anton Webern. The end is no relief, but because it is so strong and primitively moving and feels so much like some kind of chastened resolution, it seems to be offering a way out, a way some readers will take and others will refuse to accept. It’s unclear, in fact, how much Franzen wants us to accept the ending. The epigraph he chose for Freedom comes from a play with one of the greatest false or problem endings in the history of literature, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, in which a famous sculptor brings the wife of King Leontes back to life years after the king’s unmotivated jealous rage led to her death. The artist’s pygmalion magic, a fairy-tale coda to a tragedy, restores a whole that never existed to begin with, and, as though to remind us of the unavoidable falsehood of art, Shakespeare grants the play’s penultimate lines to the queen’s handmaid, Paulina, whose husband died carrying out the crazed king’s orders early on and is still beastly dead at the play’s end, the lines Franzen takes as his epigraph: “Go together,/ You precious winners all; your exultation/ Partake to everyone. I, an old turtle,/ Will wing me to some wither’d bough, and there/ My mate, that’s never to be found again,/ Lament till I am lost.” Paulina — and Franzen’s beloved cerulean warbler, as well as human beings with such ordinary, uninspiring names as Richard Katz and Walter and Patty Berglund — serve as messy remainders, reminders that things work out for some of us and not for others, that creation is also damaging and destructive, that the artist’s justice, in as much as it imitates divine justice, or the way of the world, is actually imperfect and rough, arbitrary yet able to lament its own arbitrariness. There are few literary works of any age that manage to make us feel what it’s like to live within these perpetual conflicts: but Freedom is one of them.
Liberalism as Niceness
As a political novel, Freedom takes up a form of American liberalism that doesn’t have a name: liberalism as niceness. (Of course any name you give it is going to sound silly.) The book fulfills one of the classic offices that only a novel can perform — to show a way of living that Americans have in their blood and bones but don’t articulate. The drama traces the agony of liberalism-as-niceness in an era that publicly rejected it. It’s a beautiful book. One of the few things criticism can add to its achievement right now, in the first moments of its arrival, is a note to the future, which won’t know whether to take Franzen’s account for truth. It should. The book captures something fundamental about life after the end of the 20th century.
Freedom presents itself, in its prologue, as a political allegory of left and right in America since the 1980s. In the house on the left are the Berglunds. They are urban renewers, community-builders, gardeners, contributors to the common good, and a traditional family — in short, liberal condescenders. In the house on the right are Carol Monaghan (and, eventually, Blake). They are left-behinders, nose-thumbers, tree-pulpers, freedom-defenders — an untraditional family, conservative demanders of recognition, who discover that minority pride is for them too (i’m white and i vote). As the 1980s give way to the 1990s and 2000s, Joey, the beloved son of the Berglunds, moves from the house on the left to the house on the right.
Seldom does a 550-page book seem so much the rewriting, and complication, of its first twenty-five pages. We don’t come up to the chronological starting point of the first sentence of Freedom (“The news about Walter Berglund . . .”) again until page 472. But the book won’t really be about Democrats and Republicans or “blue” and “red” households. We learn by the first phase of Patty’s autobiography, in her parents’ indifference to her rape by the son of their political crony, that Democratic politicians were corrupted long ago. (The philandering Minneapolis politician who set up Carol Monaghan on graft is a Democrat, too.) Merrie Paulsen sees the young, 1980s Berglunds as “Reaganite-regressive” in behavior, though we know their vaguely progressive social views. Joey’s defection to the early 21st-century Republican Party, too, is based secretly on an egalitarianism that was supposed to be post-FDR Democrats’ first principle: “unfairness had . . . made the Republican Party more attractive to him,” as he feels “more at home . . . with the party of angry anti-snobbism.” The book will really concern a kind of essential division within the nice itself, and niceness’s torments and agony.
The fractures are all within the Berglunds’ house. In the two figures of Patty and Walter reside two different ways of being nice. We come to understand that Patty, who had pressed herself so hard to be kind, a team player, self-restraining and self-denying, all along guiltily understood herself to be not nice, a competitor, someone who wanted to win — at least on the basketball court. In the guilt of this realization, with no way to talk about it — like the secret knowledge that she was most attracted to the straightforwardly sexual and not-very-nice rock n’ roller Richard — she marries Richard’s best friend Walter, and thus makes her private life a hell of repression and inarticulacy. (The fatal moment, when she retreats to Walter during college and they bind themselves to each other: “‘[Richard] wasn’t nice to me,’ she said through tears. ‘. . . And I so, so, so need the opposite of that right now. Can you please be nice?’ ‘I can be nice,’ [Walter] said.”)
Walter’s niceness is easy and, for private purposes, successful. He has always been able to be nice and win. It is the way in which he can express himself and his longings for more justice in an unjust world. His father was a mean alcoholic, with favorite children and a put-upon wife — behavior understandable enough to us as the book tells the father’s story, but cruel to the child — and Walter won by being nicer, nicer to his mother, harder-working around the family motel, fairer to his brothers. In college, too, endless work and decency get him, eventually, everything he wants: career, Patty, the friendship of cool Richard who admires his moral purity. His niceness in sex, too, though it causes a problem for the relationship with Patty (not that he can see it), doesn’t really cause a problem for him. Competition is only with men, like Richard, who preserve the aggressive impulse in ways that can be aestheticized and admired from afar: principally punk rock. Richard suffers for his intransigent art, while Walter beats him at chess.
It’s important in Freedom that you see that the Berglunds’ liberal ethos, in action, isn’t petty or false. It’s human-scaled and noble. Characters mostly stick to it even when it is exposed to ridicule or blasted by their own doubts. But the book suggests that living with this ethos during an era that has passed it by — in favor of ideologies of self-fulfillment and brutal competition — is increasingly thankless and painful.
Philosophically, there’s an echo between liberalism as niceness and John Rawls’s 1970s theory of justice, which he formulated as justice as fairness. A just society, Rawls has convinced generations of college student liberals, could rely on just a few starting principles, of which “Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes” stood at the center. This produced his imaginary test of reflective equilibrium behind a veil of ignorance, where all of the folks reflecting on the just society would know that they’d take different parts in it, rich and poor, with distinct cultures and beliefs and skills and handicaps, but wouldn’t know, in advance, who among them would get which. Rawls believed they’d accept some inequality of the kind maintained by liberal capitalist America, as long as every increase in wealth for the best off also yielded a more significant benefit for the worst off. But in the great inequality runaway of the decades after 1973, as blue-collar jobs eroded and the luckier liberal white-collar strivers became yuppies, the Rawlsian maxim was corrupted. It became: “It’s really okay if we get a lot richer, as long as the poorer people get a little richer, too.” Coming with it was the whispered rider: “ — and we remember to worry about the worse off, and feel guilty, once in a while.”
The trouble with Patty and Walter’s son Joey is that he springs competition and winning upon them in a way that the Berglund’s niceness, whether willed or effortless, just can’t handle. This is not presented as a teen growing pain to manage, or a hobby to be carefully indulged. Competition is, in Joey’s challenge to his parents, the real, only root of human action and free success in American society. To Patty’s tortured brand of niceness, competition is too seductive, expressing what she can’t let out, and so she romances her son, disgusting him. To Walter’s orderly technocratic version of niceness, competition is just incomprehensible, and he pushes his son away.
Competition was what the early neoconservatives and their philosophers Francis Fukuyama and the resurgent Straussians unleashed on all of us as their interpretation of the victory of 1989: the return of thymos, their ancient Greek term for the will to struggle and recognition. They insisted that the social-contractarian and welfare state liberalism that had culminated in Rawls, like the utopian-totalitarian state that had fallen in the Soviet Union, was inadequate to human nature. (And Patty and Walter’s agony makes you wonder if they were right.) “The founders of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of modern liberalism,” Fukuyama wrote in his 1992 The End of History and the Last Man, had blindly “sought to banish thymos from political life.” Much better was “a higher understanding of modern liberalism that tries to preserve the thymotic side of the human personality rather than exiling it from the realm of politics.” That was the neoliberalism in which economic competition — retaining the competitive impulse, but removing it from war and open bloodshed — should be the model for every public institution and practice.
When the house on the right comes back into its own, via two pooled salaries, a building boom, and cheap consumer durables, it turns out not to be interested in nice. The new ethos of Carol and Blake, reasserting itself, is an ethos of grab and get, and self-respect, and fuck you — having been subjected to nice all those years. Opposite it, a humane liberalism (or, at least, Walter Berglund) finds a parallel apocalyptic fantasy in antihumanist ecology, matching the unending conservative apocalypse of struggle and victory. The din of those who must use and fight and compete “scarred [Walter] permanently with hatred of the bellowing vox populi, and also, curiously, with an aversion to the outdoor world. . . . The love he felt for the creatures whose habitat he was protecting was founded on projection: on identification with their own wish to be left alone by noisy human beings.”
Yet there is also such a thing as evil, springing up from time to time, and it will slowly become recognizable to both right and left — to whomever holds a minimum commitment to civilization, whether built on competition or on niceness. It appeared again with W., Cheney, and the reconstruction of Iraq. Freedom is essential for memorializing, for all Americans, what Franzen the post-Corrections writer could not ignore, though it makes the book, temporarily, absurd. The Iraq disaster interrupts the novel, rather than elevating it — in Joey’s sale of junk truck parts, which Joey, too, recognizes as a moral wrong, not even part of the ethos of competition, just pure cruelty. (Fukuyama, too, a man of intelligence even when wrong, left the W.-era neoconservatives and fought them, at the newly founded American Interest, as best he could.) I read Freedom’s Iraq section and thought, No one in the future will ever believe this, it is too easy, the sheer wickedness seems too uncomplex in a book of psychological profundity. It happened, though, that on the day I was reading the end of Franzen’s episode of the Pladsky truck parts scheme for Kenny Bartles and “LDI,” I opened a local newspaper and read, on a back page of the front section, all these years later, a report of the audit of the Department of Defense’s fund for Iraq. The fund took in $9.1 billion between 2004 and 2007 from sales of Iraqi petroleum and natural gas and remaining UN oil-for-food money, all supposedly devoted to Iraqi humanitarian relief and rebuilding. The Department of Defense is now permanently unable to acceptably account for $8.7 billion of that money. (When a limited criminal investigation was opened in 2005 of a subset of US “paying agents” in South-Central Iraq, convictions were obtained of DoD and coalition authority officials for bribery, fraud, and money laundering. The auditors don’t even bother to press charges now, they just recommend better accounting practices in future US post-invasion reconstructions.) I was grateful that Franzen had memorialized this real infamy in Joey’s cartoonish (but, thereby, realistic) scheme — even if generations to come won’t be able to believe it, or, perhaps, feel its significance any more than they care about Teapot Dome. He has put it into the record of social fiction, on that alternative Mall ranged with memorials built by Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Twain.
Of all the figures of the old, 20th-century hopes of liberalism as niceness, the ghost I was surprised to feel haunting this book most was Sigmund Freud’s. With violence and war always the bêtes-noires of social liberalism, sexual freedom of expression restored some excitement to the liberal ethic. Conservatives seemed to fear sexual passion just as they claimed left-liberals were afraid of competitive toughness. The American version of Freud, acknowledging hidden impulses and undoing neuroses by talk, seemed to go along with liberal paeans to the beautiful, natural human body and nudity in foreign films — and the laughing satisfaction even among Volvo drivers and NPR listeners that they were still cooler, which is to say, sexier, than those who wanted to be repressed. For the actual, Viennese Freud, desire had held danger in both directions — toward restraint and freedom. In Civilization and its Discontents, the triumphs of civilization that Freud most admired — a pacified, gentle, and humanely generous social order, and the highest achievements of the arts — seemed to come from successful repression of libido, the submission of desire to the painful demands of the reality principle.
Richard Katz is sex itself, and art, of a sort made by desublimation rather than painful synthesis. But he can exist so single-mindedly only because he was defective from the beginning, motherless. He is helpless to do anything for his lover Molly as she falls into suicidal depression. He is a key ingredient in the medium that sustains the Berglunds and civilization, but is incapable of producing a partnership of his own. One of the remarkable elements of Freedom is its willingness to give us Richard’s inner world at all, for a short but decisive span of pages, when he can only ever be a deuteragonist for this book, helper or foil to the protagonists, but not a hero. (It’s probably telling of our values that these pages are so enjoyable, such a relief, that I wished Richard could be given a spinoff book; even here, it’s more fun to dwell within the life of the prickly rock n’ roll bad boy — and yet he is mostly beside the point.)
For nice Patty and nice Walter, sex seems to be the insoluble grit in the self and in love. Large swaths of the narrative are presented explicitly as the work of psychotherapy — from Patty Berglund’s therapeutic autobiography — just as Freedom, I suppose, is a work of therapy on deep unarticulated crises of America, but a cure at odds with the “culture of therapy” that is just supposed to make you happy. Sex shatters Patty’s life when it appears in its un-nice form, at last, with Richard. It gives Walter life, in some way, when he is freed to love Lalitha. And it adds up to nothing, really, for either of them — just as, in Joey’s even more sexually blasé generation, it can survive as something uncanny and limitless and ineluctable (for Joey with Connie), but is still incapable of being squared with worldly ambition and self-possession (in the pursuit of Jenna). The book becomes least allegorical on this point, most purely psychological, with no history to convey or vision to preach. Neither the Americanized nor the Viennese Freud entirely wins. Walter and Patty were not living when they had not known the darkness and deep un-niceness that exists in sex. But learning it only lets them learn enough to wind up, eventually, as each other’s best option, alone together, retired, presumably past sex. The trajectories of the Berglunds act out the original Freudian morality of modesty and cooperation, but also of sorrow, as our lives are brought under the gravity of reality, not the vivid national fantasies that will not go away. What unknownness and promise there was, in the past, is given over to some future generation at Freedom’s end, as a trust, behind a high fence, literally as well as figuratively guarded by the birds and the bees.
During my time in analysis, Dr. H and I naturally talked a lot about my dreams, which ordinarily I’m at a loss to recall. I’ve never remembered my dreams better than when I’ve had someone to tell them to — maybe there’s a lesson in there about fiction. Anyway one night, which I place in mid-2007, I had a dream about Jonathan Franzen.
In September of the same year, I was paid a gratifying sum of money to give a short, shallow, hopefully amusing talk about audio books at the New York launch party, held at the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side, for E-music, the mp3-downloading site where you can purchase audio books as well as music tracks. Vampire Weekend was another act doing promotional duty. Of course I especially was whoring myself out — I had to give a fresh talk rather than play already written songs — but I wished to be a somewhat self-respecting gigolo, and so tried not to lie too much in my fulsome praise of audio books. They are indispensable for long drives, I declared. Their carbon footprint must be lower than that of bound codices, I speculated. Um, their diffusion, by downloading, may revive the art of poetry, which always sounds best out loud? I was at least honest enough to warn people away from the audio book of my own novel, where a 40-something actor, voicing the narration of a 28-year-old, makes the character sound even more emotionally retarded than on the page.
After concluding my patter to applause, I took to gulping Johnny Walker Black. It was on the house. I was wearing a velvet jacket and talking inconsequentially to other people who’d had brushes with minor fame. Silently on my mind at all times were the imminent peaking of the world’s oil supply and the more imminent failure of an important relationship of mine. I’d last visited the Orensanz Center for the memorial service of my college friend Carlo Martino. Meanwhile a black Lincoln town car waited outside to take me home. I think I remember being somewhat impressed with myself for managing passable conversation at a time when I felt sick with sadness and anxiety.
I was into what may have been my third tumbler of scotch when somebody introduced me to an important literary agent and good friend of Jonathan Franzen. No one who’s read Franzen’s recent work will be surprised to learn that he was off bird-watching somewhere. Learning as much, I felt that now it was my turn to provide news about Franzen. Thus I found myself telling the important agent, on this first and last occasion that I met her, that I’d had a significant dream involving Franzen, which I’d discussed with my shrink.
In some non–New York American municipality, in a structure vaguely reminiscent of a parking garage or convention hall, a film was being shot, and Franzen was on the set to consult with me, the star of my own dream. I was wearing a superhero-ish outfit, with boots and cape, and was supposed to fly. I think I actually could fly. However, my outfit had some kind of split seam and failed to conceal my testicles, which would be much in evidence when I flew over people’s heads and my flight was recorded on camera. The prospect caused me some hesitation. But Franzen — kind, worried, and unnervingly honest Franzen, who wouldn’t tell you it was all right to fly around in public with your balls hanging out unless this was truly the case — Franzen told me not to worry. How about that for a useful dream? I asked the agent.
The next day I regretted having failed to keep my balls and dreams to myself, at least for social purposes. But the lesson of shamelessness imparted by the dream Franzen — the counsel of shameless emotion, shameless love and lust, shameless prowess and ambition, and shamelessness above all about shame — holds good for literature, I think. Freedom is a proud work of art about some embarrassing varieties of human being. In the weeks after I read the novel, I couldn’t think of my life without thinking of it, or think of it without thinking of my life. This is one mark of a good novel. Freedom has consoled me, by its company, in my own version of the global-warming obsessed, erotically disappointed, politically inflamed, love-triangulated, depression-stalked, death-hedged, somewhat excessively imbibing, and occasionally sell-out life that it depicts so well.
Nine Years Later
Halfway through Freedom I was feeling angry, disoriented, and upset. I walked into the living room in search of my girlfriend, who’d already finished the book, and then past the island separating her living room from her kitchen. She was cooking something. “These people are really messed up,” I said to her back.
“What do you mean?” She was inside the stove somewhere.
“What do I mean?” I was very upset. Patty Berglund was drinking herself to sleep every night; her husband, Walter, the indecisive environmentalist, had checked out; their son Joey had turned into a monster, his girlfriend Connie was a nut job, and the Berglunds’ best friend Richard’s bassist had run himself over with a van, despite having no health insurance! I too had no health insurance.
“Hm,” said my girlfriend. She didn’t sound very concerned. I went back to the bedroom to keep reading. She lavished such care and attention on her cat, my girlfriend, took it to the cat doctor and the cat dentist and the cat psychologist, probably, and yet she couldn’t be bothered to shed a tear for actual living people, for the Berglunds, who were going through all those troubles. How had I ended up with such an unfeeling person — I, who could feel so much?
Two hundred pages later, I understood what she’d meant. The clouds had lifted from the lives of the Berglunds. Patty had quit drinking, started working; Walter had made a decision, then another; Joey had ceased his monstrous ways and started importing shade-grown coffee beans. Even their friend Richard Katz was OK, making his music for the alphabet elites, appearing on NPR and at BAM, probably preparing, like his near-namesake Richard Hell, to donate his papers to NYU.
Yet I’d seen what I had seen. Their madness, their cruelty to one another — were they taking all this back? You can’t take that back. You can’t unsee what you have seen. Or I couldn’t, and can’t. What the hell?
Jonathan Franzen’s novel is a feeling-machine. It creates the illusion that the people in the book are real; when they suffer, and you see this, and are privy to their innermost thoughts (Franzen knows them, somehow, and tells you), it causes you to experience emotion. I understand that this is how art works, generally speaking. But there’s something about the way it’s deployed here that is almost overwhelming.
Speaking strictly in terms of the history of the novel, Freedom represents something pretty odd. For a century now, as Franzen himself once put it, “the only way to have adult dignity as a white male fiction writer” was to write in the antirealist modernist, then systems or metafictional mode of Joyce, Faulkner, Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Barthelme, and then, in Franzen’s own generation, preeminently, David Foster Wallace. What my colleague Benjamin Kunkel has called the “perennial novel” — the novel that’s always around — has remained steadfastly realist throughout this time, but the art novel was antirealist.1 Antirealism was not Franzen’s natural mode and yet his first two novels were very much within its tradition; his third, The Corrections, which was read as a repudiation of that tradition, still deferred to it in various ways.
On a formal level Freedom does away with the modernist or postmodernist novel entirely. It enacts the return to realism that Fredric Jameson once predicted would have to come if literary history were properly progressive. But it is a realism-plus: for example, it has shit in it. This is the legacy of modernism, from Ulysses to Gravity’s Rainbow to the great Soviet postmodernist Vladimir Sorokin, who once complained that no one ever takes a shit in Tolstoy’s novels — and so devoted his early work to the description of people taking shits, and eating the shit. [See “The Norm,” n+1 Issue One.] But if in those books defecation was a protest — against the obfuscations of the Victorian novel (in Joyce), or postwar bourgeois domesticity (in Pynchon), or Soviet propaganda (in Sorokin), Franzen recuperates the shit for liberal humanism and old-style characterization. It does not reveal character; it creates it. “He was the person who’d handled his own shit to get his wedding ring back,” thinks Joey, after ruining his big chance to score with his best friend’s sister in order to pick through his stool to find the new wedding ring he’d accidentally swallowed a few days earlier. “This wasn’t the person he’d thought he was, or would have chosen to be if he’d been free to choose, but there was something comforting and liberating about being an actual someone, rather than a collection of contradictory potential someones.”
Many readers have commented on Freedom’s “addictive” quality — you need to keep reading because you must know what happened to the Berglunds, because you care about them so much. One recalls the addictively entertaining film at the center of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which people couldn’t stop watching, to the point where they forgot to eat and drink and eventually died. Wallace’s novel, with its ceaselessly proliferating plots, and an ending that sent you back, after 1,100 densely printed pages, to the beginning, suggested it too was infinitely entertaining. Freedom is different. It has a definite beginning, middle, and end, even if these are scrambled a bit in the telling. What causes you to keep reading is a kind of boundless sympathy which you are powerless to control. It’s unfair. You’d have to be some kind of monster not to sympathize with these people, not to understand them. Franzen forces you to understand them. In fact the narrative creates a kind of moral paralysis, this understanding-of-everyone, and within the book itself it requires the amoralists, the immature amoralist Joey and the mature amoralist Richard, to move the action along. Freedom should remind us that if realism was thought to be in “crisis” as an artistic form, this was only in the sense that nuclear weaponry might be said to be in crisis — the dangers are too great. A first-rate intellect should not deploy it, on humanitarian grounds. Franzen is a first-rate intellect and has decided to deploy it anyway, for various reasons, both personal (it comes more naturally to him) and sociohistorical — the shock given the hundred-years’ discourse of “the death of novel” by its pseudoscientific new variant “the death of print.” Like the Bush Administration he despises, Franzen has invoked emergency powers. In this war, anything goes. If Franzen’s book reopens the debate over realism, it should do so only to close it again. The fact is, realism will win every time. The question is: What does this supremely realist, supremely moralist, supremely coercive book urge us to do — or coerce us to do — aside from reading it?
In the depths of freedom, which is to say halfway through Freedom, I was reminded of that other great contemporary novelist, Michel Houellebecq. For Houellebecq, the children of the 1960s are forever stunted and mangled by their parents’ selfishness. His books are filled with hippies neglecting their brood so that they can take their own pleasure, the kids growing up into unfeeling, masturbating sociopaths. Franzen offers, in certain ways, a corollary to this proposition: You don’t need to have been raised in a hippie orgy commune to have been deformed by the parenting of the Western post-Sixties. The children of the gentrifying generation are traumatized not by their parents’ neglect but by their parents’ consumerism. They are another in the ceaseless parade of objects their parents acquire in order to prove their moral and ethical superiority to their parents, indeed they are the prime object with which this is done.
And yet: the children in this book survive. It’s hard to know what to make of this. At the level of the novel, you wonder whether it’s realistic that they would do so. Such is the quality of the novel that you believe it anyway. The nightmare you experienced in the middle of the book was essentially the nightmare of adolescence (in this case Joey’s adolescence, which spread its damage through the lives of others), from which most adolescents and their parents eventually emerge. But the other reading is a metafictional reading, which the book may or may not authorize. This reading would say that the children survive, the Berglunds survive, but it does not matter. In the book, Franzen is God. Outside the book, the Franzen-God is nothing. He is powerless. And that nightmare that we lived through — the W. administrations I and II (the latter of which Franzen calls, with full justice, “the worst administration of all”) — has done its damage, and there is no going back.
Nine years ago, when Franzen published The Corrections, I remember a feeling mostly of intense relief. Not only was this a book that described, in novelistic form, the times we lived in (thereby proving that this could be done), but it described times that I very much wanted described. It’s been a while, but the madness of those years, the euphoria of Dow 36000, the $82.5 million IPO for Pets.com, the years, as Franzen wrote in The Corrections, “when receptionists wrote MasterCard checks to their brokers at 13.9 percent APR and still cleared a profit,” were also the years of Bill Clinton getting sucked off in the Oval Office by an intern and then sending the cruise missiles into Afghanistan to harass Al Qaeda. It was not a glorious decade, for all that it was very fun, and at the time you could believe that The Corrections itself was a form of punishment for those people (and for us, insofar as we were those people), and therefore too a form of expiation for the rest of us. We had been through a lousy, giddy, hedonistic time but we had been through it together, as it turned out, with Franzen, and he had been taking notes.
Now we know the truth. The 1990s deserved a correction — The Corrections — but as it turned out the decade was past and prelude to something much worse. “So many talents, so much charm, such great skill,” as W. accurately summed it up in 2000, “but in the end, to what end? So much promise to no great purpose.” W. would find a purpose. His ’00s deserve a scourge, a plague, a wiping-out. But they cannot be wiped out. The low points of Freedom are deeper, more despairing, than the low points of The Corrections, by far, and the rage of the novelist, when it surfaces, is more impotent. It is a resigned rage. It is the rage of the punk band that shows up at Walter’s environmental festival — “I shit in your mouth/ Big Dick it feels pretty nice/ Yeah, little Georgie/ A gunshot to the temple will suffice.” Are you really going to kill the President and Vice President? Well, you can’t. Are you really going to kill all the cats, because they kill birds? Not allowed. Are you really going to blow up the SUVs that destroy the planet, and the factories that make them, and the politicians that support them with tax breaks, and the gas stations that pump the gas, and the military that liberate the countries so they can send more oil? Well, you can’t do that either. It would ruin the economy.
Freedom has a happy ending, of sorts. But it is a happy ending of depletion, of survival. In The Corrections, Chip, the college professor who lost his job because he slept with a student, is finally redeemed: he returns home to the Midwest, cares for his father, and marries a nice doctor. No one is redeemed in Freedom. That’s not how things work anymore.
There is a counter-canon. Robert Coover once said that all writers in his generation had to choose between Saul Bellow and William Gaddis, whose first major novels, The Adventures of Augie March and The Recognitions, came out in 1953 and 1955, respectively — these marked the terrain. I have always been puzzled by this statement. I understand what Gaddis represents, and who his progenitors are. But Bellow seems to represent a very specific, subjective, ethnic intellectual novel. It being ethnic, how can you choose to be part of that? Philip Roth, in his Major American Novelist phase, wrote two slightly portentous books, The Human Stain and American Pastoral (a novel about a glove manufacturer whose title recalled Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, also about a glove manufacturer), which are part of the broader “white” American canon. Perhaps the most notable non-Jewish white male novelist of that generation who did not become a metafictionist was John Updike — and it was the Pennsylvanian Updike rather than the Jewish Norman Mailer or Philip Roth who was on the receiving end of a tirade against narcissism, misogyny, and, one suspects, some form of realism, that the non-Jewish Illinois-born white male David Foster Wallace wrote in 1997.
And so Updike. A magnificent writer, and one who should be defended. His great books, Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Is Rich, are not mere aesthetic objects, collections of “beautiful sentences.” They have verve and passion and they try gamely to capture an entire national mood. Why do they fail to do this? Why, weirdly, do they feel more provincial than Roth’s Zuckerman novels of those years? One wonders if it’s not because Updike had placed his bet on small-town Protestant America — numerically speaking, especially then, a good bet, but historically speaking a losing one. The neglected contemporaneous short novels of William Spackman, reissued by Dalkey Archive in 1997, suggest the problem. Like Updike a writer from Dutch Pennsylvania, and like Updike a man of vast erudition (a graduate of Princeton, Spackman went on to teach classics there), Spackman wrote novels that are clearly reports from an ethnic subculture — the WASP super-elite, in its more or less degenerative phase. Updike was writing about the middle-class version of this (Rabbit may have sold a lot of Toyotas in Rabbit Is Rich, but the banker hero of Spackman’s An Armful of Warm Girl moves, after his divorce, into the family’s old Greenwich Village townhouse, which has been sitting empty for about a decade), but Spackman may have been more right in his intuition about his novels’ typicality. The weird Pennsylvania Dutch High WASP locutions in the novel are reminiscent of nothing so much as the Yiddishisms of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, one of the original American “ethnic” novels. It’s possible that “average white America” as such has ceased to exist, and that far from working in a major generalist mode Updike was working, unwittingly, in a minor, ethnic one. ↩