Jonathan Franzen's Freedom A Review

Wed Dec 15, 2010

Both the LRB and NYRB reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom make the astute point that the long autobiographical section of the book is not sufficiently distinguished in style from the rest. Though it’s undeniably Patty’s thoughts, it’s not Patty’s writing that we’re reading. And James Lever argues that this could have been exploited in terms of the reaction that Walter and Richard have when they read it. I do wonder, though, about a comment Walter made about the manuscript after he finds it, which I didn’t actually remember from reading it (it was something about a libel on his “manhood,” about which there were many general things mentioned but nothing as specific-seeming as he seemed to mean it at this point). This could in fact indicate that the manuscript in the book is not the narrative of the manuscript we read, which would be rather sly, especially as there’s no other reason to suspect a trick like this in the broad social realism of the rest of the novel.

Franzen’s particular brand of social realism interests me quite a bit. Chip Lambert was a very broad caricature of an academic, yet many readers seemed to find him believable. Similarly, I found many parts of Freedom, while consistently grabbing, to veer wildly from my perception of the world. Franzen seems to believe that only those who’ve gone to selective liberal arts colleges can have thoughts worth expressing, or at least be able to express worthy thoughts. That he seems to regard the University of Minnesota as a provincial ag-school and Macalester as a potential intellectual breeding ground (for Minnesota) is only an instance of this. The presentation of the student culture of the University of Virginia is not far removed from Tom Wolfe (or Alexander Theroux of Darconville’s Cat, for that matter). His treatment of the rural West Virginians, particularly the encounter in the steak house, could have been reconsidered; and I don’t think anyone would confuse Linda Hoffbauer with Marilynne Robinson.

The whole plotline with Joey’s roommate Jonathan, his Podhoretzian or Kristolian father, whose absurd exoteric Straussianism Franzen couldn’t even pretend to treat seriously, and the sister Jenna, whose vacuity is only slightly more plausible than that of the average Less Than Zero (which is brainstormed as a depopulation slogan, interestingly enough) character, was poorly constructed (though, again, gripping to read. I can’t stress enough how much of my attention this novel demanded and how skillfully this was done, even as I was resisting much of what I was reading.) I did find interesting the references to Joyce’s scatological letters to Nora in the phone sex that Joey and Connie were having, and the scene where he reclaims his wedding ring seemed to want to be compared in some way to Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel.” (Perhaps it’s because I just taught Oblivion that I noticed this. One thing that was very clear, however, was the acid portrayals of people like Jessica in Wallace’s story compared to the modest disapproval of complete identification seen in Franzen’s novel.) Joey’s world was set askew by 911, after all. I really would have enjoyed reading more about the point where he has to go to Poland to negotiate for obsolescent truck parts.

U2’s Achtung Baby makes an appearance. At one point, Richard Katz makes an ambiguous crack about Bono Vox in an interview he’s giving in a fit of petulance or pique to the spoiled son of a titan of industry whose deck he’s putting in. (This becomes viral in the same way that Walter’s drug-induced jeremiad does. I felt that Franzen was very amused by the concept.) Anyway, here’s a scene from Joey’s adolescence: “It took him back to their earliest days as a couple on Barrier Street, in his first fall of high school. U2’s Achtung Baby, beloved to both of them but especially to Connie, had been the soundtrack of their mutual deflowering. The opening track, in which Bono avowed that he was ready for everything, ready for the push, had been their love song to each other and to capitalism” (412). For those a bit older than Joey, making out to The Joshua Tree would have produced quite different associations. The grotesque irony of the album, the “Fly” persona, and all of the rest of it would not likely have been lost on a kid as smart and perceptive as everyone agrees Joey to be (or Connie, for that matter), so I couldn’t help but wonder that this was something else sly that Franzen was doing.

What does the novel have to say about demographic management? Is there any distance between the bird-watching author and the cat-napping Walter Berklund, really? Is the deliberately obtuse presentation of Straussian* ideas not just a mordant commentary on the equally obtuse circulation of said ideas during the buildup to the Iraq war but a coded lesson to the wise to listen to everything that Berklund says, and more, about the dangers of overpopulation? (To be fair, Joey even recognizes that there are obvious commercial motivations behind the rhetoric of infinite democracy (“freedom”) being bruited about in this discourse, and Jonathan demystifies it for him later.) Who, having adequate opportunity, does not procreate in the novel? What is that telling us about the good life? One of the essays in the recent n+1 colloquium on Freedom suggested wanting to read a spin-off novel about Richard Katz’s adventures. Does limitless growth allow Richard Katzes? Does it produce them? Or should population growth be checked so as not to threaten Katzian habitats? The more obvious answer here is that Katz is a cat, so to speak, a wanton predator who eliminates one reproductive-aged female that we know of—-an instance inviting generalization.

*I would say “pseudo-,” but I think that might give the wrong impression.