Reading Note:

On Generosity
Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

In the weeks since I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for the first time, I have been at a loss to write about it, or even to talk about it. Beyond pronouncing it very fine, and ritually complaining as if this explained my underwhelmed aftermath about having read the first two chapters months ahead of time, in The New Yorker, I've known only that Freedom didn't hit me with the force of Strong Motion (which I still think of as the author's most exciting book) or The Corrections. Nor, however, could I put my finger on what was missing from the new novel, a lack that might explain my oddly indifferent response. And what was my response, anyway? Freedom gripped me while I read it. Why, once I was finished, my sheepishness?

What woke me from this stupor was Charles Baxter's review in The New York Review of Books. The review is, for the most part, a tissue of positive judgments about the book. But there hangs overhead a cloud of muted expectation. Somehow, Freedom has failed us. Mr Baxter is to be thanked for spelling out, finally, the nature of this dereliction, something that he does in his last lines.

Freedom attempts to come to terms with the Bush years and is finally defeated by them. Having said that, I need to add that the book is often inspired and eloquent. Its ambitions are praiseworthy, as is its fury. Its heart is rather beautifully on its sleeve much of the time. The large audience for which Franzen's novel is intended will no doubt find it written with consistent intelligence and energy. But it cannot solve the problems it regards as crucial, which is our loss and probably our fate.

Smack! Whether to read the last sentence as a claim or a complaint is a matter that, all of a sudden, doesn't interest me anymore. To claim that a novel can solve social problems, and to complain when it fails to do so the elegance of Mr Baxter's rhetorical flourish cannot entirely conceal an immature longing, characteristically adolescent and American. I saw right away why I had been put off by the critical conversation about this book. Love it or hate it, everyone has wanted to see it as a monument. As with all monuments, it is hard to be sure that the greatness is free of self-importance. The author himself has been monumentalized, with not only with a cover at Time Magazine but also the appropriation of that cover by an advertisement for Apple's iPad an almost bottomlessly ironic twist. The critics have gathered at the foot of the monument as if waiting for it to work a miraculous transformation of the crowded but parched desert in which we find ourselves at the moment. But the book has just sat there, while the author has donned a suit jacket and attended some nice parties. There has been no magic.

It's as though, in Patty Berglund an American woman impatient for transformation, whether of herself or of the world about her, she scarcely cares Jonathan Franzen had distilled the critical response to his work. Now, that would be great if greatness really mattered, if indeed it were sane to expect a novel to change things. Let us concede at the outset that novels can inspire change let's admit the possibility. But let's also insist that the train between a novel and the solution to the social problems that it describes is manifold and hardly, at the time of publication, foreseeable. I'd argue, further, that novels inspire change not by means of tractlike proposals or arguments but by means of opened hearts. Novels famously that this should need saying! excite our sympathies. We care about the characters who people the great novels. That is the one thing that all readers of great novels can agree upon. And we care about characters for the very simple reason that their creators novelists have worked hard to pin to the page for all to see their own love and concern for people whom, according to most writers' commentary, they have not invented at all, but who have come to them unbidden.

It is in this regard that Freedom is obviously and inarguably a great novel. Just as The Corrections made us care (varyingly, to be sure) about the five Lamberts, Freedom makes us care about Patty Berglund, her beautiful son, Joey, and her self-sacrificing husband, Walter. It makes us care about Connie Monaghan and Richard Katz. I cared enormously for Lalitha, Walter's assistant, even though she was a rank and frank opportunist I loved the zest for life that, in the form of crazy driving, takes her life! There are plenty of characters whom we would deny "caring" about, but whom we'll think of now and then, whom people met in real life will remind us of. Eliza. Jenna and her brother, Jonathan. Linda Hoffbauer. We don't meet Mitch Berglund, the bane of Walter's youth, until the very end of the novel, but Jonathan Franzen makes us care about him, too.

There's a reasonably good complex of narratives in Freedom, strong enough to keep the most jaded reader turning the pages. But the characters transcend the anecdotes in which we get to know them. Their stories may have sustained our interest through the actual reading of the book, but when the reading is done it is they themselves who lodge in our memories, not their stories. That's because Franzen has done what real life does, piling up glimpses of people we know doing things we understand. Patty commits an act of criminal vandalism against a neighbor: we ourselves might never do such a thing (or flatter ourselves that we wouldn't), but it makes Patty more deeply, convincingly dimensional. We may forget exactly what Patty did, but we'll know that she did something. No reader of the book (in these recent post-publication days) can pretend not to know what I'm talking about, incident-wise. But I defy any thoughtful reader to deny that what we'll remember about Patty is that she was capable of extraordinary things.

What makes Patty a great character can't be summarized by plot points. If I were to make the claim that Patty Emerson Berglund is an interesting character because she underwent the duple betrayal of a date rape that her parents, in the interest of their own social standing, wanted to cover up, you'd be right to reject it. Terrible things don't make people interesting; in real life, it's rather the reverse. What makes Patty someone whom readers will hold on to for the rest of their lives is not the drama of her experience but the passionate diligence with which the author mounts up telling details. Jonathan Franzen loves Patty Berglund every bit as much as he loves Enid Lambert, the character who stood in for his mother.

Charles Baxter begins to wrap up his bewildering review with the following statement: "The tone of Freedom's last two hundred pages oscillates between moral outrage and despair..." Were we reading the same novel? Or, as I suspect, is Mr Baxter too much of a guy to recognize that the last sixty pages of Freedom give us not one but two happy endings, piled up like birthday cake cumulus clouds? That may be what the querelle about Freedom in particular, and Jonathan Franzen's artistry in general, comes down to: is love, whether the principled Christian kind or the more self-interested romance, the crucial human engagement or not? At the risk of great personal indiscretion, I will copy out a passage about Patty and her daughter that quite unexpectedly caused me to burst into tears. That it comes from the paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 532 is something that I could have told you without opening the book.

Her mainstay, of course, is Jessica. So much so, indeed, that Patty is rigorously careful not to overdo it and drown her with need. Jessica is a working dog, not a show dog like Joey, and once Patty had left Richard and regained a degree of moral respectability, Jessica had made a project of fixing up her mother's life. Many of her suggestions were fairly obvious, but Patty in her gratitude and contrition meekly presented progress reports at their regular Monday-evening dinners. Although she knew a lot more about life than Jessica did, she'd also made a lot more mistakes. It cost her very little to let her daughter feel important and useful, and their discussions did lead directly to her current employment. Once she was back on her feet again, she was able to offer Jessica support in return, but she had to be very careful about this, too. When she read one of Jessica's overly poetic blog entries, full of easily improvable sentences, the only thing she allowed herself to say was "Great post!" When Jessica lost her heart to a musician, the boyish little drummer who'd dropped out of NYU, Patty had to forget everything she knew about musicians and endorse, at least tacitly, Jessica's belief that human nature had lately undergone a fundamental change: that people her own age, even male musicians, were very different from people Patty's age. And when Jessica's heart was then broken, slowly but thoroughly, Patty had to manufacture shock at the singular unforeseeable outrage of it. Although this was difficult, she was happy to make the effort, in part because Jessica and her friends really are somewhat different from Patty and her generation the world looks scarier to them, the road to adulthood harder and less obviously rewarding but mostly because she depends on Jessica's love now and would do just about anything to keep her in her life.

Among other things, Freedom taught me that my Upper East Side corner of the world is crammed with men and women in their fifties and sixties who have learned that they, too, would do just about anything to keep their children in their lives. I don't know how Jonathan Franzen knew it, and maybe he didn't. But the lesson is right there, clear as day, in this paragraph.

Jonathan Franzen's fiction insists that readers decide between being generous and being cool, and a lot of insecure males are going to fail that test. What I realized this evening was that it's imperative that we stop listening to their talk of greatness. "Greatness" is a byword for something vastly more interesting to one gender than it is to the other. In Freedom, Franzen sets a higher, truly common denominator. May we all pick up the beat of his monumentally capacious heart. (September 2010)


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