Sunday, April 3, 2011

“Freedom’s just another word ...” for wasting time

“Freedom – A Novel,” by Jonathan Franzen, 2010

Reviewers gushed over it – Updike, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy! Book clubs, on-line and off, made it their centerpiece. It went to #1 on the NY Times sales list for weeks. It was hailed as the best book of the year, and perhaps for 10 years before that. Oprah selected it for her book club, christening it a ‘masterpiece’ - even after being insulted by Franzen for her embrace of his earlier book, ‘The Corrections.” It burned up Twitter. Obama was seen reading it, unlike the book "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent,” given him by Chavez. The literary establishment had found a book they almost all liked, which is significant in the world of cultural politics and the middle-class cultural spectacle.

For that reason, it took me awhile to stomach opening this 562-page book. But authors, above all, write for themselves, and hence are not passive participants. After all, a guy who insulted Oprah couldn’t be all bad.

It dawned on me that the title is not an accident. “Freedom” is a generic term at this point in history, and certainly the characters in this book do not use their ‘freedom’ well – nor, I suspect, does Franzen think Americans use their freedom well. The characters spend it on jealousy, depression, drinking, sex, money-grubbing, fame, stupid politics and one doozy of an ‘environmental’ plan that involves mountain-top removal. Sort of like Homer Simpson as a ‘green’ job worker.

This book is full of accurate satiric comments on various cultural habits of present times, and these comic moments form little oases that carry one through the book. Without them, I don’t know if I could have made it. “Freedom” has been described by some as ‘political.’ And indeed it reflects the politics of the 9/11 - Iraq war era well, as reflected in several households – a middle-class one, a working-class one, and a ‘hipster’ one. War and the environment take center stage. The book is first set in St. Paul on Ramsey Hill in the late 80s, and in Grand Rapids, in a motel and cabin, then trails to Washington D.C., New York and West Virginia, so the local references work the same way they work in the film, ‘Factotum” – giving us all the ability to name-check.

Walter Berglund, the main protagonist, grows up in a working-class/small businessman family, and flees its northern Minnesota crudity to become a political correct liberal. He marries a jock girl, Patty, from an upper-middle class family out of Westchester County, NY (where else?), and the tale of their bad marriage forms the emotional center of the book. Walter eventually comes up with a scheme to save the ‘cerulean warbler’ by strip-mining a chunk of West Virginia, which is then supposed to be ‘reclaimed’ for all time for the bird. Of course, this is a transparent sleight-of-hand by some oil man to cover his tracks. Walter is aided in this project by a beautiful young Bengali women, Lalitha, who he falls in love with as his marriage falls apart.

Walter and Patty have a son, Joey, who leaves the family home and moves next door with a working-class family so he can have sex with their passive daughter, Connie. Joey later comes up with his own cock-eyed scheme, as a 19-year-old, to sell rusted Eastern European truck parts to the U.S. government in Iraq. And succeeds! Joey is torn between the sexy airhead sister of his rich college roommate and his real connection with Connie and her family. Through the whole marriage, Walter’s friend Richard, a magnetic punk-rock musician, completes an emotional ‘triad’ with Patty and Walter. Richard goes on to some success as an alt-country musician, and then as a film scorer. The book is book-ended by ‘autobiographical’ soliloquies by Patty, explaining her life and her self. And ends with what I consider a parachuted ‘happy’ ending. How a book ends is testimony to an authors toughness and truth-telling, and here, Franzen show cowardice and dodges the bullet.

In this book the working-class is depicted for the most part as a bunch of loutish, right-wing, obdurate drunks. This is pretty typical for middle-class writers. Connie’s mother’s monster-pickup boyfriend cuts down almost every tree in their yard, for instance. The middle-class is shown as ultimately sensitive and kind, though misguided and inept. Richard, the bohemian, is supposed to be the ‘truth-teller’ (Richard makes Marxist noises every now and then…) and for the most part, he does that - though he is ultimately most concerned about his music career and his sexual conquests. However, in the end, every character is a comic/cosmic joke, given the overall war and environmental concerns that Franzen evidently has. And here, I think, is the ultimate point. No one is up to the task of dealing with what the system is ultimately doing. In essence, they are not using their freedom well.

Most reviewers wallow in the personal stories of this family, as if the meaning of this novel was purely intimate. It strikes me that Franzen is not exclusively 'that kind of writer' - but since this is the road to success in the U.S., perhaps he will become more like 'that kind of writer.' None of these people are exactly likable, or reliable, but they do strike you as people you might have met at one time. And that is what makes this book a little like a deep rabbit hole, from which you will enter on one end, and come up miles away, in another.

And I bought it at the independent bookstore, Cheap Books

Red Frog

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