Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "Freedom" and the Revival of (My Interest in) Modern American Fiction


I've had an interesting history with this book.

Almost two years ago, I got up a post that was a review of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.   (Read it here.) In it, I discussed my gradual loss of interest in contemporary American fiction, giving up on it some short way into Susan Minot's Evening.  At the end, I mentioned that someone whose taste I respected had given me Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, his award-winning novel, universally praised as one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years.  I promised the gifter to read it and intended to.  Franzen's prior novel, The Corrections,  won the National Book Award and was famously selected by Oprah as one her Book Club selections (an honor in which Franzen refused to participate).  In a cover story, TIME mag called him "The Great American Novelist."  At the end of the prior post, I wrote:  "It's next on my list.  I'll give you a report."

 Two years later, this is it.

All I knew about the book is that it was about a modern family.  Frankly, I didn't think I was going to like it.  I thought it was going to be a long sneer at middle-class values, a tiresome attack on the hypocrisy of the life of affluent Americans.  Sure, those values can sometimes use some work and there's a streak of hypocrisy in the life of the best of us.  Even the title, Freedom.  Yeah, yeah, it's how the freedoms our American society affords us ultimately entrap us with our prosperity and make us miserable, etc. etc. etc., yawn.  Let's flip to the back  .  .  .  562 pages.  I was weary of it before I cracked to page 1.

But I wanted to give this shining example of modern fiction a shot.  I started it earlier this year.

On rare occasions I'll start a book, tire of it or otherwise fail to become engaged, put it aside, pick it up again, and love the darned thing.  A recent example is Saul Bellow's masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, which confused me in its first few dozen pages, and there were several hundred more to go.  I picked it up again months later, started over, worked a little harder at keeping the characters straight and kept on going.  I ended up finishing it quickly and was astounded by the extravagant beauty of the thing.

I started Freedom this spring.  Indeed, at first I did find it irritating, but not so much for its story or content.  It was the writing that was giving me some trouble.  (More on that next.)  But it did interest me; and I did realize that my prediction of its theme was, if not entirely wrong, pretty wrong.  Eventually, though, I put it aside about a hundred pages into it.  But I didn't put it back on the shelf.   I put the dust cover back onto it and put it on a table where it rebuked me daily.  I hoped I would remember the characters and what had happened so far if and when I picked it up again.

Eventually, I did, and I did.  And I started liking it better, despite its flaws, and blasted on through to the end.  When I was done, I was sold:  Freedom is a fine novel that repaid my hours of reading.  Maybe better than fine, maybe great, but the technical issues I'll get to in a moment are holding me back on the g-word. 
The novel takes Walter and Patty Berglund from their college years and courtship, through their years in St. Paul, and eventual relocation to Washington, D.C.  Central to the book is the relationship of each of them to indie musician Richard Katz.  They have two children, the precocious and obnoxious Joey, who gets a lot of ink, and better-girl Jessica, who is almost invisible in the story.   Neighbors, colleagues, friends.   Over the course of the book, the emphasis shifts from Patty's unhappiness to Walter's as they age, change, deceive themselves and one another, and reach for meaning.  I read it closely, without skipping (except for the final two-thirds of some of the dialoguey encounters), and ended up loving it.

But first  .  .  .  some misgivings:

I have to depart from the majority of critics who liked the book, and some who didn't, who praised the writing.  (See the Wikipedia entry for Freedom.)   The question I continued to ask myself as I read was:  What has happened to the Great American Editor?  Did Franzen's celebrity intimidate whoever got assigned to redline this behemoth?   It is true that Franzen can put together marvelous-sounding sentences.   But there was a lot, and by that I mean a lot, of writerly showing-off in this book, prose that said look at me more than it illuminated the thoughts and feelings and actions of the characters.   There were also passages that were much to jokey, Franzen giving the reader a nudge in the ribs as if to say that was a good one, wasn't it?  A good editor would have gotten some of this under control.   

And some of that self-conscious scribbling was just plain clumsy.  One need not look far for an example.   It is one of those myths of writing that happens to be true is that first sentences are important.  Books have been written about the art of the first sentence.  The first sentence of Freedom, however, was very bad:
"The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times."

Of course we're going to meet Walter and Patty in a bit.  But right off the bat, the reader is confused rather than intrigued.  The dash-bracketed insertion then both over- and underexplains about these characters we don't know.  If people who were gone only two years "meant nothing to St. Paul now," they probably never did, which thus does not explain why "the news about Walter" was not "picked up locally" (it takes a moment to figure out that "local" means "St. Paul").  And what does it mean for people to "mean something" to a city?  Finally, the two negatives in the last phrase are very hard to figure out ("not so loyal to their city as not to read" – very clumsy) and, when finally parsed, expresses the rather silly thought that loyalty to a city discourages one from reading The New York Times.   

Editors exist to fix writing like this.

They also exist to cut.  This book needed it.  The leading candidate for reduction were the dialogues, which repeated themselves from encounter to encounter, and each of which went on and on with the characters continuing to say the same things to one another over and over.  Good skipping territory.

Large sections of the book are taken up with an "autobiography" written by Patty Berglund.  Problem:  She writes just like Jonathan Franzen.

Finally, these very unappealing characters are given some very deep, detailed, complex, and rather florid thoughts to think.  An unappealing person can have deep and florid thoughts, but Franzen's description of them (in frequently very striking prose) contrasts jarringly with the very pedestrian lives and intellects he has crafted for them.

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So far, I've barely said a nice thing about this book.  So why did I end up liking it so much and why did it leave me with a good feeling about the future of fiction?

The foregoing stylistic accusations aside, I did enjoy the music of Franzen's prose.  It was such a pleasure after decades of minimalism and Iowa Writer's Workshop crap to feel the evocative and almost physical power of the English language, wielded by a master.

Franzen also makes a real effort to wrestle with the issues that upper-middle-class Americans have faced since the Appalling Sixties:   Ennui; balancing commitment with family; wrestling with the contradictions of the sexual revolution; negotiating the DMZ between principle and compromise. 

The characters, while unanimously unappealing, were vividly and consistently sketched.  I could see each one of them.  It would be both a clich√© and untrue to say that I "cared" about them, but I was interested in seeing what was going to happen to them.  Which, I suppose, is a way of saying that once I got past some of the Franzian flash, I got immersed in the darned story of the thing.

The book is fair-minded.   I had expected it to be strongly political, and strongly leftist, but I found it pretty agnostic on political matters.  So I was surprised when I read in the book's Wikipedia entry that "[m]ost lukewarm reviews praised the novel's prose [see?], but believed the author's left-wing political stance was too obvious."  I don't think so.  All the main characters, to the extent they could be tagged at all, were pretty obviously liberal (one, and only one, moves unattractively rightward later in the book) but even more obviously deeply flawed human beings.  I certainly didn't peg Franzen as a conservative.  I pegged him as an artist.  He was seeking to tell the truth about the private life of people with certain identifiable public beliefs that I, at least, associated with taking today's liberal arts education too seriously.   The same book could have been written about a Tea Party family.  A charge of political bias diminishing the book is factually wrong.

Although I complained about the prose sometimes overwhelming the slightness of the characters' moral architecture, in the end I admired the acuity of Franzen's insights into human nature, and their incorporation into a grand family story.  The novel cannot be called inspirational -- the most positive thing about the fate of the characters is that they've more or less resigned -- lifted my spirits and made me think maybe I've been missing something in recent fiction. 

I'm looking forward to getting back to exploring what modern writers have to say.

But that Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace has been sitting on my shelf for quite awhile  .  .  .  . 
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