September 19, 2010


Smaller Than Life: Jonathan Franzen’s juvenile prose creates a world in which nothing important can happen. (B. R. Myers, October 2010, The Atlantic)

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? If so, Tolstoy has a lot to answer for—including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s latest. A suburban comedy-drama about the relationship between cookie-baking Patty, who describes herself as “relatively dumber” than her siblings; red-faced husband Walter, “whose most salient quality … was his niceness”; and Walter’s womanizing college friend, Richard, who plays in an indie band called Walnut Surprise, the novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance. [...]

Why was Freedom written? The prologue raises expectations for a socially engaged, or at least social, narrative that are left unmet. Too much of it takes place in high school, college, or suburbia; how odd that a kind of fiction allegedly made necessary by America’s unique vitality always returns to the places that change the least. Franzen clearly has little interest in the world of work. (The same applies, incidentally, to whoever edited the novel.) Of the four main characters, only Walter has a real job, about which we learn nothing until it becomes a matter of traveling around with an admiring young assistant. (American novelists never tire of the student-don romance; they just dress it up in different clothes.) Walter is constantly holding forth on issues he has researched, but not dramatically experienced. They are entertaining tirades, but this is not what fiction is for.

Franzen uses facile tricks to tart up the story as a total account of American life: the main news events of the past quarter century each get a nod in the appropriate chapter. Brands are identified whenever possible; we go from Parliament butts in the first chapter to Glad-wrapped cookies in the last. Countless pop-cultural artifacts are name-checked, in the most minimal sense of the term. When Joey and a girl fly to Argentina, Pirates of the Caribbean is playing on the seat backs in front of them. Facile, yes, but Franzen knows his market. Many people who eschew great books for the latest novels do so because they want precisely this kind of thing. (Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.) These readers want a world that is recognizably their own in every trivial particular, right down to Twitter, even if the book says less of real relevance to their lives than one written a century ago. The critics do their bit by acting as though name-checks constituted themes and issues. I can hear the prize laudation for Freedom now: “It is a novel about commercialism, about the war in Iraq, about the pervasiveness of Hollywood culture …”

Perhaps the only character who holds the reader’s interest is Walter, if only because he is less obviously unpleasant than his wife, son, and college friend. But whenever we come close to caring about him, a silly joke comes along to set us straight. The ethical choices on his steak-house menu are so few and unappealing that after a little deliberation he says, “F*** it … I’m going to have the rib-eye.” (A fellow environmentalist cheers the selection as if welcoming a wallflower onto the dance floor.) The book pays dearly for this sitcom gag; Walter’s interest in saving wild birds suddenly looks like a manifestation not of real conviction, but of the same uptight goody-goodiness that bores his wife. Even when he finally loses his temper, the book shows him no respect: the chapter in question is called “The Nice Man’s Anger.” Would he have turned out less of a clown had Freedom been written after the BP spill? I doubt it; Franzen must riff and smirk for our age, the Age of Unseriousness. No sooner does Walter declare his love for his assistant than we are forced to follow him to the bathroom, where, unable to pee, he wastes water in “an unnecessary flush.” How tiresome all of this is; literary fiction has drawn man smaller than life for much, much longer than it ever did the opposite.

...the redeeming features of Mr. Franzen's last one were accidental.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2010 7:29 AM
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