The Tidiest of Sprawl
Midway through Jonathan Franzen’s massive new novel, Freedom, Richard Katz, a commercially and critically neglected punk rocker, forms a new alt-country band called Walnut Surprise. The move pays immediate dividends: Walnut Surprise’s album Nameless Lake receives praise from the philistines at Entertainment Weekly and People, wins a Grammy, and regularly plays on popular radio. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with Franzen’s career that this mainstream success leads directly to self-conscious misery rather than contentment. Katz resents his popularity — looking at December sales figures, the erstwhile rebel realizes “that Nameless Lake had made the perfect little Christmas gift to leave beneath tastefully trimmed trees in several hundred thousand NPR-listening households” — and indeed begins to resent all popular music:
This sort of aversion was new to him, and he was rational enough to recognize that it had everything to do with his mental state and little or nothing to do with reality. Just as the fundamental sameness of female bodies in no way precluded unending variety, there was no rational reason to despair about the sameness of popular music’s building blocks, the major and minor chords, the 2/4 and the 4/4, the A-B-A-B-C. Every hour of the day, somewhere in greater New York, some energetic young person was working on a song that would sound, at least for a few listenings — maybe for as many as twenty or thirty listenings — as fresh as the morning of Creation.
Richard’s musings aren’t just another example of Franzen tortuously pondering his relationship to a mainstream audience (a regular pastime for the writer). They also tell us a lot about why Freedom, while ambitious and enjoyable, fails to live up to the promise of The Corrections (2001): the stultifying sameness of the novel’s building blocks. Like a popular musician, Franzen introduces the novel’s major and minor chords — in his case, thematic clusters like “freedom,” “competition,” “renunciation,” and the oft-repeated question of “how to live” — and hammers them home over and over and over again. Richard claims that a pop song can still be revelatory through thirty listenings, and Freedom tests this claim. The word “competition” appears 12 times in the novel, “competitive” nineteen, “freedom” twenty-five, “free” a whopping eighty-five. Imagine thirty consecutive listenings, and you get the idea.
Franzen has been willing to sacrifice subtlety for thematic clarity in the past. He used parental, romantic, chemical, and economic “corrections” to connect his previous novel’s many disparate parts; similarly, in Strong Motion (1992) he too cutely linked corporate and pro-life extremism to give his sprawling novel some semblance of order. But you emerged from these works, and The Corrections in particular, struck not by their sometimes-awkward integration but by the imagination exhibited in individual scenes, like the painful chapter in The Corrections that describes Gary Lambert’s battle against depression and mixed grills. The parts didn’t always cohere — Chip’s adventures in Lithuania could have been excised without loss — but this messiness was part of the novel’s charm and why it felt to many readers symptomatic of our times. And, despite its large size and even larger ambition (and despite a scene in which a character digs through his own feces to locate his wedding ring), Freedom just isn’t messy enough. Maybe the obvious patterning is a sign that Franzen has finally accepted his mainstream audience: Freedom is definitely Franzen’s most accessible, book-club-worthy book. Regardless of his reasoning, though, the relentless schematization threatens to smother the life out of the text.
Franzen’s narrative focus has narrowed over the course of his career. The Twenty-Seventh City is the story of a city (St. Louis); Strong Motion the story of an institution (the evil chemical company Sweeting-Aldering); The Corrections the story of a single family (the Lamberts); and Freedom is largely the story of a marriage (with, admittedly, a good deal of attention given to one of their offspring). Patty and Walter Berglund meet in college, and their relationship is fraught with complication from the start. Patty, a basketball star at the University of Minnesota with “morbid competitiveness and low self-esteem,” finds herself lusting not after Walter but his smoldering rocker pal, Richard Katz.
Walter immediately falls for Patty, and waits for her to come to her senses. Franzen’s constant epithet for Walter is “nice,” and Walter displays niceness in everything he does: he chooses Macalister College over the Ivy League so he can trek home every weekend to help his mother run the family’s decrepit motel; he patiently waits for Patty to work through her dalliance with Richard and realize Walter’s “ability to make whatever place he was in seem like a homey place to be.” Patty eventually renounces erotic attraction for domestic suitability and “niceness”: Patty and Walter are married, and raise two children, Joey and Jessica, in St. Paul.
From here, the novel turns into a typical Franzen melodrama, melding the private to the public while standing economic and marital corruption side by side. Franzen spins plots out of Walter’s tortured compromise with corporate America, in which he wins protection for the blue cerulean warbler at the cost of allowing mountaintop removal in West Virginia; Patty’s growing alcoholism and dissatisfaction with her martial life (staying together at the Berglunds’ lakeside cottage, she and Richard finally give way to their passion, twice); and the estrangement and eventual rapprochement of the Berglunds after a car crash clunkily eliminates Walter’s young lover, Lalitha.
But you don’t read Franzen for the plot. If you did, Freedom would infuriate you. The story is both too perfectly parallel — do we really believe that both Walter and Joey would independently find themselves involved in a right-wing corporate company’s nefarious environmental and military schemes? — and simultaneously too digressive — Joey’s flirtations with his roommate’s sister left me thoroughly uninterested. At its best, Franzen’s prose brings about the shock of recognition: here, you say to the page, is a perfect encapsulation of a thought I’ve had but never articulated. Franzen is the kind of novelist you read so you can reread your favorite bits aloud to your friends. Here is his description from The Corrections of the inevitable re-purposing of ping-pong tables in suburban basements:
It’s the fate of most Ping-Pong tables in home basements eventually to serve the ends of other, more desperate games. After Alfred retired he appropriated the eastern end of the table for his banking and correspondence. At the western end was the portable color TV on which he’d intended to watch the local news while sitting in his great blue chair but which was now engulfed by Good Housekeepings and the seasonal candy tins and baroque but cheaply made candle holders that Enid never quite found time to transport to the Nearly New consignment shop.
While there aren’t as many bits worth sharing in Freedom as there were in The Corrections, Franzen still offers quotable rants on everything from aggressive driving to suburban gossip. Take, for instance, Franzen’s description of the possessiveness of indie music fans (Franzen in general is great on the psychodynamics of fandom — when asked what is wrong with Dave Mathews Band, Walter, proud of his musical sophistication, replies, “Basically everything, except technical proficiency”): “serious fans always need to feel uniquely connected to the object of their fandom; they jealously guard those points of connection, however tiny or imaginary, that justify the feeling of uniqueness.” Or how “the conversation about the idiocy of SUVs stops dead the minute people say they’re buying them to protect their precious babies.” Or his description of Yankees’ catcher Jorge Posada as “the chinless wonder.” Or the perennial questions of gentrified city dwellers: “what about those cloth diapers? Worth the bother? And was it true that you could still get milk delivered in glass bottles? Were the Boy Scouts OK politically? Was bulgur really necessary?”
Beyond these throwaway nuggets, Franzen is at his best when mercilessly exposing his characters’ capacity for self-deception. Henry James, contrasting realism and romance, described the real as what “we cannot possibly not know,” and Franzen delights in showing how these are precisely the things that we continue to try and not know. Immediately after Patty sleeps with Richard, she realizes that “Her new plan called for her to try very hard to forget the night before and pretend it didn’t happen.” After reading Patty’s diary account of her early life and later affair, Richard thinks, “For a moment, in what passed for his soul, a door opened wide enough for him to glimpse his pride in its pathetic woundedness, but he slammed the door shut and considered how stupid he’d been to let himself want her.” When Patty confronts her mother over her terrible parenting, she explains, “At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they’ll break my heart.” In The Corrections, Franzen writes, “Elective ignorance was a great survival skill, perhaps the greatest.” Gary Lambert remains the author’s greatest portrait of elective ignorance, but in Freedom Franzen again shines light on our daily acts of self-deception.
While such self-deception connects all of Franzen’s characters, the guiding threads of the novel are the themes of renunciation and refusal. At one point, Walter describes the “scarcity economy” of Patty’s family: affection is a limited commodity, and Patty must compete with her siblings for it. To choose one path (such as Patty’s choice of Walter) is to refuse another (her erotic attraction to Richard). Franzen argues that it is when we ignore the fact that ethics is itself a scarcity economy, when we refuse to recognize the necessity of refusal, that we become moral monsters. Freedom can never be absolute; we are always constrained, both by others and by the choices we’ve already made. The peaceful conclusion of Freedom can only occur once Patty has learned this lesson.
Patty’s choice of Walter over Richard is only the first in a long series of such refusals. When Richard, in his one noble act, turns down Patty’s request for a continuation of their affair, he admits his own desire and exclaims, “No, God, listen to me. I’m asking you to do what I don’t want.” As Walter refuses to give into his inclinations and sleep with his pining, eager assistant, he thinks, “It was the way he knew how to live: with discipline and self-denial.” Walter’s political pet project, population control, is also a course of self-denial, as evidenced by the hilarious names he comes up with during spitballing sessions: “No Babies on Board,” “All Children Left Behind,” “Maybe None,” “Dare Not to Bear,” etc. As always, self-deception lurks in the background, and renunciation can become its own pleasure — in The Corrections, Franzen wrote that “taste of self-inflicted suffering, of an evening trashed in spite, brought curious satisfactions.” But renunciation in its many forms (sensual delight, erotic fulfillment, material wealth) remains the most difficult, necessary form of ethical conduct.
This motif is not new for Franzen. The primary ethical decision of his novels has always involved a kind of refusal. In Twenty-Seventh City, Martin Probst, the head of the St. Louis’ Municipal Growth advisory board, bravely refuses to support a merger between county and city despite bribes, blackmail, and kidnapping; in Strong Motion, Reneé Seitchek refuses to halt her investigations into Sweeting-Aldering’s corporate malfeasance after she is threatened; in The Corrections, Alfred Lambert refuses to accept the profits from a patent he filed while working as an engineer for the railroad, and his son Chip is the most loathsome, most indulgent character in the book.
Franzen would perhaps say that such renunciation is a Midwestern virtue. Whatever its provenance, it is a virtue that seems at odds both with the consumer culture that Franzen so incisively criticizes and, most interestingly, with his own narrative style. Before Freedom, Franzen’s novels have been thoroughly hyper-kinetic. Franzen was always sallying forth in search of new plots to follow, new geographical locations to analyze, new topics to offer rants on. In The Corrections, for instance, he jumps from academia to Midwestern suburbia to hip Philadelphia to Lithuania, from finely grained domestic drama to sociopolitical analysis. Even in Twenty-Seventh City, which focused exclusively on St. Louis, Franzen added suplot upon subplot, minor character upon minor character, importing nefarious politicos from India in a strange and ever-expanding mélange that reads more like Thomas Pynchon than the nineteenth-century realists to which he is so often compared.
In his first three novels, then, there seemed to be a tension between formal profusion and ethical asperity. What Franzen could not seem to do formally (excise, strip down, consolidate) was precisely what his characters tried to do in their moral lives. In Freedom, however, he seems to have established some accommodation between form and ethics. The novel is, if not claustrophobic, far more circumscribed: we journey only from St. Paul to Washington, D.C., with occasional forays into New York City, but we’re always within the same milieu: liberal, upper-class America, where people agree on the evils of the Bushes, the ills of American consumerism, and the superiority of indie to pop music.
Stylistically, the novel is of a piece, smoothed over into Franzen’s intelligent, self-conscious voice. Even “Mistakes Were Made,” a 150-page section introduced as Patty’s autobiographical musings written at the behest of her therapist, reads like a slightly dumbed-down Franzen. There is certainly nothing as strange here as Alfred’s hallucinations in The Corrections, or the occasional weird mimicking of colonial American English in Strong Motion (one late chapter begins, out of nowhere, “The Countrey, according to the first Englishmen to see it, more resembled a boundless green Parke than a Wildernesse,” and continues in this way for five pages). Freedom is unwaveringly consistent: consistent in the quality of its prose, consistent in its thematic and characterological concerns. Everything — form, content, themes, ethics — fits together seamlessly.
Franzen's new novel is a rare phenomenon: a 500-plus page book that doesn’t seem loose enough. Someone remarked to me that Freedom is the perfect book for an introduction to literature course. She didn’t mean it disparagingly, but her comment helps explain the disappointment of this still good but not great novel. Teaching The Corrections, such a weird, unevenly brilliant work, would be a difficult task; teaching Freedom, with its perfectly laid out thematic parallels and its interrogation of “big issues,” would be a dream. A novel that explicitly discusses the question of “how to live” on six separate occasions could lead to some terrible undergraduate papers.
This over-schematization might in part be a result of Franzen’s intense self-consciousness about his work’s reception: he seems desperate to be understood. But it’s also a natural reflection of Franzen’s view of the world. At one point, after Walter upbraids Joey for profiting from an unjust war, Joey expresses perhaps more than he knows: “He was experiencing a hurt that felt structural, as if he and his dad had each chosen their politics for the sole purpose of hating the other, and the only way out of it was disengagement.” Franzen seems to think (and write) in just such binaries. You are a nice, chaste, loyal man like Walter, or you are a rude, lascivious, asshole like Richard; you are an artsy Bohemian like Patty’s sisters, or you are a jock, “not actually dumb but relatively dumber,” like Patty; you are a virulent opponent of the Iraq War, like Joey’s roommate Jonathan, or you are a loathsome neo-conservative, eager to ram democracy down the throat of the Iraqis, like Jonathan’s father.
This rigidly-structured vision of the world doesn’t have to be a problem: Dickens, for instance, saw the world in such oppositions. Much can be made of simple motifs. But when you are trying to represent the “fragmentation” of modernity — where, as Franzen writes, “there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise” — such inflexible patterns are insufficient. In Freedom, there is a center, a vision that creates binaries and orders the culture in which we live. Franzen's novel only gives the appearance of sprawl; it's actually quite reductive.
Freedom is well-constructed (maybe too well so) and easily enjoyed, but it is ultimately forgettable. Notable curmudgeons like B. R. Myers will continue to rant and rave against Franzen’s “strenuously contemporary and therefore juvenile language” and his unlikable characters — but in this case, Myers is wrong: Freedom is a fine contemporary novel. But it does not delight or infuriate in the way that The Corrections did. It does not show us the way we live, bombarded by distraction and failing to find order; it shows, rather, what a good, streamlined novel can be.