By Jonathan Franzen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pp., $28)
A few years ago there appeared in The New York Times a profile of a
I thought of No Impact Man more than once while reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, and not only because of the book’s obsession with containing the environmental damage done by our species. Franzen, too, in various writings over the last decade, has become fascinated by impact, although in his case the impact in question involves a literary ecology. In an essay that appeared in Harper’s nearly fifteen years ago, he famously bemoaned the decline of the novel as a vehicle for social commentary. Not since Catch-22, he wrote, had any “challenging novel . . . affected the culture anywhere near as deeply, just as no issue since the Vietnam War had galvanized so many alienated young Americans.” Gone were the days when novelists appeared on the cover of Time magazine and their works brought the news about pressing social concerns. Instead American writers faced the “cultural totalitarianism” of television and the generations of philistines it produced, and as a result their novels, no matter how “culturally engaged” they might be, no longer had the power to effect any kind of real impact on the culture.
Freedom, like The Corrections, is a Way We Live Now novel, consummately of its moment. Neither of these books could have been written in precisely the same way at any other point in American history. As it happened, The Corrections, which was set at the end of the 1990s and came out a week before September 11, inadvertently illustrated one of the perils in all writing that strives for perfect contemporaneity: if an unforeseeable event alters the social reality and the cultural mood, the novel turns into a fossil, instantly and irretrievably dated. Read in the weeks after September 11, when it seemed that all our assumptions about American complacency and impregnability had been shattered, The Corrections felt immediately like a time capsule. How Franzen must have subsequently cringed at his character
The toxic waste of Patty and Walter’s marriage finds a mechanical parallel in the eco-subplot, in which Walter sells out his principles with shocking ease by taking a job with a
In an essay about sex books, Franzen once propounded a vision of the novel as lover: “Let’s stay home tonight and have a great time; just because you’re touched where you want to be touched, it doesn’t mean you’re cheap; before a book can change you, you have to love it.” Freedom is undeniably great company under the covers: I burned through the book in two intense days holed up in my apartment. But the critics who have been celebrating this long-awaited return to the authoritative caresses of literary realism seem to have forgotten that a book (rather like a lover) can be highly enjoyable without having much substance. Franzen is better than anyone else at work today at delivering the kind of self-reflective portrait of contemporary life that we seem to crave—he gives us us, which is most of what we seem to want; and he has a gift for seductive undulations of plot and heart-tugging convulsions of character. But his prose is homely and lazy: “while the rain lashed and the sky flashed”; “fucked her like a brute”; “the deep shit that got stirred up”; “we just bounce around like random billiard balls”; and so on. This strikingly inert and unimaginative language may be owed to his all-consuming, almost ethnographic anxiety about getting the appearances right—but why should a novelist sound the way his characters sound? Worse, the stylelessness may be owed to the limitations of the vision at the heart of his book.