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.
Perhaps not, because in another essay he revealed that he is fundamentally unsure about what purpose literature ought to serve, and thus about what sorts of novels he wants to write. (He has a persistent habit of looking for the zeit in his own geist.) In “Mr. Difficult,” nominally a paean to William Gaddis, Franzen outlined two possible models for the novel. According to the “Status model,” novels exist fundamentally as works of art: “the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” (Franzen was responding to a reader of The Corrections who chastised him for using “fancy words” such as “diurnality” and “antipodes,” continuing: “Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.”) In the “Contract model,” by contrast, the novelist’s goal is to provide pleasure to the reader in a kind of social compact: “the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader’s attention only as long as the author sustains the reader’s trust.” Though Franzen admits the idea of being a Status novelist is “flattering to the writer’s sense of importance,” he declares himself a “Contract kind of person.” Better to be loved than to be admired, he says, ruing Gaddis’s descent into an angry postmodernism that alienated his readers: “If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author.”
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
At first glance, Freedom appears to be a novel about Walter and Patty’s long marriage, from the initial joy of their union to its disintegration into contempt and alienation. We get scenes such as this one, in which they have sex after a fight: “While the rain lashed and the sky flashed, he tried to fill her with self-worth and desire, tried to convey how much he needed her to be the person he could bury his cares in. It never quite worked, and yet, when they were done, there came a stretch of minutes in which they lay and held each other in the quiet majesty of long marriage, forgot themselves in shared sadness and forgiveness for everything they’d inflicted on each other, and rested.” But in fact the glimpses we get of Patty and Walter together are discontinuous and incomplete. This is partly owing to the novel’s structure: it flashes backward in Patty’s “autobiography” and then forward again, alighting temporarily on other family members before moving on. For a novel about marriage, this one shows us very little of its protagonists’ partnership. We see Patty and Walter, intensely, at the beginning of their relationship; and we see them finally come apart. The paradoxical freedom of marriage—the freedom found in commitment to another person—is not the freedom explored here.
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.
By the time Freedom is over, the reader feels less enlightened than manipulated. The manipulation has to do with the novel’s reliance on Patty’s “autobiography” to tell major chunks of the story from her perspective. Like many of the contrivances on which Freedomrelies for the twists in its plot, this one is far from believable, and realism simply cannot afford so much implausibility. Patty, to put it gently, is no intellectual: from the start, the novel identifies her as a jock. In college, she is nonplussed when Walter asks her on a date to a play. Two decades later, when he suggests that she occupy her time with some kind of job, she chooses to become a receptionist at her gym. Yet we are meant to believe that she turns out a journal hundreds of pages long that chronicles the history of her marriage and her affair with Richard in smooth, if occasionally imperfect, prose—prose that is for the most part indistinguishable from the voice of the novel itself. This is the stuff of the MFA workshop.