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Impact Man

By Jonathan Franzen
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 562 pp., $28)

few years ago there appeared in The New York Times a profile of a Manhattan environmentalist who became known as No Impact Man. No Impact Man—his real name was Colin Beavan—had set himself the goal of radically reducing his family’s carbon footprint for a year: no paper products, no food that came from farther than a 250-mile radius of New York City, no fuel-consuming transportation. Rather than use the elevator, he climbed the steps to his Fifth Avenue apartment; and his wife bicycled to work, carrying her lunch in a Mason jar. No Impact Man made an exception, naturally, for the power required by his Internet service, for which he absolved himself by writing a blog chronicling the vicissitudes of his carbon-free year. Soon he had a book contract to show for his trouble, and a documentary film followed shortly thereafter—trees and the grid be damned.

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.

With almost novelistic irony, Franzen’s career since 2001—when The Corrections, his third novel, was published to nearly universal acclaim—reads as an attempt to disprove his theory about the death of important realism by showing that it does not apply to himself. Serious novels no longer matter to our culture? Tell that to Oprah Winfrey, who chose his novel for her book club. (Franzen did tell it to her and was disinvited from her show, which he wore as a highbrow badge of honor.) The editors of Time put Franzen on their cover to celebrate the publication of Freedom, with the deadpan and portentous headline “Great American Novelist.” Swooning reviews of the new novel have appeared in The New York Times and almost everywhere else, and in its first day on sale the book ranked number one on Amazon. So is Franzen finally smiling? Will he now agree that literature still matters in American 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.”

Franzen’s continued questioning, combined with his insistence on dividing the world of literature into binary categories (his polemics are filled with dichotomies: connection versus solitude, high art versus mass culture, and so on), reveals a deeper uncertainty at the heart of his enterprise. He is never liberated from the anxiety of self-definition. If a social novel can no longer bring news, then what is it still good for? Is the purpose of literature primarily therapeutic or palliative—is it meant to cure us of our problems, or simply to ease our pain for a while? Is a novel permitted to assert its own aesthetic vision regardless of whether that vision might alarm or wound its readers, or ought it merely to promise enjoyment in return for the reader’s engagement? And who is he writing for, anyway—the highbrow critic who will not crack a tooth on “diurnality,” or the “average person who just enjoys a good read”? Rarely has a writer been both so ambitious and so ambivalent, and seemed to know so little about who he is. And so Franzen’s newest monument to American life stands on very shaky ground.

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 Enid’s comment that “disasters of this magnitude [the Depression] no longer seemed to befall the United States.” And yet The Corrections sold around three million copies, perhaps because an escape to the pre-catastrophic past appeals most to readers who, in an hour of crisis, yearn for yesterday.

Freedom takes place over a period of about thirty years, but its primary focus is on the George W. Bush era. When it begins, Patty and Walter Berglund, college sweethearts, are among the first wave of urban pioneers putting the gentry back into gentrification, fixing up a house in a blighted area of St. Paul that they will soon populate with their two children. The short preamble offers an overview of their lives from the perspective of their neighbors, from the time they move in as a young couple to their departure around the time the children leave for college. Patty, a former college basketball star who once made “second-team all-American,” is a mother and housewife in the newly popular liberal model: “tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow.... Ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel.” She bakes cookies for the neighbors on their birthdays and opens her house to their children. But Patty’s baking and mothering cannot keep her home together: her son Joey, while still in high school, moves out to live down the street with his girlfriend Connie and her family, which happens to include the only Republican on the block. The strain that their child’s defection places on the Berglunds’ marriage is obvious to all. When they leave in the early 2000s for Washington, where Walter has a new job doing something vaguely ominous involving the coal industry, one of the neighbors remarks, “I don’t think they’ve figured out yet how to live.”

Patty and Walter’s history, we soon learn, is spotted with hurts and betrayals of varying size and severity. “Mistakes were made,” the infamous apology-without-responsibility catchphrase of the Bush years, is pressed into service as the title of Patty’s autobiography, an interrupted sequence of flashback chapters embedded within the novel. Written, she explains, at the suggestion of her therapist, it revisits the sites of past traumas, the primary one being Patty’s date rape, in high school, by one of her classmates. When she told her parents, they encouraged her not to press charges, because the boy’s parents were major contributors to the campaign fund of her mother, a local politician. (Later, when Joey commits a crime with similar overtones, Walter will react in much the same way.) In college, still fragile from this experience, she falls into an obsessive friendship with a strange girl named Eliza, whom she will later call a “stalker.” When Eliza starts to date Richard Katz, the lead singer of a punk band called the Traumatics, Patty attends a show and meets Walter, Richard’s roommate and best friend. She is attracted to Richard’s looks and charisma—“He’s so big, it’s like being rolled over by a neutron star ... like being erased with a giant eraser,” Eliza says—but she is simultaneously drawn to Walter’s kindness and gentleness, as well as his vision of her as a better person than she believes herself to be. “The mistake she went on to make, the really big life mistake,” she comments in her autobiography, “was to go along with Walter’s version of her in spite of knowing that it wasn’t right.”

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 dominant freedom in Freedom is, as Walter puts it in a moment of aggravation, “the freedom to fuck up your life.” This plays out most literally for Patty, whose brief affair with Richard Katz brings about the destruction of her marriage. As Joey, still a young teenager, becomes more involved with Connie, Patty grows alcoholic and unmoored—she slashes the tires of Connie’s mother’s boyfriend in retribution for his un-neighborly refusal to restrict his chainsaw-wielding renovations to the daylight hours. Richard, who has in the interim become a hipster rock star, rebukes her for her self-absorption, and Patty responds by becoming absorbed in him. When they are left alone together at the family lake house, Patty sleepwalks into Richard’s bed one night and seduces him. (The name of Richard’s band—for a proud realist, Franzen often has a tin ear—is, ridiculously, Walnut Surprise, and the sleepwalking scene is nearly as implausible.) Sex with Richard, it turns out, is “a real eye-opener.... She was henceforth done for, though it took some time to know this.”

At this late date, in a book that purports to understand the entirety of the social world, the old Freudian retreat! What a disappointment. Is this really the best that the “Great American Novelist” can do with the question of what women want? There is something vaguely misogynist (though the tone is always too noble for any awareness of prejudice) in the novel’s suggestion that Patty’s emotional troubles—by this point she is drinking a bottle of wine or more a day—are primarily motivated by an unsatisfied desire to “properly [have] sex.” This pitiful theme dominates not only these scenes with Richard, but also later episodes in the novel, when Walter comes back from a business trip to West Virginia during which his assistant, a lithe Indian woman in her twenties, has declared her love for him. (Why, exactly?) Returning home, Walter is suddenly “sick of it, sick of all the reasoning and understanding, and so he threw [Patty] on the floor and fucked her like a brute.... They were both smiling like crazy.” What masculine rubbish! Afterward Patty is ready to give up on Richard and recommit herself to Walter. Richard, however, takes matters intohis own hands by leaving Patty’s “autobiography,” complete with all the details of her infidelity, for Walter to discover.

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 aTexas billionaire who wants to establish a preserve in West Virginia for the cerulean warbler, an endangered species. The bird’s natural habitat has been fragmented by runaway development, which Walter compares to the human “fragmentation” of the Internet age: “There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise.... All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off. Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls.” The problem is that the creation of this sanctuary will require opening up fourteen thousand acres of land for a decidedly un-environmentally friendly strip-mining process called mountaintop removal—land on which a group of working-class Appalachians have been living for generations. The prospect of displacing these people, combined with his worry over the environmental impact of the mountaintop removal, throws Walter’s liberal psyche into contortions. And the parallels with his own life are all too obvious, to us and to him. Walter, we learn, could feel the “toxicity” released by his fights with Patty “pooling in their marriage like the coal-sludge ponds in Appalachian valleys”:

There was no way around the fact that when you dug up coal you also unearthed nasty chemicals like arsenic and cadmium that had been safely buried for millions of years. You could try dumping the poison back down into abandoned underground mines, but it had a way of seeping into the water table and ending up in drinking water. It really was a lot like the deep shit that got stirred up when a married couple fought: once certain things had been said, how could they ever be forgotten again?

It hardly seems an accident that Walter chooses to embrace population control as his pet cause, joining with his alluring assistant to start a movement called Free Space that will attempt to make not having children into the next fad among good liberals. The stretches ofFreedom in which all this plays out are the most plodding and gratuitous in the novel. I was reminded of the eco-warriors’ tactic of asking us to imagine a future in which our children demand, “As the evidence began to demonstrate that the way we live might be unsustainable, what did you do?” And I heard myself sheepishly answer, “I read a novel by Jonathan Franzen.”

If Patty uses her freedom to fuck up her life, and Walter uses his to fuck up the planet, Joey fucks up the Middle East. As a college student, he falls in with a group of Young Republicans and spends a summer interning in Washington for an outfit called RISEN, or Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now, which aims to privatize Iraq’s bread-baking industry. (There’s that tin ear again. Satire is not one of Franzen’s skills.) Though he is still enmeshed in an obsessive long-distance relationship with Connie, he uses his $8,000-a-month salary to attract the attentions of his roommate’s sister, a bored beauty named Jenna who toys with him in a game of bait-and-switch. Franzen is effective in describing Joey’s frenetic capitalism, which finds its perfect counterpart in Jenna’s wealth and materialism: her lips, the first time Joey kisses her, are as “valuable ... as they had always looked to him.” But Joey gets in over his head when he agrees to a contract to supply parts for heavy-duty trucks to the U.S. Army for use in Iraq. Despite his partner’s reassurances, the only parts available turn out to be low quality, and Joey balks at sending them. “You don’t think I should be, like, morally worried about this? About selling total crap to the government?” he asks Connie, whose only concern is that he will be “unhappy” if he goes through with the deal. But a higher-up tells him to worry not about the quality of the parts but about “getting sued for nonfulfillment of contract.... This is not a perfect war in a perfect world.” The homiletical message of all this is quite clear: all freedom requires compromise, in a way that could lead to our ruination.

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.

The lack of distinction between Patty’s voice and the overall narrative presents a serious interpretive dilemma. In the final segment of Patty’s autobiography, which chronicles the six years after her separation from Walter, we learn that she, like so many of those who yearn for reinvention, has moved to New York, where she works as a teacher’s aide at a private school in Brooklyn. One day she runs into Richard on the street and they have a drink together. Patty laments how decisively Walter has cut her out of his life: after the sudden death of his assistant (by then his lover) in a car crash shortly after their affair began (again, really? a car crash?), he has isolated himself back at the lake house inMinnesota and refuses to speak to her. “You know how to tell a story,” Richard tells her. “Why don’t you tell him a story?”

The book’s final chapter appears to be exactly that—Patty’s story of her reconciliation with Walter, who has been living in a grim bachelorhood, spending his evenings playing computer chess or watching porn (“because he could no longer read novels or listen to music or do anything else associated with feeling”) and waging war against the neighborhood cats in the hope of protecting the birds. He goes so far as to trap one particularly predatory tom and drop it off at a shelter, but afterward he is beset with a sadness that is worse than guilt: “The sense of loss and waste and sorrow: the feeling that he and [the cat] had in some way been married to each other, and that even a horrible marriage was less lonely than no marriage at all.” Aha! And so when Patty shows up on his doorstep, he lets her in; and within only a few sentences she is restored tidily to her former role, baking cookies and ingratiating herself with the neighbors. In the novel’s last line, we learn that after Patty brings Walter back to New York with her, the land on which the house stood is turned into a nature preserve, marked by “a small ceramic sign with a picture of the pretty young dark-skinned girl after whom the preserve is named.”

That is the line, I suppose, that has had some of the book’s reviewers (including this one) in tears. Who would not wish to be moved by this vision of reconciliation, by the suggestion that the bitterness of the past could be gutted and carted off like the innards of an old house, the toxic waste of the marriage magically redeemed as a nature sanctuary? But beware such tears. When we cry at a book or a film, it is often not because it is genuinely moving, in the sense that it has succeeded in shaking and even altering our previous understanding of life, but because its sentimentality is uncomfortably at odds with our own knowledge of what life is really like, and we are being offered a swift transit back to our sweet dreams. It is wish fulfillment, and also self-pity, that makes us weep. And so the ending must be in Patty’s voice—not her voice as an autobiographer, but a new voice, her voice as a novelist telling Walter a story about their lives. And when, precisely, did Patty become a novelist? Franzen’s ending is a trick, a bait-and-switch not unlike Jenna’s teasing of Joey, or the Bush-era dishonesties to which the novel so often and so dutifully alludes.

The lack of plausibility presented by Patty’s autobiography and by the numerous contrivances in this meandering narrative would be disturbing in any serious novel. But it is all the more striking in light of Franzen’s celebrated knack for accurately capturing the particulars of modern life. Freedom abounds in precisely targeted moments of verisimilitude: that reference to the Silver Palate Cookbook, a description of Richard’s college band (“Richard and two other Traumatics were screaming into their microphones, I hate sunshine! I hate sunshine!, and Patty ... brought her basketball skills to bear on making an immediate escape”), the stack of books by Elie Wiesel and Chaim Potok left on Joey’s bedside table by his roommate’s father after Joey confesses his partly Jewish background. These references are not exactly poetic, but they are at least sociologically apposite. If the task of art, and of realism in particular, is to hold up a mirror to contemporary life, then Franzen has fulfilled his responsibility. He has a talent for a certain kind of middlebrow mimesis.

But is this all we want from art? Is realism just a transcription of reality? Marveling at the various encomia to Franzen’s allegedly preternatural ability to show us what we actually look like, I was struck by the solipsism of the formulations—are we really our largest and most interesting subject?—and by the inherent narrowness of this vision of the aesthetic enterprise. In The Mirror and the Lamp, the great critic M.H. Abrams many years ago took issue with just such a shrunken ideal. He maintained that a fundamental aesthetic shift occurred at the start of the Romantic period, when writers and artists first began to envision art as not reflecting life so much as illuminating it with their own imaginations. The task of the novel, in such a view, is not to show us how we live but to help us figure out how to live—which happens to be precisely the form of enlightenment that so many of the characters in Freedom are pleading for.

This is where Franzen’s novel founders. He is all mirror and no lamp. He substitutes the details for the big picture, a hyper-realistic portraiture for genuine psychological insight. (In its excessive, unedited interest in its characters, the novel itself recalls the creepiness of Eliza, the stalker whose binder stuffed with clippings about Patty is adduced by Richard as evidence of her unhealthy infatuation.) Instead of an epic, Franzen has created a soap opera. In his obsession with “Contract” versus “Status”—his plainly stated preference for the “good read” over the “work of art”—he has chosen to forget that the greatest novels must always be both, offering mental illumination and sensual satisfaction, profundity andpleasure. His slick and hollow work is premised on a despair of ever honoring all the aspirations. The commotion surrounding the publication of this pseudo-masterpiece reminds me of Orwell’s mordant observation that “to apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. On such a balance as that a flea would simply fail to register; you would have to start by constructing another balance which revealed the fact that there are big fleas and little fleas.” Freedom is a big flea, perhaps even a giant one. But if Franzen is the best we’ve got, he still isn’t good enough. His literary edifices have the look of greatness, but greatness eludes them. If my children someday ask, “What did you do in the culture wars, Mommy?” I hope I can come up with something better than “I read a novel by Jonathan Franzen.”

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article will run in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.