by Jonathan Franzen
Pub: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Am I alone in wanting to be disappointed by an almost-universally acclaimed 'masterpiece'? Probably not, as recent research has established that approximately ninety-eight per cent of our species are dickheads. Nonetheless, this dickhead had to eventually hold up his hands and join the laudatory chorus: Franzen can really write; he is, to use a phrase that has become the preferred cliché of American letters, 'the real deal'.
I had thought my scepticism pretty well fortified, too. I harboured, for example, decade-old misgivings about Freedom's equally celebrated predecessor The Corrections. What especially stuck in my craw from the latter work was its central conceit - a drug that eradicated shame, the sort of conspicuous, theme-bestowing gimcrack I thought indicative of everything wrong with contemporary prose fiction. From its pompous title to its length to the amount of time it took Franzen to complete it, I expected more of the same literature by numbers from Freedom, and for about three hundred pages I was pretty convinced that this was exactly what I was getting.
The novel tells the story of a family, at the centre of which is a loving but extremely fraught marriage, its stability fundamentally threatened by the husband's - Walter, a do-gooding environmentalist - best friend - Richard, a laconic sometimes rock star - and the unresolved chemistry he has with Walter's wife, Patty - an eccentric former college basketball star and housewife, skidding towards a nervous breakdown. The action receives additional infusions of character from the couple's two children, or at least from one of them, Joey, an impressively strong-willed teenager seemingly heading straight for world domination (the daughter, Jesse, is such a self-important bore I kept willing Franzen to position her in the twin towers in time for 9/11, an event that occurs about a third of the way through the book). The novel unfolds over six or so years, charting the various travails of its various characters, who directly and indirectly come into contact with the novels various themes, a pretty compendious selection of the kind of topics that would trouble any liberal American noughties intellectual, from the war on terror to the environment.
Franzen has gone on record saying that Freedom is his first 'non-satirical' novel, which sounded pretty terrifying to me, but the fact is that, like most male literary stylists, humour remains the absolute oxygen of his prose style: Franzen's world is knitted together with irony, the presence of which is impressively and elegantly inserted, usually with a single judicious adjective, in every single sentence. But while I frequently raised an appreciate eyebrow at Franzen's relentless wryness, I couldn't but note, at some fairly advanced point in my 300-odd pages of resistance, that I'd only LOLed once, and couldn't remember why.
But, when it comes to Franzen, relentless really does seem to be the word. Freedom's brilliance is nothing if not attritional; eventually I gave up, that elegant irony, those musical, insightful, crystal-clear sentences, the persistently engaging anti-adventures of characters you don't recall deciding to like - everything just keeps on coming and coming until, before I knew what was happening, it was three in the morning and I was convinced (about midway through the book's best section, the later adventures of the aforementioned Joey as a twenty-year-old Republican on the make) that I was in the presence of artistic greatness, an author of unique intelligence and balance who was discovering themself capable, as Saul Bellow put it, of "rendering the entire world in prose".
But talent in a novelist is a funny thing, as whatever its intensity, its impact on the reader will always depend, uniquely, on that novelist's personality. I doubt that Franzen would take offence to hear himself described as an 'old woman' in this department. In fact, in so far as the term denoted (as it is intended to) a scrupulous moral sensibility, and a sober philanthropic outlook, he'd probably wear it as a badge of honour. In a recent interview, discussing the enduring power of the fictional narrative, Franzen mentioned how, reading Austen a couple of centuries after her death, he was still roused by feelings of moral disapproval regarding her characters. This, he revealed, was his principal pleasure!
Indeed, reading Franzen can very much feel like being lectured by a highly articulate and sympathetic headmaster, extensively, gently and reasonably chastising you for something you know you shouldn't have done but still know you will do again the first opportunity you get. Not that Franzen is intoxicated by his own self-righteousness. That, of course, would make him a ghastly novelist, rather than a wonderful one. On the contrary, one of Freedom's firmest themes (there are a whole bunch) is the dangers of self-righteousness.
Philip Roth is similarly obsessed, but where Roth, as if surrendering to the impossibility of goodness, celebrates the corrupting, irresistible Dionysian pulse, Franzen seems determined, in art and life, and no matter how difficult, to find a way to be properly responsible, to conserve energy, resist hysteria, cast a measured vote, make the marriage work, and inspire the reader with a salutary desire to address their own moral shortcomings through that transcendent tool for moral propaganda: the novel…
All it leaves me feeling, however, is bad. Which, no doubt, is my problem. But it's still odd to come upon a novelist whose very vivid dreams display so much rectitude as their vote. And that's what I find strange: Franzen's imagination (or unconscious), while dictating the show in a way that Henry James and Jane Austen's never could, is such a dry, stuffy old prig, more Ronald Reagan than William Burroughs.