Why Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” Is The Most Overrated Recent Novel
Jonathan Franzen has written a poignant book about coming of age in the Midwest of the 1970s, the discontents of family, searching for identity in a postmodern world, and confronting mortality without descending into bathos and narcissism. It even has a compelling section on a lonely middle-aged man finding solace in birdwatching. He’s done it all with passion, conviction, credibility, honesty, and resonance beyond the actual events and characters described.
Unfortunately, the book in question is his 2006 memoir The Discomfort Zone. Here, he’s equally at ease talking about the general contentment of his high-school years in Webster Groves, Missouri, and the breakup of his marriage and ensuing childlessness; Franzen, the uber-proponent of the culturally definitive social novel, is apparently most at home in the parameters of his actual biography.
As for Freedom, which harbors similar ambitions, it fails to deliver on Franzen’s promise after The Corrections, and is in fact a step backward from his last novel, as Franzen totally loses his bet on the capacity of his brand of social realism to capture American reality in the 2000s.
Freedom fails because it is a Victorian throwback to so-called objectivity and naïve belief in representation. George Eliot’s Middlemarch, above all, is its guiding spirit–not Balzac and Dickens, whose realism was heavily romantic, and certainly not Dostoevsky, who was a post-realist in many ways, and serves as a rebuke to Franzen’s retrogressive aesthetics.
Realism today can be successful only to the extent that it constantly seeks to go beyond realism: into the grotesque, the sensational and violent, the sentimental, or narrative defined by language. Franzen, more than in his previous novels, is determined to purge these tendencies; just as the discredited media holds on to a belief in “objectivity” as a value that can yet be realized despite the demonstrated penetration of ideology into every point of view, so does Franzen believe in the truth claims of the classical realist novel, in the power of description itself to somehow mutate into transcendent criticism.
Franzen’s novel fails to be a transcendent critique, degenerating into utter incredibility, as characters form themselves into clichés, situations beggar belief, and pervasive determinism gives the lie to the very title itself. Freedom is Franzen’s last-ditch struggle with the realist novel’s basic formal characteristic, which is that it is a form of narrative where characters can find freedom. But Franzen comes away defeated, because realism as Franzen understands it just won’t do the job, not even in formal terms.
Freedom centers on the Berglunds–Patty and Walter, who live in the gentrified St. Paul neighborhood of Ramsey Hill, with their two children, Joey and Jessica. Patty is a former basketball star from the University of Minnesota, but originally from Westchester County, the daughter of Ray and Joyce Emerson, the former a do-good liberal lawyer with little time for his children, and the latter a New York state assemblywoman; the Emersons are very rich, with August Emerson, the patriarch, owning an estate that will later become the cause of dispute among Patty’s siblings. Patty was date-raped as a teenager by the son of a powerful political friend of her parents; she gets little sympathy from her parents, which explains her decision to get as far away from them as possible.
Patty meets Walter, a law student, through her obsessed friend/roommate/stalker Eliza Doolittle, at the same time as she meets Eliza’s boyfriend Richard Katz, a musician to whom Patty will always be attracted as the cooler alternative to “worthy” Walter, and with whom she will have a brief affair twenty years after college. Patty is mostly depressed and alcoholic, having chosen not to do any work other than being a housewife; she’s never on good terms with her son Joey, who moves into their neighbor Carol Monaghan’s home, as he has his first–and best–sexual relationship with Carol’s daughter Connie. Patty doesn’t like Connie either.
Walter is the son of Gene and Dorothy Berglund, owners of the Whispering Pines motel in Hibbing, Minnesota; Gene is hard-drinking and abusive toward Walter, while Dorothy is the long-suffering wife who can’t quite protect Walter. Walter repays the favor by ascending to incredible heights of nobility, putting up with all the abuse, helping run the motel while getting a good education, and not holding a grudge against anyone. He ends up working as a lawyer for 3M, after working for the Nature Conservancy.
A bout of envy toward Richard, whose band Walnut Surprise experiences unexpected commercial success, compels Walter to take a job as the manager of the Cerulean Mountain Trust; this is the brainchild of Texas billionaire Vin Haven, confidant of George W. Bush and other Bush administration figures. The idea is to strip-mine a particular region in West Virginia for coal, but when the job is finished, to set aside the land for the breeding of the endangered cerulean warbler. Walter’s worshipful assistant at his Washington job is the twenty-seven-year-old idealist Bengali Lalitha; like Walter, she believes that overpopulation is the greatest challenge to humanity (more than global warming). Walter justifies his decision to work for Vin Haven because of the money he will get to promote his campaign against overpopulation among the youth.
Meanwhile, Joey gets involved in supplying non-working Eastern European truck parts to an entrepreneur seeking to make a killing in the no-bid contract regime in newly liberated Iraq; Joey’s nobility won’t allow him to keep the million dollars he makes this way (he gives it away to charity), but he makes the point that he is, if anything, even more self-sufficient than Walter.
The trouble with all this is that none of Franzen’s characters and situations are believable. The notable exceptions are some of the college sections involving Patty in the late seventies/early eighties (coinciding with Franzen’s own college experience at Swarthmore in the same time period, and more memorably “fictionalized” in The Discomfort Zone), and some of Joey’s college experiences starting at the University of Virginia in the fall of 2001 (coinciding with 9/11 and its immediate aftermath).
It is not that Franzen has failed in his execution of the concept of the social novel–friendly to the reader (he’s famously against “difficult” novels, of the type William Gaddis wrote), attentive to the larger issues of the day, seeking to blend the personal and the political, providing context to the news in an age of information overload–but rather that he has succeeded all too well, and thus brought us right to the limits of his kind of realism.
Desperate to seek verisimilitude, Franzen gives us large chunks of political talk and environmental wonk discourse, with all the inelegance of a Theodore Dreiser or Upton Sinclair, but this only makes the characters less believable. Walter observes:
“I guess I was part of a larger cultural shift that was happening in the eighties and nineties. Overpopulation was definitely part of the public conversation in the seventies, with Paul Ehrlich, and the Club of Rome, and ZPG. And then suddenly it was gone. Became just unmentionable. Part of it was the Green Revolution–you know, still plenty of famines, but not apocalyptic ones. And then population control got a terrible name politically. Totalitarian China with its one-child policy, Indira Gandhi doing forced sterilizations, American ZPG getting painted as nativist and racist.”
In the midst of an impossibly boring discourse on overpopulation (see pages 213-217), Walter asks Richard, “Are you bored yet?” as if to forestall the question in the reader’s mind. If all the arsenal of realism can’t make the reader believe in the basic parameters of the story, then what is realism for?
Realism always has the tendency to devolve into cliché, in its eagerness to depict the average; it is when we move beyond realism that we typically get monumental characters able to get their arms around the defining problems of the day. And Freedom ends up being a series of clichés held together by a superficially seductive narrative–quite readable, in fact, past page 382–as we are told a definitive tale about the culture at large by an authority we must accept for his superior moral worth.
It is beyond the bounds of credibility that Patty and Walter would allow their teenage son Joey to move in with the neighbors, and that they would be the only ones unaware in the neighborhood that Joey is having sex with the older Connie. It’s impossible to believe, despite Franzen’s strenuous efforts, that Walter would make the Faustian bargain he does, becoming complicit in large-scale mountaintop removal for the sake of getting some money to feed his lifelong obsession with overpopulation. It’s impossible to believe that Richard–who disappears into oblivion, building decks for the Manhattan elite, when his band first strikes commercial success–would overcome his allergy about publicity enough to lend his name and time to Richard’s mission against overpopulation among the nation’s elite liberal arts college students; neither Walter’s friendship nor Lalitha’s persuasive magnetism, nor even the attraction of getting close to Patty again, prepares us for Richard’s turnaround: “Compared to manufacturing Chiclets, or building decks for the contemptible, it seemed interesting.”
Joey’s college adventures–the family has to be moved close to or in Washington D.C., because that is where, supposedly, the primary social action of the 2000s was occurring–are completely unbelievable; he’s apparently at the fulcrum of the neoconservative conspiracy, both attracted to and repelled by the obscene imperialistic effort in Iraq. Joey becomes all but a Republican, seduced by his roommate Jonathan’s father, a think tank luminary propagating the neoconservative gospel, and more so by Jonathan’s sister Jenna, apparently the most beautiful girl in Virginia, compared to whom Connie appears shabby and provincial. Not that this prevents Joey from marrying Connie at the age of twenty–without telling his parents–and making this marriage work, as Walter and Patty never were able to make their marriage work.
Franzen’s Bengali beauty Lalitha (always with a “clipped lilt of practicality”) is the most unbelievable of all (“Her disgust had pushed her, on her return to the States [from Calcutta], into vegetarianism and environmental studies, with a focus, in college, on women’s issues in developing nations”), declaring to Walter that she will never have kids, thus solidifying their ideological concordance, and worshiping Walter, despite his weaknesses and compromises, in the most infantile manner.
Similarly, Patty’s “autobiography” (the most boring section of the novel, taking up the first 200 pages, and making a reprise later in the novel) is impossible to imagine coming from her, with her limited interest in intellectual matters; the wry self-consciousness is entirely Franzen’s, not Patty’s. The jock Patty observes:
The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it’s never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.
There is a structural problem here. Realism purports to give us the average, the representative, the typical, the stuff of everyday life and verifiable empiricism, the things we observe on a day-to-day basis yet are too busy to record, or lack the ability to do so. To chronicle the average doings of the average person would be unbearably suffocating, however; so to make up the deficiency in readability, the realist novelist must compensate with events that defy belief, even if he must make every effort to lend them the aura of legitimacy.
This project is doomed to fail today, in the postmodern information environment, because, contrary to Franzen’s belief, the novel’s main purpose now is not to be the harbinger of reality (we already understand what reality is, in fact, we have too much information and even knowledge about its substance) but to overcome it, to transcend it, to move beyond it to a posture of deniability and removal, not complete assimilation. This is where Don DeLillo comes in, or Thomas Pynchon, or William Gaddis. As for Franzen, he is committed to perpetuating the myth that he embodies the averageness of the average middle-class American fighting his average familial and social battles; in fact, he fails to meet the requirements of the myth on every count.
Franzen fails to capture the reality of the last decade in conceptual terms; the novel, significantly, is called Freedom (Franzen is into high concepts–viz., The Corrections), evoking, for example, War and Peace, or The Possessed, not the individualized titles of Dickens and Balzac. Was “freedom” the major social problem of the last decade? This argument is sustainable if we say that economic deprivation made freedom of choice more difficult; or that America chose security over freedom, and threw overboard much of its legacy of civil liberties; or even that freedom was perverted, in imperial adventures abroad, to stand in for gross violations of human rights. All of these explanations can be justified.
But what concern with freedom emerges in Freedom? Joey wants to be independent, to make up his own mind in early adulthood, without restrictions from his parents. Patty wants the freedom of the sexual thrill, knowing she can’t have it. Walter wants the freedom to invest a large sum of money in his favorite ideological cause. Richard wants the freedom not to be sought by groupies (except when he wants them) and just make his music. Jessica, the normal daughter–well, she and Lalitha are so efficient and accomplishment-oriented that no paradox of freedom would seem to be of relevance to them.
It turns out that the freedom Franzen is concerned with is the freedom of the middle class–or more accurately, the upper middle class, the demographic Franzen is most comfortable with–to reconstruct itself, often in its trivial preoccupations, regardless of global changes, to revert to how it used to be forty years ago, at the height of the liberal consensus. It is a peculiarly restricted claim to freedom, and Franzen ought not to suffer from any delusions about the representativeness of his superficially broad canvas.
In fact, he manages to capture a very minute slice of life in the 2000s, the very upper crust of the liberal elite, whose choices of freedom remained largely untouched. Jessica ends up with a job in elite literary publishing, promoting young novelists at Manhattan parties; Richard is fond of reading Thomas Bernhard–he is no illiterate musician, he breathes the most rarefied theoretical air (vintage guitars are a “tiresome commodity fetish”), is light years ahead of Walter and Lalitha in seeing through their environmental consciousness. Everyone is in the arts, in writing, theater, politics, and academia–is this the demographic that confronted the problem of freedom in the 2000s?
At the end of Freedom, Franzen in fact manages to reconstitute the upper middle class at its finest: he gets Lalitha conveniently out of the way (she dies in an accident in West Virginia)–which is very revealing, because without her death the Midwestern “family” couldn’t have been reinstitutionalized–and Patty and Walter get back together; Joey becomes a success in every sense of the word (importing environmentally conscious shade-grown coffee), reflecting Franzen’s sincere conviction that the younger generation is better than the boomers–there is plenty of evidence that Franzen believes the generations, rather than degenerating, keep getting better, in terms of their authenticity, hard work, efficiency, and certainly coolness; Patty pulls herself together to become almost a model Mom to Joey and Jessica, finds gratification in work (“for the last five years, Patty had been living in Brooklyn and working as a teacher’s aide in a private school, helping first-graders with their language skills and coaching softball and basketball in the middle school”), and even composes a second autobiographical segment, wherein not only mistakes are acknowledged but responsibility is accepted; and even Richard reconciles himself to success (much like Franzen himself, agreeing to appear on Oprah and happy to have her endorsement, after dissing her in 2001, or proposing that Time put him on their cover?), taking part in mainstream projects that the NPR-loving crowd could easily accept (“he’d done one of those avant-garde orchestral thingies for the Brooklyn Academy of Music”).
Patty even resolves the issue of her grandfather’s estate to the satisfaction of her squabbling siblings and even her mother Joyce, after the (convenient) death of her father Ray from cancer, following which, in a Victorian afterthought, we are told that every single member of the Emerson family, including the thespian and the painter, has attained worldly happiness.
Realism, of the George Eliot variety, has always been interested in tying up all the loose ends, and here Franzen tightly wraps up every last one of them; realism is defined by the compulsion to have an identifiable beginning, middle, and end, and so Freedom does not end with the feeling of endlessness that the most successful novels leave one with–rather, it definitively ends, once Franzen has said all he needs to say.
Thus we have the impression of a problem that was manageable and contained in its boundaries, and which has been duly resolved, thanks to the omniscient capabilities, the nonpareil cultural insight, of the Great American Novelist. This is a lie on every front, and speaks to commercial publishing’s atavistic participation in the reconstruction of an outdated aesthetic, a Victorian sensibility, as the peak of what’s possible today in the literary field.
The difficulty with Franzen’s strictures about realism is that they don’t permit him to be passionate about anything. We gather, as we do from Franzen’s nonfiction, that his politics is of the blandest liberal variety; he generally accepts the conventional narrative about jihad, 9/11, globalization, terrorism, foreign policy threats, and climate change. His views on overpopulation, and environmentalism in general, track fairly closely with Walter’s; the most touching section of Freedom comes at the end, where Walter is completely isolated, after the death of Lalitha and the separation from Patty, in their Nameless Lake house, trying to stop the evangelical neighbor Linda’s cat Bobby from killing the birds on his property–except that Franzen has dealt with the birdwatching material much more persuasively in The Discomfort Zone.
Franzen doesn’t have any particularly strong beliefs to argue one way or the other; this is clear from his essays for Harper’s, such as the one on privacy (included in How To Be Alone) where he doesn’t see attacks on it as too much of a problem; his establishment liberal outlook saturates Freedom, as it does all his fiction, but it is a narrow spectrum of American ideological belief, and must not lay claim to universality. Moreover, there is at least a case to be made for skepticism toward high anxiety about overpopulation and global warming; but Franzen is too secure in his “objectivity” to throw radical doubt on any of the myths of the liberal consensus. Had the New York Times editorial board–as bland an assemblage of human minds as it’s possible to imagine–delegated someone to fictionalize their collective point of view, it would undoubtedly have been Franzen.
Freedom shows again and again that, contrary to the realist’s credo, it is not enough to simply describe social relations as they are, and expect that the job of critique will be contained in the description itself. Franzen famously worried in his 1996 Harper’s essay/manifesto, “Perchance to Dream” (included in How To Be Alone as “Why Bother?”), that the social novel has lost relevance to the culture at large; having been given ample chance, particularly after The Corrections, to alter this situation, he has driven perhaps the last nail in its coffin, since execution and competence are not in question in Freedom.
Franzen doesn’t have the courage of his convictions to aspire to critical realism, since he doesn’t really have anything to criticize. He often uncritically reproduces the culture’s superficial loves and hates, such as feelings toward the New York Yankees. He’s fine with American high school and college education as it exists, young people generally seem enlightened and progressive and humane to him (“Lalitha checked her BlackBerry and found eighty new messages from young people all over the country, inquiring whether it was too late to volunteer for Free Space”), civilization has its pleasures and prosperity offers enough to compensate for hard work and turmoil, and if the Bush years were a bit of a blight on the American character and the American image abroad, well, the generation now coming up is perhaps the finest we’ve ever had to offer–what is there to fundamentally worry about? Parents die–and if they leave complicated estates, there are always responsible offspring to sort it all out (Franzen’s opening essay in The Discomfort Zone is about dealing with real estate agents, particularly the sexy female agent Mike, after the death of his own mother–and this parallels Patty’s composure in dealing with her own difficult siblings).
There may be occasional cultural deviances, but on the whole we always rejoin the supreme track of human progress; the stubborn evangelical Linda is a momentary obstacle to environmental consciousness, but Patty, with her charm, can easily win her over in the end.
The problem of realism–most evident in the naturalism of Zola, Frank Norris, or Theodore Dreiser–was the problem of freedom, or rather non-freedom: the social or biological, and later explicitly Darwinian, determinism that plagues realist protagonists: “Jenna’s communications with him, the mere sight of her name or her e-mail address, had never ceased to have a Pavlovian effect on…[Joey’s] gonads; similarly, Richard’s dick is often “prophetic”; and here’s Richard on his love for Walter: “These groinal heatings were no more about literal sex, no more homo, than the hard-ons he got from a long-anticipated first snort of blow, but there was definitely something deep-chemical there.”
In a way, the title Freedom signifies Franzen’s struggle to come to terms with realist conventions’ forestalling of unpredictable freedom. The realist novelist must not describe anything unforeseeable, based on the characters’ psychology which has been painstakingly explained in the beginning (thus Patty’s date rape, Walter’s abusive father); but this means that the realist novel is often bereft of the element of surprise which leads to new insight. In essence, the manifesto of the realist novel is to sum up what we already know; it may do so with interesting, readable, empathetic characters, but we must not stray into unknown worlds.
Psychological realism becomes very much a part of the plan. Everything must tally in the end: Richard cannot suddenly become monogamous, or if he does, the novelist must painfully explain why this change has come about; Lalitha must remain the one-dimensional Lalitha, devoted to work and Walter, unless psychologically compelling circumstances dictate otherwise. Characters, once adequately established, run away with the idea of freedom, demolish it, in fact. The more Franzen piles on detail upon detail, to make us believe that his characters can’t act any other way, the more we turn away from his desperation.
Thus Franzen has decidedly turned away from vision, instruction, illumination, invention, imagination, style, verbal flair, and conviction in favor of workmanlike pure description–or what his narrow conception of realism holds as description. Freedom is a perfect correlate for our age of memoir, which is also a denial of invention.
Franzen seems to be at pains to synthesize the intended demographic of the book (middle-class and upper-middle-class readers, white but also the ethnic elite, with distinctly liberal educations and coastal sensibilities) with the identities of the characters in the book; Patty’s mother is Jewish, though she has never followed the religion, yet Joey, as a member of the very enlightened current generation, gets interested in his Jewish heritage, or at least deploys it with Jenna and her father for social advancement.
No nasty characters of the wrong class and caste intrude anywhere in Freedom; every attempt seems to have been made to soothe and calm the intended readership. Franzen, after all, believes in American exceptionalism; this paean to the middle class, which never wavers in the fundamental belief in American righteousness, allows that the middle class will not only muddle through, but that it is always stronger for all that it has to suffer under changing political circumstances, whether it is the libertarianism of the 1960s, the conservatism of the 1980s, or the imperialism of the 2000s.
American goodness is played out in the context of the safest of all liberal concerns–environmentalism–a very cool notion to engage with. Who, of any political persuasion, can be against bird sanctuaries? Even Linda, the evangelical, starts coming around to this anodyne vision.
All of Freedom, in fact–like Franzen’s two nonfiction books–seems to be a contest over coolness. Perhaps this is the greatest of all freedoms that nags at Franzen: who can be the coolest, Joey or his college roommate Jonathan, Walter or Richard, Connie or Jessica, Ray or Joyce, Patty or Lalitha, and on and on in every pairing. If there is one unabidable character flaw Walter has, it is that he is not cool enough; he takes things too seriously. Yet for this flaw, he has an unremitting admirer in Lalitha; and after Lalitha’s tragic death, Patty again takes charge of the helplessly serious Walter.
Richard is the coolest of all, of course, as befits a bohemian musician–so cool that Franzen takes great pleasure in reproducing his anti-fame, anti-success interview with his employer’s teenage son Zachary (also a gifted musician, of course). Walter is gratified that Joey has turned out to be so cool: “Nothing had enraged him more about Joey, over the years, than his shell of coolness; and now, how glad of it he was! His son had won that war, and he was glad of it.” The references to freedom in the latter part of the book get drowned out by references to coolness; Franzen seems to have lost sight of freedom, perhaps because for the demographic he’s dealing with, the two are almost synonymous.
The problem with realism is also that it ends up being conservative, and even pessimistic. This is because it wants to rule out unpredictability to the extent possible, believes in a stable social order (otherwise why write realistically?), and wants the end to be internally and formally consistent with its premises, once they have been laid out. This is not how life actually proceeds, and it is certainly not how America is faring in these last days of empire; social and economic disintegration is the name of the game, as the affected demographics will certainly tell you.
Realism is at home in social institutions–family life, schooling, work–but Franzen is convincing only when he writes about schooling (though there is all too much juvenile talk about masturbation and porn and MILFs). He’s less convincing about family, and least convincing about work. This is a crucial point, and one possible explanation is that for Franzen (as for other leading American realist writers) the bildungsroman (typically embodied in the struggle of the alienated soul against formal schooling) fills the same gap of comprehending the “middle distance” that it did for Goethe. Goethe had a difficult time with institutions; Dickens, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, and Tolstoy, not to mention Joyce, Proust, Musil and Mann, didn’t.
So despite the accuracy of detail, the painstaking reproduction of the objects and materials of college life in the late seventies and the early 2000s, Freedom is an empty novel, because it is enveloped in the emptiness of Patty and Walter’s souls. Both of them are fully convinced of their reality, believe that they are the utmost realists in a culture of ferocious realism; whenever a character believes this way in a contemporary novel, we will not believe his or her reality. This is a paradox Franzen hasn’t understood. Franzen is not an alienated individual, at least according to his self-presentation; yet realism, if it is to mean something, must grapple with the problem of alienation. Walter’s birdwatching, or Lalitha’s worship of Walter, or Joey’s forays into million-dollar entrepreneurship in Paraguay at the age of twenty, just aren’t the stuff of alienation.
Freedom, in the end, says nothing important–or even anything discernible (other than “use well thy freedom”)–about freedom. References to War and Peace abound in the book; Patty takes the opportunity to read the book soon after consummating her affair with Richard. Franzen presumably has Tolstoyan ambitions; but he has neither the vision nor the desire to write anything useful about freedom. He is supposed to be the Great American Novelist of the moment, having at last written the Great American Novel. Indeed he has competently scrubbed out the excess verbiage of The Corrections, but also the passion and feeling along with it.
This feels like a novel written out of a crushing sense of obligation, one that has magnified manifold since Franzen’s 1996 essay. The publishing industry has decided to put its weight behind a retrogressive aesthetic movement (we thought modernism, and then postmodernism, had put an end to the most naïve beliefs of classical realism), insufficient to tackle the reality of the time–a conservative movement even, embodied in a harmlessly earnest novelist who mistakes coolness for freedom.
If only Franzen were to let go of his obligation to write the great social novel, he might actually write a novel memorable for its social reality. At the moment, all he can do is write weighty narratives about characters we can’t possibly believe in, despite all the apparatus of Victorian realism. We can’t give credence to these narratives–and to other writers performing in similar style–because the technique is inappropriate to dealing with contemporary reality.
The naïve realist, like Franzen, places infinite trust in objects; merely reproducing them photographically doesn’t lead the novelist, absent a vision, to the most important social changes of a given time period. The realist novel’s great aesthetic advance was supposed to be its seamless narrative, and yet sophisticated readers today can see through to the manipulation; the plot machinery is transparently creaky all throughout Freedom, and it intensifies the more Franzen tries for lyrical effects, which always elude him. Adultery–whether or not Patty will fuck Richard–is the main engine of the narrative, after all, in this great social novel which seeks to capture the zeitgeist of the last decade.
Mobility, geographic and economic, may have become more elusive in the post-globalization economy, but you wouldn’t know it from Freedom; it is another way in which this novel is utterly unrealistic. Here, people make the choice to be poor, bohemian, iconoclastic, alcoholic, marry at twenty, etc.–it is their god-given freedom to do so.
Realism today cannot have meaning unless it is suffused with a strong dose of idealism, and idealism is something writers like Franzen, immortalized by the publishing industry, have no time for. Reality today is transnational, yet the reality of Freedom emanates outward from America, from its individual middle-class souls–another respect in which Franzen’s ploys fail him, bring him closer to the unreality of Oprah’s social gospel than he would care to admit.
Both subject matter (the choice of the elite demographic: the guy who rises at the neoconservative think tank, not the poor guy who gets caught in one of the many social control traps engineered by the cabal) and technique are vitally constrained; it is a calumny to hold forth this constrained model as one young writers should aspire to. At one point Joey thinks about working in Baghdad’s Green Zone, but of course that would completely mess up the safe parameters of Franzen’s “realist” novel, so here are Franzen’s rationalizations for why adventurous Joey won’t do it: “resistance from Connie, warnings from Jonathan, a wish to stay near Jenna, the fear of getting killed, the need to maintain Virginia residency.”
Realists today must admit that they cannot operate from any position of objectivity; if they refuse to do so, it leads to the anomaly of a “liberal” like Franzen passing apparently no judgment on the Bush-Cheney cabal. That is not realism, it is a safe New York Times/New Yorker editorial position–or worse than that.
The naïve realist relies on the soft mass of experience to accumulate to the point where the reader encounters revelation about the characters; yet Franzen’s realism makes no allowance for revelation. We already know these characters, as soon as Franzen has started putting them on the page. Despite Patty’s extended “autobiography,” what does she learn about herself?
Franzen still feels overwhelmed about providing information, much as the classical realists felt obliged to do, in an age where there was no television or internet; combined with the pretense of objectivity, it makes the aesthetic problem an insurmountable one. Franzen, in the end, cannot imagine characters unlike himself. His adherence to what he believes are the tenets of realism is so rigid that he produces bad writing. In his Harper’s essay, Franzen observes: “We live in a tyranny of the literal.” Franzen’s brand of realism only makes it a greater tyranny.