Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

So, the last three books I have read: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace; Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. It’s interesting to think about these novels in relation to one another, since their authors are all approximately the same age — roughly my age, as it happens: the youngest, Chabon, is four years younger than me — and represent three interestingly different takes on The Novel As A Genre. Franzen these days works wholly within the realist tradition; Chabon likes to experiment with the conventions of genre fiction; Wallace does . . . well, his thing, his blend of metafictional play and moral seriousness.

Of the three, Freedom is the least satisfying to this reader. I don't know whether, as some have argued, the conventions of realistic fiction have grown stale beyond the possibility of recovery, but they’ve grown stale for me. At least within the American context. Franzen’s long book focuses on a couple, Walter and Patty Berglund. They meet, they date, they marry — he without reservation, she with some reservation, for she is far more sexually attracted to Walter’s musician friend Richard than to Walter. They have two children, a boy and a girl. They rehab a house in the city (St. Paul, Minnesota). They are good liberals. Walter works in conservation; he’s a nonprofit guy all the way. When their son Joey becomes a teenager they have a lot of trouble with him, in part because he becomes a conservative, or more conservative than they are anyway (partly in sheer cussed rebellion). The son goes through some hard times but eventually gets his ship righted. Walter and Patty each have affairs. They break up for a while. Near the end of the book they have the chance to get back together, and I won't tell you whether they take it, or what circumstances determine their success or failure.

It’s a story that, put in these schematic terms, has been told hundreds of times, and one might think that John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, to mention just two practitioners of the craft, had said all there is to say about this particular kind of life. So there’s something admirable about Franzen’s insistence that, whatever you’ve read before, you haven't read the story of these particular people, and their story is worth the telling and worth the listening. He seems to be challenging himself as a novelist to do the extraordinarily difficult thing: to make us care about characters as commonplace as the Berglunds.

(Incidentally, while there are a few pages of the book which focus our attention on the uses and abuses of personal freedom, that theme doesn't seem central to the story, to me anyway, and I wonder why Franzen gave the novel its title.)

Franzen is an exceptionally skilled writer, and one of the ways we see that skill is in how he opens and closes his novel. Most of the book is told from the points of view of the major characters — Walter, Patty, Richard, and Joey — but the opening and closing scenes come from the perspective of the Berglunds’ neighbors (two different sets of neighbors). It’s as though Franzen is saying, Here’s what these people look like from the outside, but I show you what they’re like from the inside.

As I say, this is admirable and it’s skillfully done, but I never cared about the Berglunds — except, perhaps, during the last twenty pages, which are simply and hauntingly beautiful by any reckoning. But when can't bring yourself to invest, emotionally, in characters over the five hundred preceding pages, even the most brilliant final chapter can only do so much to recover the book for you.

I believe that people like the Berglunds matter — I’m a Christian, for heaven’s sake, I believe they matter to God Himself far more than they could ever matter to me — but that doesn't mean that I think their lives are interesting enough to sustain a book this long. There’s the question of the intrinsic value of ordinary people, and then there’s the question of the suitability of those people for novelistic representation. Those questions need to be kept separate. The Berglunds don't seem to me to be a good use of Jonathan Franzen’s energy, intelligence, and time. But God bless him for trying, all the same.

UPDATE: Looking at this, I realize that I should have noted that while Wallace is about the same age as Franzen and Chabon, he wrote Infinite Jest in his early thirties. It is his forthcoming book — The Pale King, left very unfinished at his untimely death — that he was working on at the same time that Franzen was writing Freedom and Chabon The Yiddish Policemen's Union. It will, obviously, be very, very interesting to see where Wallace was headed as a writer when he died.